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Science | Books | Flora and Fauna

The Science And Art Of Mapping Animal Movements


A map in Where the Animals Go shows how baboons move near the Mpala Research Centre in Kenya, as tracked by anthropologist Margaret Crofoot and her colleagues in 2012.

A map in Where the Animals Go shows how baboons move near the Mpala Research Centre in Kenya, as tracked by anthropologist Margaret Crofoot and her colleagues in 2012.

Courtesy of Oliver Uberti, Margaret Crofoot, University of California, Davis; Damien Farine, Max Planck Institute for Ornithology

Have you spent quiet time poring over a set of maps? Maybe of a region halfway around the world that you’ve always wanted to visit — or even the mountains or coastlines of your home area?

Maps transport us. They “make the landscape fit indoors, make us masters of sights we can’t see and spaces we can’t cover,” in the words of Robert Harbison.

An award-winning book published in the U.S. Tuesday makes the monumental journeys taken by wild animals fit indoors, too. Where the Animals Go: Tracking Wildlife with Technology in 50 Maps and Graphics by James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti is an enthralling volume, downright gorgeous in its illustrations and text. Its double intent is brilliant, too — to bring each of us closer to the animal world and to highlight fresh ways to think about conservation.

Technology is central to this effort. As Chesire and Uberti explain, a variety of methods including GPS tracking, acoustic tracking, and sunlight-based geolocating have opened up the scope of the science of animal movement and ushered in an era of new precision — a precision inscribed into the graphics in the book.

Poring over these maps is thrilling to me. My love of Yellowstone National Park sent me right to “The Elk of Greater Yellowstone” chapter, based on the work of ecologist Arthur Middleton. Each May, the book says, 25,000 elk begin to head for grass-filled pastures inside the park. The travel path of a single elk — GPS-collared adult female #35342, a member of the Cody herd — is highlighted, enabling us to envision one animal’s journey.

Starting out in her winter feeding grounds in Cody, Wy., female #35342 walked 80 km (about 50 mi) to Yellowstone National Park. We may trace her route with our fingers as well as our eyes, imagining, to the extent a human being can imagine, what it must have been like to stop within Shoshone National Forest to give birth to a calf, or to accomplish so much on a single June day: “Mother and calf descended 1,500 meters, forded the South Fork Shoshone, and climbed to Fall Creek Pass in one 18-hour slog.”

Soon thereafter, this elk entered Yellowstone National Park, where she remained until October snows pushed her, and her herd, to begin the long trek back to Cody.

National park boundaries aren’t significant for these elk, or for any other non-human animal. In a stirring passage, Cheshire and Uberti write:

“We can see how the lifeblood of the world’s first national park also depends on protecting land outside its borders. And once you see that — once you see that twice a year elk are hoofing across 23 million acres of state, private, tribal, and federal boundaries on trails that predate them all — it’s hard not to question our reasons for rending wilderness into so many scraps, each with its own agenda and regulations. Elk use the land as one big, interconnected system. Perhaps we might learn to do the same.”

The science of animal behavior is highlighted in these maps, too. Based on the work of anthropologist Margaret Crofoot and her colleagues, “How Baboons Move as One” tells the story of GPS-collared olive baboons that are part of a troop near the Mpala Research Center in Kenya. We see how these monkeys move over a four-week period, but also how they collectively decide where to move.

After the monkeys descend their sleeping tree on one August morning, an adult female and juvenile begin to forage in an open field. They aren’t high-ranking animals, but other baboons begin to follow their lead. Not every monkey agrees with this choice and the troop pauses at one point; an adult male “runs back to gather the stragglers.” The majority of monkeys have voted with their feet to join the original pair, and before long, the two dominant baboons join in. Here is primate shared decision-making in action, one that isn’t dependent on hierarchy.

Years ago I studied baboons in Kenya, so it’s true that I turned first to chapters based on animals I’ve observed either scientifically or informally. But there’s a genuine bounty here, and it’s all enthralling, from “The Warblers Who Dodged Tornadoes,” “The Sharks Pardoned by Data” and “The Pythons in the Everglades” to “The Otters Reclaiming Their Range” and “The Fishers Sneaking Through Suburbia.”

Editors James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti wrote that they hope the book “will inspire discourse about the geographic needs of animals.” I asked them to unpack that phrase and to talk about their overall goals for the book. Their email responses have been edited for length.

Uberti: “[In the last ten years], the miniaturization of computing power, coupled with advances in data transmission methods and data analysis software, have allowed scientists to follow the journeys of individuals from many more species — on land, sea, and sky.

One of my goals for this book from the start was to connect people to the lives and intentional choices of individual animals. We see individuality in our pets; it’s much harder to see in the wild. As a result, to some, elk in Yellowstone or baboons in Kenya may seem like furry robots following a predetermined ‘Westworld’ sort of loop. We hope our book shifts that thinking.

In terms of geographic needs, the point to stress is that to protect animals, we must protect where they go. Tracking technologies allow us to see habitats we can’t see for ourselves: the undersea rest stops of humpback whales; the mid-ocean feeding areas of albatrosses; the nocturnal wanderings of a jaguar. With such fine-scale geographic information, we hope to show how conservation efforts could be targeted on specific areas at specific times of year.”

Cheshire: “From my perspective as a geographer, of course, the word ‘geographic’ is the key to that sentence. It means so much more than the distances an animal can cover. Geography as a discipline explores humans’ interactions with the environment and each other. I wanted us to apply a similar approach to the animals in our book. As we show, their survival depends on a huge number of interrelated interactions.’

I asked the authors about the massive collaboration required to pull this book off.

Cheshire: “Every graphic was a collaborative effort, but we each played to our strengths. I did the data processing and plotting of the maps. Oliver cleaned hairballs of data to highlight the stories of individual animals in addition to creating the book’s layout, typography, and illustrations. However, none of our efforts would have been possible without the hundreds of scientists who put in the hours getting their work funded, the months collecting data in the field, and the years, in some cases, back in their labs doing the analysis, writing it up, and sharing it.”

Uberti: “An extraordinary amount of research and reporting went into this book. The book’s structure mirrors our efforts. [For example], I travelled to Kenya to write an essay about elephant tracking. James went to Iceland to write one on tracking killer whales.”

This collaboration sings in perfect harmony. Every now and then, an exceptional book stops me in my tracks because it brings alive the beauty of the natural world in a fresh way. Where the Animals Go is just that book.


Barbara J. King is an anthropology professor emerita at the College of William and Mary. She often writes about the cognition, emotion and welfare of animals, and about biological anthropology, human evolution and gender issues. Barbara’s new book is Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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