GPS Helps Scientists Uncover Truth about Bird Species

e7_entire_track_rev_datesAs technology advances, it seems like everything is getting smaller and more efficient–especially when it comes to GPS trackers. As of today, the smallest tracker available today is the size of two grains of rice.

No longer are GPS trackers only being used to track people or cars. Scientists are now using these tiny GPS trackers to track small birds to better understand their migration habits. But one of the most interesting finds to surface from using GPS trackers was when biologist Robert E. Gill Jr. decided to track one species in particular, wading birds called bar-tailed godwits. They were too fat to travel the distance of their migration.

“They looked like flying softballs,” said Mr. Gill.

Before these tiny GPS trackers, scientists knew that bar-tailed godwits spent their winters in places like New Zealand and Australia. But to get there, most researchers assumed that the birds took a series of short flights through Asia, stopping along the way to rest and eat. After all, they were land birds, not sea birds that could dive for food in the ocean.

But in Alaska, Mr. Gill observed, the bar-tailed godwits were feasting on clams and worms as if they were not going to be able to eat for a very long time. By the time the birds are ready to leave, their bodies are 55% fat. In humans, anything more than 30% is considered obese.

“I wondered, why is that bird putting on that much fat?” he said.

To find out if maybe there was more to these chubby birds then meets the eye, Mr. Gill implanted GPS trackers into some of them, and set them free to see where it is they go and how many stops they take to rest.

The results were shocking, as the GPS data showed that from the 7,100 miles that the birds traveled in nine days, they did not stop at all to eat or rest, making it the longest nonstop flight ever recorded.

“I was speechless,” Mr. Gill said.

Now that scientists fully understand the migration patterns of this bird, they are faced with a new probing question: how these types of birds manage to push their bodies so far beyond most animals, and why? Also considering that they fly for thousands of miles over featureless oceans, how do they know where to go and don’t get lost or confused? Although GPS probably can’t answer this question, scientists are one step closer to fully understanding these birds thanks to the technology.

(Via NY Times)

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