Whales, sea turtles, penguins and sharks are constantly on the move in the global village that is the ocean. To help conserve these and other species, scientists worldwide are using the latest animal-tracking technologies to determine exactly where they go, why, and how best to target conservation actions on an international level.

Called “animal movement ecology”, it is helping scientists to not only understand animal behaviour but also to motivate for threat mitigation in critical areas, such as limiting fishing in key breeding or feeding sites. 

Some of the world’s top tracking scientists were in the Bay from 2nd to 6th February 2015, running workshops at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) for 26 students and scientists from across South Africa who are tracking a variety of animals in local and international waters, including those from the sub-Antarctic islands.

The three invited experts have experience in the movement ecology of a wide variety of land and marine animal species, including analysing the movement of fishermen.

Two of the researchers hail from France: Dr Simon Benhamou, from the Centre for Functional Ecology and Evolution (CEFE), and Dr Marie-Pierre Etienne, from AgroParisTech. The other expert is Dr Rocío Joo, a research fellow at the Instituto del Mar del Perú (IMARPE) in Lima, Peru.

Commenting on the importance of tracking, Benhamou said: “In most cases, you can’t always see or follow the animals – they are often underwater or travel far distances, so we need to track them to see where they go and what they do.

“They have no human language, so we can understand their deep thoughts and behaviour only by tracking and understanding their movements. Movement ecology is fascinating because it includes a huge number of species – including bacteria, humans and even seed dispersal. Animals have to move to find food and mates – so you can study movement ecology to understand foraging efficiency, orientation, or navigation. Movement is life.”

In the workshop at NMMU, the three scientists mainly be shared their skills on turning the information they have gathered – using GPS tags, cameras attached to the animals and other means – into statistics that can be analysed and modeled.

“The movement data itself is not enough,” said Etienne and Joo, in a combined statement. “It is merely observations of locations in time. To understand what the animals are doing, and why, you need to know what questions to ask, what tools are available, what the limitations of the data and tools are, and what modifications you need to make to arrive at the answers. Also, a big part of capacity building is networking, and this workshop is providing an excellent platform for teaching, learning, and collaboration, both nationally, and internationally.”

NMMU Zoology post-doctoral fellow Dr Linda Harris, who co-organised the scientists’ visit, is involved in research that tracks sea turtles as they migrate across international waters. “These animals aren’t limited to South African waters – they’re underwater, going into areas we can’t follow – so our data has gaps, hence the importance of animal movement ecology. It’s helping us to determine important sites for sea turtles across the western Indian Ocean. If, for example, we see there is high intensity interaction with fisheries at certain times in the year, we can motivate that fisheries close over those times or make use of excluding devices in their nets, to allow turtles to escape if they are caught … NMMU researchers’ tracking of elephant seals in the [sub-Antarctic] Prince Edward Islands was included in designing the island’s latest conservation policy.”

Harris said the tracking was just as important for land animals, and could potentially be used to detect possible rhino poaching. “If you detect strange patterns in the animal’s movement, it could relate to a potential poaching incident, and conservationists could dispatch a team.” She said it was also useful to monitor predator/prey interactions to determine animal capacity levels in these areas.

“NMMU and the National Research Foundation have provided a wonderful opportunity for scientists grappling with understanding animal movement ecology to get cutting-edge training from an exceptional collection of experts.”