Effective environmental conservation practices through understanding of animal’s movements and behavior

 February 15, 2021

Effective environmental conservation practices through understanding of animal’s movements and behavior

Takashi Yamamoto
Associate Professor, Organization for the Strategic Coordination of Research and Intellectual Properties,
Meiji University

Recently, there has been a growing interest in biodiversity conservation due partly to increased awareness of SDGs. At the same time, damage to crops caused by wild animals and incidents where people encounter wild animals in the city are making the news. What can we do to live in harmony with wild animals? Such research is being carried out by our university.
To create spaces to live in harmony with other living things

From the supply of food and fuel to mental well-being such as refreshment of our mind, we receive benefits in so many ways from nature and living things. This is called ecosystem services.

Ecosystem services are based on the balance of biodiversity. Therefore, if we continue to exterminate animals because they are harmful to humans or develop the environment in a human-oriented way, this balance will be disrupted, and our own lives and economy may be affected.

For example, recent urban development focuses more on creating green spaces. While the presence of green spaces in a city makes us feel relaxed and benefits our living environment, these are mainly effects from a human’s perspective.

Green spaces are habitats for animals, and their placement may limit how animals use and move between habitats. Examples of this are busy roads between green spaces or green spaces adjacent to an always crowded place with many people.

Barriers to animal movements make it difficult for individual animals to interact with each other, which leads to a loss of genetic diversity. In biodiversity conservation, three levels of diversity are considered important: ecosystem, species, and genetic; and the loss of genetic diversity affects the survival of species.

In other words, to create a space that takes into account biodiversity conservation, it is crucial to think of an environment that is easy for other living things to live in as well as the human perspective.

What we need to consider then is not only protecting the individual animal but also understanding where and how the animal uses spaces, that is, to see the animal’s habitat in terms of a relationship between points rather than each point separately.

In fact, humans know very little about animal movement. We do not know very well how crows, sparrows, and even stray cats around us move and when and where they are.

To put it another way, if we know where and how animals use the space, we will be able to think about creating space from their perspectives. In recent years, technologies and methods for this purpose have made significant progress.
“Biologging” to understand animal movements and behavior
Traditionally, information about the spatial distribution and behavior of animals has been obtained primarily through direct observations. However, human observation has limitations in terms of both time and space. It is virtually impossible to continue observation 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Therefore, we had only fragmentary information on space use by animals until recently.

In recent years, tools called biologging have come into use, in which data loggers (miniaturized data recorders) with built-in GPS terminals to record location and acceleration sensors to record body movements are attached to animals.

Attaching these data loggers to animals for a certain period of time and collecting and analyzing them makes it possible to find out when and how the animals are moving and behaving. In other words, we can understand how the animals live.

Furthermore, by analyzing the vast amount of behavior data collected by a data logger and describing it as a statistical model, it will be possible to estimate the animal’s habitat distribution and migration route based solely on environmental information.

If the environment changes because of construction or other reasons, we can predict the effects on the animal’s distribution and population. Such a method can also be used when conducting environmental assessments in connection with large-scale business developments.

In addition, technologies and methods for capturing spatiotemporal dynamics are also useful in considering control measures for wild animals that cause damage to crops.

For example, enclosing a farming village with a net would prevent animals from feeding on crops. However, this is not economically feasible. In this respect, if we know where animals like to go and their behavior patterns, we can formulate more efficient and effective control measures without enclosing the entire village.

Besides, when setting up protected areas, knowing animals’ preferred locations and behavior can help us select more important environments for living things from their perspectives.

Knowing the characteristics of animal behavior and movement will lead to the coexistence of humans and animals and the conservation of biodiversity. In other words, if we consider the sustainability of ecosystem services and resources, it will also lead to creating a better environment and community for humans.
New insights gained from fields

One of the most important things for me in doing my research is to spend a relaxing time in nature without any particular purpose.

When we have a purpose, we have a clear idea of what we are working on, but we tend to be less aware of other things, narrowing our outlook. On the other hand, if we look around slowly without thinking, we may notice things we did not notice before.

For example, an analysis of a seabird’s behavioral data showed a clear periodicity in their nighttime behavior, and this periodicity was linked to the moon phases, becoming very active on nights with a full moon. However, the reason for this was not clear.

We do not notice how dark it is at night in the city, but we find it really dark at night once spending time in the wilderness. However, when the moon is full, we realize that it becomes so bright that we do not need a flashlight.

We all know that the full moon is bright, but we cannot really feel how bright it is until we actually spend time in nature. It was at this time that I could easily understand why seabirds were more active on moonlit nights. The full moon is bright. It is a simple thing, but sometimes it is difficult to connect events when we only know things in our minds.

In recent years, in the field of behavioral ecology, in addition to the hypothesis-testing style of collecting data to test an objective (hypothesis), the data-driven style of research, which explores characteristics and patterns based on data, has been evolving.

Indeed, the data-driven style is an effective way to obtain results that have never been thought of before. Even so, what should we look for with the data at hand, how should we analyze it, and what do the analysis results mean? In other words, the question is what we understand with the data.

It is essential to understand what the data and its analysis results mean in nature and the real world to know these questions. I believe this understanding is gained not only from the aggregation of existing knowledge but also often from the field in real nature.

In the coming era of big data, it will be crucial to have a flexible mindset that can bridge the gap between book knowledge and hands-on experience in the field, not one or the other.

Meanwhile, I have also been working on improving the rearing environment at zoos, aquariums, and livestock production facilities, i.e., environmental enrichment, to enhance the animals’ welfare and health in their care by using biologging methods and statistical analysis.

In fact, observing animals all day long was a challenge for the rearing staff, as they had a lot of work to do. Therefore, there was a need for more efficient behavioral monitoring to understand basic ecology and verify the effects of improvements in the rearing environment.

In this respect, data loggers allow us to efficiently obtain quantitative data on animal behavior in the long term. In addition, analyzing the data enables us to evaluate the rearing environment objectively.

The numerical data of behavior recorded by the data logger can be utilized to evaluate and improve the rearing environment by establishing an analysis program that allows the rearing staff to obtain results with simple operations. It can also lead to an understanding of productivity improvements in livestock production, such as the relationship between meat quality and activity amount.

These efforts have been highly regarded by relevant organizations as a contribution to environmental enrichment. However, there are still very few examples of behavior monitoring using data loggers in the world, and in the future, we intend to make this a global standard.

In fact, I came up with this research theme when I happened to visit a zoo. I have realized that there are many times when insights and knowledge connect each other through the seemingly useless time spent in the field. I think this is the same in the business world.

With the spread of COVID-19, living in the countryside and camping in nature has become popular lately. We think that the convenient and comfortable human-made environment is easy to live in, but somewhere in our body and mind, we may find comfort in the natural environment.

Through such experiences of nature, I do hope you feel the importance of environmental conservation and sustainability, which we have come to understand from the knowledge gained. Also, whether in natural or urban environments with a relaxed mind, looking at various things will definitely strengthen the bridges to connect the knowledge in our minds.

* The information contained herein is current as of January 2021.
* The contents of articles on Meiji.net are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

Takashi Yamamoto
Associate Professor, Organization for the Strategic Coordination of Research and Intellectual Properties, Meiji University
Research fields:
Behavioral ecology

Research themes:
Spatiotemporal distribution dynamics analysis of animals

Main books and papers:
◆“Female-biased stranding in Magellanic penguins”, Current Biology 29, R12–R13 (2019)
◆“Biologging Kaicho Gaku” (Biologging Seabirds Study) (Joint author) Tokai University Publishing, 2018
◆“Statistical integration of tracking and vessel survey data to incorporate life history differences in habitat models”, Ecological Applications 25, 2394–2406 (2015)

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