Research attempt gone awry: Cunning Australian magpies sabotage GPS trackers

1. marts 2022 kl. 15:46
Research attempt gone awry: Cunning Australian magpies sabotage GPS trackers
Australian magpie, Gymnorhina tibicen. Illustration: Gnangarra (CC BY 2.5 AU).
A flock of Australian magpies figured out how to remove GPS trackers that scientists had strapped on them to gain more knowledge about the Antipodes’ equivalent of our European magpies within 10 minutes. A particularly interesting detail is that they had helped each other.
Artiklen er ældre end 30 dage

An obvious candidate for this year’s most successful scientific failure has already been published in the Australian Field Ornithology journal.

The three authors wanted to provide the readers with detailed knowledge of the movement patterns of the Australian magpie, which they planned to achieve with new and advanced GPS tracking devices.

Instead, the three field ornithologists had to cheerfully resign to describing how quickly a flock of magpies can find the weak point in new and advanced GPS tracking devices and help each other get rid of the harness that holds the device in place.

“During our pilot study, we found out how quickly magpies team up to solve a group problem. Within 10 minutes of fitting the final tracker, we witnessed an adult female without a tracker working with her bill to try and remove the harness off of a younger bird. Within hours, most of the other trackers had been removed,” writes Dominique Potvin, one of the three field ornithologists defeated by the magpies.

Artiklen fortsætter efter annoncen

(a) The harness with the tracker. The white circle shows the weak point that the birds targeted. Photo: Rob Appleby. (b)–(d) The harness closure mechanism is designed to be triggered by a magnet. Illustration: Dominique Potvin.

Small trackers and wireless charging

The ornithologists invented a special harness to mount GPS trackers on the birds, which ensured both data collection and animal welfare. Their innovation is a locking mechanism that can be triggered with a remote-controlled magnet in the feeding stations that the birds have been trained with bait to seek out. It was this locking mechanism that proved to be the weak point that the birds so quickly managed to pry open.

The trackers can also be wirelessly charged at the feeding stations, so that the researchers do not have to cause stress to the birds by having them in hand more than once, when the trackers are mounted. The trackers used in this experiment were only 15 mm long. Ornithology generally benefits from the fact that GPS devices have shrunk so much in size that they can be used to track birds closely wherever they go, and not just by spot-checking their rings. Recently, trackers have become small enough to be used on medium-sized birds such as the Australian magpie without their weight or size constraining the birds’ flying ability or freedom of movement.

It is not known whether the Australian magpies have disagreed with that assumption, or whether they just did not like the look of the harness or the foreign sensation. The researchers do not have clear evidence of how knowledge about opening the harness was spread among the birds or who were the initiators and project managers in the group. However, they note that the last bird released from its tracker was the dominant male, whom it took three days to escape the harness. This opens up the possibility that the birds were motivated by removing the trackers on their “subordinates”, more than that they had a desire to free themselves from the harness.

Artiklen fortsætter efter annoncen

However, it soon became clear to the ornithologists that the birds as a group wanted to get rid of the trackers. And this species had both the will and the ability to implement the plan.

Bold as brass

The European magpie, Pica pica, is in many ways reminiscent of the Australian magpie—except that the latter has a varied and melodious call. Illustration: Pierre-Selim (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The Australian magpie, Gymnorhina tibicen, bears the name because it resembles the European magpie, Pica pica, in both appearance and behaviour. They are not genetically related, although both belong to the order of Passeriformes.

But apparently, the ecosystem needs a medium-sized, black-spotted bird that is as bold as brass and more intelligent than a toddler, and our European magpie clearly has a soulmate in the Australian magpie. It is, among other things, known for swooping and harassing cyclists and pedestrians who dare to go too close to its nest during the breeding season. It can, just like crows, tell apart individual humans and carry grudges. The European magpie can also play, count, make tools, and in general perform a large number of behavioural tasks and intelligence tests, which increasingly show that one should not underestimate the birds’ thinking capacity.

And now it turns out that Australian magpies can also cooperate to come up with a solution to a problem that they themselves have observed. The next step must be their admission to a university engineering programme.

Ingen kommentarer endnu.  Start debatten
Log ind eller opret en bruger for at deltage i debatten.