UC Santa Cruz Demonstrates New High-Tech Wildlife Tracker

Researchers can conclude from data collected from SMART collars not only where an animal is, but also what it is doing and how much caloric energy those activities cost.

by Samantha Clark, McClatchy News Service / October 13, 2014

Biologists know little about the enigmatic mountain lion who often comes into conflict with development. For five years, a team of UC Santa Cruz scientists have been developing a high-tech wildlife collar to study the big cat's daily activities.

Their findings, which were also a demonstration of the new technology, were published this month in the journal Science.

"With environments changing so much from humans putting up fences to climate change changing the vegetation, these animals are having to move to find prey, to basically just survive," said lead author Terrie Williams, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz. "It's costing them a lot. What you're going to see is potentially more conflicts with humans."

Traveling through the rugged, uneven terrain where mountain lions live requires a large investment in energy. The researchers ran captive mountain lions on a treadmill and tracked wild ones with the "SMART" collars to see how they burned caloric energy.

Offering little more information, other wildlife trackers use satellite or radio to map an animal's movement. Researchers can conclude from data collected from the SMART collar not only where an animal is but also what it is doing and how much caloric energy those activities cost.

Co-author Gabriel Elkaim, a computer engineering professor at UCSC, is further developing the SMART collar equipped with GPS that uses a magnetometer and accelerometer data, such as Fitbit activity-monitoring bracelets.

"The basic idea was could we put these very small low-powered and low-cost sensors on these tracking collars and use these to infer in real time what the animal is doing," Elkaim said. "We didn't not expect to see a fine granularity in the ability to detect certain behaviors."

To analyze data from the collars, the researchers spent a lot of time scratching their heads, trying to figure out how to train the mountain lions to walk and run on a treadmill and wear the collars. It took eight months. If you have a lot of meat, never say you cannot train a cat, Williams said.

She found help from Lisa Wolfe, a veterinarian with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, who has raised pumas and trained the ones in the study.

The researchers then measured their oxygen consumption at varying activity levels. They also quantified how much energy it takes to hunt and learned that the calculated hunting tactics of stealthy mountain lions are energy efficient.

"They had a couple of tricks up their sleeves," Williams said. "One was the gauge the size of their pounce to the size of their prey."

Mountain lions adjust use less energy when overpowering a fawn versus a buck. By sitting and waiting and stalking then pouncing, they spend, or conserve, energy wisely.

"What they're really built to do is just an explosive pounce, so what is really important is vegetation cover," Williams said. "Bushes and things to hide behind, to do a total sneak attack and a very powerful pounce."

The researchers now are interested in mountain lion energetics in a diversity of habitats.

"The next step with this technology is to use it to understand how different features in the environment such as land use or prey density impact the energetics of pumas and other carnivores," said co-author Chris Wilmers, an environmental studies professor at UC Santa Cruz and head of the Puma Project. "Large carnivores are declining all over the world, and if we can better understand how human activity impacts their energetic balance, we can hopefully better conserve them."

Williams has a team of graduate students looking to use the collar for studying wolves and polar bears.

Puma study Findings

UC Santa Cruz researchers published a study in Science this month on how mountain lions burn energy and why their pounce is down to a science.

  • It took eight months to train the mountain lions to run and walk on a treadmill.
  • Researchers learned that mountain lions adjust the power of their pounce to the size of their prey.
  • Data collected showed mountain lions walking at a pace slower than people.
  • The high-tech collars can be used to study other large carnivores.

Source: Study, Sentinel research

©2014 the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.)