A great reed warbler with an ATLAS tracking device attached to its back. A great reed warbler with an ATLAS tracking device attached to its back. A great reed warbler with an ATLAS tracking device attached to its back. (Photo: Yotam Orchan)

These tracking devices are changing the way we study birds

A groundbreaking system gathers data cheaper and more efficiently.

Gathering real time data about birds has long been a challenge. The only way to monitor them in real time is with GPS – the Global Positioning System – which is inefficient and expensive. But these difficulties may be a thing of the past thanks to a new system that has bird researchers the world over excited.

ATLAS (Advanced Tracking and Localization of Animals in real-life Systems) is a wildlife tracking system developed by a team of Israeli scientists. They have been using it to track birds within the Hula Valley, an area in northern Israel that attracts millions of migratory birds and is an unparalleled birdwatching destination.

A Barn Swallow with a tracking device attached to it.The tracking device antenna can be seen sticking out from under the wing of a barn swallow. (Photo: Yosef Kiat)

Using tiny tracking devices that can provide data at two-second intervals, the team can glean information about everything from foraging methods and mating rituals to how birds establish territorial boundaries. This data is then transmitted to mobile base stations where it is collected by the researchers.

Ecologist Ran Nathan from Hebrew University, electrical engineer Tony Weiss and computer scientist Sivan Toledo, both from Tel Aviv University, and all members of the Minerva Center for Movement Ecology are the folks behind ATLAS. They've been working on it for the past 3 1/2 years along with their students and technical staff.

To give you an idea of just how effective ATLAS has been so far, consider this: a decade ago researchers might have been able to gather 100 data points through the lifespan of a project. Thanks to ATLAS, they can do it in an hour. What's more, it's significantly less expensive, costing only a fraction of what it did to strap a GPS onto a bird.

A mobile base station used by the ATLAS team to collect data.A mobile base station used by the ATLAS team to collect data. (Photo: Yosef Kiat)

"The system is much more cost-effective than existing systems in terms of data cost: for the same budget, we can track many more individuals in fine details,” Nathan told From The Grapevine.“This will allow us to address scientific questions that have been out of reach thus far; for example, divulging close interactions between neighboring barn owls, and between fruit bats that congregate in the same tree.”

In fact, Nathan recently told Deutsche Welle about surprising new discoveries made about barn owls.

"One pair will forage only very locally, a few hundred meters away from its nest," he says. "The neighboring pair, though, will fly to the other side of the valley for each hunting event. It will fly back and forth to bring just one small rodent [to the nest]."

The chips that the Israeli team of researchers developed for ATLAS.A handful of the tracking devices the Israeli team of researchers developed for ATLAS. (Photo: Yoram Reshef/Tel Aviv University)

Toledo said that the team is still fine-tuning ATLAS, but that the hard work should reap huge dividends.

“We are still in the process of learning how to use the technology,” he said.

"The technology is complex and the system consists of many subsystems (lightweight tracking devices, remote base stations, servers and sophisticated algorithms), each with its unique challenges."

But, he added, “In the long run, it should enable us to understand much better the movement patterns of small birds and bats within a region of about 6-12 miles wide, which [is difficult to do] with existing technologies."

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