GPS may help us find out where animals are going, but how do we find out about their movements and activities without observing them directly? Media Fellow Nicky Danino tracked down the Swansea University researchers who are revolutionising our understanding of animal behaviour.


Professor Rory Wilson is what is known as a ‘peeping Tom’. He is renowned for coming up with clever ways to track wild animals without directly observing them. He has developed new lightweight electronic loggers, known as ‘tags’ that will allow him to monitor previously unknown animal behaviour.  This invention, announced at the British Science Festival in Swansea, can go where satellite-based tracking devices cannot, to observe free-living animals.

But why is animal movement important? Well, if you are interested in the conservation of an animal then you need to know where it lives, and the space that it uses, and GPS systems allow us to track this already. Perhaps though, something less obvious is that animals have an impact on the space where they live. Therefore, it’s also vital to try and know more about what they do in their day-to-day lives. “So if you are a herbivore, you live in the woods, you trample the vegetation, you eat it, you sleep in it, you do all sorts of things that change the environment,” Dr Wilson explains, “this can have a long lasting impact that creates a daisy chain effect”.

A tour round his lab demonstrates the technology used to see how these animals (over 100 so far) behave in their day-to-day activities. The ‘tags’ can record over 400 pieces of data a second (also knows as ‘daily diaries’) and allow his research team to study movement, behaviour, energy expenditure, temperature and feeding patterns of hard to observe animals. Today, Dr Wilson demonstrates the data from the daily diary of a Magellanic penguin (Spheniscus magellanicus).

The researchers observe 4 main critical factors when they analyse the daily diary. These include the behaviour of the animal, where it is going in its 3D space, the energy expenditure of the animals, and the conditions through which it is moving.

Dr Wilson talks us through the data of a foraging penguin. The top 3 acceleration channels tell us about the animals posture. When the blue channel is low down it tells us the animal is horizontal, when it’s high up it’s vertical. We can also count the steps of the penguin and the magnitude of the steps. When the blue goes down in tandem with a drop of temperature, this tells us the penguin has gone into the sea. We can also tell when the bird is doing flipper beats.

 “It’s very exciting to open the novel written by an animal, and to the the first person to read that novel.” 

Dr Wilson gives the example of an albatross:

“Albatrosses are fantastic fliers and feed on squid, and are very interesting and fascinating animals. The general belief is that they feed on dead squid. When we put feeding sensors on these animals we discovered that not only do they feed during the day, but also during the night. In some dark nights they swim in crazy circles, around and around, for periods between 40 seconds and 7 hours, then they’d be eating. What we think is happening is that they are agitating the water and creating a ball of luminescence light, and squid swim to the light and the albatross catch them."

This is something that can only be discovered using the tags, as using a GPS system will only tell you where the albatross is, but not exactly what it is doing.

"You look through the daily diary and see these crazy circles and work out what happens.”

Dr Wilson wants us to appreciate the beauty of movement around us. If I took one thing away from my tour of his lab, then it is that we may appreciate the beauty and culture of the human race, but there is just as much beauty and meaning in the animal world.

Nicky Danino is a University of Central Lancashire Media Fellow, placed at BBC Breakfast. She is a Principal Lecturer in the School of Physical Sciences and Computing at the University of Central Lancashire.

Image credit: Little Sadie via Flickr