Thursday, 22 September 2016

Pioneering 'diaries' reveal the secret lives of animals

By Robert Thompson Science writer, BBC News, Swansea
9 September 2016

How do you tell if an elephant is having a good day? Or spy on the nocturnal squid-catching skills of the albatross?

This week at the British Science Festival, Prof Rory Wilson of Swansea University has been divulging the secrets of the animal kingdom, including penguin diving habits, albatross hunting methods and the emotional states of elephants.

"The problem with animals is we often want to know things about them that they don't want to tell us or that aren't easy to find out. The only way to do it is to put something on [the animal] that will accompany it," Prof Wilson said.

Leaving the bustling hub of the festival, which has taken over the Swansea campus all week, I was shown into the nerve centre of Prof Wilson's animal surveillance operation. The room is dominated by a huge, 2m-by-3m screen displaying all sorts graphs that wouldn't look amiss in a Nasa control room.

Addressing a crowd of journalists, Prof Wilson said his work was all made possible by a small electronic chip his team developed specifically to stalk animals in their private hours.

This chip contains accelerometers, magnetometers, pressure, temperature and light sensors - offering an unprecedented view of an animal's life.

The tag, Prof Wilson explained, essentially does exactly what our smartphones or fitness monitors do, continually tracking and recording the wearer's position and movements.

"This is a novel written by an animal. It's very exciting to be the first person to open that novel."

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