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GPS obsessed

26 August 2016

Scientists Track Dolphins with GPS

by Greg Bartlett / guest author

After an unprecedented rescue of 11 dolphins stranded in the Wellfleet peninsula’s mud flats near Boston, MA, scientists associated with the New England Aquarium have placed GPS trackers on the freed mammals to ensure their safe return to the ocean. Experts say that after such a traumatic experience, dolphins will require some time to recover before they venture back into open sea. Causes for such a stranding are still difficult to determine, but current theories point to confused echo-location, which occurs more frequently in areas of higher human activity. But for now, the rescued dolphins are swimming cautiously within Cape Cod Bay, though rescuers are hoping that they resume normal activity soon.

The use of GPS tracking systems to monitor marine life has increased rapidly in recent years, thanks to advances in accuracy and miniaturization. For scientists working on limited grant funds, the improved affordability doesn’t hurt, either. Commercially available GPS trackers can be outfitted to collars which can be comfortably placed around larger marine life. The technology is temporary and may be removed after scientists are sure the animal is safe, or when a particular research project is complete. Some trackers are small enough to be placed internally, though the cost and complication of such a method makes it unpopular.

Back in 2008, rescuers in Australia performed a similar operation to the one in Wellfleet. After a pod of pilot whales was rescued from a beach in Tasmania, scientists placed GPS trackers on several to ensure their safe return to sea. The GPS trackers provided clear location data to those shadowing the whales, giving them peace of mind about the whales’ safety, as well as valuable insight into their behavior.

The opportunity to study marine life is also certainly an appealing feature of GPS trackers. Earlier this year, researchers at the Hatfield Marine Science Center made some interesting discoveries regarding the behavior of sperm whales while tracking them with GPS technology. Location data provided by the trackers seemed to show the whales cooperating to herd in groups of squid. The whales would take turns covering the different positions of a 3D perimeter—effectively creating an inescapable ball where squid would be trapped until eaten. Simply no other tracking technology would have been able to gather this data. Non-GPS solutions may have altered the sperm whales’ behavior or not given the scientists the flexibility and mobility they required.

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