Fast tracking

Sophisticated software and hardware are giving wildlife trackers an almost instant overview of plant and animal patterns. Ultimately, this will offer scientists a more profound understanding of how nature interacts.

After a day of scouting a conservation area in the Santa Cruz Mountains, 23 wildlife trackers put their Palm Pilots back in their cradles, sat down to dinner, and then gathered around a large LCD projector to see the results of their work. They'd registered thousands of signs of deer, coyotes, birds, and other animals. But what really yowled in the data that night was a mountain lion.

He kept leaving scat piles near packs of coyotes and raccoons. And because the trackers were so numerous and had picked up many clues, the pattern leapt out. The team deduced the mountain lion was communicating in an unexpected way, signaling his big-cat competitors to keep their paws off his prey.

"If I were out by myself, I'd never see that," says

Jon Young, a tracker and training consultant who led the expedition last month.

Such breakthrough moments are coming faster and faster as wildlife researchers drag increasingly sophisticated hardware and software into the field. Using handheld computers, digital cameras, and satellite positioning systems, scientists are able to simplify data collection, recruit more people to do the work, and take their most comprehensive look yet at plants and wildlife. If the high-tech push proves itself, it could do for biology something close to what carbon-dating has done for archaeology: give scientists a much more profound understanding of how nature interacts.

"If we could map 5,000 acres and the mountain lion data jumps out at us, imagine if we could simultaneously map the world," Mr. Young says. "I really believe in 10 years we'll look back at this as a major breakthrough towards understanding nature."

The new findings could reveal species that would improve food production and lead to new pharmaceuticals, give public-health experts advance warnings about the outbreak of pathogens, and offer scientists a much fuller picture of humanity's impact on the environment, researchers say.

"Only with such encyclopedic knowledge can ecology mature as a science and acquire predictive power," writes Edward O. Wilson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and curator of entomology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University.

The trouble is, ecologists have nowhere near the knowledge they need to build that encyclopedia. Strange as it may seem, most of the earth's species remain undiscovered. Biologists have catalogued between 1.5 million to 1.8 million species, but they suspect the earth contains at least double that number, according to Dr. Wilson, and nobody really knows how many there are. Some researchers estimate 10 million, but guesses range all the way up to 100 million. Just in fungi alone, biologists have distinguished only 69,000 of the up to 1.6 million they believe exist.

That is why Wilson has proposed an All-Species Initiative, an attempt to map 80 percent of earth's biodiversity within the next 25 years. It's an awesome task. It would require researchers to catalog several times as many species in the next quarter century as humanity has discovered since it started tromping the earth 2,500 centuries ago.

Speed and simplicity

That's where the technology comes in. By bringing increasingly powerful software and hardware into the field, researchers can simplify the data-gathering and speed up its delivery and analysis. That's crucial in several ways.

For one thing, by making data-collection simple, more people can do the tracking without years of experience. "It's almost like having a more experienced tracker in your back pocket asking you questions," says Young, the leader of the Santa Cruz Mountain venture in California and CyberTracker trainer.

Loaded on a Palm Pilot or similar handheld computer, the software allows novice trackers to make observations. Then it takes them through a series of carefully designed questions to help ensure they don't miss something or wrongly catalog a sighting. And because the computer links to global positioning satellites, it automatically tabulates where the observations are made.

Where the idea started

Experienced tracker Louis Liebenberg first conceived of the CyberTracker device in the early 1990s while out with the Kalahari Bushmen in Africa. Because many of the Bushmen are illiterate, their findings weren't making it to the outside world. So Mr. Liebenberg created CyberTracker, tested the first version in 1996 in South Africa's Karoo National Park and, later, with the Bushmen themselves. Since then, trackers and even ecotourism operators and hiking clubs around the world have begun using the system. CyberTracker Conservation, a nonprofit organization in Cape Town, South Africa, that manages several field projects, estimates some 400 projects around the world now use the technology.

The more people who collect data, the more comprehensive wildlife assessments will become - the technology's second advantage. In the predigital era, coordinating more than half a dozen trackers was very difficult. "The CyberTracker allows many trackers to share their observations in a way that was not possible before, both geographically and through time," Liebenberg says. "Over the next few decades, we will be able to combine the collective efforts of hundreds of trackers."

The third advantage involves the technology's speed and ease of delivery. Wilson of Harvard envisions researchers taking detailed digital pictures of their finds and e-mailing them back to specialists who can distinguish and catalog the new species. "When the original diagnoses from print literature are added, experts can proceed with revisions at a speed and an economy vastly greater than enjoyed in the predigital era," he writes. "In one step, the practice of taxonomy is globalized and democratized...."

Sometimes, the new technology helps in less obvious ways. In 1991, wildlife biologists Zoe Jewell and her husband, Sky Alibhai, began tracking the threatened black rhinos of Zimbabwe. The couple used radio collars, temporarily immobilizing each animal to attach them. Four years later, the couple began to have its doubts about the technology.

By immobilizing females, the scientists found evidence they were inhibiting their fertility. In other words, in trying to save the herd, the biologists were inadvertently making it more difficult for it to reproduce. Their solution: identify rhinos the old-fashioned way - by their footprints.

Of course, the natives who specialized in the technique had generations of experience. But the biologists found they could approximate that knowledge using careful measurement of tracks and statistical software. Now, instead of radio-tracking, the researchers take digital pictures, download them onto a laptop and, using the statistical "fingerprint" software, figure out which rhino has sauntered by.

Not only does the technique improve the herd's chances for reproduction, but it costs less. The couple estimates traditional radio-collar tracking methods would cost $85,000 a year. With their new system, aside from an initial $5,000 investment in equipment, the system is basically free. It also involves local people - because they can take the digital photos and send them back to the researchers. And unlike radio tracking, which is usually done in daylight, the new method gives the couple data on the animals' night movements, when they're most active.

The biologists are now adapting their technique to help save wild tigers in India. Another group is using the software to protect the endangered northern hairy-nosed wombat in Australia.

Here in the US, communities are using software to track everything from deer movements to how many trees there are.

"Before, it was a big guess," says Mary Lindley, community services director of Moorpark, Calif., which contracted with a company to inventory its trees so it could accurately budget for tree care.

And maybe it's the beginning of finding out what's really out there in the world's meadows and forests.

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