Saturday, August 05, 2006

Tracking Bees, Bugs and the Birds That Love Them

(From NPR) For decades now, ecologists have been attaching radio transmitters to the bodies of large animals: whales, bears, elephants, condors and eagles for starters. What these scientists haven't done is stick the same devices onto animals like song birds and big insects, those migratory flying things that sometimes mow down crops and spread diseases.

For eight years now, Wikelski's been the leader of a group of scientists who do collect those data points, with the help of radio transmitters no bigger than a baby's thumbnail. These scientists are known as "microtrackers" and for now they're few and far between.

But Wikelski's work is changing that by forcing ornithologists to change the way they think about migration. His first microtracking studies started nearly a decade ago when Wikelski captured groups of mid-Western thrush and glued extremely sophisticated radio transmitters to the bellies of these birds.

"The transmitters recorded heartbeat, breathing, wing beats and location," he said. "Once every second, they sent all this information out in concentrated bursts."

Wikelski says we know very little about how small animals migrate. Scientists would find out where birds are born and where they die. They would discover where birds are making pit stops on their trips home. And they would be able to track locust swarms and birds that could carry avian flu across international boundaries.

Wikelski turned the focus of his research to flying insects. With the help of prominent entomologists like Mike May of Rutgers University, he's been attaching even smaller transmitters to the backs and bellies of insects. Listen and read more on NPR.

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