Here is the STRI Newsletter piece on the ARTS lab closing down.

Animal trackers move on from towers to satellites and cameras

The Automated Radio Telemetry System (ARTS) on STRI’s Barro Colorado Island (BCI) is taking down its towers used to track animals with radio-transmitters and switching to GPS and camera trap systems that produce more data with less infrastructure.

Experiences with ARTS over the last eight years on BCI have led to the development of new technologies, including the miniaturization of GPS tracking devices, revolutionary camera trap monitoring techniques, a Smithsonian repository of camera trap images, and a global archive of animal tracking data

BCI is famous as a training ground for pioneer ecological research systems that allow scientists to ask new questions. In 2003, researchers Roland Kays (New York State Museum) and Martin Wikelski (Princeton University, now at the Max Plank Institute) founded an experimental Automated Radio Telemetry System (ARTS) to track the activity and movement of animals wearing small radio-transmitters. According to Kays, “at that time tracking options were limited because GPS devices were so large they were carried by surveyors in backpacks and camera traps were limited to rolls of 36-exposure film.”

With support from the National Geographic Society and the Levinson and National Science Foundations, Kays and Wikelski brought a team of specialists to BCI to erect a network of seven towers that streamed live data on the location and activity of animals that had been fitted with small, inexpensive radio transmitters. Since then, the ARTS has been used to track 374 individuals from 38 species, including 17 mammal species, 12 birds, seven reptiles or amphibians, and two species of plant seeds. The unique data gathered by ARTS have allowed researchers to tackle previously intractable questions about the ecology and behavior of species ranging from palms and bees to monkeys, by providing a means to “see” cryptic events and track animal movements and activities over large distances and long time periods.

However, ARTS-based tracking is limited to BCI because of its extensive infrastructure requirements, and thus researchers have also been looking past radio transmitters to new, more flexible technologies. GPS devices have been improved and miniaturized over the past three years, spurred on in part by former ARTS engineer Franz Kuemmeth (founder of E-obs GPS tracking company) and ARTS biologists, who rapidly adopted the new technology to track animals on BCI…and off. New sensors are also being developed to work in concert with GPS tags to provide detailed information about animal behavior and physiology.

ARTS researchers also developed new methods for monitoring animal movement with camera traps. This approach was initially developed to monitor animals moving palm seeds that were being tracked by the ARTS, but is now being implemented at SIGEO sites around the globe. The BCI camera trap data are also being shared with the public through a new ‘SI Wild’ website that combines the images from ten Smithsonian camera trap studies around the world and will launch in 2011.

Many of the most important moments in an animal’s life are hard to study because they are rare or difficult to observe. Due to the shy nature of most species, tracking animals is necessarily a high-tech enterprise. The development ARTS and related technologies on BCI over the last eight years offers another example of how STRI-supported science can help develop new fields; in this case, one where detailed data on animal movement, physiology, and behavior can be integrated to address the next generation of scientific and conservation questions.