Using Animals to Collect Weather Data

Caitlin Dempsey

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Each year, tens of thousands of animals are tracked using animal-borne sensors (ABS). These tags transmit signals that allow scientists to monitor where the animals go and how they move. The tags contain sensors that do more than just pinpoint the animal’s location; they also gather data on its physical condition (like body temperature, heartbeat, and how much oxygen is in its blood), what it’s doing (this includes sounds it makes, how it breathes, and movements of its tail), and the conditions of the surrounding environment (such as noise levels, temperature, how salty the water is, and how bright it is).

Scientists have come up with a creative strategy that uses sensors attached to wildlife to gather weather information from the environments that these animals move around in. A literature reviewed published in the journal Nature Climate Change, proposes using wildlife tracking sensors in order to fill in data gaps needed for weather and climate monitoring.

Yale University ecologist Diego Ellis Soto, along with colleagues, use this review to highlight the potential of using animals as data collectors. The researchers have proposed that that animal movements and behaviors can significantly enhance our understanding of climate dynamics and Earth processes by provide a finer level of detail about weather conditions than is available with in situ weather stations and remotely sensed data.

For example, the local weather and the conditions right where an animal lives can be quite different from broader climate conditions measured over a long period. Microclimates can have shorts periods during the course of a day where the temperature becomes too hot or cold for some species to tolerate. These extreme conditions might not show up in broader climate data where hyperlocal data is not collected.


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To showcase an example of how wildlife trackers can contribute to climate data, NASA researchers mapped out temperature data collected from elephants in South Africa’s Kruger National Park (based on data collected by (Thaker et al. 2019). The finer grained data collection produced detailed temperature patterns and movement behaviors, offering microclimate insights not captured by satellites or ground stations alone.

Two maps - the top has a deep blue to deep red raster temperature layer for an area in South Africa and the bottom has deep blue to deep red dots to represent individual elephant locations with temperature sensors.
A comparison of the level of temperature data collected by Landsat 5 (top) and wildlife trackers (bottom) for an area of South Africa’s Kruger National Park between January 1 – December 31, 2008.

By combining elephant movement with temperature readings, scientists can learn more about how changes in temperature influences the behavior of elephants. For example, researchers can learn how thermal stress can affect the frequency or timing of visits to a watering hole by elephants.

The challenge now lies in standardizing and accessing the vast amounts of data collected by animal sensors. The ultimate goal is to integrate fine-grained data collected from wildlife trackers into the broader Earth observation framework so that it can be used to further our monitoring Earth’s systems

References

Ellis-Soto, D., Wikelski, M., & Jetz, W. (2023). Animal-borne sensors as a biologically informed lens on a changing climateNature Climate Change13(10), 1042-1054.

Doermann, L. (2024, March 12). Animals as earth system observers. NASA Earth Observatory. 

Thaker, M., et al. (2019) Fine-Scale Tracking of Ambient Temperature and Movement Reveals Shuttling Behavior of Elephants to Water. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, 7:4. doi.org/10.3389/fevo.2019.00004

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.