James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti’s enchanting and exhilarating annotated atlas of animal movements – tracked across countries and continents by tag and collar, radar and satellite – is a product of ‘big data’ methodology. Although obtained at a considerable remove, the perspectives the data provide often bring us closer to each individual creature than we could imagine.
Studies of wildlife more often than not begin with the close study of a few individuals and from there extrapolate conclusions about a wider population – how different, after all, can one bird, mammal or insect be from another of the same species? The remarkable advance of tracking technology has allowed researchers to flip this approach on its head. A study of Kenyan olive baboon troops by Margaret Crofoot and her team at the University of California, Davis, considered first the patterns made on a map by the animals’ movements – tracked, in the baboons’ case, by twenty-five GPS collars, each logging a data point every second – and then the implications of each individual animal’s movements on the troop as a whole. To the researchers’ surprise, the troop’s collective movements on their daily forages were found to be influenced as much by females and juveniles as by dominant males, which is not typically the case with feeding and mating.