When Tagging Wild Animals Goes Wrong


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. 

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