GPS tracking and monitoring

GAIA is developing a new generation of so-called bio-loggers – transmitters for animals that carry a variety of sensors including a GPS sensor. This type of devices has become available to wildlife biologists and have greatly advanced over the last decades, enabling a completely new way of understanding animal physiology, behaviour as well as activity in the context of their surroundings. Building on a long-standing experience of the Leibniz-IZW team, that has been using satellite telemetry on a variety of species in Namibia including cheetah, leopard, kudu and gemsbok, GAIA studies the behaviour of vultures, lions, hyenas and other species in order to better understand the ecosystem they inhabit – including its anthropogenic influence.

Edge devices such as smartphones and wearables are embedded in our everyday life and can tell us where we are, how fast we are moving and even what kind of activities we are busy with throughout the day. They collect this surprising amount of data from built-in miniature sensors. These devices are getting more powerful but nevertheless smaller, lighter and easier to use every year. This rapidly advancing technology is also available to wildlife ecologists who want to know more about the behaviour and movements of the wild animals they study.

Using technology similar to smartphones and smart watches, ecologists can now almost continuously monitor their study animals’ geographic location, behaviour, activity and body temperature. At the same time the device collects information about the area the animal is moving in, including e.g. air temperature, atmospheric pressure and water salinity. This not only provides insights into ecology of the study animals but also into the ecosystems around them. Scientists are able to detect anthropogenic influences, environmental stress, outbreaks of diseases, all of which may change animal behaviour. This new technology with its myriad of different applications has heralded the start of a golden age for “bio-logging” – a term scientists have coined for logging large amounts of biological data.

Ecologists choose the smallest possible bio-logging devices (or bio-loggers) to ensure that their study animals are not hampered in any way by carrying them. The heaviest part is the battery that powers various sensors, the GPS unit and the data uplink device. These components are becoming more efficient with every bio-logger generation; at the same time battery technology is progressing to deliver smaller batteries that produce more power. Consequently, battery size and the subsequent weight of the devices can be reduced, whilst also increasing the device’s lifespan and data collecting capacity. GPS tracking collars today gather more than ten times the amount of data than similar-sized collars that were developed only 10 years ago. This means, spatial ecologists are able to study smaller animals than before, and collect more data to answer a huge variety of new research questions.

In GAIA the wildlife biologists and engineers are co-developing a new generation of bio-loggers that collect data continuously, process the data on-board and on-the-fly (in real time) and send the extracted, relevant information to the user via a satellite uplink. This again will up the ante of what GPS tracking and monitoring as a method can deliver. The development team mainly focuses on two aspects, the satellite uplink and an on-board camera with AI-image classification, while the GAIA wildlife team is using bio-loggers on a huge variety of animals including vultures, lions, hyenas, cheetahs, leopards, elephants, rhinos, various antelope species, tortoises and lizards to both tackle research questions and provide reference to the technical development.

Dr Jörg Melzheimer
Wildlife biologist and project head at Leibniz-IZW
+4930 5168 462
Rubén Portas
Field scientist in Namibia at Leibniz-IZW
+4930 5168 327
Dr Ortwin Aschenborn
Wildlife veterinarian and project head at Leibniz-IZW
+4930 5168 462