That track sucks me into an animal’s world and invites me to be a part of it. When I walk in the outdoors, there are secrets revealed everywhere.
Jim Lowery, Founder of Earth Skills, Author, and Animal Tracking Expert
Animal tracking has been practiced for thousands of years by biologists, conservationists, researchers, and hobbyists. While ancient motives for this were less than altruistic, modern day animal trackers are more interested in studying and protecting the environment we all share. Animal tracking not only provides an in-depth knowledge of animal behavior and movement, but it also allows a broader understanding of how societal development could hamper or benefit animal populations. And while animal tracking has changed drastically due to advances in modern technology, the human element remains of critical importance.
For millennia, animals were more adept at navigating the planet than humans were. Efforts to track animals usually resorted to a crude combination of persistence and chance: following trails, studying an animal’s habits, and perhaps safely capturing and tagging such an animal only to release it and hope to find it again. That formula is still very much in use, but the technology that aids it has come along way since its origins.
In the early 1800s, John James Audubon, a now legendary ornithologist, set out to log all the birds of America. Such an audacious goal began with modest means and introduced one of the earliest scientific forms of animal tracking technology in America: bird-banding. By tying silver strings around the legs of small passerine birds known as Eastern Phoebes, Audubon was able to observe that the same birds were returning to the same nesting sites each year—a revelation at the time. Bird-banding is still used today to identify and study a number of different species.
The downside of such a method, however, is twofold. First, the animal must be captured (in the case of bird-banding, with a relatively safe mist net). Second, the animal is effectively “off the grid” until it’s seen and identified again. The data from tracking in this manner, therefore, is limited to the area of the bird’s release and the bird’s destination.
For more precise and real-time information, animal trackers had to wait until the invention of radar. During World War II, operators noticed phantom signals flying across their screens. What were originally termed as “radar angels” turned out to be flocks of birds. And what once was considered a bug is now most definitely a feature, as scientists still use advanced radar technology to track avian migrations.
The breakthrough of taking advances in modern communication technology and applying them to animal tracking yielded a series of breakthroughs in the mid to late 20th century. The US Bureau of Commercial Fisheries began using an offshoot of sonar technology called acoustic telemetry to study fish and marine wildlife. Very High Frequency (VHF) telemetry sought to collar or tag land animals with transmitters to study their movements within range of a local transmitter. While this led to unprecedented insights into the real-time behavior and movements of animals, they were contingent upon the tracker being within a set range of the animal subject. Similarly, photo-identification methods, such as logging the unique dorsal fin patterns of whales—which are personalized much in the way human fingerprints are—resulted in a familiar set of limitations for animal trackers.
The advent of GPS and satellite tracking in the mid 1990s gave scientists a more complete and accurate picture of animal movement, as they could now track an animal’s transmitter from a great distance in real time. No longer did trackers have to follow the animal physically in order to get data on where that animal was going or had gone, whether it be avian, marine, or land-based wildlife. Such technology has been used to discover birthing patterns, migratory movements, population numbers, and endangered species risks. It has also helped uncover protection strategies that save animals’ lives and provided what is needed for them to thrive.
As technology gets more advanced and, critically, cheaper, the effectiveness and utility of animal tracking will grow in tandem. Already, commercial applications have sprouted up for hobbyists and pet owners. For hobbyists, the National Audubon Society (named after the 19th century ornithologist), in addition to all the conservation work it does, offers its member-birders tips on using modern technology that can help forecast the location and migration of certain bird populations.
On the pet-owner side, implantable microchips can act as permanent forms of detailed identifiers for dogs and cats, and lightweight GPS collars can provide a way to recover a lost pet. Such advances have been applied to a wider spectrum as well, with some countries using microchips as a way of logging vaccination records, and regulating international trade in endangered animals. And the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service uses microchips in the research and identification of an enormous range of animals.
While meant for the benefit of animals, not all of these technological applications have been harmless. Certain forms of radio transmitter tracking have been flagged as possibly harmful to some birds. And since attaching transmitters to animals also adds weight or restricts movement, it’s possible that the tracked animal’s behavior or welfare will be altered from what it would otherwise have been. And, most frighteningly, certain GPS applications used to track endangered species can be hacked by the very poachers that those applications’ tracking data is meant to help stop.
One divergently old-school trend that has seen an uptick in animal tracking is citizen science. Volunteers in the field can now upload photographic data and precise identification samples to a massive database, sharing data with other volunteers. Audubon and many other wildlife societies are learning how to harness the natural resource of environmentally-conscious citizens. And by putting more eyes in the field, there’s less need for possibly harmful technology and interference with the animal of interest, and an increase in wider awareness of environmental issues in the human population. The barrier for entry for participation is low, the cost is nil, and the societal impact is high. This evolution of process and mindset can and should go hand-in-hand with further evolutions in animal tracking technology.
One example is CyberTracker, a non-profit using GPS and smartphone technology to empower animal tracking across scientific and indigenous communities in Africa, Australia, Canada, and South America. They envision a crowdsourced, cloud-based data system for tracking information that can have positive implications for animal migration, anti-poaching, farming, disease prevention, and more. Developed on the hypothesis that animal tracking was the origin of science, they foresee a world of hybridity where technology and ancient methods work hand in hand for a brighter collective future.
Humans will always track animals. Scientists will continue monitoring for ways in which their tracking could harm the animals they seek to help, and modify their methods for a more benign and less intrusive solution. Tracking devices are getting smaller and lighter, costing less and lasting longer.
In the future, nanotechnology may be able to track an animal for the entire course of its life cycle, and yield data not only about the animal but also the vast stretch of area in which it lives and moves. And more and more people will get involved as citizen scientists, making connections and making a difference a little at a time. For a discipline that had its origins in spears and bows and arrows, animal tracking has evolved into having a drastically different purpose: seeking out animals simply to protect them, to learn about and from them, and to improve the common planet that we share.
Few could claim to be more of a purist when it comes to animal tracking than Jim Lowery, founder of Earth Skills. An expert tracking consultant for field studies of mammals, he’s taught hundreds of workshops in animal tracking and survival skills over the past 30 years. In addition to his work as a teacher and consultant, he’s the author of The Tracker’s Field Guide and Walk with the Animal. He takes an intuitive and introspective approach to the art of animal tracking, where the need for technology is at an absolute minimum.
“I was 42 and burned out from a suit and tie job,” Mr. Lowery says, in regards to how he got started in animal tracking. “I wanted a career change.”
He considered a degree in wildlife biology, but, having already spent years in a PhD in another subject, he felt an impulse to just get out into the field and do something. He’d chanced across a book on animal tracking by Tom Brown, Jr, and, taken by the incredible depth of the art, Mr. Lowery enrolled in classes on animal tracking and wilderness survival. With a little money saved up, he then spent a year performing extensive field practice. Bitten by the bug, he started his own school, and began teaching, writing, and practicing something that he truly loved.
“I was having a blast,” he says. “It was just what my spirit needed.”
As a child, he’d always felt at home in nature, and he’d often spend time writing about animals. But it took until adulthood to find the precise application for this sense of connection.
“Ever since I learned tracking, the tracks have had a spark to them,” he says. “They were not just marks on the ground. They had life. My reaction to a track was like how some people react to a special song, or a painting or a photo that really grabs them. That track sucks me into an animal’s world and invites me to be a part of it. When I walk in the outdoors, there are secrets revealed everywhere.”
Whereas most modern approaches to animal tracking lean heavily on technological assistance, Jim’s approach has veered in the entirely opposite direction, to retrieve something more ancient and bring it alongside the modern skills. A leap in his practice occurred when he learned to read mood and motion in tracks. He studied videos, observed animals in the wild, and eventually he could visualize, even feel in his body, precisely how a particular animal moved. This would form the basis for his intuitive approach and resulted in crisp tracking encounters, allowing moments of vivid contact with a cougar, a coyote, or a mouse.
“Intuitive tracking was hard for me at first,” he says. “I didn’t trust it and thus felt distant from the stories of indigenous trackers for whom spirit tracking seemed to be so natural.”
After repeatedly hitting a wall and losing trails, he set out on a two-and-a-half year project to trail 100 animals, from small to large, in all sorts of conditions. From this he learned how to fluently access, interpret, and verify intuitive impressions. The tracks are no longer just tracks to him, but forms of communication.
“Walking with the animal, as opposed to looking for where it went, is never automatic,” he says. “It requires the proper attitude, and you really need to listen in an open and humble way.”
Often starting in a technical manner, Mr. Lowery will begin by studying a set of physical tracks to gauge the animal’s gait, speed, posture, and mood from the spacing and sequencing of a trail, including studying the soil movement in each track that is caused by the animal’s change of balance in every step.
But, according to Mr. Lowery it’s common for amateur trackers to take the technical elements too far, and superimpose the human idea of “where I would go” onto a trail, which is not necessarily what an animal will do. Connecting with the more spiritual origins of animal tracking, he will ask permission to follow the animal when reading a trail. From there, he’ll do his best to visualize and imitate the rhythm with which the animal has been moving.
“I try to intuitively read the animal’s signature, something unique about this individual that I can reference as I walk with it, so as to stay on its trail,” he says. “The technical and intuitive impressions actually merge.”
In an increasingly digitized and less physical world, Mr. Lowery focuses on an essential connection to the deep reservoir of ancestry shared between humans and animals. And, ironically, the digital world is filled with testimonials to the decidedly visceral experience of tracking in this intuitive manner. So if you’ve got a connection to the outdoors, and a bug to get out and do something new, there’s a world full of secrets out there waiting to be revealed to you.