Identifying areas around the world that can best contribute to the conservation of wild animals is a major challenge. Historically, this often required conducting extensive surveys in the field, but with the advent of miniature tracking technology we can now follow animals and allow them to indicate which areas they depend on the most. A new tool developed by BirdLife International and a network of international collaborators now makes it easy to delineate areas of importance for conservation from such tracking data.

The use of animal tracking data to unravel the mysteries of the lives of animals is experiencing a golden age. Hundreds of studies are published each year on the movements of species ranging in size from fruit flies to blue whales, all recorded using electronic devices. The potential these data have to inform nature conservation is immense and well-recognized; however, the analysis of such data is not a trivial task.

Various international agreements exist which influence the conservation and management of nature around the globe. For example, under the Convention on Biological Diversity, countries have set the important goal of protecting a portion of the earth’s surface for the benefit of nature. But selecting which areas would most benefit from recognition and protection is a difficult task.

Protected areas are often designated in locations with few competing development interests, but those are not necessarily the areas that most benefit biodiversity. Identifying areas which are key to wildlife is a central task for conservation biologists, but far from straightforward given the vast distances travelled by many animals So how can tracking data help with this fundamental undertaking?

Thousands of birds and other animals are now tracked with small electronic devices that record their journeys in great detail. – Egyptian Vulture © Pavel Stepanek

Developing methods to identify important sites for wildlife

In 2009, a group of 26 researchers from around the world met in a workshop organized by BirdLife International in the small French village of Chizé, with the aim of determining how best to use seabird tracking data to inform the identification of marine Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas; sites of recognized importance for seabirds.

The group focused mostly on highly threatened albatrosses and large petrels, which routinely roam thousands of kilometers across oceans and are thereby difficult to observe and study directly. The aim was to develop methods for identifying marine areas that are most critical for these birds. The outcome of this meeting was an outline of practical steps and considerations for translating seabird tracking data into delineated sites of importance for seabirds at sea.

However, times change, and given our ability to follow the movements of numerous other animal species at sea and on land through tracking technology, it became clear that the methods developed for seabirds likely had much wider applicability.

Participants of the BirdLife International 2009 workshop in Chizé, France to discuss the use of seabird tracking data for important site identification

Generalizing the methods – testing on other animals

Although the methods were developed with seabirds in mind, the fact that immense amounts of tracking data are being collected on all sorts of animals begged the question of whether the method would be applicable to other systems. Does it only work for marine species? Would it work for species that swim rather than fly?

We built on the efforts by previous research teams, to revisit the method, and test it in several contrasting systems. In a new paper published this week in Methods in Ecology and Evolution, we show how the methods long used for seabirds can enhance our understanding of where critically important areas are for other species, such as seals, turtles, and storks.

Importantly, we also created a software tool, called ‘track2KBA’, which facilitates the implementation of the methods for future users. Along with the scientific paper, this tool comes with extensive help pages and examples, which hopefully assists others working on different species and in novel contexts.

Soaring White Storks congregate on migration. We found that the package is well suited to identify sites where migrants likely stop to rest and re-fuel along the journey © Steffen Oppel

Mapping hotspots of biodiversity

More natural areas need to be protected around the world to prevent further species extinctions and help the recovery of wildlife populations. In many regions, intensive surveys have already identified important areas, but for many remote regions on land or at sea, we lack the necessary information to decide whether a region is worth protecting. This new tool allows animals themselves to inform us of which parts of the planet should be protected to best support wildlife populations, regardless how remote those areas may be.

Bull fur seal on South Georgia. The software tool 'track2KBA' was used to show that important sites at seas could be identified for this species based on tracking data © Richard A. Phillips.


This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 766417. This communication reflects only the authors’ views, and the Research Executive Agency of the European Union is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.

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