Stu Mackenzie, Director of Migration Ecology, Birds Canada
The protection of birds and the places they need requires a complete understanding of how they use and move through landscapes throughout the year. The science of avian migration is key to gaining this understanding. Migration research can tell us where to invest our limited time, resources and energies, and, when communicated more broadly, can help link and engage people and communities in conservation action. At the forefront of migration research is the Motus Wildlife Tracking System (Motus; latin for movement or motion), an enormous collaborative research network that uses coordinated automated radio telemetry arrays to study the movement and behaviour of flying animals (birds, bats, and insects). Motus is a program of Birds Canada in partnership with collaborating researchers and organizations.
Motus puts a modern, collaborative twist on traditional radio telemetry; a technique used by scientists, for over 70 years, to examine animal movement and behaviour. Uniquely coded radio transmitters are deployed on animals as part of individual research and conservation projects around the world.
The movements of these “tagged” animals are then monitored by a network of coordinated automated radio telemetry stations; each of which can detect any animal carrying a Motus transmitter within 10-15 km of the station. Stations are positioned across landscapes; in strategic locations known to support large bird concentrations and/or in locations chosen by researchers to inform specific questions.
The technology is able to track some of the smallest organisms with incredibly precise temporal accuracy. Transmitters weigh as little as 0.2g, allowing researchers to tag some of smallest flying animals, including Monarch Butterflies and Darner dragonflies, to as much as 3 g for large animals. The smallest tags last for 1-3 months while the large tags up to 3 years. Thus, researchers must design with the species, location, season and research questions in mind. Motus technology partners have also recently released solar-powered tags that last indefinitely, or for the lifespan of the animal.
Kirtland’s Warbler being released with a nanotag. Video by Nathan Cooper
Since its inception in 2014, the Motus network has grown into a network that is maintaining more than 850 receiving stations across 28 countries on 6 continents. These stations are operated by 700 partners and collaborators who, together, are conducting >300 projects with >22,000 animals tagged representing 210 species (mostly birds). Data from all of these stations are brought together at the Motus database housed at the Birds Canada National Data Centre. There, the data are filtered, archived, disseminated to researchers, and presented to the public through the Motus website. Motus projects have resulted in nearly 100 peer-reviewed publications and theses with new works published almost every week. Further, are publicly available for viewing on the Motus website, and for download with permission from collaborators. You can view the detections from any station in the network or design your own maps and animations on Birds Canada’s Track Search tool.
Thus far, research has largely been focused on studying the many mechanisms controlling and determining movement in birds from specific sites or regions. This includes the precise determination of spatial and temporal factors influencing movement such as stopover durations, habitat use, behavioral patterns, and exact departure timing from a site, and can reveal how far, fast, and in which direction a bird travels following departure from a stopover, breeding, or over-wintering site. Applications have also been expanded to determine the impact that various physiological traits, immune responses, and even pesticides have on a bird’s behavior. Scaling up, it can also be used effectively to determine short and long-distance migration routes.
What’s next for Motus? There is still a lot of work to do for migratory birds, in particular identifying potential bottlenecks to populations, or areas to work to achieve maximum conservation impact. To this end, Birds Canada and its partners are working to combine Motus data with data gathered using other tracking technologies to focus scientific results toward actionable strategic conservation priorities.
All of these studies and related activities are increasing our understanding of migratory animals and their interactions with their environments, the habitats and the landscapes they rely on, and efforts needed to conserve them. Equally impressive about these studies is that few of them are completed in isolation. Nearly all rely on the collective efforts of multiple collaborators. That’s one of truly beautiful things about Motus: it combines our resources and efforts to achieve maximum results and thus, in many ways, truly embodies the concept of “partners in flight”.