Right on track? How reliable are our wildlife tracking devices?

Wildlife scientists have been using tracking devices and telemetry for more than 60 years. With the rise of the GPS and satellite technologies, we can now ‘follow’, animals remotely from the comfort of our offices. And the data we are able to collect is increasingly high frequency and complex. But how much can we trust our tracking devices to provide us with the data we need to understand animal ecology? We teamed up with more than 100 colleagues and put our data together to figure this out. We found that the GPS position acquisition success and data transfer rate from the device to the scientist were usually quite high. However, the big issue was that almost half of tracking units failed prematurely, mostly due to technological issues. This is problematic as researchers then need to immobilise animals again, that is providing they can find them, to remove units that have failed and deploy new ones. Nonetheless, our study shows that as technology pushes forward, the improvements of design and performance of satellite telemetry units will reduce their impacts on animal welfare and will allow researchers to do better science, answer a broader spectrum of biological questions, and ultimately will also lead to better conservation and management decisions. We can rest easy though, as it is unlikely that satellite telemetry will render us obsolete in the field anytime soon!