Animal Tracking Technology: Its Evolution, Uses, and Misuses

Animal Tracking Technology: Its Evolution, Uses, and Misuses

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A warbler with a tracking device via

Early on, to track migration patterns of animals, one had to follow discreetly with a pair of binoculars and a camera. Innovative technology has advanced our means for animal tracking and has made it possible to do so without being in direct vicinity of the animal.

The first technological advancement in animal tracking was the introduction of VHF (very high frequency) radio tracking in the post Cold War era. This allowed scientists to tag animals with radio transmitters that could be picked up in close proximity. Following VHF in the 1970’s was the use of satellite tracking. This effectively increased transmitting range as well as allowed for computer monitoring. Soon after in the 1990’s, GPS tracking technology became readily available, enabling trackers to put ‘smart collars’ or tags on animals and determine location, distance, and speed of the animal’s movement.

Scientists concerned with animal population control use not only the technological gadgets we have gained over the century, but also biological tracking methods. Wild feral pigs are a concern in the U.S. Rocky Mountain region. They are known to eat anything from turtle eggs to baby deer and cause over $1.5 billion in damages per year. Biologists at the National Wildlife Research Center invented a method to track this invasive animal by the traces left in mud and water. Samples of water and mud can contain pig DNA (hair, skin, and slobber) up to a month from when the pig visited an area. Identifying if pig DNA was left behind, known better as environmental DNA or eDNA, will help researchers relocate these feral pigs. Another low tech tracking method is the use of quantum dot dye (originally used to detect human cancer) in Daphnia magna, which are shrimp plankton. The dye essentially causes the plankton to fluoresce, allowing researchers to monitor Daphnia magna movement without inflicting harm. Animal tracking is not always as simple as placing a collar on an animal as seen with the feral pig that is deemed dangerous and elusive as well as with ‘dye’ tagging on species like Daphnia magna that are too small to electronically tag.

Wild pigs are most active at night. Night vision cameras used to confirm DNA findings. Via npr

Animal tracking technology also includes the tech collars we put on our beloved pets. Many pet owners have their cats and dogs microchipped. This nanotechnology is usually embedded between shoulder blades and contains identification information of your pet that can be read with a scanner that would pick up on the microchip’s low radio frequency. GPS tracking has also made it’s way to pet tracking technology. On the market, one can find various collars meant to monitor location when the owner is not around. More than just collecting location data via GPS, many of these collars also include abilities like heart rate monitoring, temperature gauging, and presetting safe zone borders (geo-fence) to alert you if your pet has strayed. These real time location trackers are also often paired with smart phone applications and/or web based applications.

Buddy. The Dog Collar Re-Imagined. Via Indiegogo

More recently, the agricultural industry has begun to use animal tracking technology for livestock management. Through the use of GPS tracking on farm animals, farmers can “monitor the movements of livestock throughout the landscape, plot grazing patterns and see what areas the livestock have been depleting nutrients in the soil.” Often fashioned with an “electronic ear tag”, cattle can be monitored through RFID (radio frequency identification device) technology. These ear tags can also be equipped with transponders to collect real time coordinate location along with “an animal’s lineage, weight, health records, and production history”. GPS technology can also help farmers identify when free grazing animals stray from sight, reducing losses.

Sheep with electronic RFID ear tag. Via Wikipedia

With the introduction of tech savvy tracking devices, animal management has become an easier task to address for wildlife scientists, pet owners, and livestock farmers. But recently there is talk of the possibility of privacy hacking and information leaking. People are questioning if the same devices meant to track endangered animals might also lead data hacking poachers to exploit location tracking meant for conservation measures. Abuse of the location collecting system may create unexpected damages and loss in animal conservation. National Geographic reported a similar event that occurred in Canada where photographers used VHF “receivers to pick up radio signals to find collared bears, wolves, and elk.” This pushed national parks to ban the receivers from guests completely in order to prevent wildlife disturbance. Another incidence of potential abuse of tracking data can be seen in Australia.  The Department of Fisheries allowed for the tagging of white sharks to study their movements, but later authorized the killing of a tagged shark when it came too close to the shore and posed an “imminent threat” to beachgoers. However, “Scientists claimed that the animal wasn’t a danger and that the agency located the animal using data from its tag.”  In another case, hackers reportedly tried to access the email of an Indian researcher in order to pinpoint the location of an endangered Bengal tiger wearing a GPS collar, according to Mashable.


Knowing the benefits animal tracking technology has offered over the century, what measures may we have neglected in ensuring data privacy and in turn animal safety of the species we are monitoring?


Written by Iman Lynn Mamdouh

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