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Observing animal movement has come a long way, thanks to advances in data science and technology

Where the Animals Go: Tracking Wildlife with Technology in 50 Maps and Graphics

James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti
174 pp.
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Animal tracking has been an enduring interest throughout history. Until recently, however, tracking simply meant following the tracks of animals. In the mid-20th century, VHF radio-telemetry revolutionized the way we study the distribution, movement, and home range use of many wide-ranging mammals and birds. What has been colloquially called the “collar ’em and foller ’em” approach to the study of wildlife movement has since become a dominant meme across a diversity of taxa.

Where the Animals Go elegantly elucidates the role the explosion of new technologies has played in expanding our knowledge of animal migration. Presented as a series of case studies—for example, “The sharks pardoned by data” and “The jaguars taking selfies”—each cheekily named chapter summarizes how new data-driven techniques are being deployed to refine, and in most cases greatly expand, our understanding of the movements of dozens of species across a diversity of sizes and taxa.

The book’s entries, organized into three sections (air, water, and earth), are light on text, emphasizing instead maps and graphics. Both elements—the prose and the visuals—are spare, elegant, and informative.

The book was not written by biologists or technologists but by the distinguished geographer James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti, a former senior design editor at National Geographic. Having put their skills to mapping London in their first book, London: The Information Capital, Cheshire and Uberti are no strangers to using cutting-edge spatial graphics to engage and to convey vast amounts of information to their readers.

A typical chapter in Where the Animals Go begins by outlining the plight of a specific species and introducing a researcher who is using technology to study it. In “The elephant who texted for help,” for example, we meet the legendary elephant ecologist Iain Douglas-Hamilton, who pioneered the use of VHF collars on elephants in the 1960s and was the first to deploy new-generation satellite-linked GPS collars in the new millennium.

Working in northern Kenya, Douglas-Hamilton and his colleagues have continuously refined and reinvented their approach to elephant tracking, adding in Global System for Mobile communications (GSM) transmitters to send real-time data over cell phone networks, linking these data to Google Earth mapping technologies, and working with Vulcan, a Seattle-based technology company dedicated to saving endangered species, in order to deploy a real-time tracking app for smartphones and tablets.

Cheshire and Uberti bring life to these discussions by citing specific examples in which the technologies they mention were deployed. The elephant in distress in the example above, for instance, was discovered after her collar signaled an odd pattern of behavior through a GSM-carried text message. She had been shot by herders and would subsequently succumb to her injuries, but not before providing valuable data about her last moments to the researchers.


A leopard is captured on a camera trap in the Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa.

New Web databases allow researchers to aggregate data, enabling both professionals and laypeople to follow the paths of whales as they migrate (“The humpbacks seeking seamounts”) and trace the movements of turtles in the Atlantic (“The turtle who swam against the current”). For some chapters, the authors traveled to remote areas for a first-hand look, following orcas off the coast of Iceland (“The whales we watch on facebook”) or searching for owls in Ontario (“The owls of the frozen lakes”).

Migration data have advanced scientific knowledge on many fronts. Entries on a dozen or more species make this point: from acoustic arrays and satellite tags that have been used in Hawaii to reduce, and better target, shark-culling programs to satellite imagery and bespoke software that have been deployed in Antarctica to count emperor penguins, allowing scientists to monitor the population trajectory of the species.

Such data can also serve as crucial evidence in public policy decisions. In the book’s introduction, for example, the authors describe how an 1892 map delineating Alaskan fur seal populations may have spurred the development of the first international environmental agreement: the Fur Seal Treaty of 1911.

With only 50 entries, the book is not an overall synthesis of the way in which tracking technologies have been deployed. Some of my favorite stories, such as the great white shark that swam from South Africa to Australia and back again in 6 weeks, got left on the cutting-room floor. But I give the authors high marks for the diversity they have managed to include in their narrative.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, Millbrook, NY 12545, USA.