Monday, September 25, 2006

Whooper Swan tracking

There’s been a lot of talk in the past 2 years about Avian (bird) flu and the spread of the virus through birds in Asia.  You might have heard of it.  The speed at which the disease has spread has scientists in a quandary about how it’s getting around.  The options are either by migratory birds or human trade in fowl.

Last year, it was noted that large numbers of Whooper Swans died in Mongolia in 2005, and the swan being a migratory bird that covers thousands of miles between summer and winter, scientists are trying to track their movements.

      Whooper swans were captured by the international team in early August on the grassland steppe of far eastern Mongolia, near the borders of Russian and China. Each year, swans molt their feathers after the breeding season, and during that flightless period, the birds were captured by biologists in boats and on-foot. Small, 70-gram (2.3 ounces or the weight of a dozen quarters) solar-powered transmitters were affixed on 10 of the 8-kilogram (18-pound) large swans with backpack harnesses. The harnesses are made of Teflon ribbon that deteriorates and falls off of the birds within a few years.
      Takekawa noted that satellite tracking data will provide information that will not only help scientists better understand and document links between wild birds and the spread of avian influenza, but that will also help enhance conservation efforts through determining the non-breeding ranges of birds and the mechanisms involved in long-distance migration.
      The GPS transmitters are made by a wildlife specialty company; it is only in the last 5 years that they were reduced to a size suitable for migratory birds. Their accurate locations, often better than 30 feet, provide a wealth of information on migrating birds and use of their habitats that was not available before. The locations are recorded every 2 hours and stored in the transmitter memory before being sent to the research team by email through weather satellites every 2 days.

Continuous GPS tracking of birds in their migration.  One wonders how many different animals can be tracked this way.  Sea creatures come to mind, but I’m not sure how well GPS works underwater.  Probably not well.  Whales and Dolphins might be able to be tracked this way though.  The device would have to triangulate it’s satellites pretty quickly when the animal surfaces for a breath.

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