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The Secret Lives of Wild
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The Secret Lives of Wild Animals — Text-only | Flash Special Report

Land-use decision makers are increasingly faced with the difficult task of safeguarding animal habitats while addressing the needs of a growing human population. To accurately assess an animal’s environmental requirements, it is necessary to know when and where they move—over periods ranging from minutes to months.

The ZebraNet project is an interdisciplinary effort between computer scientists—who are designing a global positioning system (GPS)-enabled animal tracking system—and biologists—who need answers to long-standing questions about animal migrations, inter- and intra-species interactions and nocturnal behaviors.

ZebraNet scientists recently developed extremely energy efficient tracking collars that can monitor, almost continuously, an animal’s location for nearly a week without recharging. The tracking system uses mobile receiving stations that eliminate the need for permanent research dwellings.

Currently monitoring the movements of Africa’s plains zebras, the team will ultimately deploy collars on other species that share the ecosystem, including elephants, hyenas and lions.

In addition to knowing when and where animals move, knowing why they move can also influence land-use decisions. Scientists working in coordination with ZebraNet are monitoring zebras and other animals using video surveillance to better understand their behaviors during normal and experimental conditions.

Water availability, for example, is particularly important in the semi-arid African study area due to competition between humans and wildlife. Accordingly, the researchers are investigating what happens when a usual water source is removed. How do animals choose where to go next? Will they go to the closest alternative even if there is some danger associated with it? Or will they opt for one remembered by dominant individuals?

Scientists are tracking Plains Zebras to learn when, where and why zebras move from one place to another. This new knowledge will help decision-makers who are faced with the difficult task of balancing the needs of wildlife with the ever-increasing human population.
Ilya R. Fischhoff, Princeton University