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Guide to Wildlife Tracking

Data Blocks
Data Blocks

By Sid Nair

Historically, wildlife tracking was something that people had to do by following an animal, watching how it moved, and observing its typical habits. With any luck, it would be possible to catch the animal, tag it, and release it back into the wild. Hopefully, the same animal could be recaptured in the future, which would allow scientists to learn more about its behaviors and habits. Today, scientists have tools like GPS that help with observing and tracking animals to learn more about their behaviors.

Tracking With Technology

Scientists use three different types of radio tracking systems: VHF radio tracking, satellite tracking, and global positioning system tracking. Radio tracking technology makes it possible to know precisely where animals are at any time. It's even possible to determine what an animal is doing. Tracking devices deliver data that scientists use to know daily movements, the area in which an animal ranges, other animals in the same range, and the habitats used by an animal. This information makes it possible for scientists to devise ways to manage animal populations, to know how development might impact animals, and to know if the animal population is sufficient for reproduction of the species.

VHF Radio Tracking

VHF radio tracking has been in use since 1963. Just like a car radio that picks up a signal from a radio station when tuned to that frequency, VHF radio tracking involves the use of a radio transmitter that sends a signal. Scientists will capture an animal, sedate it, gather data about the health of the animal, and place a radio transmitter on it, which transmits a signal to an antenna and receiver. This method of tracking requires that researchers be within a certain range with a radio antenna to pick up the signal from the animal. After picking up the signal, scientists can find the animal from an airplane, from a vehicle, or on foot.

Recent improvements to this technology have made it possible to make radio transmitters smaller. Smaller transmitters mean that it's possible to track smaller animals, since the transmitters can easily be attached without hampering their movement. Some transmitters can be swallowed by animals. Sometimes, scientists embed them under animals' skin, too.

Satellite Tracking

Satellite tracking is somewhat like VHF radio tracking, but instead of using a standard radio signal for transmitting to a radio receiver, the signal is sent to a satellite. Satellite tracking makes it possible for scientists to pick up signals from greater distances, so the researchers don't need to be close to the animals they are tracking.

GPS Tracking

GPS tracking is the latest type of technology to be used for tracking wildlife. With GPS tracking, scientists place a radio receiver on an animal that picks up satellite signals. The receiver can use this data to calculate where the animal is and how and where it is moving. The information gathered by the receiver is transmitted to another set of satellites, which then send the data to the researchers. Scientists are working to make these tracking devices smaller to enable more animals to be tracked. Some GPS receivers can even be powered by solar energy and are small enough to attach to birds.

Scientists are continually working and researching to learn as much as possible about animals, their behaviors, and their habits. Scientists use many different techniques to gather information, including manual observation of animals out in the wild, observation of animals in captivity, laboratory research, and tracking and monitoring with radio tracking technology. These information-gathering techniques help scientists understand more about animals, which helps humans know what animals need to be healthy and thrive in their environments.