'Aeroecology' uses radar to track flying animals
Published: 18th Feb 2011 22:47:51
The study of birds, bats and flying insects could be transformed by the use of technology designed for tracking storms, researchers say.
Meteorologists once treated the signals from flying animals as a nuisance that complicated their measurements.
But recent improvements in computing power and networking of radar stations have turned that nuisance signal into a valuable data source on animal ecology.
A panel told the AAAS conference that radar could spot a single bee at 50km.
Further improvements to the technique must be made before that level of resolution can be reached, however; now it is the storms that are complicating the signals that interest biologists.
But pioneer of the "aeroecology" field, Thomas Kunz, of Boston University, told the conference why radar is needed.
"One of the limitations we have in working with small animals like birds and bats and insects is that you can't put large satellite radio transmitters on them to understand their movements.
I paused and said, 'you can estimate the number of raindrops in a raincloud? Do you think we could estimate the number of bats in a bat cloud?'”
"So the whole concept of aeroecology is an integrated approach using many different tools to try to answer the questions about how organisms move and use the aerosphere."
Phillip Chilson is a meteorologist from the University of Oklahoma, who has been working with radar for two decades. He explained why radar is a potentially transformative tool for aeroecology.
"We already have well-developed networks of radar around the country and around the world - used for tracking weather and for tracking airplanes.
"There are as many as 510 government-owned and maintained radar (installations) in the US and 156 for weather radar; Europe has in the order of 200. We have a wonderful tool that we can use for exploring biology without much outlay of money from scientific sources."
Dr Chilson and Professor Kunz recently teamed up with biologist Winifred Frick of the University of California, Santa Cruz to look into the mystery of bat movements.
"Dr Kunz and I were meeting Dr Chilson about a year ago over breakfast and they kept talking about the 'QPE', and finally I asked what it is," Dr Frick told the meeting.
It stands for quantitative precipitation estimator - a numerical method to measure how much rain there is in a storm front.
Animal flight patterns could help scientists monitor how they are affected by man and the environment
"I paused and said, 'you can estimate the number of raindrops in a raincloud? Do you think we could estimate the number of bats in a bat cloud?'"
To calibrate their experiment, the team took a bat into a chamber where the degree to which it reflects radio waves could be measured.
"From those measurements and using radar, we've been able to adapt those QPE measurements to a 'QBE' - a quantitative bat estimator," Dr Frick said.
Although the field is only just getting started, the team's measurements are already paying dividends, Dr Frick later explained to BBC News.
"One of the things that's most exciting to me is that we sometimes see an airmass that's moving, like a weather front, and insects actually get trapped up in that - you can see the insects pooling up along this air mass.
"If this happens to pass over the bat caves at sunset, the bats come out and distribute themselves right along that gust front and presumably gobble up those insects. Marine biologists probably think that kind of thing happens all the time in the ocean, but we've never been able to see that in the aerosphere."
Another aspect of the work is that decades of data from radar stations exists in archives, waiting to be mined for information about flying creatures.
Such a rich data set is crucial in conservation efforts, and understanding how birds, bats and insects are responding to long-term drifts in their environment.
"Lots of people have been able to look at seasonal variations - people do this with plants, to look when the start of spring is changing, how the flowering time changes," Dr Frick explained.
"We didn't have a tool to look at that same kind of process for vertebrates; now we're looking at the timing of purple martins - aerial insectivorous birds - when their migration starts and stops, and we can do that with bats. That'll be really important for understanding the long-term implications for climate change."
Harvard CitationBBC News, 2011. 'Aeroecology' uses radar to track flying animals. [Online] (Updated 18 Feb 2011)
Available at: http://www.manchesterwired.co.uk/news.php/131894-Aeroecology-uses-radar-to-track-flying-animals [Accessed 13th May 2013]
At 18:15:23 in OtherBangladesh has set up a panel to raise the minimum wage for more than three million garment workers, the minister for textiles has said....
At 11:52:59 in OtherOne of Britain's most wanted fugitives has been arrested on Spain's Costa Blanca....
At 10:50:47 in OtherA 17-year-old boy is fighting for his life after being attacked in Manchester city centre, police have said....
At 10:05:34 in OtherA man has been charged with escaping lawful custody after two people were allegedly sprung from a prison van....
At 00:05:36 in OtherStars from the world of TV are preparing for this year's Bafta Awards, with Olympic satire Twenty Twelve and BBC drama Accused among th...
At 10:45:43 in OtherA sheep once sold for slaughter is looking for a new home after turning up on a couple's patio. ...
At 09:33:20 in OtherThousands of football fans from Greater Manchester are making their way to London for the FA Cup final....
At 01:13:49 in OtherA memorial marking the 28th anniversary of the Bradford City football stadium fire, in which 56 people died, is to take place later....
At 21:50:33 in OtherEight people have been arrested in Northern Ireland within the last 24 hours by immigration enforcement officers from the Home Office....
At 19:06:48 in OtherThe second of two men being hunted by police after a prison van escape on 30 April has been recaptured, Greater Manchester Police have said....
News In Other Categories
Jazz and pop singer Caro Emerald's second album, The Shocking Miss Emerald, has shot to the top of the charts, pushing East London dru...
The government has warned overseas graduates who borrowed money to study in the UK that they cannot evade their obligation to repay by movin...
Twelve people have been shot during a Mother's Day parade in the US city of New Orleans, police say....
The police are investigating an alleged serious sexual assault on a teenage girl in west Belfast. ...
Small firms are to be offered cash incentives to encourage them to allow workers to join the military reserves, says defence secretary Phili...
A 15-year-old boy has been charged over an acid attack on a woman in Romford, east London....