In speed skating, alpine skiing, luge, or any other Olympic sport, success requires a mastery of movement. A fraction of a second can mean the difference between finishing on the podium and finishing in the middle of the pack. This is why precise tracking of these movements can be just as important in deciding who wins the race as the performance of athletes themselves. Indeed, the technology used to track the movements of athletes underlies the credibility of Olympic race results and defines the milestones of an athlete’s career.
Tracking technologies also underlie some of the most poignant conservation efforts in recent years. To map critical habitats and identify areas where restoration efforts need to be focused, scientists need to understand how plants and animals interact with the environment – which areas have the best food, where do animals go during a change in the seasons, how far will young disperse after they have left the care of their mothers?
A number of recent innovations are helping to answer these questions with unprecedented detail. For example, high-definition cameras mounted on GPS tracking collars can help reveal not only where animals go, but their behaviour as they move through the landscape. These insights are reshaping how scientists define longstanding ideas in ecology. Habitat, once commonly thought of as an area where a plant or animal occurs, is now being viewed as a mosaic of areas that meet specific needs, such as ‘foraging habitat’, ‘movement habitat’ or ‘shelter habitat’. These innovations are driving major advances in conservation biology. For example, research into the placement of wildlife corridors near human developments revealed that corridors that facilitate the safe movement of animals are more effective than those that provide foraging opportunities, which can increase the chances of human-wildlife conflicts.
A good stopwatch doesn’t make a skier any faster, and tracking technologies are not going to solve all of our conservation problems. However, when appropriately used, tracking technology can fill key knowledge gaps and help define new milestones of conservation success.