Telemetry technology for better conservation

Integrating animal-borne technology with conservation management

It is indisputable that animal-borne telemetry has enriched our understanding of the natural world and the animals that inhabit it. But could it also be providing a better guide to environmental decision making? (Images by Catherine Lynch)

It is indisputable that animal-borne telemetry has enriched our understanding of the natural world and the animals that inhabit it. But could it also be providing a better guide to environmental decision making? (Images by Catherine Lynch)


Key messages:
  • Research using animal telemetry devices can influence conservation decisions, and should be better integrated with management and policy
  • Value-of-information analysis enables a quantitative assessment on the return-on-investment of animal telemetry-derived data for conservation decision-making

(Image by Hamish Campbell)

(Image by Hamish Campbell)

Animal-borne telemetry has revolutionised our ability to study animal movement, species physiology, demography and social structures. It has given us brilliant new insights into how animal behaviours respond to changing environments and has enabled us to better understand threats that animals are experiencing. And yet, for all that, we are still seeing catastrophic declines in biodiversity. Which prompted us to ask: Is our fabulous telemetry technology contributing to better environmental decision making?

While there will always be a need for basic ecological research, the current conservation crisis demands we look more pragmatically at the data required to make informed management decisions. Given the potential of telemetry-derived data to inform conservation decisions, and the various costs involved in collecting these data (eg, financial costs of equipment and salaries, impact on mortality and reproduction of animals involved), it is important to evaluate the conservation benefit of these research techniques.

We recently reflected on what might be the essential elements of such an evaluation (McGowan et al, 2017). We defined a framework that distinguishes how research using animal telemetry devices can influence conservation. In the process, we came up with two critical questions for any researcher looking to use telemetry devices to address conservation challenges:

  1. Would my choice of action change if I had more data?
  2. Is the expected gain worth the money and time required to collect more data?

The fundamental issue involves linking telemetry-derived data to conservation decision-making by explicitly reducing uncertainties concerning management actions relating to where, when and what (where do we act, when and how in order to maximise net benefits to species?).

First, we challenge the assumption that more data will invariably lead to better management. Then we argue for the systematic incorporation of value-of-information analysis to answer these questions (See Decision Point #67).

Our objective is to encourage researchers utilising telemetric technology with an underlying conservation rationale to target their research towards gathering information that is more likely to change actions and maximise species persistence. Our approach helps those thinking they need to use animal telemetry technologies to decide what are the most useful studies to pursue.

To frame the application of telemetry-derived data to conservation management and policy, we note that threats to species viability fall into three broad classes where management actions can intervene: species demographics (birth and death); the amount and quality of available habitat; and connectivity – the ability of a species to colonise or recolonise vacant habitat, or ‘rescue’ a dwindling population. We highlight the conservation opportunities telemetry-derived data provides and offer specific examples of how telemetry data enables managers to choose between conservation actions that abate threats and deliver outcomes for conservation objectives. Given the global investment in telemetry devices for threatened species, we have an ethical and practical obligation to maximise this investment’s benefit to conservation. To improve the conservation return-on-investment in these techniques, we need new tools and frameworks to effectively link the growing catalogue of animal telemetry-derived data to conservation and management.

More info: Jennifer McGowan


McGowan J, M Beger, RL Lewison, R Harcourt, H Campbell, M Priest, RG Dwyer, HY Lin, P Lentini, C Dudgeon, C McMahon, M Watts & HP Possingham (2017). Integrating research using animalborne telemetry with the needs of conservation management. J Appl Ecol 54: 423–429.

(Image by Clive McMahon).

(Image by Clive McMahon).

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