The popularity of implanting electronic devices such as transmitters and data loggers into captive and free-ranging animals has increased greatly in the past two decades. The devices have become smaller, more reliable, and more capable (Printz 2004; Wilson and Gifford 2005; Metcalfe et al. 2012). Compared with externally mounted devices, implanted devices are largely invisible to external viewers such as tourists and predators; exist in a physically protected, thermally stable environment in mammals and birds; and greatly reduce drag and risk of entanglement. An implanted animal does not outgrow its device or attachment method as can happen with collars and harnesses, which allows young animals to be more safely equipped. However, compared with mounting external devices, implantation requires greater technical ability to perform the necessary anesthesia, analgesia, and surgery.
More than 83% of publications in the 1990s that used radiotelemetry on animals assumed that there were no adverse effects on the animal (Godfrey and Bryant 2003). It is likely that some studies using implanted electronic devices have not been published due to a high level of unexpected mortality or to aberrant behavior or disappearance of the implanted animals, a phenomenon known as the “file drawer” problem (Rosenthal 1979; Scargle 2000). The near absence of such studies from the published record may be providing a false sense of security that procedures being used are more innocuous than they actually are. Similarly, authors sometimes state that it was unlikely that device implantation was problematic because study animals appeared to behave normally, or authors state that previous investigators used the same technique and saw no problems. Such statements are suppositions if no supporting data are provided or if the animals were equipped because there was no other way to follow their activity. Moreover, such suppositions ignore other adverse effects that affect behavior indirectly, and animals often mask the signs of infection to avoid attracting predators (Wobeser 2006).
Guidance specific to sterilization of electronic devices for implantation is limited in the wildlife record (Burger et al. 1994; Mulcahy 2003). Few biologists have been formally trained in aseptic technique, but most biologists know that electronic devices should be treated in some way to reduce the chance for infection of the host animal by bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi. Most biologists (73%) who implant devices into fishes believe aseptic techniques are important (Wagner and Cooke 2005). However, I maintain that many biologists find it difficult to place the concept of asepsis into practice in their work because of confusion about what constitutes aseptic technique, a lack of surgical knowledge and training, the perception of increased costs, or the belief that aseptic surgeries are impractical or unnecessary for their application. Some have even argued that, while compromising surgical techniques in the field might result in complications or mortalities, the money saved would allow for a compensatory increase in sample size (Anderson and Talcott 2006).
In this paper I define aseptic surgical techniques, document the legal and professional guidance for performing aseptic surgeries on wild animals, and present options for sterilizing electronic devices and surgical instruments for field use.