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Advanced Solar-Powered Tracking Devices Reveal Wildlife Secrets

Feb 29, 2016 01:47 PM EST

Solar-powered trackers attached to the wings of California condors and fins of humpback whales have allowed scientists to follow the animals as they soar to heights of 15,000 feet and dive 1,000 feet underwater. GPS collars have also allowed researchers to track grizzly bears as they move through Yellowstone National Park. This advanced technology has provided scientists with invaluable information about the secret lives of previously hard-to-study animals. 

"It's a large field that's developing very fast," Alex Zerbini, a research biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle, said in a statement. "There are many types of tags being developed for many species of marine animals."

It is believed that data collected from smaller, more durable and more powerful tracking devices, is leading to discoveries that can be used to make better wildlife and habitat management decisions.

For example, whitebark pine -- a Yellowstone grizzly bear's main food source -- has declined due to an insect infestation brought on by global warming. However, the use of sophisticated GPS collars helps scientists determine if a grizzly spending a long time in a specific area was napping or guarding a dead carcass. The latter would imply the bears have found a replacement food source, which is an important factor in determining whether the Endangered Species Act protections can be lifted. 

Additionally, scientists recently tracked humpback whales as they dove deep below the ocean surface to underwater mountains and condors as the flew nearly three miles above Earth. Researchers say the birds fly to such heights by using rising currents of heated air called thermals to gain altitude. Then they switch gears to take a downhill glide, sloping in a specific direction toward a dead animal they've already fed on or to an area they have found dead animals in the past.

Therefore, the tracking data suggests flying conditions might be the primary factor dictating where condors live and find food. In turn, this information, along with meteorological data, can be used to create maps of areas with weather conditions suitable for condors as part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's plan to continue recovery efforts of the federally protected bird. 

However, the findings have led to more questions. For example, scientists now are interested to learn why humpback whales dive to underwater mountains.

"It's always like that in science," Zerbini added. "The more you know, the more questions you have. Which is good. Then you can develop the technology specifically to address your new questions."

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