Abstract

How do animals use their habitat? Where do they go and what do they do? These basic questions are key not only to understanding a species’ ecology and evolution, but also for addressing many of the environmental challenges we currently face, including problems posed by invasive species, the spread of zoonotic diseases and declines in wildlife populations due to anthropogenic climate and land-use changes. Monitoring the movements and activities of wild animals can be difficult, especially when the species in question are small, cryptic or move over large areas. In this paper, we describe an Automated Radio-Telemetry System (ARTS) that we designed and built on Barro Colorado Island (BCI), Panama to overcome these challenges. We describe the hardware and software we used to implement the ARTS, and discuss the scientific successes we have had using the system, as well as the logistical challenges we faced in maintaining the system in real-world, rainforest conditions. The ARTS uses automated radio-telemetry receivers mounted on 40-m towers topped with arrays of directional antennas to track the activity and location of radio-collared study animals, 24 h a day, 7 days a week. These receiving units are connected by a wireless network to a server housed in the laboratory on BCI, making these data available in real time to researchers via a web-accessible database. As long as study animals are within the range of the towers, the ARTS system collects data more frequently than typical animal-borne global positioning system collars (∼12 locations/h) with lower accuracy (approximately 50 m) but at much reduced cost per tag (∼10X less expensive). The geographic range of ARTS, like all VHF telemetry, is affected by the size of the radio-tag as well as its position in the forest (e.g. tags in the canopy transmit farther than those on the forest floor). We present a model of signal propagation based on landscape conditions, which quantifies these effects and identifies sources of interference, including weather events and human activity. ARTS has been used to track 374 individual animals from 38 species, including 17 mammal species, 12 birds, 7 reptiles or amphibians, as well as two species of plant seeds. These data elucidate the spatio-temporal dynamics of animal activity and movement at the site and have produced numerous peer-reviewed publications, student theses, magazine articles, educational programs and film documentaries. These data are also relevant to long-term population monitoring and conservation plans. Both the successes and the failures of the ARTS system are applicable to broader sensor network applications and are valuable for advancing sensor network research.

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