Animal tags

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Animal Tags

Researchers : Keith Payne, Dr Tim Molteno, Associate Professor Phil Seddon and Associate Professor Colin Fox

Pateke on Great Barrier Island

Electronic tags are widely used by biologists to conduct studies on animals in order to learn about their behaviour, habits and the environment they live in. A variety of different technologies have been used in an equally diverse range of specific applications. The technologies must match the size of the animal, duration of the investigation and provide the data required by the researchers.

Collection of data from remote tags continues to be a major difficulty. The power available for transmission is severely limited and the effort of recapture of a study subject is high. There is still little infrastructure in place, such as repeaters, to enable the transmissions from 'conventional' tags to propagate over longer distances. Conventional systems have traditionally traded power and complexity for data accuracy and hours spent in the field.

The mobile telephone system is becoming an alternative to conventional telemetry technologies. The infrastructure is already widespread, though network coverage is mainly concentrated around areas with high human population densities. However, network coverage is constantly increasing in remote areas as additional towers continue to be installed. Mobile phone technology is already well developed and continues to improve. It is rapidly becoming smaller, cheaper, and more efficient.

Being an island nation, many of New Zealand's cities are on the coast and based around natural harbours. Mobile phone reception extends well over flat, open areas without topographical boundaries. These areas are home to many important species of birds and other wildlife, many of which have populations that are in decline and cannot be properly managed/protected as their behaviour and habitat use is not well enough understood. Using the mobile phone network to transmit data from tags is a viable option when studying these populations.

GPS/GSM telemetry tags

GPS/GSM tag with vhf attached for deployment on Pateke

In the Electronics department we have been developing an animal tagging system utilising existing GSM and GPS technologies and infrastructure. The tagging system consists of small remote tags, which calculate their position using GPS and transmit the collected data via the GSM network to a central base station for processing and analysis. As well as GPS information the tags have the ability to sample environmental data such as temperature, altitude (pressure), and animal activity (accelerations).

Our initial development and testing has provided a basis for ongoing work/research in this area. The first deployable version weighed in at ~60g and was matchbox sized. It had a vast number of possibilities for improvements in terms of weight, functionality and power saving.

Subsequent versions utilized different packaging and waterproofing techniques, more sensitive GPS receivers and more substantial antennas.

GPS/GSM with carbon fiber casing

We are currently deploying a slimmed down carbon fiber version of the tags with a weight of ~18g.

In order to achieve this goal, we have been investigating new and novel GPS antenna designs, ultra lightweight GPS modules, battery technologies and power management. We are also developing behaviour adaptive power saving algorithms and iterative GSM map learning techniques.

All design and prototyping is done here in the Electronics department. Field testing is being done in conjunction with the Department of Zoology.


Northern Royal Albatross with GSM tag

Versions of the tags have been deployed on Pateke, Kaka, Nothern Royal Albatross and Weka. They are used in mainland species restoration projects to provide important data on post relocation dispersal, habitat selection and behavioural changes. In habitat selection studies to help to assist struggling juvenile populations.

Sample data from deployed tags can be viewed via the links below:

The tags are suited to larger New Zealand birds. Those of particular interest are:

  • Weka
  • Pateke (brown teal)
  • Kaka
  • Australasian Gannets

New GPS signal processing

Completed circuit board (excluding battery)

As well as developing GPS/GSM telemetry tags we are also developing ultra lightweight (~5 grams) GPS dataloggers with extremely long lifetimes (1 fix every 4 mins for a year).

Development has been going well and we are hoping for field trials to begin as early as February 2010.

This is MSI funded research in collaboration with the Department of Zoology, the Department of Conservation, Sirtrack Ltd, NIWA, Karori and Orokonui sanctuaries and Ngai Tahu.