ASHEBORO — It’s an unusual scene. Chris Shupp is standing in a forest, hooking up antennas and radio receivers. There's a stark contrast of technology against a mass of trees.
“You make sure everything is connected, and then turn it on to the frequency you want and adjust the gain,” says Shupp, as he stands up and begins to slowly move the antenna in a semi-circle. “That widens the direction you are shooting, and then you hold this up and try to zero in on where the frog is.”
Shupp is out here searching for the Pine Barrens tree frog. The species was named North Carolina’s state frog in 2016. The little tree frog inherits its name from the habitat it calls home: the longleaf pine ecosystem. Also known as the Pine Barrens, the ecosystem is found all along the east coast of the United States. The wetlands areas of longleaf pine forests grow moss, ferns and other plants creating areas that are too acidic for many amphibians—except the Pine Barren tree frog.
The trouble is, the longleaf pine ecosystem is disappearing. In many locations, it's being developed into tracts of housing and shopping malls. And while amphibians worldwide are in decline, primarily for the same reason, what’s happening in North Carolina is bad news for the state’s favorite frog.
But it’s difficult to protect a species when not much is known about it. This is where researchers at the North Carolina Zoo, like Shupp, come in. They are tracking the Pine Barren tree frog to learn more about its habitat, its range and what it needs to survive.
“We decided we’d do a telemetry study to look at the movements of the frogs and how they are utilizing their habitat, what influences their movements and where they live in proximity to water,” says Shupp, as he begins to walk through the woods, waving the antenna slowly back and forth in front of him. “Ideally we’d like to get a visual on the frog without being disruptive. So if it’s buried under a Sphagnum mat, unless it hasn’t moved in several tracking events, we’ll just mark that spot.”
Telemetry studies require capturing an animal and attaching a radio or satellite transmitter to its body. Usually the batteries on the device last for a month or two before running out of power. The tracking devices are also designed to not hinder the animal's movements and to fall off after a period of time.
But the question is, how do you a track a little frog? The answer: with an even smaller, frog-sized tracking belt. The transmitter itself weighs about as much as an aspirin, which is about .3 grams.
Twenty frogs were outfitted with tracking devices; the battery lasts 40-50 days. The researchers tracking the frogs go out three times per week to record the locations where they find the frogs. So far, the study has found that Pine Barrens tree frogs have a very small range, but that range is very moisture dependent.
Tree frog telemetry is just one example of the expertise of zoo staff in the science of animal tracking. The device used on Ziggy is another example.
“Ziggy is an example of nature’s cleanup crew,” explains Zoo Keeper Sarah McCrory. Ziggy is a 1 1/2 year old black vulture. “They’re out there eating dead animals and what makes them so successful is that they have acidic stomachs," McCrory said, "so when they eat something that has died of a disease, they actually process and remove the disease from the environment.”
When Ziggy stops flying around and sits on a branch, you can spot the GSM-GPS transmitter on her back. It’s a small silver disk, about the size of a quarter, with a black wire sticking out of it.
The GSM-GPS transmitters use cell phone signals, which are less expensive than satellite tracking systems. Zoo researchers are using the devices to track vultures like Ziggy in Kenya and Tanzania. The transmitters send out data once a day showing locations and flying altitude. Several months of tracking data reveals the birds cover almost 125 miles per day. That type of information is critical in developing plans to protect the birds.
While the technology may be changing, the science isn't. The North Carolina Zoo has 15 years of experience in animal tracking, starting with elephants in Cameroon. Researchers recently added Nigerian elephants to their list.
To track these much larger creatures, biologists tranquilize the elephants and outfit them with giant collars that have satellite tracking systems attached. Zoo staff and local park rangers are using the tracking data to learn more about the animals' land requirements. The tracking system also alerts rangers when the elephants stray from protected areas.
The devices protect the elephants in two important ways: they alert rangers so they know where the elephants are before the poachers do, and they also help ensure that the elephants stay within the National Parks. Elephants sometimes move out of protected areas into people’s farms, and that creates a huge conflict with villages due to serious farm damage caused by the elephants. The trackers help prevent this.
So from the Pine Barrens tree frog, to Nigerian elephants, researchers at the North Carolina Zoo are tracking animals of different sizes, from different places, to provide the help they need.
“Conservation is an important part of the zoo mission,” explains Dr. Corinne Kendall, Associate Curator of Conservation and Animal Research at the North Carolina Zoo. “We focus conservation efforts on North Carolina species as well as animals in Africa because those are the animals and their habitats that we have represented at the zoo. So we give people a chance to learn about the animals but we also help to protect the relatives of these animals in the wild.”