Secret equine movements revealed by “spy” camera

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This image of Naran's foal resting was taken by Naran's camera.
Naran’s camera captured this image of her foal resting.

A mare named Naran has provided wildlife researchers with rare footage of the life of the Asiatic wild ass  — Equus hemionus, locally called “khulan” — in the Gobi Desert.

Researchers equipped Naran with a satellite collar and camera to track her movements over the Gobi’s vast expanse in China and Mongolia, giving new insights into habitat use, life history, and potential threats.

The deployment of this innovative camera technology on Naran resulted in several thousand images over a one-year period.

Individual khulan roam over areas of thousands of square miles The scale of their movements is among the largest described for terrestrial mammals, making them especially difficult to study.

It is possible to track the movement of individual animals using GPS satellite telemetry. However, the technique does have limitations – it misses important information such as details of interactions with other animals and humans.

But further light has been shed on the activities of the Gobi khulan by an international research team using a new type of satellite collar which included a camera.

The results of the project by an international research team comprising Austria’s Vetmeduni Vienna, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the National University of Mongolia and the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, have been reported in the journal PLOSOne.

As well as providing information pertinent to science and wildlife conservation, the images also offer exciting new insights into the way of life of a far-ranging species in a very remote and challenging environment.

Lead author Petra Kaczensky, from the Research Institute of Wildlife Ecology at Vetmeduni Vienna and the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, said the images provided new insights into the life of the khulan. “The images allowed us to document khulan behaviour near human infrastructure, where and when the animals gathered in larger groups, and the frequency of encounters with semi-nomadic herders and their livestock.”

Naran waking up from anaesthesia after being fitted with her new GPS collar and integrated camera.
Naran waking up from anaesthesia after being fitted with her new GPS collar and integrated camera. © Petra Kaczensky

The image material also allowed an estimate of the availability of water at different times and at different places.

The migratory behaviour of khulan puts them especially at risk from the influence of human activities, in particular concerning the need for regular access to water and pasture lands.

Chris Walzer, from the Research Institute of Wildlife Ecology at Vetmeduni Vienna and the Wildlife Conservation Society, said the camera technology helped the researchers gain information about important life history events, such as when and where Naran’s foal was born.

“And the images allow us to draw conclusions about behaviour, for example, that khulan seem to avoid people and their livestock. The images also make it possible to better determine the impact of local weather conditions on water availability and, consequently, on nomadic movements than had previously been the case,” he said.

According to the study’s authors, images from camera collars also have an enormous PR potential, as documented by an increasing number of images used in popular science articles, books or documentaries. These images and videos provide insight into the secret lives of animals and are guaranteed to attract public attention.

“The newly developed camera collar is therefore an important tool to communicate new research findings to the public, develop attractive educational material and raise awareness for conservation issues,” Kaczensky said.

Equine Science Update

Through the eye of a Gobi khulan – Application of camera collars for ecological research of far-ranging species in remote and highly variable ecosystems. Kaczensky P, Khaliun S, Payne J, Boldgiv B, Buuveibaatar B, Walzer C (2019). PLoS ONE 14(6): e0217772. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0217772

Khulan in the Gobi Desert.
Khulan in the Gobi Desert. © Petra Kaczensky

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