Animals are good at disappearing. Even veteran scientists and animal trackers have trouble trying to keep up with them day after day in all kinds of weather, over vast landscapes, and throughout their life cycles. That means that we're missing huge chunks of information about even common animals, to say nothing of rarer ones.
Very recently, we've been able to use technology — including satellites, drones, motion-sensing cameras and ultralight tags that send back data every few minutes — to follow them more accurately. As a result, scientists are learning much more about animals as seemingly well-understood as zebras and giraffes, which travel much farther and need more space than we previously realized. This kind of knowledge helps us think about conservation in new ways.
That's one reason James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti — the creators of a new book, "Where the Animals Go" — put together beautifully rendered maps and stories for a range of Earth's fauna, from sharks to crocodiles, elephants to mountain lions. This book is one to pore over, as I did over several evenings. Each graphic tells the story of an animal or group trying to survive and thrive in a world ever-more packed with roads to cross, poachers to avoid and human settlements to navigate through (or around). Here's what they had to say about their remarkable project.
MNN: Looking at the maps, I was struck by how much information we didn't have before we were able to do this tracking, from how scavengers are impacted by trophy hunters to how far zebras actually travel. How important are the maps for understanding these issues?
James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti: For many species, a pair of good binoculars and a camera will suffice. For others, such as migratory birds, marine animals or polar bears in the inhospitable Arctic, that kind of extended observation is not feasible.
Maps of animal-tracking data widen our field of view, allowing us to see enormous spatial and temporal patterns all at once. Habitat fragmentation is a threat to many of the animals in our book, and it is much easier to understand when you can see it. In the GPS tracks on our zebra map, you can see where a wildlife control fence blocked a migration route for 36 years until Botswana dismantled the fence in 2004. You can also see two right-angle edges where remaining fences impede what otherwise should be a straight shot southeast from the Okavango Delta to the Makgadikgadi Pans. It’s one of the longest land migrations on the planet — as long as we stay out of the way.
Highway crossings are included in several of your maps. How does mapping animals' real travel routes help us understand where to put places for them to cross roads — or in the case of the fishers in New York, to create paths between patches of forest?
It’s far-fetched to expect a wildlife expert or computer simulation to understand the needs of an individual animal better than the animal itself. Tracking technologies allow animals to tell us where they want to go, where they feel safe. Back in 2003, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) converted an off-ramp into a wildlife crossing called Coal Canyon Corridor.
That sounds nice but is, in fact, a barren underpass decorated with boulders and a few withered saplings. Caltrans even repaved half of it recently. It’s no surprise that mountain lions don’t use it. They’re secretive animals. They need densely vegetated bridges like ones that have been built in Europe and Canada.
So it’s not just a question of where to put the crossings. It’s also about what the wildlife need in that particular area. Ideally, the animal won’t even realize it’s crossing a freeway. It should be a walk in the park.
Despite being able to see where animals are really migrating, we still don't know how they do it in many cases. Why do you think maps and graphics can make a better case for it than, say, an article?
A first step in understanding how to protect animals is understanding where they go. How they get there is an entirely different question and one that remains unsolved for many species. How do tiger sharks navigate in the open ocean with no obvious landmarks? How do relocated pythons and crocodiles find their way back to their points of capture?
One of our favorite stories in the book is about a sea turtle named Fisher. He was rescued as a baby, raised in captivity and then released into the Atlantic Ocean when he was 10 years old. Researchers expected Fisher to ride the Gulf Stream north.
Instead, he swam a straight line to Cape Verde where other turtles were at his age. After 10 years in aquariums, how did he know where he needed to be, at what time, and how to get there? We don’t know how they do it (yet), but maps of their tracks provide undeniable proof that they do.
What surprised you most as you were putting these maps together?
We were constantly surprised by the creativity of biologists. To track a colony of carpenter ants, Danielle Mersch glued tiny bar codes to their backs, filmed them at two frames per second for 40 days, and then used software to reconstruct the movements of their bar codes. To track the daily vertical migration of plankton, Mikael Ekvall coated them with fluorescing nanoparticles.
These "quantum dots" glow under special lights, enabling cameras to trace their light trails through a dark aquarium. Plankton!
In the epilogue you wrote that there were similarities between tracking animals and tracking people. I would guess that most human lives are more circumscribed than the animals in this book. Would you agree?
Each animal’s circumstances are complex. This applies to humans, too. In our first collaboration, "London: The Information Capital," we showed how personal circumstances could have big impacts on a Londoner’s life expectancy. This isn’t so different from how mountain lions penned in by California freeways are struggling to survive while fishers in suburban Albany can exploit green corridors to weave through human development.
Working on "Where the Animals Go" showed us that animals are affected by changes to their environment and circumstances in much the same way that we can see happening with humans in cities. For example, some storks now stop off at garbage dumps for a junk food fix rather than undertaking a long, perilous migration to foraging grounds on the other side of the Sahara. Similarly, people will grab a burger on the way home from work rather than going out of their way to buy what they need to prepare a healthier alternative.