Terrestrial animal tracking as an eye on life and planet

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Science  12 Jun 2015:
Vol. 348, Issue 6240, aaa2478
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa2478

A brave new world with a wider view

Researchers have long attempted to follow animals as they move through their environment. Until relatively recently, however, such efforts were limited to short distances and times in species large enough to carry large batteries and transmitters. New technologies have opened up new frontiers in animal tracking remote data collection. Hussey et al. review the unique directions such efforts have taken for marine systems, while Kays et al. review recent advances for terrestrial species. We have entered a new era of animal ecology, where animals act as both subjects and samplers of their environments.

Science, this issue 10.1126/science.1255642, 10.1126/science.aaa2478

Structured Abstract


The movement of animals makes them fascinating but difficult study subjects. Animal movements underpin many biological phenomena, and understanding them is critical for applications in conservation, health, and food. Traditional approaches to animal tracking used field biologists wielding antennas to record a few dozen locations per animal, revealing only the most general patterns of animal space use. The advent of satellite tracking automated this process, but initially was limited to larger animals and increased the resolution of trajectories to only a few hundred locations per animal. The last few years have shown exponential improvement in tracking technology, leading to smaller tracking devices that can return millions of movement steps for ever-smaller animals. Finally, we have a tool that returns high-resolution data that reveal the detailed facets of animal movement and its many implications for biodiversity, animal ecology, behavior, and ecosystem function.


Improved technology has brought animal tracking into the realm of big data, not only through high-resolution movement trajectories, but also through the addition of other on-animal sensors and the integration of remote sensing data about the environment through which these animals are moving. These new data are opening up a breadth of new scientific questions about ecology, evolution, and physiology and enable the use of animals as sensors of the environment. High–temporal resolution movement data also can document brief but important contacts between animals, creating new opportunities to study social networks, as well as interspecific interactions such as competition and predation. With solar panels keeping batteries charged, “lifetime” tracks can now be collected for some species, while broader approaches are aiming for species-wide sampling across multiple populations. Miniaturized tags also help reduce the impact of the devices on the study subjects, improving animal welfare and scientific results. As in other disciplines, the explosion of data volume and variety has created new challenges and opportunities for information management, integration, and analysis. In an exciting interdisciplinary push, biologists, statisticians, and computer scientists have begun to develop new tools that are already leading to new insights and scientific breakthroughs.


We suggest that a golden age of animal tracking science has begun and that the upcoming years will be a time of unprecedented exciting discoveries. Technology continues to improve our ability to track animals, with the promise of smaller tags collecting more data, less invasively, on a greater variety of animals. The big-data tracking studies that are just now being pioneered will become commonplace. If analytical developments can keep pace, the field will be able to develop real-time predictive models that integrate habitat preferences, movement abilities, sensory capacities, and animal memories into movement forecasts. The unique perspective offered by big-data animal tracking enables a new view of animals as naturally evolved sensors of environment, which we think has the potential to help us monitor the planet in completely new ways. A massive multi-individual monitoring program would allow a quorum sensing of our planet, using a variety of species to tap into the diversity of senses that have evolved across animal groups, providing new insight on our world through the sixth sense of the global animal collective. We expect that the field will soon reach a transformational point where these studies do more than inform us about particular species of animals, but allow the animals to teach us about the world.

Big-data animal tracking.

The red trajectory shows how studies can now track animals with unprecedented detail, allowing researchers to predict the causes and consequences of movements, and animals to become environmental sensors. Multisensor tracking tags monitor movement, behavior, physiology, and environmental context. Geo- and biosciences merge now using a multitude of remote-sensing data. Understanding how social and interspecific interactions affect movement is the next big frontier.


Moving animals connect our world, spreading pollen, seeds, nutrients, and parasites as they go about the their daily lives. Recent integration of high-resolution Global Positioning System and other sensors into miniaturized tracking tags has dramatically improved our ability to describe animal movement. This has created opportunities and challenges that parallel big data transformations in other fields and has rapidly advanced animal ecology and physiology. New analytical approaches, combined with remotely sensed or modeled environmental information, have opened up a host of new questions on the causes of movement and its consequences for individuals, populations, and ecosystems. Simultaneous tracking of multiple animals is leading to new insights on species interactions and, scaled up, may enable distributed monitoring of both animals and our changing environment.

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