Photograph by Christian Ziegler
Photograph by Christian Ziegler
Could the erratic flight pattern of an albatross somewhere over the Indo-Pacific predict the next tsunami? According to behavioral ecologist Martin Wikelski, animals are the sentinels for change in the environment, and nothing tells us more than watching when, where, and how they move.
"Certain songbirds in Europe return from their wintering grounds in Africa too late," Wikelski notes. "A species of warblers has stopped flying from Northern Europe to the south. Seeing these changes helps us identify problem spots and take action. Animals can sense the environment more accurately than satellites. They show us a lot."
Movement patterns, he says, can track the spread of diseases such as avian flu, signal areas affected by climate change, guide conservation strategies about where to create protected areas, and even keep airplanes safer by mapping flight routes that avoid major bird migration paths.
But how can a creeping, crawling, climbing, soaring, stampeding, swimming planet full of creatures on the move be compared and analyzed? The answer, Wikelski believes, will be Move Bank, an online database of animal movement data that will span continents, species, and decades of global research.
Wikelski and his colleagues are starting to develop the landmark library because no global repository of this information exists. For years, biologists have conducted arduous fieldwork to collect animal movement data, but after being used once, most disappears into filing cabinets or gathers dust in old notebooks. "Together," Wikelski says, "this represents an amazing global data set, but no one has access to it." Such historical findings are crucial since detecting changes in movement today depends on understanding patterns from the past.
Move Bank will consolidate old and new information and give scientists the option of sharing data with a worldwide community of colleagues, students, educators, and conservation managers. If everything works according to plan, the site will also put the latest online mapping, visualization, and analysis tools at researchers' fingertips, allowing them to interact with their data in real time and make instant comparisons with legacy data from other studies. "Until now," Wikelski explains, "if you wanted to do an analysis of deer movement, most of your time would be spent finding information sources, a process that can literally take years. Our dream is that with Move Bank, you click on 'deer' and immediately access information from different databanks and satellites. Your time can be spent analyzing data, not collecting it. All of this is still a while away and will require a lot of work, effort, and collaborations, but everybody we talked to seems enthusiastic about this common goal."
But according to Wikelski, Move Bank is only half of the equation. It's also critically important to develop a way to track small animals on a large scale. "So far, satellite surveillance only allows us to trace very large animals, but small animals can give us even greater insights." The breakthrough, he believes, will be tagging animals with radio receivers and then viewing them from radio telescopes mounted in space. "Instead of only using telescopes to look out into the universe, why not use them to look down at the Earth and unravel mysteries about our own planet?"
A platform on the International Space Station, for example, could bring biology into a new era, answering questions that have eluded scientists for centuries. "How does a black pole warbler fly from Boston to Venezuela in one trip? Where does a bellbird in the Amazonian Andes go when it disappears for nine months each year? Any such question around the world could be answered with this new technology."
Such information, gleaned in the wild, is crucial, Wikelski says. "Studying animals in a lab can't give you the same insights as observations from the field. Animals haven't evolved in the lab. They behave differently there. To really grasp the details of how evolution and ecology work, you have to track them in their natural habitats. With Move Bank, isolated findings from a single island, cave, or forest could eventually be compared to reveal a much bigger picture."
Wikelski predicts that new tracking technology and Move Bank will ultimately be used in ways we can't imagine today. "With a world of data at our fingertips, who knows what questions we may be answering in 20 years?"
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National Geographic Emerging Explorer Martin Wikelski received multiple Committee for Research and Exploration grants to study the individual migration strategies of dragonflies and songbirds with newly developed miniaturized radio transmitters.
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