Research Article: Right on track? Performance of satellite telemetry in terrestrial wildlife research

Date Published: May 9, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): M. P. G. Hofman, M. W. Hayward, M. Heim, P. Marchand, C. M. Rolandsen, J. Mattisson, F. Urbano, M. Heurich, A. Mysterud, J. Melzheimer, N. Morellet, U. Voigt, B. L. Allen, B. Gehr, C. Rouco, W. Ullmann, Ø. Holand, N. H. Jørgensen, G. Steinheim, F. Cagnacci, M. Kroeschel, P. Kaczensky, B. Buuveibaatar, J. C. Payne, I. Palmegiani, K. Jerina, P. Kjellander, Ö. Johansson, S. LaPoint, R. Bayrakcismith, J. D. C. Linnell, M. Zaccaroni, M. L. S. Jorge, J. E. F. Oshima, A. Songhurst, C. Fischer, R. T. Mc Bride, J. J. Thompson, S. Streif, R. Sandfort, C. Bonenfant, M. Drouilly, M. Klapproth, D. Zinner, R. Yarnell, A. Stronza, L. Wilmott, E. Meisingset, M. Thaker, A. T. Vanak, S. Nicoloso, R. Graeber, S. Said, M. R. Boudreau, A. Devlin, R. Hoogesteijn, J. A. May-Junior, J. C. Nifong, J. Odden, H. B. Quigley, F. Tortato, D. M. Parker, A. Caso, J. Perrine, C. Tellaeche, F. Zieba, T. Zwijacz-Kozica, C. L. Appel, I. Axsom, W. T. Bean, B. Cristescu, S. Périquet, K. J. Teichman, S. Karpanty, A. Licoppe, V. Menges, K. Black, T. L. Scheppers, S. C. Schai-Braun, F. C. Azevedo, F. G. Lemos, A. Payne, L. H. Swanepoel, B. V. Weckworth, A. Berger, A. Bertassoni, G. McCulloch, P. Šustr, V. Athreya, D. Bockmuhl, J. Casaer, A. Ekori, D. Melovski, C. Richard-Hansen, D. van de Vyver, R. Reyna-Hurtado, E. Robardet, N. Selva, A. Sergiel, M. S. Farhadinia, P. Sunde, R. Portas, H. Ambarli, R. Berzins, P. M. Kappeler, G. K. Mann, L. Pyritz, C. Bissett, T. Grant, R. Steinmetz, L. Swedell, R. J. Welch, D. Armenteras, O. R. Bidder, T. M. González, A. Rosenblatt, S. Kachel, N. Balkenhol, Antoni Margalida.


Satellite telemetry is an increasingly utilized technology in wildlife research, and current devices can track individual animal movements at unprecedented spatial and temporal resolutions. However, as we enter the golden age of satellite telemetry, we need an in-depth understanding of the main technological, species-specific and environmental factors that determine the success and failure of satellite tracking devices across species and habitats. Here, we assess the relative influence of such factors on the ability of satellite telemetry units to provide the expected amount and quality of data by analyzing data from over 3,000 devices deployed on 62 terrestrial species in 167 projects worldwide. We evaluate the success rate in obtaining GPS fixes as well as in transferring these fixes to the user and we evaluate failure rates. Average fix success and data transfer rates were high and were generally better predicted by species and unit characteristics, while environmental characteristics influenced the variability of performance. However, 48% of the unit deployments ended prematurely, half of them due to technical failure. Nonetheless, this study shows that the performance of satellite telemetry applications has shown improvements over time, and based on our findings, we provide further recommendations for both users and manufacturers.

Partial Text

Wildlife telemetry units equipped with satellite functionality offer an attractive set of functions for remotely tracking individual animal movements across a large diversity of species [1,2]. Modern satellite telemetry devices allow for tracking movements at unprecedented temporal and spatial scales, yielding large amounts of detailed information. Since the early 1990s, geolocation satellite tags, largely relying on the Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite network, have been used successfully to locate animals in wildlife research for a variety of purposes [3,4], including the study of predator-prey interactions [5], foraging behavior [6], activity patterns [7], movement patterns [8], migratory routes [9], habitat preferences [10], and other aspects of animal behavior [11,12]. The scope of applications in research and conservation continues to increase due to the addition of accelerometers, gyroscopes, magnetometers, cameras and environmental sensors, as well as improvements in technology (e.g. increased battery life, solar charging, increased memory storage) leading to significant reductions in the size and weight of devices [2,13]. Wildlife satellite tracking is producing ‘big data’ and has been suggested as a means to monitor environmental changes [2,14]. Its success is exemplified by the increasing number of scientific studies published (see S1 Fig;[15]), the development of collaborative e-infrastructures to aid with the management, analysis and sharing of large movement data sets (e.g. Movebank, Eurodeer, WRAM, see also [16]), and new data analysis methods being presented in the literature at rapid pace [17–19]. Indeed, Kays et al. claimed that we are at the start of the golden age of animal tracking science [2].

We combined information from 167 projects in 142 study areas across 42 countries and 6 continents (see Fig 2). The geographic distribution was uneven, with just over half of all study areas located in Europe, 20% in Africa and less than 10% in each of the other continents. Projects ran between 2001 and 2017 and lasted on average 3.5 years, ranging between 60 days and 14.3 years. Across all projects, a total of 3,695 individuals of 62 terrestrial wildlife species were equipped with 3,130 telemetry units of 16 brands. Most units were purchased between 2006 and 2015. Reptiles and (ground-dwelling) birds were tagged in four and two study areas respectively, whereas small to large mammals were the study subjects in all other areas (see S2 Table). An analysis of all trends in the observed data is presented in S1 and S2 Texts.

In the global context of the rise of satellite tracking in wildlife research, there is a need to carefully evaluate the technique globally across species and habitats. Our analyses revealed that the average performance of satellite telemetry in terrestrial wildlife research has improved over the last 15 years, but still presents considerable opportunities for improvements, notably in fix acquisition and failure rates. We found that performance is more strongly influenced by unit and species characteristics than environmental conditions in a study area, but that environmental conditions increased the variability, influencing the technique’s effectiveness in various ways.

The scope of possibilities and the detail of information that can be obtained from satellite telemetry are major advantages of the technology for answering a range of ecological and conservation questions. However, given the considerable investment and the variability of the effects that many aspects of study design have on the success rate, we recommend carefully considering project objectives, study design, and budget constraints before investing in satellite telemetry units [3,20]. Specifically, we present important considerations to guide potential users in deciding if and which satellite telemetry units are useful to deploy in future studies. For manufacturers, we recommend ways to actively contribute to the improvement of satellite telemetry applications in wildlife research.

As the golden age of animal tracking science takes off, frequent large-scale evaluations of the techniques used, such as ours, are a necessity. We show that technological advances and product improvements seem to have increased success rates over the years, but that there is still considerable scope for improvement. Scientists, researchers and manufacturers are starting to take advantage of the knowledge generated through field experiences and are working on ways to efficiently deal with the generated data. This also means that we are gaining insights in how to achieve further improvements. With this study, and in all our recommendations, we want to highlight the exciting opportunity for closer collaboration between manufacturers, scientists and wildlife managers to find creative ways to solve any current and future problems encountered. An interesting example is the ICARUS Initiative (International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space), a global animal observation system using satellite telemetry tags that communicate with ground-based stations through hardware installed on the International Space Station. Eventually, improved design and performance of satellite telemetry units will reduce the impacts of the units on animal welfare, will allow researchers to do better science, will increase the use of the technology across a broad spectrum of biological questions, and will ultimately also lead to better conservation and management decisions.




0 0 vote
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments