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Wild Green

Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.


When Tagging Wild Animals Goes Wrong

 by Keith Goetzman


Tags: animals, animal rights, wildlife, wildlife tagging, bird banding, radio telemetry, science, ethics, environment, Keith Goetzman,

Tagged elephant seal and scientists, Antarctica

Scientists who study wild animals have long faced a dilemma: In order to study their subjects, they must get very close to the animals, sometimes even capturing or tranquilizing them to do diagnostics or attach a tag or radio transmitter. And this can harm the animal. 

Many of these measures yield valuable information. For instance, tagging birds with leg bands is a long established tool in assessing and tracking bird populations, and radio telemetry and satellite tracking are turning up rich data on all sorts of sea and land animals. But sometimes the scientists’ interventions can significantly affect the animals—even killing them—and there’s long been tension between animal advocates and wildlife researchers over the ethics of this type of research. Sometimes there’s even disagreement among scientists themselves. 

Last month, for instance, a scientist announced that his long-running study found that flipper bands, widely used to study all sorts of penguins, are harmful to king penguins. Penguins wearing the bands produced fewer chicks and were more likely to die than were penguins with no bands, reports Science magazine. 

The scientist who did the study, Yvon la Maho, was prompted by long-standing concerns in the science community about the flipper bands’ effects, as well as a host of inconclusive or contradictory studies on the subject. His finding has only strengthened his view that scientists should use an alternative: tiny RFID tags that are injected under the animals’ skin. 

I imagine that some animal advocates find this an unsatisfactory alternative: After all, you’re still catching, restraining, and forcibly injecting a man-made object into the bird’s body. And one marine ecologist tells Science that RFID chips can’t do everything that banding can do. But perhaps a few researchers who can move to RFID tags will do so, thus sparing some king penguins the most unroyal indignity of suffering and even dying for science. 

Meanwhile, ethical dilemmas will only grow as technology allows more ways to tap animals in to our data-driven world. See Science News for a striking photo of an elephant seal with a satellite transmitter or tag glued to its head with epoxy. As the story points out, scientists are thrilled that these transmitters are helping them to map the ocean floor—but I don’t suspect this creature is particularly excited to be a part of the project. The researchers behind the seal-tagging tell the Santa Cruz Sentinel that the devices will be shed along with the animal’s fur during annual molting. 

For a scientists’-eye view of how tagged ocean predators—including elephant seals—are helping us learn more about sea life, see the website of TOPP, Tagging of Pacific Predators. 

Sources: Science, Science News, Santa Cruz Sentinel, Tagging of Pacific Predators 

Public domain image from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association photo library, Ends of the Earth collection.