Will Putting "Smart Collars" On Wild Animals Reduce Human-Animal Conflict?


Photo by U.S. Army Environmental Command

New "smart collars" that use GPS and accelerometer technology are being developed to track not only a wild animal's location but also how it is moving, when it is hunting, what it is hunting -- in other words, these collars can tell us its every move. Researchers hope that knowing exactly what animals such as mountain lions, wolves and coyotes are up to, we can understand these animals like never before and possibly even predict their behavior, helping to reduce human-animal conflicts. Learning About Animals To Reduce Conflicts
Last night I watched a documentary on the conflict between wolves overflowing from Yellowstone and cattle ranchers in Montana, and the struggle to find some sort of balance so that both can coexist. A range of strategies were employed, from "hazing" wolves getting too close to herds with beanbags and rubber bullets, to having range riders provide a human presence with the herds that would keep wolves focused on elk, not cows. However, the struggle continues, and it is a deadly serious one -- which makes the question this "smart collar" poses even more interesting: Could a high tech collar revolutionize the way we interact with and manage wildlife, teaching us more about the animals than we'd ever hoped for?

Just before the wolf documentary, I watched a brown bear documentary (I know, I know....nerdy but I won't apologize for it), in which researcher LaVern Beier collared brown bears of Alaska with the latest technology (for 2007) -- a collar that included a video feed so we could see exactly what the bear was seeing as it went along its merry way. The information provided by the collar was leaps and bounds more useful than simple GPS technology, and the objective of the video-equipped collar is to learn as much about brown bears as quickly as possible in hopes that we can save them from habitat loss and human encroachment. The collar is a modification of the famous "critter cam" used on marine life, including whales, monk seals, and even sea turtles. The researchers were elated to get access to the intimate life of a bear -- and that same insight will be gained using accelerometers instead of video.

Recording Every Movement Of A Wild Animal
The New York Times reported earlier this week that the collars are in development and will be ready for commercial production in the next few years. They use GPS technology and accelerometers to measure not only the location of the animals but their movement patters including running and sleeping. The collars can then provide additional insight into how animals live their lives -- new patterns and understandings will emerge that can help dictate the best strategies for protecting the animals from humans and vice versa since better regulations can prevent animal-human run-ins.

"From the safari parks of Africa to urbanized zones on the edge of wildlands across the American West -- places where widespread interest in the devices has already been voiced, scientists said -- the mysteries of the wild might never be the same," states the New York Times.

A Smart Collar Wises Up
The testing of the collar is fascinating. Mischief, a 10-year-old mountain lion raised in Colorado after being orphaned as a cub, acted a guinea pig. Walking on a treadmill while being fed bits of meat, the researchers were able to collect data points that will guide them in understanding the tracked behavior on other animals -- knowing when they're walking versus stalking, catching a deer versus catching a rabbit, eating or sleeping.

Mountain lions are first, and next up will be wolves and coyotes, since they also live in close proximity to humans and can be caught up in human-animal conflict. Not only will the collars be used for understanding the daily life of the animals, but the researchers hope that the information gathered can also help us predict their behavior.

"We want to get to a stage where we can say, 'We've got a lion that, for whatever reason, is really hungry out there and chances are you should put your dog indoors and shouldn't go hiking in this area' -- that there's a higher likelihood that this animal is going to go after something," Professor Williams told the New York Times.

Not only will researchers benefit, but so too will the public since each animal collared will also get its own Facebook page. Social media will really get wild.

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Tags: Animals | Conservation | Electronics | Gadgets | Technology

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