Using new technology to help conserve two large mammals

What do polar bears and African elephants have in common? Both species are threatened by habitat fragmentation either through the diminishment of the Arctic sea ice or through African land conversion. These species also represent some of the world’s largest land mammals. Their large size-alone predisposes these animals to huge food and habitat needs and makes them more susceptible to conflict with humans, putting them at risk of poaching and other anthropogenic disturbances. 

For both of these species, the development of methods to remotely discriminate behavior and estimate energy expenditure would greatly aid conservation efforts. In polar bears, this would facilitate a method to measure the importance of particular sea ice habitats to better predict the consequences of future declines in Arctic sea ice. In African elephants, this would provide a method to identify potential poaching events to mitigate such occurrences, evaluate the consequences of anthropogenic disturbance and habitat fragmentation, and identify important habitats for preservation. Fortunately, new advances in fitness trackers originally designed for humans are revolutionizing the types of questions wildlife scientists can ask.

Working with polar bears at the San Diego, Oregon, and Alaska Zoos we used these devices to develop ways to remotely discriminate the behaviors and energy expenditure of polar bears. These techniques have since been applied to polar bears in the wild and are providing new insight into the behaviors and energy demands of the largest terrestrial carnivore. For example, these data have illustrated how many seals these bears need to catch to survive.

Our next goal is to apply these techniques to the world’s largest terrestrial animal. Working with African elephants at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, we plan to link the behaviors of these animals with corresponding accelerometer data to develop methods to remotely determine elephant behaviors. Additionally, using previously published data we hope to develop a way to use these accelerometers to measure the energy expenditure of wild African elephants. The development of these techniques may allow us to identify potential poaching events in the wild and aid landscape planning efforts through the identification of critical habitats.