New animal tracking system now online at Belle Isle

By: Brendan Losinski | Advertiser Times | Published March 18, 2021

 A new Motus tracking tower, pictured, was recently added to the Belle Isle Nature Center. The new tower will help researchers track tagged animals as part of academic and conservation studies.

A new Motus tracking tower, pictured, was recently added to the Belle Isle Nature Center. The new tower will help researchers track tagged animals as part of academic and conservation studies.

Photo provided by Erin Parker

 Nanotags allow research organizations such as Audubon Great Lakes to track small creatures such as black terns, a bird native to the Great Lakes.

Nanotags allow research organizations such as Audubon Great Lakes to track small creatures such as black terns, a bird native to the Great Lakes.

Photo provided by Erin Rowan

 Tagging animals will result in more complete data thanks to a new Motus tracking tower on Belle Isle.

Tagging animals will result in more complete data thanks to a new Motus tracking tower on Belle Isle.

Photo provided by Erin Rowan

DETROIT — Through a coordinated effort by the Belle Isle Nature Center and the Detroit Zoo, a new wildlife tracking system has been installed that will help researchers learn more about the wildlife of the Great Lakes.

Called the Motus Tracking System — “Motus” being Latin for “movement” — it will better allow researchers to track species that have been tagged in order to study their habits and migratory patterns.

“The Motus wildlife tracking system is an international collaborative research project that was started by Birds Canada and has really just grown tremendously in the last few years, so there are towers all over the globe,” explained Erin Parker, field conservation officer and nature centers manager for the Detroit Zoo. “The goal is to understand the movement of animals, particularly small birds, but also bats, butterflies and dragonflies. That happens when an animal is tagged with a small radio frequency tag — so tiny they can fit on a dragonfly. Each tag is unique, so when that unique signal passes by a tower, it is captured and the signal is logged and we record the data. It’s a great way to gather information about animals who are moving through migration or through different parts of their life cycle.”

The system was installed in late 2018 and early 2019, but getting the system up and running has taken a while. It’s been up and running since February 2020, but required tuning and adjustment to become fully operational — an effort made more difficult by COVID-19 shutting down offices and public spaces.

“It is like an old-fashioned TV antenna you might have seen on top of people’s houses,” said Parker. “It is aimed in several directions so we have good coverage of the island. The range depends on the animal, the tag, the weather, if there is a lot of other interference, but we think it will be getting most of the island and the river most of the time.”

Audubon Great Lakes is among the partners who have been tagging animals and who will use the data collected from the new tower on Belle Isle. Among the projects they will use the data for is the tracking of black terns, a migratory bird native to the Great Lakes.

“We’ve been monitoring black terns for several years and doing adult and chick capture during that time,” said Erin Rowan, senior conservation associate with the Audubon Society of the Great Lakes and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “Adding tagging to the process has allowed us to make observations far more easy. The adults will pass into the passive traps, we go out to the nests — which are often difficult to get to in marshlands, and we then mark the chicks and sometimes the adults with bands to identify them and these new nanotags.”

“From a conservation standpoint, (Motus data) teaches us a lot about how animals move, how long they stay in an area, how and where they try to fuel up prior to migration,” added Parker. “This is especially important because it lets us know which areas we need to focus on preserving or creating habitats for.”

Belle Isle is a strategically important location to collect that data from, according to Parker.

“The Detroit River is what we consider a flyway, which is a river corridor where there is a lot of animal movement during migration,” she said. “We think rivers help them orient themselves during migration. There also are researchers in Canada using Motus, so this adds an international element to the program. Animals don’t care what side of the border they are on when they move.”

Using black terns as an example, Rowan explained why such information is vital to conservation efforts.

“We study black terns because they are a Michigan species of concern which have experienced some population decline,” she said. “In Michigan they have lost between 48% and 71% of their Michigan population and 61% of their national population. In order to learn more about what might be causing that population decline, we need to fill some knowledge gaps about where they are going and where they stay in the winter. Motus tracking allows us to see where they go, where they stop, where they nest and where they are living at various times of the year. It also might allow us to improve their habitats or provide those areas with additional protection.”

She went on to say that Motus allows for opportunities that weren’t possible with previous technologies.

“Motus is really beneficial in some key ways. It is light enough to be used on pre-fledged chicks, they are relatively affordable compared to geolocators, and the data can be retrieved passively whereas geolocators require you recapture the bird to retrieve the data,” Rowan said. “Any new Motus towers can automatically be added to the network and aid other researchers so different groups can coordinate even if they have totally different research goals.”

Among the improvements Motus offers is the ability to track insects, since the small nanotags used as part of Motus are small enough to allow the tagging of creatures that would previously have been impossible.

“Understanding the migration of insects also is very new,” remarked Parker. “We weren’t able to track most species before because they’re so small, but these new small tags allow us, often for the first time, to see where and when they are moving.”

Parker said that this new addition to Belle Isle is both important and timely.

“There’s a lot of interest right now in understanding migration. Spring and fall are the peak migration seasons. We are seeing declining bird populations in these migratory species, so this research will help scientists find out where these problems are occurring and help us understand why,” she said. “I think there’s a conservation side that’s really important and an education side that’s just as important. Many organizations host antennas and others use the data. Anyone can go in and look at the data. There’s so much that can be gathered using this information, it’s really incredible.”