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Public Lecture: Wandering Wildlife: Tracking movement, migrations and mileage, from wolves to wading birds

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SUE HASELTINE: Okay, good evening everyone. I'm Sue Haseltine, the Associate Director for Biology at the U.S. Geological Survey. I would like to welcome you all here tonight and thank you all for coming to this installment of our Public Lecture Series. We are always very excited to explain some of our science to the public and to interested folks, and to explain why we think this is important to society that we invest in this science and share it all with you.

Tonight we have a particularly fascinating topic, one that people have been working on since they first started developing culture, and that's our relationship with all the species that we share this planet with; and people have been marking animals and tracking them and their sign to try and understand how they use the environment and how they live on the planet with us since the dawn of that time. [0:01:14.2]

In the modern conservation movement there have been many organized efforts to mark animals and follow them in the environment so we would understand more what they need and how they interact with human society and, of course, one of the earliest organized efforts was with migratory birds, and USGS is a beneficiary of that organized effort.

As national protocols were developed and a centralized band supply was developed, the country developed a bird banding laboratory, which USGS actually runs and supports, so we're the beneficiary of all of the bird banding activity around the country and in how we can use that information to look at migratory birds. But technology has really moved on since the late 1800s, when they started organizing bird banding efforts, and we're not using such technology as satellite telemetry and many other modern techniques to understand animals in the environment. [0:02:27.4]

We're very fortunate to have with us today a couple of researchers from USGS, Dr. David Mech and Dr. Bob Gill, and they are going to talk to you about two of our long-term studies at USGS; one, looking at artic wolves and how they use the environment; and the other, looking at long-distance migration of shore birds that share our continent and the Asian continent; so it will be a fascinating couple of talks. [0:03:03.4]

And I would like you to think about, not only these talks, but how we're using increased technology to both, more effectively get science information but also, to explain the natural world to people. And in this Internet age, where many of the interactions that people have with the natural world are over the Internet or Twitter or TV or some other media, these kinds of studies really help people to understand animals in the natural world and how they make their living, and how that living relates to us; and so it really increases knowledge about conserving our ecological systems and how people and the rest of the world are related. [0:03:58.0]

So it is my pleasure tonight to introduce our two speakers briefly. First, Dave Mech. Dave is one of our senior research scientists at USGS and also, an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota. He has published more than 400 articles and 10 books, many of them related to the wolf around the world and other predators around the world.

I guess what I would say about Dave is, you know that TV show called “Dirty Jobs", my mother is fascinated by that show (chuckling), and if there was a TV show called “Best Jobs in America", I would nominate Dave Mech for that show (her and audience chuckling) because Dave has spent 58 years studying wolves. [0:04:52.4]

Since 1986 he has been able to work with a population of wolves about 600 miles from the North Pole, every year since 1986, so he has a long-term connection with wolf populations around the world. He has been a leader of The World Conservation Union's Wolf Specialist Group for a number of years; serves on many international comities; and is also recipient of the Aldo Leopold Award, which is awarded annually for conservation efforts by the Wildlife Society.

Bob Gill is a Wildlife Researcher, who is based in our USGS Alaska Science Center and leads our Shorebird Research Program up there, and he has been studying shorebirds for about five decades; four of them are in Alaska. If you are familiar with migratory birds, Alaska is really one of our key areas for migratory birds as it serves as both, a key breeding area, and staging area for many of the wildlife species that funnel down through the North American continent and also, those species that we share with the Asian continent because international migratory pathways intersect. [0:06:22.4]

So Bob has been a leader in understanding what resource needs migratory birds, who are these long-distance migrators need, and for the last eight years has been leading a study on a couple of migratory species, he'll tell you about, funded by the Packard Foundation, which has found out amazing things about how birds travel in these long-distance migrations over water.

So with that, I will turn the podium over to them, and I don't know which one is going to start with us but, Dave. [0:07:03.2]

DR. DAVID MECH: Thank you Sue. Sue mentioned that I've been working on wolves for about 50 years. And as probably most of you know, wolves are very, very controversial animals; a lot of people really love them because they're beautiful, and a lot of people dislike them because they kill livestock and pets and that type of thing. Then when I see an audience gathered together like this, it reminds me of times I've had long ago when we used to gather and try to figure out how we could manage these wolves because they were killing so many livestock and all. [0:07:54.3]

Usually the audience would be really composed to two types of people: the people who really disliked the wolves, like the ranchers and farmers and that; and then on the other side of the room, the people who thought the wolves could do no harm. I would be in the front of the room, with perhaps some other experts, and we'd be trying to figure out how we can manage these animals so that they didn't kill so many livestock and all.

And while we were figuring that out, or trying to figure it out, we never did get it figured out (chuckling) incidentally, but in one case a little old lady got up and raised her hand and said, “Dr. Mech, Dr. Mech, when those wolves are killing sheep, can't you just catch them and castrate them?" And I was scratching my head trying to figure out how I could answer that question, when on the other side of the room a grizzled old trapper stood up and said, “Ma'am, I don't think you understand the situation. Those wolves out there, they're trying to kill the sheep, not have sex with them (audience laughing)." Those weren't his very words, his words were more graphic and colorful, (audience laughing) but anyway you get the point. [0:08:59.9]

But we're not going to talk about that controversy now. We're going to talk about another aspect of wolves that is not controversial really, it has to do with their movements. And to do that I'm going to take you back 50 years, when I started my career as an undergraduate at Cornell University, and I was hired by a graduate student at that time who was supposed to be doing his thesis on black bear movements, and so that's how I got my start.

And I happened to get the early distinction in my career of being one of the very first people in the world to ever paint a black bear (audience chuckling). And the reason we did this was to try to see if by marking this animal we could get reports from people who saw this creature wondering around and we'd find out different places where that bear went; and that was an example of the primitive nature of what we had to do to learn about animal movements at that time. Now we didn't paint that many bears, this was just one experiment, and we got some good information out of it, and eventually the paint wore off the poor bear. But if I had to do it today I'd refuse to do it; at that time it was fun (audience chuckling). [0:10:24.7]

Anyway, we got a little more refined by putting ear tags in the bears. So every time we'd catch a bear, we'd put an ear tag in it with a number on it and then if someone caught it, say someplace farther away, like by shooting it or if it got hit by a car or something like that, we'd have two points over which the bear traveled and so we'd know that bears travel this kind of a distance. And that was a piece of good information for us because before we did that we didn't know how far bears traveled. So by putting together data like this we were able to determine some gross aspects of black bear movements. [0:11:10.4]

Not too many years after this, the revolutionary, and I'd have to call it revolutionary, field of radio tracking was developed. That was in the early ‘60s, and it was developed really and published on with these cottontail rabbits; Cochran and Lord published their article in 1963. The development of the transistor allowed little tiny radios to be made with small batteries that could be put on an animal. And then as they emitted a signal through an antenna, somebody with a receiving antenna could pick up that signal and could get good information about that animal, critical information. [0:12:04.4]

For example, the identification of the animal; because each one of these radios transmitted on a different frequency, - akin to a different radio station on your common radio that you listen to, so each little transmitter was a different radio station - so every time you heard that signal, through one of these receiving antennas, you knew you were listening to that specific animal. So it allowed identifying the animal and then we could find it at will.

Whenever we wanted to we'd go out, listen for the signal, and by listening from two locations we could triangulate on it or walk up to it and we'd know where that animal was and we'd know, again, which animal it was, and we could do that many, many times. You can imagine how much better that was than just paint a bear and hoping somebody saw it a few times later, or putting an ear tag on it and hoping it got killed by a hunter and then reported. [0:13:02.5]

So in this case, rather than getting just one or two movements, we were able to get a whole sequence. And, of course, this could go on and on, and we'd often get hundreds of locations from animals this way, and this is still a standard technique that's used today. Actually of all the radio tracking nets being done today - you hear a lot about satellite and GPS radio tracking, I'm going to mention it and Bob is going to talk a lot more about it - but in terms of all the radio tracking nets being done today, this is still the basic type of tracking that's done. [0:13:43.4]

So it has been revolutionary and as soon as I could, as soon as 1968, in fact, I began applying it to wolves, which have been my major interest, and to do that, however, I had to catch wolves, and that allowed though a wealth of other information. In order to put a radio on a wolf you've got to catch it. And when you catch it, you can weigh it, you can sex it, age it, get its condition, its reproductive condition, you can take blood, and there are many, many other things that you can do once you get the animal in hand; and that's valuable in a case like this because now we can identify the animal and we can find it whenever we want by homing in on it. [0:14:28.8]

And with wolves, because they travel so far and wide, we had to use aircraft right from the very beginning. And now, since I started in 1968, we've radioed over a thousand wolves and homed in on them from aircraft like that. And once you do that, that allows not only identifying the wolf and locating it, but then, of course, you learn its movements and, of course, you learn if it survives, or if it dies you can home in on it and find out how it died. You can observe the creature, once you see it from the air, look at its behavior, count them, look at the number of animals it killed, and look at various types of predation. And, of course, with wolves, since they live in packs, you can count all the members in the pack and in that way you can actually census the wolves in a given area. [0:15:25.5]

But wolves also travel long distances when they disperse. That is a wolf pack is a family, they have young every year. When the young start to mature, which is from usually two to four years of age, they leave their natal pack and strike on their own trying to find a member of the opposite sex that's doing the same thing; and then they pair bond, produce a litter of pups, and start their own pack. Well sometimes that dispersal distance can be a long, long ways, too far to track with an aircraft, and so we then had to turn to satellite tracking. [0:16:05.0]

Satellite tracking has been around for quite a long time. The first satellite collars that people put on animals actually weighed - hold your breath now - 22 pounds (audience exclaiming), 22 pounds for collars that were put on elk. Yeah, I like to think of it this way, an elk walking backwards dragging its head (audience chuckling), I mean that's what it seemed to me it would be, but anyway, they were able to actually carry these 22-pound collars. But that was way back in the ‘70s; they've gotten much lighter now and are certainly much more practical.

But what those collars did is transmit from the animal's collar up to the satellite. The satellite then, through something called the Doppler Effect, locates the animal and sends the data down into your computer; so that way we had no ties for wolves that were dispersing. However, still the batteries are kind of heavy in those collars even today, and they do have a low accuracy in terms of how closely they can locate the animal to where it really is; that's okay when you're tracking a dispersing wolf which travels long distance. [0:17:19.8]

Here's one, for example, that was collared in central Minnesota. These are the routes it took across to eastern Wisconsin; hung around Wisconsin deltas for a while, several weeks, and all this over a period of six months; and then went back pretty close to where it started. The minimum distance traveled here, by adding up the straight-line distances between consecutive points, was 2,650 miles in six months. And if I had to guess, I would say the actual distance traveled here was probably three times that amount, because it certainly didn't travel in a lot of straight-line distances there. In any case, the satellite tracking allowed some very valuable information that we could learn from this technique. [0:18:13.0]

Then, as you all know now, the Army developed the Global Positioning System, and that uses a series of signals. I think they've got up to 18 or 19 satellites now that send signals out. And your cell phones pick up those signals and tell your phone exactly where you are within a few feet. And, of course, if you could put one of those on an animal that would be very valuable and, in fact, that's what people actually do. What happens there is that the animal wears the collar, and the collar listens; it doesn't send a signal to the GPS satellites, rather it receives the signals - just like your cell phone does, those cell phones that have GPS on them, most of them do now, I think, or your car or your handheld GPS - they listen to the signals from those satellites and pinpoint the location. [0:19:19.5]

Now when these were first developed there was still a problem, because in order to get the data from the collar, I mean it's being recorded in the collar in a little computer, but in order to get the data from the collar you either had to: drop the collar off the animal and take it into your computer and plug it in and down the data from it, and that works with some collars very well, but there were many cases where the collar never dropped off the animal and we lost all the data; or another system is really where you can listen for the data and download it from the collar remotely, so that works very well and then you can get the data and readout of where that animal was, and this allows us to get a great number of locations in a hurry without ever really very much fieldwork. [0:20:17.9]

I mean we all love fieldwork but if we can be more efficient there's certainly an advantage in that, too. So once you put one of these collars out, I mean you do the fieldwork: you catch the wolf, you put the collar on, you turn them lose, and then, until you get the collar back you don't need to see the animal again; and then, when you get it back or when you download the data you get all these locations; and so that's become a very efficient radio tracking technique that's widely used now for many purposes. You can see that, because you get so many locations and can get them in a very precise way; it can give you far more information than just some gross movements. [0:21:03.2]

Now so all that technology was being developed, and I was using it on various projects but meanwhile, I also had a project where I didn't have to use any technology, other than an airplane to get to the location; I found a place where I could just sit and watch wolves. But there is only one place in the world that anyone knows where you can do that, and it's quite far away, up about 600 miles from the pole, an island called Ellesmere Island, which is very close to Greenland. But up there the wolves have had so little contact with people who persecute them that they're not afraid of people; they're so unafraid of people that I've had them come up and untie my bootlace (audience chuckling). [0:21:56.4]

In 2003 I had one come up and I was sitting on a four wheeler with my hands on the handlebars, this wolf came up and with his front teeth tried to take my glove off. So it was very easy to study those wolves without any technology at all; just a pen and a notebook, write down what they do, videotape them, and observe their locations. And that was all going on, on this one project of mine, while I was using all this technology on the other projects. So that project went on from 1986 and I still, every summer, as Sue said, I still get to Ellesmere and track those wolves and that's what I want to tell you a little bit more about, because eventually I had to apply that technology to this project, and those are some points I'm trying to make now, so we'll take a little closer look at that Ellesmere Project. [0:22:48.4]

Ellesmere Island is about the size of Minnesota; you can see here it's about 286 miles across here. The wolves, as I say, are tame. In winter we found them; I was on a snowmobile and could drive right up to these wolves. In the summer, it took a lot of time but I managed to find their den and watch their pups; watched the interactions between the pups and the adults and all that, and write several papers on that. I watched them hunt muskoxen; go right along with them while they hunted muskoxen. And year after year it was a very productive project, and I learned all kinds of things about wolves that I could learn no other way than being right out there with them. [0:23:33.2]

Now I'll give you a little perspective. Where all this was taking place was near a weather station at a little place they call Eureka, right here, and this is fjord; right here it happens to be shown with the water open, usually it's frozen, but in late August or September it's wide open, and the weather station is on it. There is a dirt airstrip where you can fly into the weather station; and the den that I found was only about five miles from the weather station, so this was an ideal setup. I could land at the weather station, keep my camping equipment there year-round, my ATVs there; and drive out to the wolf den, camp up there, and watch, and make all these observations. [0:24:24.0]

And it was very, very productive; I learned how the wolves used an area about like you see enclosed here, and by traveling around, both on foot and ATV, in following the wolves around and all; and that worked very well through 2006. And then something happened, I'm not even sure what it was, but in 2007 the wolves didn't den in this area anymore. Actually from 1986 to 2006 they didn't den there every year, but most years, but in 2007 they weren't there and I couldn't find where they were; they didn't seem to be any place here that I could cover. [0:25:06.7]

In 2008 I learned, if you look down here, I learned that the den was over here, way away from where I could get to. And the only way I could learn that was by tracking them, when they did come through this area to this point, which was inaccessible to me. This is a big mud flat, where the waters rush off the glaciers and flow into the fjord, and there was no way I could get across it on foot or with ATV. But I could watch the wolves as they traveled and crossed it and moved on in this direction, and I could tell that they had a den down there but I couldn't get to it. [0:25:49.6]

Now the reason I give you all detail is because that presented me then with a dilemma. Either I had to give up the project that I'd been doing for almost 23 years, at that time 24 then in 2009, I'd have to give it up, or I could try one of these hi-tech devices on these wolves; and I decided then this was the time now to try one of these hi-tech collars.

So I chose a GPS ARGOS collar. That's a collar that - well I'll show you in a minute - it gets the data from the GPS satellites and then transmits it through the ARGOS satellite into my computer. To do that we used a blowpipe, these wolves, again, came up very close, we used a blowpipe to dart a wolf and put the collar on it. [0:26:45.4]

This wolf happened to be the one in 2003 that tried to take my glove off; it served him right, okay, that I put collar on him. And he was known at the weather station as Brutus (audience chuckling); he was a big wolf that came around and was very tame and all that. So we put this collar on him while his pack mates lay around watching us (audience chuckling). And we looked at his teeth and sure enough, you see how flat they are here, well-worn and flat and blunt, and aged him at about nine years of age, which pretty much fit what his age would've been since I first saw him as a two- or three-year-old in 2003. And, of course, Brutus was a member of a pack; it turned out to be at least 20 members in his pack, which we didn't learn for quite a long time, but we knew he was part of the pack. [0:27:38.2]

And well the way this all worked then is that Brutus' collar collects two locations a day through the GPS satellites, - again, just like your phone - and then once every four days it sends the data to the ARGOS satellite, and then that sends it to my computer. So every four days I get a download of the locations of where Brutus and his pack have been. So I put the collar on; went home, back to the office, and started sitting at the computer and continued to track Brutus all summer, and even into the winter.

Here, again, is the weather station. There is the area I used to be able to cover when I wasn't using that technology. And here is just a small example of the data that I've been getting. In October this whole fjord freezes over and it's about ten miles across here, but you can see that the pack of wolves is traveling across into another island now, this is called Axel Heiberg Island, and no doubt killing muskoxen over there, and then moving back to Ellesmere Island; and that's just a small example of the kind of data I'm now getting. [0:29:06.8]

I had absolutely no idea, after I left the island every summer, what these wolves did; what they did in the winter when it's 24 hours of darkness from about late October into early February. Twenty-four hours of darkness per day, what do these wolves do? Well as I sat at my computer and watched, I learned what they did.

And meanwhile, the wolves, about every couple of weeks, would swing through the weather station area. And the folks there would get all excited and take their pictures, and then e-mail the pictures to me. And I could count the number of wolves in the pictures; and that's how I knew that there were at least 20 wolves in the pack because they were in the pictures; and Brutus was in the picture, because you could see the collar; so we were able to get these kinds of photos there. It was in the middle of winter, when it is 24 hours of darkness, and the folks went out with flash and got these shots of the wolves. So that gave us another type of information and I learned a great deal then about old Brutus and his pack. [0:30:15.4]

And over that period, since July 9 when I put that collar on, I've gotten over 500 locations of where that animal has gone. And I learned that, instead of this little tiny area here, where I was able to cover each summer and do my behavioral studies, I mean it didn't negate the behavioral if they were done in a small area because behavior is behavior, but in terms of what that pack and those wolves were really doing the rest of the year they were traveling over this huge area, and it amounted to their having a territory of more than 5,000 square miles. [0:30:56.1]

We haven't got it all calculated yet because not all the data are in; they're still transmitting. They'd even made a trip, the pack did, of 170 miles down here from its main territory, which I never would've guessed, and killed some muskoxen on the way and all that. So these are the kind of data I'm getting from the hi-tech, and I'm really glad that that allows me to supplement the basic natural history type of data that I've been getting for the 24 summers. So that's the end of my tale.

But what I would like to do, if I can manage this in just a couple of minutes, is show you the actual data that comes in on Google Earth. And I'm not very good at handling it on the laptop here, and I'm going to ask Omi (sp) to help me, but what I'd like to show you is the kind of data as it comes in.

Yeah, we just -

OMI (?): You should be able to start. [0:32:08.0]

DR. DAVID MECH: You can see the locations appearing here more and more. Now watch when he crosses over to Axel Heiberg Island. More; this is in October and November. And when these data come in they give me a time and a date. I just didn't record it up here; I took that out just so it would be clearer. But I can go into any one of these points and it gives me the time, and the date, and many other things. I can zoom in on it, on any point.

If there are two or three points in one location it probably means there is a kill there. And I know exactly where that kill is because these locations are that precise, and this summer I can go with a handheld GPS and look at those exact sites and hopefully find the bones, the remains of the muskoxen that these wolves have killed. Thank you Omi. [0:33:02.5]

And in closing then I just wanted to tell you one more thing. We've been keeping a blog on that project. If you're really interested further, all you have to do is Google, Ellesmere (spelling out) Wolf Blog and it will come up. And about every week I make the new entries in there and new maps and all, and you can learn what I'm learning as well. Thank you very much (applause).

[inaudible or blank from 0:33:39.6 to 0:33:53.2]

[Aren't you glad I brought show and tell tonight and you'll not have to] (ph) [inaudible] (some chuckling). [inaudible from 0:33:58.1 to 0:34:10.5]

DR. BOB GILL: Thank you David. As biologists, I guess like any discipline, we tend to get rather focused and narrow sited in things, so it was refreshing for me to hear something about fur instead of feathers (audience chuckling) so, but I'm here to talk about feathers. And I guess first, can I see a show of hands of people that even know what a shorebird is? Oh great, all right. I've got a little primer prepared but we can make that short, so.

You know they're aptly named because most of them are found along the shore. Then you get things like this that spend ten months of the year in the surf zone along the Pacific coast of both North and South America, but then will go up into a glacier mountain in Alaska to nest, and in the non-breeding season they're highly social. And if somebody wants to guess how many birds are in this picture, see me later. [0:35:18.2]

There are 214 species worldwide, they occur on every continent, and they occur from sea level to some of the highest mountains, and occupy every habitat in between. Oops, back up. They must constantly flap their wings to remain in the air, and this is a point I want you to file away and keep thinking about for the rest of the talk. And while all can be found along the shore, there are only three of them that can do what that duck is doing and that is float. They can all swim, they can float for a little bit, but they'll turn into rocks eventually. [0:36:00.4]

So here's what I'm going to share with you tonight, it's a group of birds called the Godwits and Curlews, they represent the largest of those 214 species of birds, and Godwits, if there is any distinction you want to make between the two, slightly up-turned bills; Curlews, down-turned bills; they have a lot of little subtleties in between here.

So why this group of birds? Well worldwide there are only 11 species that are extant. Two of them have already gone extinct; the Eskimo Curlew would be one of them that you probably are familiar with. All of them have populations that are in decline right now, and most have intercontinental ranges, which if you don't know about the annual cycle of the bird it makes it very hard to affect any sort of conservation measure. You can do it in Alaska where they're nesting, but if you don't know where they go it's kind of hollow conservation, especially with the problems occurring elsewhere. [0:37:05.3]

Another reason we looked at this suite of birds is many of them pass through East Asia, which are hotspots for avian influenza; they'll come to Alaska where they'll mix with other species then go into North and South America. And because these birds have these phenomenal migrations, very long, it's hard to do, like Dave described, using conventional VHF telemetry where you only have a range of a few miles; so satellite telemetry came along.

Before that we were able to piece together a lot of this stuff just, you know things like bird banding, where you put a collar or ring on a bird and somebody finds it. So in the case of Godwits, we knew there were two breeding populations, both of them congregated here in the east Asian coast during migration, but then they had very separate non-breeding areas. [0:38:10.2]

And even without banding we were able to piece together a lot of these annual cycle events just by doing surveys in certain habitats and knowing, for instance, this Bristle-thighed Curlew, the only place it nests in the world are these two little disjunct regions in Alaska; we're talking about like 3,200 total birds and that's the Bristle-thighed Curlew population. They disperse during the non-breeding season and you could drop all of North America in that area, so how do you go about studying the bird there with conventional; you'd need a lot of boats. [0:38:52.5]

So from all this marking and census data that we were able to come up with things like this; we could draw a lot of arrows that connect a species breeding area and its non-breeding area, but it's pretty hard to do this, and a lot of these species end up down in this part of the world, but knowing how they got there is very germane to looking at some of these things, like avian influenza.

So we turned to satellite telemetry technology and we have two options here: they make an external package, which is solar powered; or the make an internal package. Now we knew these birds, we suspected most of them were long-distance migrants, so the last thing we wanted to do was throw something on their back that's going to create a lot of resistance to the air, potentially slow them down, so we opted for what is a surgical implant. And I'm going to pass this (making noise) one around, and if I forget to pick it up at the end of the meeting that's okay because it's working and I can find you (audience chuckling). [0:40:10.3]

So we would capture these birds - we'd have bets on staff - we would capture them: they are given an anesthetic, they're intubated, they're given a heart-rate monitor and temperature monitor; just like would be done to you if you had abdominal surgery. The transmitter is put inside the abdomen in a bird's air sac, which is part of its breathing apparatus, but it doesn't impede airflow. And from the time we catch a bird to the time we turn it back and it flies out of its little cage, two hours; so you think about how long it would take you to recover from major abdominal surgery, they're incredible. [0:41:01.8]

You can just see this antenna coming out underneath the tail feathers of that Godwit. Dave talked about this, and I'm not going to go into this much, but it's the same thing. You've got a bird sending a signal to a satellite, it comes down to a processing center, which happens to be within what, ten miles of here, and then that in turn is sent to the user and it shows up in my computer every day. So after four years of doing this, six species, you end up with a nice map with a lot of dots; hundreds and hundreds of dots. Every one of those is a successful transmission between that bird, satellite, and to my computer. [0:42:00.5]

Now every time we get a report from a satellite, every morning like I open up what's called a KMZ file, I drag it into Google Earth and it opens up a screen, and every one of those dots I can click on and on it will be a history of the bird. Each one is given a unique number, so that's why they can tell my Godwit from Dave's wolf (audience chuckling), so you know it gives you a date and time down to the second. It will give you a location class and this is, well it's an ARGOS value for how accurate that position is and it comes in three categories from a few hundred meters.

In other words, that satellite is telling you “that signal I got from that bird was so good that that bird was within 300 meters to several kilometers", but at the scale I'm talking with, several kilometers is good; and you'll see that. Oh what else, the distance from previous location, the rate of travel from the previous location. It gives you a heading of the bird, hours since the last report, there's a lot of information here and, again, it's with every one of these dots. [0:43:18.8]

So take away the dots, run it through filters, different algorithms, this is what you get; a lot of nice lines that cross the map. And now I'm going to run through some of the specie-specific routes. Now I want everyone to just kind of take a deep breath and I'm going to throw (ph) out your monitor up here, it's nonstop, nonstop; just think of that through the rest of this talk. These are Bristle-thighed Curlews that we've marked in Alaska on each one in those two different dots that I showed you, we marked birds from each population, had no idea, we just thought they went into that big blob in the central Pacific, they have various state wintering areas; these are all nonstop flights. They probably look right over the Hawaiian Islands and they probably don't think about stuff; you'll see why. [0:44:23.5]

Bar-tailed Godwits, we did two populations. We marked them on their non-breeding grounds, one in North Island New Zealand, and one in northwest Australia, both of them nonstop to the Yellow Sea about in March. From the Yellow Sea the ones from western Australia go straight up into Siberia, and the ones from New Zealand take these big draws (ph) out over the Pacific to Alaska; and there's a whole talk in itself just in these non-straight lines, but think the winds will give you that. [0:45:04.6]

So the southward, this is the one that's really opened up the whole avenue to all this satellite telemetry with the birds. So with the results we got on this first southward migration of Godwits; I think there were 12 birds here. And, again, these dots represent places that were linked off of the satellite. And there are two of them that get all the way down to New Zealand, a couple of them that go up this way. If I have time we'll talk about that, but winds, again, are the word.

We did seven females and two males. Now these two males were the ones that we did put solar packages on; and this was early on and this was what led us to really start thinking about the affects of drag if you put something on the back of a long-distance migrant. So the females flew in the air between six and almost ten days and traveled up to 11,700 kilometers; that's 7,000 miles. [0:46:17.5]

So for those that are not - or let's say challenged a bit by geography and space and time, that's from where we are to San Francisco, that's back to where we are, and that's back to San Francisco (audience exclaiming). And if you really are challenged by it all here's some more. So it's northern Scandinavia to Cape Town, South Africa, this route to Seoul, Korea, this route across all of South America to the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Or if you're afraid of flying, get in your car (audience laughing) and go 115 trips around the beltway. [0:47:02.7]

MALE SPEAKER: That would take a year (audience chuckling).

DR. BOB GILL: They're a little more efficient with their fuel consumption (ph) (audience chuckling). One of these birds, E-7, just literally became an icon in the media and picked up all over the place. You know the first thing one of my colleagues picked up on was this nice arch (ph) track; we were putting this all together about March sometime, just after Valentine's Day. Twenty-seven thousand kilometers between March, when it took off, and it got back here in September; it made three nonstop lifts (ph), Yellow Sea, Alaska, and Alaska to New Zealand. [0:47:57.5]

You know had we not started with the Godwits, I would've been ecstatic with stuff like this you know. These are Marble Godwits, they're only going from Alaska down to central California; they have a nice circular route across the ocean going south back up off the coastline to the north.

Whimbrels, this whole story is unfolding right now. And to me, I'm just as excited about this as I am about the Godwits. But from Alaska, one big long flight down to Mexico and Central America, a second flight down to Peru and Ecuador, and some of them make a third flight to Chiloe, southern Chile; that rivals what the Godwits are doing. And when I say this is ongoing, I don't know if the date is on this one or not, but this particular bird, this is where it was yesterday afternoon, out over the Pacific headed up towards the Gulf of California; it had spent the winter down in Peru. This bird, last week, this is the one that spent the winter down in Chiloe, took off and flew 8,400 kilometers nonstop, back up to the Gulf of California. [0:49:18.9]

Okay, this title said “The Gee-whiz and Beyond the Gee-whiz", so here is some of the beyond. How do they do this? You know the obvious one is aerodynamics. All you have to do is look at a Godwit; that creature is meant to fly, but it has this phenotypic flexibility, seasonally, that it can carry large loads and still keeps that very aerodynamic profile. These birds put on the most fat we know of any bird; 50 to 57 percent of their body mass is nothing but fat when they take off from Alaska. [0:50:03.4]

And all you have to do (audience chuckling), I just throw this out, these are flying softballs, and that's about what it gets down to. It's just sometimes amazing that they can get in the air. Now they sustain these flights of eight to ten times BMR for ten days. Now that's Basil Metabolic Rate - and that's essentially what most of you are doing right now, you're just sort of sitting there and breathing; it's the amount of energy it just takes to keep you alive and doing nothing - so they're operating at eight to ten times that. Now to put it in perspective: the best Tour De France riders can maintain only five BMR for eight to ten hours; Iditarod sled dogs, six BMR for up to a day. Godwits are doing eight to ten for up to ten days. [0:51:00.9]

Atrophy of nonessential organs; if you're a bird and you are about to embark on a 10-day flight and you're not stopping, that means you're not eating, why do you need to take all your digestive machinery with you? You don't; you shrink your gut. So they shrink their gizzards down, they shrink their intestines down to just about nothing; it's just a weight savings mechanism.

And departure of all flights aided by winds; the planet we live on, the atmosphere is extremely dynamic, we all know that, but no more so than you find in the Pacific, where you just have storm after storm crossing in the northern latitudes, as well as the southern. Godwits, over eons have figured this out, and they'll just sit and wait for one of these big systems that's churning counterclockwise, moving that way, they get on the backside of it, get all this wind, you know 30 to 40 miles an hour wind sometimes just blowing right up their tail, and they'll just take off with these winds. Depending on the storm, some of them essentially get a free ride almost to Hawaii, energetically. [0:52:17.3]

You know you can't help but put a human perspective on all this, and some people, you know the first thing you think about, “Ten days without sleeping! It can't be done!" - Or this particular, excuse me, this is the water one. - They burn fat; fat contains about 10 percent water, so when they burn up this fat they're getting the water that way.

Now the sleep thing; the next time you go to park or a golf course or something and you see a flock of geese or ducks with their heads tucked back under their wings, look at their eyes, one of them is going to be shut, the other is probably going to be open; they're sleeping half of their brains, they have that ability; marine mammals can do that, too, though. Interestingly, this all just appeared in a sleep journal, where they had taken our information and were using it. [0:53:25.7]

I talked about fat (audience chuckling). In the breeding season they're like this, in eight weeks their fat, see now; but the same holds true for eight days later, they're back to looking like this. We've been picked up in obesity journals now. They're very interested in the physiological mechanisms of how birds can turn this on and off, other than just really running the engine at these phenomenal metabolic rates; there is stuff going on that controls this that they're very interested in. [0:54:06.1]

All the “Gee-whiz" stuff is neat. As a scientist doing this for 40 years plus, yeah, my eyes, you know the jaw drops and all this, but it all gets back to the conservation. When I showed that these birds went to the Yellow Sea, the Yellow Sea is a very dynamic place for migratory birds. It functions like numerous, big, world-renowned embayments, the [Vida Z] (ph) you could throw in here. These are all areas where our birds have sat down. I don't need to explain the colors are different; different times of year, different cohorts. [0:54:50.8]

But what's going on in the Yellow Sea, there is a place called [San Angoon] (ph), they have erected a seawall over that area; it's now closed off, this area is dry. You could throw two-and-a-half of the District of Columbia in that estuary. And there are at least three others, that I know of, of that same size that are currently being reclaimed, and that's both North and South Korea; they've lost, they've filled in almost 50 percent of the inter-tidal habitats in the last 60 years.

And just getting back to the connection with avian influenza; you can see the red there, the major outbreak areas. You can see where our Godwits are occurring. The Godwits are also frequenting fish farms, which are next to poultry farms. We've had three birds show up in Alaska that have tested positive for low-path avian flu, not high-path; so what all that means remains to be seen. [0:56:01.2]

All of this, just none of us were prepared for what happened with this, the public getting so involved with this. And this is only - what I show here is what has, in three years since we started this, there's been a book written about them; there's been a trilingual book in Chinese and Korean written about them; a children book “They're E-free to Call Home", just a play on one of the Godwits that because its battery died it went missing and they were all concerned about what happened, let alone behold because we put those markers on the legs, and it showed up, and so that's what the story is based around.

My favorite (audience chuckling) - you know you just never know where this stuff is going to show up - this is Outside Magazine and it's “The 100 Big Ideas In Visionary Guidance You Need To Know Now"; No. 91, the Bar-tailed Godwit (audience chuckling), [inaudible] [0:57:06.5]

This has been a real team effort project, a lot of cooperators; academia; NGOs; sister Department of Interior agencies; Microwave Telemetry, that makes all these transmitters is right here in Maryland; Accurate (ph) people were kind in funding most of this work.

SUE HASELTINE: Well thank you all for coming. And I hope that you will join us again next month when our talk is going to be on Mercury Contamination in the Environment Around the Country; a fascinating talk about what we're learning about mercury and our potential exposure. So, again, I'd like to thank the speakers and give them another round of applause (applause). [0:58:06.2]

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Title: Public Lecture: Wandering Wildlife: Tracking movement, migrations and mileage, from wolves to wading birds

Description:

  • Wildlife tracking technology has evolved from bird bands to satellite transmitters and has a wide range of applications in answering important conservation questions
  • David Mech and Robert Gill will talk about the use of the latest state-of-the-art technology in tracking wildlife
  • Mech shares the secret paths of a pack of 20 or more arctic wolves during 24 hours of darkness
  • Gill takes us from the arctic to the tropics with migrating shorebirds, specifically godwits and curlews, who make phenomenal nonstop migrations across oceans and continents

Location: Reston, VA, USA

Date Recorded: 4/7/2010

Audio Producer: Kara Capelli , U.S. Geological Survey


Usage: This audio file is public domain/of free use unless otherwise stated. Please refer to the USGS Copyright section for how to credit this audio.
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