Tiny Technology That’s Making a Big Difference
Technology is amazing. Here in the Northeast Region, new advances in technology are allowing us to find out so much more about animal behavior than we have ever known before. Armed with this knowledge, we are able to make much better choices about how to protect these animals. One example of an animal that is benefiting from these technological advances is the saltmarsh sparrow.
These are tough times for the tiny saltmarsh sparrow. Their only home, the saltmarshes along the Atlantic coast of the United States, are becoming increasingly scarce due to development and rising sea levels. With fewer places to live, saltmarsh sparrow populations are decreasing as well.
In order to determine the best way to help the sparrows, researchers need to know more about their behavior, how they are using the marshes, and which locations are most important to their survival.
Because these birds are so small, only weighing about as much as 8 pennies, individual birds have been difficult to track with traditional tracking devices, which were much too large and heavy for them. However, researchers from several of our region’s National Wildlife Refuges, along with other partners, are using today’s tiny tagging technology to find out exactly what these birds are up to!
The MOTUS tracking system uses nano-tags, miniature radio transmitters that are extremely lightweight. All nano-tags transmit at the same frequency, but each tag has its own identifiable pulse rate.
Receiving towers pick up these pulses when a tagged bird flies within a radius of 12 kilometers. Researchers have installed these towers in an expansive network up and down the eastern coast of North America, among other areas. The yellow dots in the map below represent current tower locations.
One of the most exciting things about this system is the collaboration between researchers and organizations, all working together to collect and share data in an effort to conserve wildlife. The data that they are collecting is not restricted to saltmarsh sparrows. Researchers are studying bats, butterflies, and various other bird species using the nano-tag system as well. Data from the network of towers is downloaded and shared with researchers, providing a service to conservationists everywhere.
So what does this mean for our little saltmarsh sparrow?
Actually, we aren’t sure yet. This system is so new that data is just beginning to come in. However, we are already discovering some amazing things!
For example, preliminary data shows that a few saltmarsh sparrows flew from the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Wells, ME to the Connecticut coastline, a distance of over 150 miles, in just one day!
As we learn more about the behavior of these tiny birds, we will begin to answer many questions that we could only guess at before. This knowledge will guide us as we work to conserve their most important habitats in an effort to ensure their survival for generations to come.
This saltmarsh sparrow project is a collaboration of several partners, including the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, the Rhode Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex, the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge, the University of New Hampshire, the University of Connecticut, and the Saltmarsh Habitat and Avian Research Program.
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