Performance and retention of lightweight satellite radio tags applied to the ears of polar bears (Ursus maritimus)

Animal Biotelemetry
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Abstract

Background

Satellite telemetry studies provide information that is critical to the conservation and management of species affected by ecological change. Here we report on the performance and retention of two types (SPOT-227 and SPOT-305A) of ear-mounted Argos-linked satellite transmitters (i.e., platform transmitter terminal, or PTT) deployed on free-ranging polar bears in Eastern Greenland, Baffin Bay, Kane Basin, the southern Beaufort Sea, and the Chukchi Sea during 2007–2013.

Results

Transmissions from 142 out of 145 PTTs deployed on polar bears were received for an average of 69.3 days. The average functional longevity, defined as the number of days they transmitted while still attached to polar bears, for SPOT-227 was 56.8 days and for SPOT-305A was 48.6 days. Thirty-four of the 142 (24%) PTTs showed signs of being detached before they stopped transmitting, indicating that tag loss was an important aspect of tag failure. Furthermore, 10 of 26 (38%) bears that were re-observed following application of a PTT had a split ear pinna, suggesting that some transmitters were detached by force. All six PTTs that were still on bears upon recapture had lost the antenna, which indicates that antenna breakage was a significant contributor to PTT failure. Finally, only nine of the 142 (6%) PTTs—three of which were still attached to bears—had a final voltage reading close to the value indicating battery exhaustion. This suggests that battery exhaustion was not a major factor in tag performance.

Conclusions

The average functional longevity of approximately 2 months for ear-mounted PTTs (this study) is poor compared to PTT collars fitted to adult female polar bears, which can last for several years. Early failure of the ear-mounted PTTs appeared to be caused primarily by detachment from the ear or antenna breakage. We suggest that much smaller and lighter ear-mounted transmitters are necessary to reduce the risk of tissue irritation, tissue damage, and tag detachment, and with a more robust antenna design. Our results are applicable to other tag types (e.g., iridium and VHF systems) and to research on other large mammals that cannot wear radio collars.

Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Performance and retention of lightweight satellite radio tags applied to the ears of polar bears (Ursus maritimus)
Series title Animal Biotelemetry
DOI 10.1186/s40317-017-0124-0
Volume 5
Year Published 2017
Language English
Publisher BioMed Central
Contributing office(s) Alaska Science Center Biology MFEB
Description Article 9; 11 p.
First page 1
Last page 11
Country Canada, Greenland, United States