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Tracking animals in freshwater with electronic tags: past, present and future

Steven J Cooke1*, Jonathan D Midwood1, Jason D Thiem1, Peter Klimley2, Martyn C Lucas3, Eva B Thorstad4, John Eiler5, Chris Holbrook6 and Brendan C Ebner7

Author Affiliations

1 Fish Ecology and Conservation Physiology Laboratory, Department of Biology, Carleton University, 1125 Colonel By Dr., Ottawa, ON, Canada

2 Biotelemetry Laboratory, Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology, University of California at Davis, Davis, CA, USA

3 Aquatic Animal Ecology Research Group, School of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Durham University, Durham, UK

4 Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, Trondheim, Norway

5 Auke Bay Laboratories, Alaska Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, Juneau, AK, USA

6 Hammond Bay Biological Station, United States Geological Survey, Millersburg, MI, USA

7 Tropical Landscapes Joint Venture, CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences & TropWATER, James Cook University, Atherton, QLD, Australia

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Animal Biotelemetry 2013, 1:5  doi:10.1186/2050-3385-1-5

Published: 1 May 2013


Considerable technical developments over the past half century have enabled widespread application of electronic tags to the study of animals in the wild, including in freshwater environments. We review the constraints associated with freshwater telemetry and biologging and the technical developments relevant to their use. Technical constraints for tracking animals are often influenced by the characteristics of the animals being studied and the environment they inhabit. Collectively, they influence which and how technologies can be used and their relative effectiveness. Although radio telemetry has historically been the most commonly used technology in freshwater, passive integrated transponder (PIT) technology, acoustic telemetry and biologgers are becoming more popular. Most telemetry studies have focused on fish, although an increasing number have focused on other taxa, such as turtles, crustaceans and molluscs. Key technical developments for freshwater systems include: miniaturization of tags for tracking small-size life stages and species, fixed stations and coded tags for tracking large samples of animals over long distances and large temporal scales, inexpensive PIT systems that enable mass tagging to yield population- and community-level relevant sample sizes, incorporation of sensors into electronic tags, validation of tag attachment procedures with a focus on maintaining animal welfare, incorporation of different techniques (for example, genetics, stable isotopes) and peripheral technologies (for example, geographic information systems, hydroacoustics), development of novel analytical techniques, and extensive international collaboration. Innovations are still needed in tag miniaturization, data analysis and visualization, and in tracking animals over larger spatial scales (for example, pelagic areas of lakes) and in challenging environments (for example, large dynamic floodplain systems, under ice). There seems to be a particular need for adapting various global positioning system and satellite tagging approaches to freshwater. Electronic tagging provides a mechanism to collect detailed information from imperilled animals and species that have no direct economic value. Current and future advances will continue to improve our knowledge of the natural history of aquatic animals and ecological processes in freshwater ecosystems while facilitating evidence-based resource management and conservation.

Acoustic telemetry; Biotelemetry; Coded tags; Passive integrated transponder; Radio telemetry