Using tracking data to guide research and conservation efforts in long-distance migratory birds

Developments in tracking data are uncovering important conservation sites, the significance of which had previously been unknown. Associate Editor, Chi-Yeung explains more about the recently published work of Ying‐Chi Chan and colleagues.

An increasing number of tracking studies on animals over the last few decades have revealed interesting behaviour and habits that are otherwise impossible to observe in the field. This is particularly the case for long distance migratory birds. The movement data collected from these studies could facilitate the identification and prioritisation of important sites, as well as protected area planning and management. New research by Chan et al. shows how much new and important information could be generated from tracking studies and used to guide conservation efforts.

Compared to other flyways, the East Asian-Australasian Flyway holds not only the largest number of shorebird populations, but also the highest number of globally threatened or near-threatened shorebird species. Many of these populations are declining rapidly due to the loss of ‘fuel station’ along the coast of the Yellow Sea in East Asia. In their new research, Ying-Chi Chan and colleagues use 4.5g solar platform terminal transmitters to track the migration of 32 great knots, with an aim to identify the coastal sites of conservation importance for this endangered species.

In accordance to earlier observations, they found that all satellite-tracked great knots stopped at the coastal wetlands in the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk in Russia during migration, indicating the importance of these regions to the species. In contrast to a long-held belief, instead of a non-stop flight from Australia to the southern Yellow Sea during northward migration, all of the satellite-tracked birds stopped in Southern China, which is often overlooked in shorebird conservation. On the other hand, during southward migration, 80% of the studied knots stopped in Southeast Asia, which is a poorly-surveyed region. The fact that all tracked birds used sites that were previously unrecognised as important shorebird sites indicate how much we still don’t know about this threatened flyway.

Recently, one of the former unprotected coastal wetlands in the China’s Yellow Sea were listed as a World Heritage Site, with a few more likely to follow in the foreseeable future. Chan et al.’s work shows that the coastal areas in Southern China and Southeast Asia could well be the next important regions that require more research and conservation efforts. With the increasing number of tracking studies on animals, it is increasingly important to make such data available to decision-makers and stakeholders to facilitate future conservation efforts.

Read the full open access paper, Filling knowledge gaps in a threatened shorebird flyway through satellite tracking in Journal of Applied Ecology.

Interested in the management of wide-ranging species? Take a look at our recent Spotlight collection of papers on this topic.

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