Tuesday, May 18, 2021
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Studying Animal Behaviour the Tech Way

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An avid creative whose word plays so much that words say I play too much; a Ki'shon flow. Life is a journey and we're all full of stories.

‘The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.’ Mahatma Gandhi

An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language, interestingly, our screens seem to speak more than just one language.

Humans are animals, just a higher, more advanced life form as compared to them. No, humans are made in the image of God. Let me rephrase, humans are animals; do you see the degree of evil that men like Hitler and Stalin have rained unto this earth? Yes, but humans are made in God’s image. You know why because even without belief there are genuinely good people out there who show love and kindness.

Some kids smile and hug strangers who make them laugh because of the purity and goodness in their innocence. The truth is, humans are all that is mentioned above and that’s why I’m so sure we surprise both angels and demons. However today humans aren’t the main topic for today, animals are. It is like humans to be curious about all that is around us; we see it in the hearts of those who invented things, we also see it in those who formulated theories.

We can’t stay in a place without discovering something about the place or just how things work in the space and that’s how come we have taken a liking to observe animals in their natural habitats to better understand them and their culture and possibly relate it to some human tendencies and inclinations. For a while, however, all we could do was to observe with our eyes that which our eyes would allow us to see and interpret with our minds as best as we could frame and understand and possibly try and mimic what we heard.

And that made it difficult to let others understand what someone had discovered about a particular animal. But which major setback ever stopped human beings from being human? We got ourselves technology which started in little things like the sound recorder and the camera to capture moments in what we call photos or pictures.

And as time has advanced, now we have extremely sophisticated devices to study and observe our animals and their behavior better and record things that we may not see or may perceive and not understand.

Ultimately for us humans who research and study the behavior of animals, the crux of the problem of getting information about wild animals is that these animals often do not want to be seen. Only a handful of animals show no reaction to the man. For example, a chicken is not necessarily bothered by your presence unless it feels your approach is putting it in any kind of danger or harm, aside from that it would go about its business as usual.

Sometimes the lifestyles and attitudes of many mean that we do not see them for much of the time because they guard appreciable distance between us and them, or operate at times and location that we cannot witness. As a consequence, an array of technologies have and are being developed for the study of wild animals at distance – for example, telescopes and binoculars have been adapted to allow observation in the dark, with the help of image intensifiers and infra-red cameras. With cameras now we can proceed to not only take pictures but film them; this means that we could inspect recorded behavior time and again. We didn’t stop there.

Cow wearing track transmitter

We decided to design a way of tagging the animals as well. Initially, in the 1950s, animals carried simple radio-transmitters so that researchers with directional antennae could use them to derive the direction from which the signal came – with two people doing that at the same time in different places, the tag, and therefore the animal, could be triangulated and its position determined, even when it was hiding in thick forest.

This transmission telemetry was revolutionary because it enabled researchers to see where animals hang out, even if they hid in trees, whether rain or shine, day or night. After this, radiotelemetry big brother, satellite telemetry, took this approach to a global scale in the 1990s, freeing workers up from the need to wander up and down varyingly hostile landscapes, and leaving the onerous triangulation to impassive orbiting satellites (Check out the article on Satellites in ‘Eyes in the Sky’).

Indeed, satellite telemetry suddenly allowed us to follow wandering albatrosses as they sallied forth into the wild Southern Ocean for their breakfast, thousands of kilometers from their nest. One final concept was critically important in helping us study wild animals today, and that was the inception of the logger.

This is a tiny recording device that clings to its wild animal carrier, obsessively noting down everything that its host does. Although the first versions of these smart tags were composed of sealing wax and string, their powers have grown out of all proportion to their first clumsy versions.

This change occurred during the age of the silicon chip where consumer hunger for things like small smartphones demanded performance and, in the process, produced memory chips and sensors that changed animal-attached loggers into truly clever tags, with a capacity for measuring almost anything.

Today, smart tags can record everything from the squeaks and speeds of whales a mile underwater as they rush to catch squid at pressures of 1500 lbs per square inch to the heart-rate of geese struggling in the thin air to migrate over the Himalayas.

It is safe to say that all this has mostly been accomplished without the lives of the animals being put into any kind of danger. And for us, it’s a plus that we get to observe every move of animals to note that info that can be able to tell us about their ancestors and history. It is fascinating to know the kind of power tech is giving to us.


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