Sometimes science advances because of new ideas (this is where I make the obligatory Einstein reference) but sometimes it advances because of new tools. An excellent example of the latter was installed this year in Stoddard.
“This opens up the ability to ask new questions … things that we couldn’t even think of before,” said Marc Nutter of N.H. Audubon, regarding the state’s participation in a national program called Motus that tracks migrating birds, bats and even insects at an unprecedented level.
Entirely new questions to be asked? It doesn’t get much better than that.
The tools that made Motus possible are wireless miniaturized sensors. Digital sensors to measure and transmit location, temperature, pressure and the like have been around for decades, of course, but they keep on shrinking as microchips, batteries and antennas get smaller and cheaper.
Now they’ve shrunk so much they’re not even called sensors any more – they’re called tags, like the RFID tags that you can stick on car keys to keep track of them, or even “nanotags.” Nano or not, they still have their own power source and can still gather and transmit information even when being carried aloft by tiny host creatures. And I do mean tiny.
“We’re even going to be putting these nanotags on Monarch butterflies. They weigh just 0.15 grams,” Nutter marveled.
“Historically, birds have been tracked through banding. That requires the birds to be captured not only the first time to band it but a second time to read the band. And it provides limited point data – where that bird was when it was banded and when it was (caught). Everything else in between you don’t know, unless that bird was sighted along the way,” said Nutter.
Transmitters that send signals up to satellites and back down to tracking stations arrived a decade or two ago. Attaching them to eagles and other large birds was a revelation, allowing an entire migration pattern to be followed, but the need to send information into space means they’ve never gotten very small. Nanotags take wildlife and conservation research to a whole new level.
As an example, Nutter noted that for most migrating birds we know where they spend winter and summer but little about how they get from one to the other, which makes it hard to protect them during their annual commute.
“That middle ground, we don’t know. Are they going to farms and co-mingling with other pest birds and the farmers are controlling them? We don’t know,” he said.
The Motus (Latin for “movement”) Wildlife Tracking System has been around a decade and has more than 1,000 tracking stations set up. New England has just joined and will eventually have 50 stations like the one recently installed by New Hampshire Fish and Game on the Granite Lake Headwaters property of the Harris Center for Conservation Education.
Over the next two years, similar stations will be lined up to create four east-west “fencelines” through New England that can pick up north-south migrations by any sensor-carrying bird, bat or bug. One of these lines will run through Connecticut and Rhode Island, one through Massachusetts, two across Vermont and New Hampshire then into southern Maine, and one through northern Maine.
Each station has a 40-foot mast with a series of directional antennas on top, a solar panel for off-grid power, and a cellular modem that transmits the station’s detection data to the Motus system. The receiver constantly scans up to 10 miles in all directions depending on the surrounding geography.
When a creature carrying a Motus nanotag flies close enough its signal is picked up by the state. The creature is identified not via frequency like a radio station – all Motus tags broadcast at 166.380 MHz – but like a Morse Code operator, using a unique code and pattern of pulses.
The data is compiled and available online, providing all sorts of insight that can lead to questions we haven’t even thought of asking.
We can ask questions, too. One of the cool things about Motus is that it’s open source so anybody can do research with the results, or just play around with them.
Want to see what’s migrating near your house? Want to see where a particular bird has gone? Want to spend time online with something less soul-sucking that social media? Check motus.org. It’s also got information about using the data for education and has a citizen-science angle telling how you can help.