Tracking Albatross Movement With GPS, Weather, Terrain Data
July 4, 2013

Tracking Albatross Movement With GPS, Weather, Terrain Data

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

Combining GPS tracking data with satellite weather and terrain information, scientists are creating a fresh look at animal movement with a big data approach.

The new Environmental-Data Automated Track Annotation (Env-DATA), detailed in the journal Movement Ecology, can track millions of data points and serve over 100 scientists simultaneously.

"This is a powerful tool for understanding how weather and land forms affect migration patterns," co-founder Dr. Roland Kays, a zoologist with North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, said. "Ultimately it will help us answer global questions about how changes to our planet affect animal populations and movement."

The system, which is sophisticated enough for ecologists and simple enough for budding scientists -- including North Carolina science fair entrants, who are using it to track the movements of great egrets along the East Coast -- is available to the public. Depending on the project, users can share their data or limit the access of others.

Researchers used Env-DATA to analyze the flight paths of the Galapagos Albatross in a case study of the system's application. Scientists were able to track the GPS signatures of individual birds, as well as collect satellite data on weather patterns and glowing chlorophyll concentrations in the ocean associated with food sources. The glowing chlorophyll was captured on a YouTube video.

The birds' chosen paths took them to preferred locations on the Peruvian coast where they could forage. The researchers found that the albatrosses took a clockwise route, allowing them to take advantage of tailwinds on the long journey.

Env-DATA also simplifies the tedious work of data manipulation for the researchers, condensing work that used to take graduate students countless hours into only the click of a mouse.