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/

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A similar project led by Kendall in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem revealed a dramatic finding by the time it ended in 2008. Biologists had estimated that 300 grizzlies lived in that ecosystem, but the DNA results indicated more than twice that: 765, all told. "That's a totally different story," Kendall said. "Population numbers and trends are critical (for determining) if conservation methods are effective."

DNA analysis is revolutionizing wildlife research in many ways. It allows researchers to easily collect data on more than one animal, for instance. The old method -- live trapping -- allows researchers to sample blood and tissue from just a few bears. But collecting DNA in scat or hair allows them to gather information on two or three dozen, or even two or three hundred. They can calculate not only basic population numbers, but -- as Kendall has done -- relationships. Servheen's agency has assembled a complete family tree of all the grizzly bears between the Yukon and Yellowstone. In one example of how that's useful, when a grizzly was killed in the Selway-Bitterroot in 2007, DNA revealed that it had come from the Selkirk Mountains in northern Idaho -- an indication of a migration corridor that needs to be preserved.

"The genetic code is a mystery novel, a history book and a time log in a single hair," Michael Schwartz, a research ecologist at the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula, observed recently. "We are answering questions we couldn't even ask a few years ago." He described a potential breakthrough regarding pneumonia in bighorn sheep, which often catch it from domestic sheep; the domestic sheep are merely carriers, but the disease is often fatal to bighorns. Agricultural researchers know which genes govern disease resistance in domestic sheep, and now biologists can sequence the bighorns' genes and try to determine if some bighorns have a similar genetic resistance. "The gene for resistance may have drifted out of (a bighorn) population through random processes," Schwartz said, "so we know we need to bring in these genes" from other herds.

In Portugal, DNA researchers lined the back wall of a lynx den with cork, and placed a parasitic Amazonian kissing bug in a quarter-sized hole covered with a thin plastic membrane. When the lynx entered the den, the bug drilled through the plastic, bit the lynx and sucked its blood. After the cat left, they recaptured the bug and examined the blood and DNA it contained. Researchers in Vietnam who analyzed the blood from 25 leeches found genetic material from three mammal species that were rare and not well understood, including two that were only recently discovered -- a deer called the Truong Son muntjac and the Annamite striped rabbit.

In a visit to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in upstate New York -- the premier institution for the study of birds, with a staff of 50 scientists and educators -- I was amazed by the range of new approaches there, especially the use of sound. The lab has developed software that identifies the noises many kinds of animals make, and offers that software to researchers around the world. The lab also has built a vast audio library, and anyone with Internet access can hear thousands of distinctive birdsongs and the various calls of mammals, amphibians, reptiles, fish and even arthropods. The study of birds began long before binoculars were available; pioneering ornithologist John James Audubon, in the early 19th century, had to shoot birds to study them up close. Today's technologies include arrays of microphones and radar installations to gather data as flocks of snow geese and migrating hummingbirds pass overhead.

At the University of Montana Flight Research Lab, I've watched researchers like Bret Tobalske use lasers and other tools to discover exactly how birds fly, and even to explore how their habitat shapes their physiology. In one experiment in the warehouse-like flight lab, while a Rolling Stones recording rocked out in the background, Tobalske placed a small hummingbird he had captured in his yard into a plexiglass cube. As the tiny bird hovered and drank from a feeding tube, an emerald green laser beam illuminated a fine cloud of olive oil hanging in the air. A camera recorded the movement of the swirling mist, detailing how lift, drag and other forces work on the bird as it flies. By understanding a bird's flying strategies, scientists can learn more about its ecology. The hairy woodpecker, for instance, has evolved a technique to get from one bug-infested tree to another as fast as possible using a minimal amount of energy, with a distinctive combination of flapping and gliding flight. "Flight is extraordinarily expensive per second (when it comes to energy use) and birds have evolved ways to sidestep some of those costs," Tobalske said. "It tells us something about (how they deal with) predator risks and why they feed where they do."

Meanwhile, isotopes -- stable compounds created primarily by the planet's geologic processes and then naturally dissolved in water -- are being interpreted in new ways to monitor wildlife. When clouds move across the landscape and drop rain, they leave hydrogen, carbon and deuterium and other isotopes in soil and vegetation in unique and varied ratios. So the isotopic fingerprint of, say, the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park is different than that of the Pelican Valley, which is also in the park. When a bear or mountain lion drinks water from different sources, a record of those isotopes is formed in its hair or claws, and biologists can later analyze it to determine where the animal has been drinking. Researchers analyzing isotopes can also identify what portion of a bear's diet is meat, vegetation or fish. The technique does not require trapping the animal, but it does require gathering isotopic ratios across vast areas -- known as "isoscapes" -- to accurately compare an animal's tissue with the places on the landscape it has visited.

That technology has other uses: After a camper was attacked and killed by a grizzly near Yellowstone in 2010, for instance, biologists killed the bear and tested a snip of its hair for a corn isotope. Since almost every processed food contains corn syrup, they could discover if the bear in question had been corrupted by human garbage. In this case, it hadn't.

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