As it goes high-tech, wildlife biology loses its soul

  • Outfitted with a tiny backpack geolocator and ready for release near Olympia, Washington, this burrowing owl will help researchers study habitat, nesting sites and migration patterns vital for owl conservation.

    Jadine Cook/
  • The wake of a hovering hummingbird is revealed using particle image velocimetry, where a mist of olive oil is illuminated by a laser.

    Bret Tobalske, Montana Flight Lab
  • A gray wolf with a circa 2006 collar used to track its movement in Denali National Park, Alaska.

    © Momatiuk-Eastcott/Corbis
  • A wildlife cam on I-90 near Missoula captures images of passing bears.

    Courtesy Chris Servheen
  • Kate Kendall (far right) and project technicians Christine de Caussin and Katie Spendel concoct "grizzly bear soup."

    Courtesy Kate Kendall
  • Barbed wire fencing surrounding a "grizzly bear soup" mix catches hair samples for DNA analysis.

    Courtesy Kate Kendall
  • Bret Tobalske uses a wind tunnel at the Montana Flight Lab to track the movement of misty air around a diamond dove.

    Janie Osborne
  • The wake of a zebra finch flying at 18 miles per hour in a wind tunnel, made visible by a cloud of laser-illuminated olive oil droplets.

    Montana Flight Lab
  • Denver Holt releases a female snowy owl fitted with a satellite transmitter into the wilds of Barrow, Alaska, during his 20th field season in the Arctic.

    Daniel J. Cox/

In 1978, I was researching one of my first wildlife stories, working along the North Fork of the Flathead River in northwestern Montana, one of the wildest places in the Lower 48. A wolf was believed to be prowling into Montana from British Columbia –– an important discovery if true, because wolves had been absent from the American West for half a century and this might indicate their possible resurgence in the region. Researchers had found scat and tracks –– tantalizing evidence of at least one animal. The question was: Were wolves living there or just passing through?

Locating wolves at the time was a laborious and primitive process. I hiked trails with researchers, hands cupped to our mouths, doing our best to imitate wolf howls and hoping for a reply.

In 1979, the Border Wolf Project researchers captured their first wolf -- a female they named Kishneana, honoring the creek where she was trapped. They radio-collared her, and later that year I flew with project head Robert Ream above the purling North Fork, watching as he used a radio receiver with a handheld antenna to zero in on the faint rhythmic ticking of the collar's transmissions. Every 10 days or so, for a brief window of time, biologists flew above the North Fork to get a general idea of Kishneana's whereabouts. But that was all they could determine with the available technology; the rest of her life was a mystery.

These days, wolves have few secrets. Some are monitored constantly through GPS collars that link to orbiting satellites, reporting their locations with such high-tech precision that the animals are jokingly referred to as "robo-wolves." If an un-collared pack gets into trouble, killing cattle or llamas, federal wildlife-control agents may create a "Judas wolf": They trap and collar one of the pack's members and follow it, then kill the whole pack when the wolves reunite.

The type of radio collar that was strapped onto Kishneana in '79 is as old-fashioned now as a wall phone. It's  been surpassed by far more powerful technologies that would have seemed like science fiction a few decades ago. Today, some researchers can map wildlife 24 hours a day from the comfort of their offices, instead of, say, doing it once a week by driving dirt roads, hiking or flying.

Remote, automatically operated camera traps are ubiquitous, snapping pictures of wildlife in remote locations that can't otherwise be monitored. Just as cops use facial recognition software to help track down possible criminals, biologists now use software and cameras to identify individual animals by the patterns on their coats –– even in the irises of their eyes.

Tiny helicopters take breath samples from whales while hovering over their blowholes; aerial drones monitor orangutans; and endangered black-footed ferrets have been implanted with transponder chips that can be read by sensors buried in the dirt around their burrows, scanning their comings and goings, like groceries at the supermarket. DNA and isotopes in hair or nails are parsed in new ways to determine exactly how individual animals exploit the specific aspects of landscapes.

Even imitation wolf howls have gone high tech, thanks to the Howlbox, a kind of wilderness boom-box that sends out a pre-recorded howl. It also records the real-world answer, while doing a sonic analysis to identify the individual wolf that returned the call.

As the discovery and application of these new technologies accelerates, our understanding of wildlife increases exponentially. Despite limits imposed by politics and budgets, it's helped our efforts to protect species in an increasingly crowded, developed and fragmented world. Yet there are drawbacks. Even some biologists think that the high-tech approach to wildlife diminishes the wonder of the wild, and sacrifices the unique knowledge that comes from laborious, on-the-ground fieldwork. As the technological rush even gets into wildlife genetics in new ways, it's a good time to reflect on how much things have changed -- and where we seem to be headed.

Since I listened to the simple pinging from that 1979 wolf collar, technology's potential to improve wildlife conservation has been proven by many researchers. In the 1990s, for instance, Brian Woodbridge, a Forest Service researcher in Northern California, encountered a mystery. Many of the Swainson's hawks he studied -- a species also known as "grasshopper hawks" or "locust hawks" because that's their primary food -- were leaving Butte Valley National Grasslands as winter approached and for some reason they were not returning in the spring. Woodbridge heard about a lightweight satellite transmitter that could be fixed to a bird's feathers, to broadcast a signal about its whereabouts to a satellite. So he trapped two hawks and fastened the transmitters, each a little heavier than a silver dollar, to their tail feathers. In the fall of 1997, the hawks circled into the sky wearing the $3,000 instruments and headed due south, chasing summer. One of the hawks was never heard from again, but two months later the other beamed a signal from a region in Argentina called La Pampa, some 6,000 miles from California. It was the first time anyone knew where that species went for the winter -- an ornithological riddle until modern technologies came along.

Robert Laybourn
Robert Laybourn Subscriber
Dec 14, 2012 11:09 AM
A thought provoking article. My thoughts were to dispute opinions that better and more efficient research tools somehow handcuffs field research. I marvel at the improved and new methods to study without as much direct physical impact on a species and to acquire much good data. I notice that Mr. Robbins and the biologists he quotes as being uncomfortable with better technology and technique are older and have been long in their field. It's pretty commonly agreed that as we age; most of us become somewhat resistant to change.
Wendy Beye
Wendy Beye
Dec 14, 2012 01:08 PM
My father pioneered research on California quail in the 1940s, long before telemetry technology of any kind was available. I served as a small aircraft pilot to monitor collared wolves (including some in the North Fork of Montana in the late 80s) and to count animals from the air. More lately, I volunteered to help with a greater sage-grouse study in eastern Montana. I believe the less direct contact scientists have with studied animals, the better it is for the animals. It seems to me that the mortality rate for collared animals, once they are released, exceeds that for animals that have never been touched by human hands. Something for researchers to ponder, or maybe even study...
Harry Greene
Harry Greene Subscriber
Dec 18, 2012 01:06 PM
Nice piece of writing, but one would never known from the title that most of the article is, appropriately, about the very positive role of technologically assisted research in conserving and appreciating nature. Fair enough to raise the issue of a downside to technology and certainly basic field-based natural history needs more support, but why cast the whole piece in such negative light with that title, as if the last few paragraphs were all that mattered?
Georgeann Savage
Georgeann Savage
Dec 18, 2012 01:23 PM
Intellectually, I can understand the desire of science to "know" more about critter's habits and travel habits. However, the picture of the
wired small bird is worth a thousand words. Who the heck gave us the right to burden it with what has to be called an assault on its sensitive nervous system?! People involved in this torture seem to be derailed by their fascination with the technology.
Jerry Smith
Jerry Smith Subscriber
Dec 18, 2012 01:51 PM
We can't help the animals unless we understand their needs. In a world of ever increasing human encroachment on the last pristine habitats, denying people their "god-given right" to property ownership requires justification to the nth degree and that is why studies such as these are invaluable. I have marked fish, frogs and turtles for telemetry, mark-and-recapture and other studies in the San Francisco Bay Area and I can attest to the fact that biologists have zero interest in a tracking technology that is cumbersome, painful, or otherwise harmful to the subject as it results in a higher risk of predation and a loss of data. We are studying them because we care about them, and our jobs don't need to be made harder by people who fret that we are "hurting them."
Robert Laybourn
Robert Laybourn Subscriber
Dec 18, 2012 01:52 PM
I believe that the insult to the individual animal is far outweighed by the benefit to the species that well conceived research provides. Also, the mortality rate of instrumented animals cannot be compared to all other members of the population. For instance, a "mortality signal" or lack of movement of a collared animal causes a search and when the collar is recovered, death is recorded if such is the case. Obviously, this is not the case with the population at large as most may go unnoticed. And since our actions impact so severely on animal populations; those of us who care need to do research in order to manage (help) those populations.
Tom Lockhart
Tom Lockhart
Dec 18, 2012 03:45 PM
Long in the tooth or not, Mr. Woodbridges and Mr. Holts assertion that field observation is essential to be able to see the forest despite the trees has, is, and always will be true. If this basic truism is overlooked, we'll end up sifting through reams of data trying to figure out what went wrong whilst we thought we were getting such a good handle on things.
Lyn McCormick
Lyn McCormick
Dec 18, 2012 05:17 PM
I almost didn't read this article because of the title, but was curious as to the author's meaning of "soul." however, I am glad I read it and found it very interesting and informative. I think that if there is anything keeping the "boots on the ground" people chained to their desks it is that they have to account to their funding source.
Steve Pavlik
Steve Pavlik
Dec 18, 2012 11:25 PM
Always mixed feelings on this topic. I can't help thinking about how Arizona Game and Fish killed what was then believed to be the last borderlands jaguar - Macho B - by capturing and radio collaring it. The stress was too great for this animal - perhaps 18 years of age - and he was dead in less than a week. The individual responsible for the death of Macho B later remarked that he could "imagine Macho B's spirit roaming his mountain home." I often wondered in his mind's eye, if the spiritual jaguar he envisoned was wearing a collar? How much could we have learned by radio-collaring this one aged jaguar? Much of scientific research is done to benefit the scientist, not the animal.
Donald Walker
Donald Walker Subscriber
Dec 19, 2012 10:53 AM
I'm still uncertain that there is an actual problem here. If there really is, then it will be up to tenure committees and grant-funders to settle.
Robert Laybourn
Robert Laybourn Subscriber
Dec 19, 2012 11:29 AM
I am afraid that I can't let the Arizona jaguar comment pass w/o commenting on it. The death of that animal was a travesty on any form of legal and sanctioned research. Like much of what is connected to "Homeland Security"(a nationalistic coinage) this was ill-advised and wasteful. To compare an illegal act with legally sanctioned and peer reviewed research is unfair and does not add to reasoned discourse.
Ray Ring
Ray Ring Subscriber
Dec 20, 2012 12:26 PM
Thanks, HCN subscribers, for your careful and thoughtful comments here, another indication of the strength of the HCN community. -- Ray Ring, HCN senior editor