High tech spy: hunting secret lives

The short-tailed shearwater travels further to feed its young than most animals known including the albatross. Advanced electronic and satellite communication is revealing their secrets.

Nick Klomp goes to work armed. He is a hunter, a spy and an informer. He loves prying into private lives and finding their secrets.

Dr Klomp is a wildlife researcher with Charles Sturt University’s Johnstone Centre of Parks, Recreation and Heritage in Albury-Wodonga, and uses advanced electronic equipment, satellite communications and computers to follow elusive animals in their natural surroundings. To date, he has followed bats, heath mice, muttonbirds, albatrosses and penguins with his electronic armoury.

“Modern electronic technology is allowing us to study wildlife in ways we only dreamt of ten years ago. The advances in equipment for tracking and seeing animals in the wild means we are getting a much clearer picture of such basic information as feeding habits and ranges and migratory patterns in their natural environment,” Dr Klomp said.

All his equipment must be mobile. “The animals we study won’t come to us – we have to go to them. If we want meaningful research results, we must understand them in their own environment. From the knowledge gained in this research we learn how to manage our wild populations better, particularly the threatened species,” he said.

To provide this mobility, the Johnstone Centre’s animal tracking systems are based on a $150,000 mobile laboratory built on a four-wheel-drive truck chassis. By using solar power as its main energy source for its onboard computers, laboratory equipment, satellite telephone and radio receivers, it can go nearly anywhere on land.

Discovering the truck’s precise position is important for accurately placing the position of tracked animals. When researchers know their exact position on a map, they can also place the position of the tagged animal on the map, and can find the animal. Onboard satellite receivers and computers pinpoint the truck’s position using a highly accurate global positioning system.

Dr Klomp uses many devices to track his subjects in different environments. “We are currently monitoring Little Penguins and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters (a species of muttonbird) which feed in the waters around Montague Island on the south coast of NSW. These birds are fitted with lightweight, waterproofed VHF radio transmitters and can be located hourly within 120 kilometres of the receivers for several weeks at a time.”

Tracing insect-eating bats produces different obstacles. “It is usually difficult to detect the tiny insectivorous bats when they are active at night, so we use ANABAT, an ultrasonic bat detection system. After we trap them with harp traps, we fit them with radio transmitters weighing only half a gram to find where they feed and roost. You have to think tiny with these creatures,” Dr Klomp said.

“We now have a collection of bat calls, which are available on the World Wide Web. We hope this will encourage others to seek out these bats in their local areas and enhance our own research efforts.”

Short-tailed Shearwaters, another species of muttonbird, present a very different problem. “We cannot use radio tracking as they fly well outside the range of the receivers. Instead, we attach tiny computers to track them, as we have found they can fly at least 500 kilometres to feed for up to ten days,” Dr Klomp said.

“The computer constantly records the air temperature and light intensity around it. These computers are then collected after the birds return to their nests at the end of their flight, and the data stored in them is analysed to calculate the bird’s flight path within 50 km.

“More recently, we attached transmitters to adult Short-tailed Shearwaters. These transmitted signals to orbiting satellites which then bounced to us. This allowed us to track these birds from south eastern Australia to Antarctica.”

Dr Klomp also supervises research which studies some of these birds on the land. What if they build nests underground, as with Little penguins? “We study them using a burrow scope – a video camera attached to a flexible cable. This allows us to observe the birds and their eggs and chicks in their homes, without disturbing them.”

Feeding studies may also require complicated weighing procedures to find how much food adult birds are bringing their young, and how fast the chicks are growing. Dr Klomp’s team use artificial burrows to study the feeding habits of muttonbirds and penguins nesting on Montague.

For Little penguins, simple wooden boxes act as nests and are placed on electronic scales buried in the ground. The scales are attached to data loggers which automatically record the weights of adults, chicks and the fish the adults bring for their young, without disturbing the nest. A moulded plastic burrow is similarly used for muttonbirds.

Where does the inspiration come from for this equipment? “We have a problem, and we often look to other research fields – agriculture, medicine and fisheries to name a few – for an answer. We have also developed some specialised equipment in association with technicians both in our University and under contract,” said Dr Klomp.

When asked if there were more high-tech spies to come, Dr Klomp said that the University’s Johnstone Centre laboratories in Albury were now developing instruments to measure the metabolic rates of live wild animals in the field.

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