BIOLOGISTS GO HIGH-TECH TO TRACK DEER
Written by Tammy Sapp
Modern biologists know more about wildlife behavior than ever before, thanks to technology. Like the evolution of mobile phones and video game consoles, the high-tech tools biologists use to study wildlife have expanded by leaps and bounds in the last few decades.
In the old days, biologists relied on a good pair of boots and binoculars to follow and observe wild animals. The first big step towards a better understanding of wildlife home ranges, habitat requirements, survival, and travel patterns came in the mid 1960s, when biologists began using radio tracking or telemetry. Radio telemetry allowed animals to be tracked by fitting them with a radio transmitter, which emitted a signal that biologists could pick up with a handheld antenna. While this was a big improvement, biologists had to be within a certain distance of the transmitter to track deer and other animals.
The mid ’80s saw another new advance: satellite-tracking telemetry. This technology is similar to radio telemetry except a signal is sent to a satellite, instead of a radio signal being sent to a receiver. This meant that biologists no longer had to be near the animal to pick up its signal.
In the 1990s, Global Positioning System (GPS) became available for civilian use and immediately biologists knew this could be an important wildlife research tool. At first GPS receivers were large and expensive, which limited their usefulness. However, by the early 2000s, receiver size and GPS costs began to shrink. Soon biologists were using GPS units to determine an animal’s exact position and movements. This new technology provides many advantages such as: 1) ability to remotely monitor wildlife, 2) allows biologists to receive data via text message and/or email, and 3) provides accurate tracking of fine-scale movement.
Today, researchers are using GPS technology to better understand deer ecology in South Florida. The South Florida Deer Research Project, one of the largest white-tailed deer research projects ever conducted in Florida, is looking at how water levels, habitat differences, predation, and hunting impact deer populations. Deer location data collected by GPS collars will allow researchers to understand how deer use various habitats in South Florida as well as provide information on home-range size and survival.
Field work for this project began in January 2015 when over 100 deer were captured using helicopters and net guns and then outfitted with GPS collars. GPS information is being supplemented by remote-sensing cameras (trail cameras), which are another important wildlife research tool. Remote camera data and field observations of females with fawns allows researchers to estimate breeding dates, when fawning occurs, and how many fawns survive.
This study, which will run through the end of 2018, is a collaborative effort. Current partners include Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, University of Georgia, Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service. In addition, Conservancy of Southwest Florida has partnered with the study by providing expertise, camera data and field assistance.
Advancements in technology and the wide variety of tools now available to researchers are helping biologists do an even better job of managing Florida’s wildlife populations. For more information about the South Florida Deer Research Project, visit http://myfwc.com/hunting/by-species/deer/project/.