Caribou herds get new wearable tech

Monitoring huge herds of caribou as they move across vast landscapes in Yukon and Alaska has long been a labour-intensive process for researchers. But new tools like GPS and camera collars are revolutionizing how they track the well-being of the herd.
Porcupine caribou cross the Babbage River in the Yukon. (Peter Mather)

Researchers in Canada's north are using new technology to help track the health of herds of caribou. Porcupine caribou, which travel between Alaska and the Northwest Territories during their annual migration, are being fitted with collars that track location, motion, and other data, and relay that information back to the researchers using a satellite phone.

Mike Suitor is a regional biologist with Environment Yukon. Previously Mike and his fellow researchers used collars equipped with radio frequency devices that required them to fly over the area and attempt to find a signal.

Regional biologist with Environment Yukon, Mike Suitor, holding a 40000 year old helmeted muskox skull from the Dawson area.

One of the issues researchers face is the caribou range. "These caribou are always moving and cover huge landscapes and do some of the largest migrations in the world," Mike said. "We're talking thousands of kilometres, so it's an order of magnitude greater than almost any land mammal in the world."

Now what we're getting is massive amounts of data and really the biggest challenges we have are data management.- Mike Suitor

Mike said it could take 3 or 4 days of flying over the area to find the herd using the old collars.

Mike Suitor was in Inuvik, Northwest Territories 

"Now we're able to have collars that basically email us where these caribou are," Mike said. "In the past where we got three or four locations over the course of a year, we get more than that in a single day now. So we're able to know at a very fine level...where these  caribou are at at any given time." 

Some of the collars include cameras, which take 10 second bursts of video every 30 minutes. This allows researchers to get a better idea of the animals' diet.  "In the past," Mike said, "what we'd have to do is fly out there, find those caribou, pick up their poop, and then send it for analysis. With these new camera collars we can find out precisely what they're eating." 

The collar that researchers are using to track the porcupine caribou. (Martin Kienzler)

The collars also collect data the angle of the animal's head, which can help researchers understand more about their eating habits. "Now what we're getting is massive amounts of data," Mike said, "and really the biggest challenges we have are data management."

While some of this technology has been used in the past on larger animals, like bears and elephants, smaller and more powerful batteries and components are allowing researchers to use these sorts of collars on much smaller animals. "Some of these things are becoming so small you can even attach them on a little grouse," Mike said.

Around the world, many herds of caribou are at historic lows, but Mike reported that the porcupine caribou are doing well. "We know that the herd increases and decreases through time, but at this time they seem very healthy, the numbers seem good, and we're quite happy with where that herd is at."