Dr Daniella Rabaiotti is the 2020 Charles Lyell Award Lecture winner for environmental sciences. This Award is in recognition of their cutting-edge work and committed public engagement efforts. Full details of the 2020 Award Lecture winners can be found here: www.britishscienceassociation.org/news/introducing-our-2020-award-lecturers

Written by Alan Barker, freelance writer

Working out of ZSL – London Zoo – Dani Rabaiotti is using sophisticated tracking technology and big data to quantify the effects of climate change on one of Africa’s most endangered species. It’s tough work and it’s got to be done if African wild dogs have a chance of surviving.  

How would you describe your work? 

Mostly, I’m a quantitative ecologist. It’s a growing field. With that hat on, I sit at a computer and translate field data into predictive models. Actually, I do a bit of everything! We were due to start collecting field data about now, but obviously that’s not happening. 

And you’re studying wild dogs… 

The African wild dog. There are only 700 packs of these animals left in the wild, and they’re restricted to just 7% of their historical range. ZSL has a research project in Laikipia county, Kenya, but are also collaborating with other projects in Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa.  

How do you collect the data? 

The Laikipia Rangelands Wild Dog and Cheetah Project has been fitting wild dogs with GPS and radio collars for 17 years. The current model of collar has three main components: a GPS unit, an accelerometer and a VHF transmitter. You can get a lot of information from dogs’ GPS location: a den’s location, when pups are born, when the pack leaves the den. The accelerometer works like the ones in Fitbits: they show us how active the dogs have been. We locate the dogs using the radio signal to download the data.  

Is the tech developing further?  

The Laboratory for Animal Movement at Swansea University has developed the next generation of collars, and we’re working with them to fit them to wild dogs with. These collars use tri-axial accelerometers.  You can tell whether the animal is walking, trotting, eating –you get a phenomenal amount of data, and you need a powerful computer to visualise and analyse it. The downside is that the collar collects far too much data to upload remotely, so you have to retrieve the collar to collect it. If it malfunctions, or falls off – and the dogs themselves can be pretty tough on the collars – well, then you lose all the data.  

Luckily, because wild dogs live in groups, we can deploy two collars in a pack, and if one fails, we can still find them. Then, when the youngsters disperse, they roam around and form new packs – and they take the collars with them, so you get a new pack collared for free!  

Is it difficult to fund such long-term research? 

Yes. It’s getting harder to fund long-term field work: most funding cycles last two or three years, so you have to keep applying and re-applying. Computers are a lot less glamorous than wild animals, however, so that side of things can also be a bit of a hard sell sometimes. We need both: the computers to crunch the numbers, and the field work to collect the data. 

Where is your work going now? 

I’m interested in the impact of climate change on these animals. A few years ago, data from the project showed higher temperatures seemed to be affecting wild dog survival rates to adulthood. After I started working with the data, I found that, when days got hot, dogs hunted less in the day and more at night. But the increase in nocturnal activity didn’t fully balance the decrease in daytime activity. They were active only on moonlit nights and much less so during the denning period, which lasts for about three months, when they’re raising pups. The amount of moonlight is fixed, obviously; so, it seemed to me that maybe these animals might not be able to adapt their behaviour sufficiently to mitigate the rise in daytime temperatures.  

So assessing the impact of climate change means looking at the behaviour of these animals?

Absolutely. I can’t put a wild dog in a lab. So I build a model, a virtual population of wild dogs – based on the field data – and then heat it up in a computer. The new collars mean I can work out how much energy an animal is expending, by looking at its activity, and how much energy it’s taking in, by looking at how much it feeds. That creates an energy balance. If we can see how that balance changes at different temperatures, we can put parameters on the model to see how climate change will affect population dynamics: are there scenarios where dogs will be more impacted by high temperatures, will it impact how the dogs reproduce, and so on. That can help us plan and target our conservation efforts.  

What are your thoughts about the future? 

This work could develop in the future to allow us to run whole ecosystem energy budget models. If you deploy these tags, not only on wild dogs but also on their prey, you could identify energy intake and expenditure across the food chain. This would allow you to investigate temperature impacts, not just on wild dog energy balance but also on that of the herbivores they feed on. Unpicking the impacts of temperature on species interactions can help highlight the mechanisms that cause population declines, so that we could work out how to plan conservation to help wild dogs survive as temperatures rise.

Alan Barker is a writer, trainer and coach specialising in communication skills. He has been working with the British Science Association since 2015. Alan’s webinar, Storytelling for Scientists, is on the 3M YouTube channel.