Of Stars And Stripes: Predicting Migration Behavior Of Botswanan Zebras With Satellites
Last Updated on Wednesday, 07 August 2013 11:43 Written by Lisa-Natalie Anjozian Wednesday, 07 August 2013 00:00
Every day at noon here in tiny Camas, Washington, the church bells ring their introductory notes—a variation on a theme I remember from London’s Big Ben—before tolling their twelve. It’s a temporal and environmental cue: time of day is revealed (lunchtime!), and place, as the sounds emanate from a location in town, beyond where I sit at my desk and work. If my lunch were located there—it’s not; sadly, I must do the daily scrounge on my own in my kitchen and get back to work—I could be led by those notes to imagined feasts that someone else has made, sustenance that only required my hunger-driven trek to reach and consume.
A while ago, while reading through abstracts of science papers to develop into stories for NASA, I came across some research scientists had conducted that rang my bell, so to speak. It concerned a group of zebra in Botswana who make a migratory trek to better feeding grounds when late October rains drive new plant growth. With the Okavango Delta on one end, and the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans on the other, round trip it’s 360 miles, the second longest zebra migration on Earth. That in itself wasn’t what fascinated me; migratory animals make astounding journeys all the time, triggered by time. What struck me was two things: The contemporary zebra of the study had discovered this route after fences came down that had been in place for thirty years and had blocked it. Earlier generations of zebra had used this route, but the contemporary zebras could not have learned it from elders as zebra only live about 12 years. In essence, the migratory route for the contemporary zebras was a new discovery.
The second thing that struck me was that, by using satellite information and plant growth data, the scientists were able to predict when the zebra would move as rains greened the landscape. They could also predict if the zebra would turn back, and not complete the trek if the plant growth was not sufficient for hungry bellies. The application of this knowledge has the potential to help people as we manage, preserve, and assist wildlife.
Environmental stories often contribute to a Pavlovian conditioning in which we expect nothing but bad news. This particular story gave me hope.
You can check out my story on NASA’s website, here (there’s video, too!), and my blog post on the website of the American Geophysical Union, here.
Shakespeare’s Falstaff heard the chimes at midnight—time cue and trigger—and was off to dinner. So we go, along, anon.
Image Credits: Top image, Botswanan zebras by Hattie Bartlam-Brooks; bottom image, The Okavango Delta in Botswana by Teo Gomez.