A Long-Term Research Project Gets a Telemetry Upgrade
Archbold Biological Station, located in Lake Placid, Florida, is synonymous with the highest-caliber research on organisms spanning many taxa from birds to snakes and plants. Endemism abounds here, due to the ancient land formation called the Lake Wales Ridge, which was surrounded by water over millions of years of prehistoric sea levels. The result is a unique Florida scrub habitat hosting a suite of species that exist nowhere else on earth. It is here where the Florida Scrub-Jay calls home, and here where for over fifty years scientists have been studying the unique behaviors and life history of this charismatic corvid.
How do animals perceive the world around them and make decisions based on what they see? What better tells us this than movement?
However, obtaining movement data is not an easy task; one can spend hundreds of hours just for a few data points. What does the life of a nonbreeding helper jay look like when it is not helping at the nest? Supposedly these jays explore their surroundings in search of breeding opportunities and interact with potential mates and competitors but none of this had been quantified at the time.
I fondly remember the first pilot field season I had at Archbold Biological Station where I spent countless hours trying to keep up with a jay on foot. Spoiler alert: birds can fly and I cannot. Despite my best efforts, I had to put the project on hold despite my keen interests in what nonbreeding jays do and how their time spent outside their natal territories affect their eventual dispersal. This challenge in studying dispersal movement is nothing new. Tracking movement is difficult, even with technological advances such as VHF and satellite tags that are still labor and time intensive, have exorbitant costs, and are restricted to large bodied organisms.
The commercial availability of CTT LifeTags and SensorStations has opened up a whole new avenue of research by allowing high resolution tracking for smaller organisms at a reasonable cost. For the first time, after 50 years of monitoring this population of Florida Scrub-Jays, we are finally able to monitor an intriguing life stage of nonbreeding jays at an unprecedented scale. After a few days of tagging our first jay, we were already inundated by the amount of data we were receiving and were able to see where our jays going with incredible detail.
We are excited to track multiple jays throughout the season which will help us gain a better understanding of spatial patterns, habitat use, and social interactions of nonbreeding jays which we have never been able to do before.Young Ha Suh, PhD Student, Cornell University