Traditional Tracking vs. Electronic Surveillance: Has Wildlife Research Become Too High-Tech?

Candice Gaukel Andrews April 2, 2013 13

This elk in northern Wisconsin sports a heavy-duty radio collar. Does it detract from the viewing experience? ©John T. Andrews

From Florida manatees equipped with small, satellite-monitored tags to elk in the Rocky Mountains fitted with large radio collars, our wildlife is becoming more wired every day. We now know more about the locations and wanderings of animal populations than at any other time in history.

That’s why it’s surprising to learn that old-time wildlife tracking—reading scats, chews and paw prints—is making a comeback. Now, even as courses in natural history are being dropped at universities across the country, tracking clubs are flourishing in more than half of the United States, books on track- and sign-identification techniques are becoming big sellers and adventure travel companies are adding wolf trips in Yellowstone National Park and grizzly bear tours in Alaska.

So today, is traditional wildlife tracking simply a low-tech way for the lay public to increase their chances of having wildlife encounters, or is it a still-essential method for professional biologists?

A wired wilderness

With VHF radio tracking, a scientist in close proximity can discern an animal’s location. ©John T. Andrews

American wildlife biologists began to incorporate Cold War-era surveillance technologies into their practices during the second half of the 20th century. VHF (very high frequency) radio tracking began in the late 1950s, where an animal would be captured, sedated and then fitted with a collar or tag that contained a radio transmitter. Once placed on the animal, the device would transmit a signal to a radio antenna and receiver. Scientists who were in close proximity by foot, truck or airplane could then pick up the signal. For the first time, researchers were able to determine an animal’s day-to-day movements, home range size, what type of habitat it used and what other animals were sharing its territory.

Then, in the late 1970s, satellite tracking came into use. Satellite tracking is similar to VHF radio tracking, but instead of a radio signal being sent to a radio receiver, a signal is sent to a satellite. Scientists no longer had to be near the animal to pick up its signal; it could be tracked by computer. In the early 1990s, GPS (Global Positioning System) tracking was added to the biologist’s toolbox. With GPS technology, a radio receiver (not a transmitter) is placed on the animal. The receiver has a computer that calculates location and movement. Depending on the GPS collar’s weight, it can store data and then drop off the animal to allow retrieval, transmit the data to another set of satellites that relay it to researchers or send the data on a programmed schedule (e.g., daily) to biologists who must be in the field to receive it.

Since the 1950s, then, radio tracking has provided scores of ecological insights, from movements of cheetah and other wildlife in Namibia to the pintail duck migration from California to Alaska. It’s hoped that by analyzing all this data, scientists can learn new ways to manage animal populations, determine what impact development might have on a particular species and predict its chance of surviving in the future. In fact, today, many conservation biology students devote themselves almost exclusively to studying statistical modeling and DNA analysis.

The wild, unplugged

But wildlife radio tracking has created concerns as well as capabilities; it has provided opportunities for connection as well as for control. It’s been reported, for instance, that shock collars have been tested on wolves. When the wolves tried to roam beyond a fence of sensors controlled by a satellite, they were shocked. And as wolf management grows ever more controversial, biologists have also experimented with collars that contain tranquilizers, which can be activated remotely.

Prints in the snow can tell the story of a day in the life of an elusive animal. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

In some national parks, hundreds of animals have been, or are being, studied by radio tracking. Consequently, many visitors are finding that it’s hard to spot any animal in the wild without a collar, diminishing their viewing experience. In some cases, collars turn out to be more than just metaphors for the forfeiture of freedom and wildness—they can also mean a loss of life. In one study, howler monkeys that were originally equipped with telemetry packs inside leather collars tried desperately to get them off. Many that did not succeed died. The reason was that howlers groom each other to control lethal parasites, and the collars interfered with the practice, thus spelling their doom.

While researchers are aware of the limitations and dangers of telemetry, other factors—such as a seemingly insatiable appetite for new and improved gadgetry—often take precedence. Advances in aerospace, medical and military technologies are destined to propel wildlife research techniques to ever-greater levels of sophistication.

That’s why some, mostly those in the public sector, are going retro. Old-fashioned wildlife tracking, they say, not only results in usable data but heightens awareness of sounds, smells, visual clues and surroundings. In the field, each track and sign helps reconstruct a day in the life of an elusive animal. A hillside of what initially looks like dry, brown stones could actually be composed of porcupine dung, which means the place has probably been a den site for years. Wolf paw prints in the snow can tell the story of how an elk hunt was conducted with precision and strategic thinking on the part of the whole pack. These are things you wouldn’t see with transmitter technology.

Proponents of “unplugged” wildlife tracking say there has been a lamentable change in environmental education since the 1970s—just about the time technology tracking was being widely put in use. With today’s technology, it’s possible to do a wildlife study, yet never actually see the animal, its tracks or where it lives. You can follow an animal in real time on a computer. As a case in point, a recent paper in the Journal of Wildlife Management looked at how reliably Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologists could identify the tracks of northern river otters, a species they were responsible for counting as part of a 15-year research project. The biologists misidentified 37 percent of river otter tracks and incorrectly identified the tracks of other species as otter 26 percent of the time.

Surveillance technology doesn’t evoke a feeling of mystery about that “other world.” ©Eric Rock

The price for dealing only in technology and mathematical abstractions may be losing a basic, emotional connection to nature. Surveillance technology tends to erode a sense of wildness and a feeling of mystery around that “other world,” out there. That could not only fail to further conservation causes but hinder them.

Do you think that wildlife research today is too dependent on surveillance technology, losing its ability to connect us with nature in any meaningful and soulful way?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. Rewire December 9, 2016 at 11:34 am - Reply

    Thanks for sharing this great article, it’s very informative.

    Latest small GPS tracking devices work great for wildlife tracking because GPS reports tell the scientists not only where the animals are, but also whether they’re walking, running or conserving energy while resting, and when.

  2. Amanda Sebrosky December 14, 2015 at 7:20 pm - Reply

    Thank you for you article. For a long time I have wondered how the collars were monitored and the size increased as the animal grew or the weight increased. I came across a petition today that showed a polar bear with a collar that was growing into its neck with a note that this was not an infrequent situation were large animals can be observed. Does anyone have information about the frequency of this problem in the field and if there are supposed to be safeguards against this in the proposals for studies that use collars including the requirement to remove collars at the end of a study? Thank you!

  3. Keely May 14, 2013 at 8:37 pm - Reply

    I think radio collars are an inhumane and barbaric practice. Even my own domesticated dog starts scratching at her collar mere minutes after I put it on her. I could not imagine having to eat, sleep, walk, run, scratch or shed a winter coat around one of these med evil contraptions. The year is 2013 and I find it heartbreaking that they make animals suffer. Ban radio collars !!!!!! Anyone who opposes this, I invite you to wear a radio collar around your neck and see just how much you like it. For shame Biologists and anyone else who supports this torture.

  4. Joshua Asel April 7, 2013 at 2:14 pm - Reply

    As a mountain lion tracker and Felidae conservation Intern, I use both. They both have their advantages but keep it balanced. Also, extreme times call for extreme measures. So, what I mean is, right now, we’re going to be seeing a lot of collars, but its for the best and for a world where hopefully one day we won’t have to put anymore collars on any wild animals. That’s the dream anyway.

  5. Damon Haan April 5, 2013 at 1:22 pm - Reply

    Traditional animal tracking still has important applications in wildlife research and management. When you’re in the field tracking an animal’s movements step-by-step it may provide information at a finer scale than what can be gleaned by telemetry or GPS devices such as feeding habits. It is important and always will be important for biologists to understand the behavior and ecology of their study species and a great deal can learned about an animal through tracking. Tracking skills are also necessary for trapping reclusive species, thus if you need to affix transmitters to your animals than you will need to capture them first. Obviously telemetry provides many benefits and as far as data acquisition it is often a more efficient means, but traditional tracking skills are still necessary.

  6. Bill Leikam April 4, 2013 at 2:29 pm - Reply

    I am in my fourth year of conducting a study of the urban gray fox’s behaviors. Field work is essential in this case. Without being there in the field almost daily, watching, observing and taking notes on what I see, I am gathering data that could not otherwise be obtained. For instance, last year one of the males injured his right knee to the point that he could not hunt at a crucial time when his mate and the pups needed him to bring in their food. I was then able to observe how the fox “family” handled that situation. I was also able to watch and see how he took care of his injury, something that no technology could begin to tap into. On the other hand, we use some technology. For instance, in order for us to see their behaviors in the night, we have strategically placed trail cameras. Going forward and within the next year, we plan on collaring some of the young foxes because we need to plot their range, their dispersal patterns and other such information that “only” technology can give us. Whenever someone new comes into the project, I always require that they go through my in-depth training in tracking, reading scat, reading the environment, and more. So, a blend of active and engaged field work as well as using some technology works well for the Urban Wildlife Research Project. In summary then, I partially agree with Candice and with others who have commented on the use of technology.

    Bill Leikam,
    Director, Independent Urban Gray Fox Research Project,
    Research Head: Urban Wildlife Research Project,
    Volunteer – Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge,
    Public lectures and guided tours

  7. Francesca Hughes April 4, 2013 at 12:45 pm - Reply

    Thanks for sharing this article. It’s really interesting (and slightly worrying!) that wildlife dept biologists couldn’t identify animal tracks.

    From a personal perspective, if tracking was undertaken for tourism purposes, I would prefer a more authentic, traditional ‘wildlife’ experience, to one where I’m taken straight to the animals because they have tracking devices fitted. I might as well just go to the zoo. I don’t care whether I can see the trackers or not, if they’re not serving any purpose to the animal, I don’t think they should be there. Even worse when they’re actually harming the animal!

    While I understand there can be many reasons for wildlife tracking, including monitoring endangered populations, I believe these methods should be as unobtrusive as possible. I think we often have so much faith in science that we forget about traditional methods of doing things, assuming we’ve found a better way simply because it’s high-tech and provides hard data. But do we stop to question whether we need that data?!

  8. Ernie April 4, 2013 at 5:38 am - Reply

    Both have their place. Certain habitats are very difficult to find collared animals or subject animals in. A collared animal allows non intrusive monitoring whilst physical tracking can be very intrusive. Collared monitoring allows a specific animal to be followed rather than physical tracking which is essentially indiscriminate unless the tracker himself is exceptional by ‘bushman’ standards. Collared monitoring can be done by drone aircraft in a simple fly over and GPS location noted.
    I used to have to track 54 Black Rhino on nearly 800 000 acres and get a close enough visual on each one to identify ear notches….this took the whole month to do and was also dangerous as they don’t like being approached too closely. So essentially I had no time to attend to other duties in the conservancy such as poaching and fences etc.
    Electronic tracking certainly has it’s uses as does a visual sightings.

  9. Timothy Przygocki April 4, 2013 at 5:38 am - Reply

    What would John Muir say? I think that he’d be set aback! I think he’d ask (if he had any power to) if there wasn’t a better, more unobtrusive way! A way that didn’t change the overall look of nature in it’s own surroundings!

  10. Gordon Long April 3, 2013 at 2:51 pm - Reply


    I believe you have hit on something with your idea that wildlife biology is no longer field-based. Now you can get all your fancy data from GIS and remote sensing tools. These technical advances have their place, but it does not replace good, honest field work. Look at the ads in the all the professional wildlife trade publications– they are dominated by companies selling tracking equipment and software. Just another example of society’s dependence on looking at a computer screen.

  11. Gustavo Vargas April 3, 2013 at 10:25 am - Reply

    Although Candice made good points, we have to decouple several aspects immersed into the discussion in order to be objective. She is suggesting the old fashion naturalist’s way of tracking has an emotional connection to wildlife that high-tec telemetry doesn’t. But that is not the central point of the discussions. For starters we must ask if that emotionality is a preeminent requisite to do science on the wildlife. I think it is not. Many people have great emotions when in wilderness and they do not have a clue of science. Definitively, emotions for wildlife are appealing and a driver for those studying and protecting wildlife, but those emotions cannot be the center of the discussions of whether we should make more enfaces on the old or the new tracking school. In the past, wildlife studies were more expensiveand delayed because tracking methods and logistics were far more complicated or even impossible as Alan Hoffber correctly states. Now many animal tracking is possible thanks to new technology and we have not lost the emotions to go for. Conversely, we should feel better because we have more abundant and precise data about more species. Sience is not perfect and not always technology is successful, not even the visual tracking (many researchers died tracking). We cannot judge either the whole issue based only on animal footprints. Only some of the terrestrial animals, especially mammals leave tracks on soil or snow; know we are able to track even insects. Countless technology and tracking technology allow us to know much more we could using our limited senses and natural abilities. This issue is similar to the discussion about the use of technology in home: people ask themselves if they should restrict or ban the use of gadgets in home for improving communication and good relations had in the past. That is not the bottom line, but how we educate our families inside home and what values we teach them. Technology is not an enemy per se, but how we use it and how it changes our relationship with our environment. If students and professionals are missing field recognition we should not blame high tech, but how we are educating the new generations of researchers and what values we are rewarding. Emotions are just the gravy of science, not the main dish.

  12. Kathryn Papp April 2, 2013 at 2:13 pm - Reply

    Traditional and Tech do different things. They are complementary, which implies must work together.

    Otherwise tech used alone tells us little about ecosystem functioning and state of resilience. It says almost nothing about functional relations between species and geophysical transfers.

  13. Alan M Hoffberg April 2, 2013 at 12:05 pm - Reply

    At Biosphere Expeditions we find the radio collar an excellent tool to determine home range of those animals wearing collars. When there exists sparse population, we would find it impossible to conduct our research and publish meaningful reports which provide various governments with the vital information to establish protected wildlife areas.

    To illustrate, if we determined a specific African collared animal has a range of 100 square miles (+/- 5 miles from a specific point), how do we study this animal without the collar? Our volunteer participants are available from one to two weeks, so the collar enables a research team to radio locate and possibly visibly study the animal, especially if there is considerable brush or the season is wet.

    Tracking during the dry season is easier, depending upon the study environment. In addition, a desert or gravel ground cover provides good distant visibility. However, our studies in the Atlantic rain forest (lower Brazil) heavily depended upon whatever resources we could use, because visibility was typically less than 10 feet.

    Alan M. Hoffberg
    Director/Chairman (NA)
    Biosphere Expeditions
    A 501(c)(3) in the U.S.A.

Leave A Response »