Science - February 14, 2019

Speaker at Dies Natalis Rory Wilson: Pioneer in tagging animals

Albert Sikkema

The British field ecologist Rory Wilson will be the keynote speaker at Wageningen University’s Dies Natalis (Founders’ Day) on 11 March. He is a specialist in tagging wild animals, and a trailblazer in the use of big data in ecology.

Rory Wilson made his name with his behavioural research on penguins. ©Academia Europaea

For his behavioural research, Wilson has tagged a lot of penguins and other wild animals, so as to monitor their behaviour 24/7/ ‘Wilson is a pioneer in this field,’ says Martin Herold, professor of Geo-information science and remote sensing in Wageningen. ‘He is developing new techniques for obtaining better data on the behaviour of wild animals. To do this, he works on the cutting edge between ecology and technology.’

In the early years, ecologists such as Wilson tagged geese and birds of prey with GPS transmitters – heavy, handmade material. Nowadays they use small, cheap cameras, enabling ecologists to keep track of thousands of animals at the same time. ‘It is a new research field: data science for ecology,’ says Herold. The transmitters are used to monitor changes in populations over longer periods, and to get the measure of poaching in game parks. Drones are used too. Wilson uses the technology to see where migrating birds forage during their flight, what they eat and how their energy balance changes.

Big data
This puts behavioural ecologists in touch with big data and artificial intelligence, says Herold. ‘In the past, ecologists often worked with hypotheses, which they tested using limited observations. Now there is so much data that research has shifted towards finding patterns in the mountain of data. We are looking for undiscovered relationships using algorithms.’

What hasn’t changed is that the animals have to be captured to be fitted with the transmitters and cameras. Wilson also works on finding ways of doing this with minimal impact on the animal’s wellbeing.