Technology solutions for wildlife conservation: How GPS and cell phones are helping to monitor and protect African elephants

The viral spread of smartphones has jumped a species. African elephants are now also benefiting, thanks to new software algorithms developed by researchers and conservationists at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Colorado State University’s Warner College of Natural Resources, U.S. and Save the Elephants, Kenya.
 
New Study
A study co-authored by George Wittemyer, a leading elephant conservation biologist and professor in the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology at CSU, was published in the journal Ecological Applications and reports on the use of advanced technology that will help monitor and protect African elephants.
 
The sophisticated tracking system collects, analyzes and reports on the movements and activities of nearly 100 African elephants in real-time in an effort to both understand the ecology of movement and also to protect these threatened animals.
 
“GPS, GSM and satellite phone technologies are rapidly becoming the pen and paper of animal field biologists,” says Jake Wall, the study’s lead author. “The GPS trail of an animal, combined with data from satellite imagery and other remote sensors, can give us a detailed picture of where the animal is, what it is doing and what it might be experiencing.”
 
The tracking system was developed using Geographical Information System (GIS) software components donated by the Environmental Systems Research Institute (Esri) in California, runs from the Amazon EC2 Cloud – the same cloud servers that power Netflix, and allows real time visualization of animal movements on Google Earth.
 
The technology provides near instantaneous observation of the GPS location of an animal within seconds of it being recorded by an animal's tracking collar. Data are transmitted via the Inmarsat satellite constellation or the local cell phone network.
 
The real-time locations reveal patterns of movement while high-resolution satellite imagery provides context for understanding observed behavior.
 
Behind the scenes, a set of sophisticated software algorithms monitor incoming elephant movement datastreams and summarize complex information. One algorithm looks specifically for elephants that become unnaturally immobile – a warning that can indicate that an elephant is in trouble.

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Senior Spotlight: Passion for big cats takes Liz Downling from the Bronx to the Rockies

Originally published in The Coloradoan on May 12, 2014 - click here to read the full special insert highlighting CSU graduates.

As a child, Elizabeth Dowling grew up close to the Bronx Zoo and visited frequently, relishing the opportunity to see the big cats. The Bronx Zoo became the catalyst for her future - aiding in the effort to conserve habitat for large mammals and carnivores, especially big cats.
 

When it came time to choose where she would attend college, Dowling wanted two things: the best college for her major of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology; and be located in a place she had never visited. CSU’s Warner College of Natural Resources was the perfect fit.
 
Having never been to the West, Dowling had a bit of culture shock when she arrived in Fort Collins. But it didn’t take long for her to take full advantage of her new surroundings and soon she was backpacking, rock climbing, snowboarding, fly fishing, camping and even hiking a 14er.

 
Since moving to CSU, she’s had the opportunity to work with fish, bighorn sheep, black bears, mountain lions and wolves through a variety of projects and organizations. She’s helped with a study for the past two summers to determine management strategies for bear populations in Southern Colorado by trapping and radio collaring adult females as well as conducting noninvasive genetic work.

As an undergraduate, she’s accomplished great things through her research but also through her community service. One of her proudest moments at CSU involved donating enough money through Alpha Phi Omega, a community service group, to create a water system in an Ethiopian town through the Peace Corps.
 
Dowling says that all of her accomplishments during her undergraduate career could not have been possible without her mother’s and father’s support. She is truly grateful that they trusted her to venture to the West, into the world of natural resources, helping her dreams come true.

By Jennifer Dimas

Iconic Galápagos Blue-footed boobies’ survival threatened

Blue-footed boobies are on the decline in the Galápagos.
 
A new study published in Avian Conservation and Ecology indicates numbers of the iconic birds, known for their bright blue feet and propensity to burst into dance to attract mates, have fallen more than 50 percent in less than 20 years.
 
The drastic drop in population seems to be linked to an unexplained disappearance of sardines from the boobies’ diet.  This in turn has adult boobies electing not to breed - leading to an ongoing population decline due to lack of new chicks being born. 

Colorado State University seabird ecologist and professor Kate Huyvaert was a co-author on the study along with her former Master's advisor and colleague Dave Anderson, a professor of biology at Wake Forest and the study’s principal investigator, and master's student David Anchundia.  

Huyvaert is a professor in CSU's Dept. of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology and has s
pent years in the Galapagos researching behavioral ecology and conservation of threatened and endangered species, particularly seabirds like the booby and waved albatross. Her research also focuses on wildlife disease ecology.

Where did all the boobies go?
 
Scientists started noticing a strange trend at the Galápagos’ 10 or so blue-footed  booby breeding colonies in 1997. The colonies, typically home to thousands of breeding boobies and hatching chicks, were simply empty.
 
"Bluefoots are an iconic species in the islands so several people, including tourist guides and conservation scientists, started to note that it seemed like far fewer bluefoots were around than typical and we started to wonder what was going on," said Huyvaert.
  
At first, seabird ecologists thought the lack of breeding was an isolated occurrence. Environmental conditions in the wild can be variable and maybe it was just a few bad years.  However, after three years of little to no breeding activity, the research team began to worry.
 
In 2011, Anderson and Huyvaert received funding from the Galápagos Conservancy, Swiss Friends of Galápagos, and Galápagos Conservation Trust to begin a comprehensive survey of Blue-footed Boobies in the Galápagos. From May 2011 to June 2013, a field team monitored breeding at three to five month intervals at four of the largest blue-footed booby breeding colonies. The results of their study show little to no breeding activity and only 134 fledgling birds during the period.
 
“It was alarming,” Anderson said. “This was a drastic change from the 1980s and 1990s, when young blue-foots were common throughout the archipelago.”
 
In addition, the research team estimated a total population of approximately 6,423 Boobies in 2012, less than a third of the only other estimate, from the 1960s.


Electing not to breed
 
The researchers suspect a lack of sardines, a highly nutritious and easy to find source of food, is the culprit behind the birds’ nose-diving population for a number of reasons.
 
Previous studies conducted at booby colonies on Española show successful breeding occurs only when the birds had an almost 100 percent sardine diet. Over the course of the recent Galápagos study sardines represented less than half of the boobies’ diet.
 
This suggests the birds find their current, low sardine diet sufficient to live but insufficient to breed successfully.  “We think the main factor behind the decline is a scarcity of food,” Huyvaert said. “Whether that’s natural or linked to anthropogenic change, we aren’t sure.”
 
So now the question is, where are the sardines, said Johannah Barry, president of the Galápagos Conservancy, which provided funding for the study. “Are they being overfished? Are they leaving Galapagos waters due to climate change or other pressures?” she said. “If they are leaving what other fauna might be impacted?”
 
Anderson said further investigation is important now rather than later due to the fact that the boobies’ perennial lack of breeding for the better part of two decades means that young birds are not replacing old ones.  The majority of their population in the Galápagos must be nearing elderly ages where raising offspring will become hard, if not impossible.
 
“We have a convenient explanation that isn’t anthropogenic,” Anderson said. “But if humans are in fact contributing to this decline we need to get to the bottom of it now rather than five years down the road when you have the equivalent of 75-year old humans trying to breed.”

Huyvaert says she is also interested in whether disease is present in the population and, if so, what impact is it having. "Getting to the bottom of the food issue will be an important step we need to take before we’ll have feasible actions to increase breeding," she said.

Researcher Graeme Shannon Uses Sound to Make Unprecedented Wildlife Behavior Discoveries

New research has found that elephants are able to identify humans that pose a threat to them by distinguishing ethnicity, gender, and age from acoustic cues in human voices. Graeme Shannon, now a post-doctoral behavioral ecologist at Colorado State University’s Warner College of Natural Resources, is a joint lead author on the research and has been making international headlines for his innovative work using acoustic research methods.
 
ELEPHANTS’ UNDERSTANDING OF LANGUAGE
Shannon and Karen McComb at the University of Sussex studied family groups of African elephants in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. They used camouflaged loudspeakers to play sound recordings of the voices of two different human ethnic groups known to them: the Maasai, who, periodically come into conflict with elephants over access to water and grazing for their cattle, and the Kamba, whose more agricultural lifestyle poses less of a threat to elephants.

The results showed that elephants were more likely to demonstrate defensive behavior, such as bunching together and investigative smelling, in response to male Maasai voices than male Kamba voices. Their behavior was also less defensive in response to voices of Maasai women and boys, indicating that elephants can use subtle acoustic cues associated with sex and age when assessing the threat posed by different human groups.

The ability to discriminate real from apparent threat, particularly in the case of human predators that differ in relatively subtle cues, has important impacts on the capability of elephants to avoid stress and danger.

“The human language is rich in acoustic cues. The ability to distinguish between Maasai and Kamba men delivering the same phrase in their own language suggests that elephants can discriminate between different languages,” said Shannon. “This sophisticated skill would have to be learned through development and gives elephants an additional advantage in serving as an effective early warning system against predators.”


 
ELEPHANTS CAN SUFFER FROM PTSD
In 2013, Shannon and McComb published another study using elephant vocalizations that showed African elephants can suffer from conditions similar to post-traumatic stress disorder common in combat veterans.
 
The study used novel playback experiments with life-like sound projections from custom-built loudspeakers to study the long-term social disruption of mass culling on elephant populations. The team played a range of elephant contact calls – low frequency vocalizations – to target family groups to simulate different levels of social threat.

African elephants that had experienced separation from family members and translocation during culling operations decades earlier performed poorly on systematic tests of their social knowledge. They failed to distinguish between callers on the basis of social familiarity or different scales of social dominance, in sharp contrast to undisturbed populations.
 
The study provided the first systematic evidence that elephant’s fundamental social skills and decision-making abilities may be significantly impaired by severe human disruption, such as culling and poaching. The findings highlighted the potential long-term negative consequences of acute social disruption in cognitively advanced species that live in close-knit kin-based societies, such as elephants, primates and cetaceans.
 
Wildlife Sound Research at CSU
Shannon has worked with elephants for more than 12 years, and came to the United States from Britain to work with a research team including CSU Professor George Wittemyer, a leading elephant conservation biologist and professor in CSU’s Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology.

“Acoustic data is an innovative and growing field for conservation research with limitless potential for new discovery,” said Wittemyer. “We are excited to have Dr. Shannon’s experience with anthropogenic noise studies at CSU.”

Shannon has worked with sound experiments since 2006 and is continuing advancements in the use of acoustic experiments in wildlife and conservation biology studies. He is part of an inter-disciplinary team in CSU’s Warner College working with the National Park Service’s Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division - who are analyzing acoustical data from parks to help inform NPS studies and management decisions. He is also taking his elephant research methods and applying them to a much smaller mammal native to Colorado – the prairie dog.

Shannon is conducting isolated sound playback experiments in remote areas with recordings of rush-hour traffic to determine how prairie dog colonies are impacted by transportation noise. Initial findings suggest that traffic sounds significantly altered prairie dog aboveground activity, foraging and vigilance behavior. While smaller and perhaps less iconic than elephants, Shannon notes that prairie dogs are highly intelligent and social species and their colony structure makes them ideal behavior research subjects.

“Sound has an extremely pervasive influence on animal behavior, and so acoustic studies have a very exciting and important opportunity to really deepen our understanding of wildlife biology and responses of these species to human disturbance,” said Shannon. “This is a field that has huge opportunity for growth and can be a powerful tool to advance natural resources management policy.”

Shannon hopes to continue his research in the U.S. and sees great potential to make new discoveries on issues such as the acoustic impacts of traffic noise on wildlife or the effects of urbanization and human activity on native rangeland species. Shannon earned his undergraduate degree at the University of York, his M.Sc. in conservation biology at University of Kent, and his Ph.D. at University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.

Posted on April 7, 2014 by This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.