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High-tech Bird Monitoring

Joint Project of Freie Universität Berlin, Oxford University, and Microsoft Research Cambridge

№ 48/2008 from Feb 21, 2008

A group of scientists at Freie Universität Berlin, Oxford University, and Microsoft Research Cambridge has tested an innovative monitoring system for animals. The new technology makes it possible to study the behavior of animal populations and analyze their vulnerability to environmental influences. The system was used successfully to study the Manx Shearwater, an endangered seabird native to the coasts of Wales. For this research project, scientists of the Institute of Computer Science of Freie Universität developed the technology and provide the raw data. Researchers at Oxford University and Microsoft Research Cambridge carry out the ornithological evaluation. A second stage of the project is being started this spring.

The technology developed at Freie Universität combines intelligent wireless sensor networks with RFID (Radio Frequency Identification). The system enables remote observation and analysis of birds in real-time. Ultralight RFID tags that identify the individual birds over electromagnetic waves are attached to the birds' legs. Wireless sensors in their burrows inform the researchers at once of the birds' arrival and departure times as well as temperature and humidity in the burrows. All data are automatically sent to a base station that transmits them to a data bank accessible to the participating scientists around the world. Prior to using the new technology developed by Freie Universität, researchers could only track the birds using the GPS data collectors of Oxford University. The disadvantage with this system was that, with the birds being nocturnal, the burrows had to be inspected every 20 to 30 minutes all night. Fewer birds could be studied, and it required immense human resources. The new system makes it easier to monitor the birds' activities as well as the condition of their burrows, and it also provides more detailed data. At this stage of the project, computer scientists of Freie Universität are working to further automate the system. In the near future, data from the GPS loggers will automatically be transmitted to the sensor network, eliminating the need for manual reading.

With the new technology, researchers expect to be able to assess changes in behavior patterns of the Manx Shearwater with regard to possible changes in climate. Seabirds react very sensitively to changing  environmental conditions. They are also an indicator for the condition of the oceans they are dependent upon. Up to now this has been a difficult species to study, due to their long foraging trips.

Further Information

Tomasz Naumowicz
Institute of Computer Science, Freie Universität Berlin
Currently in Cambridge: