New virus variant killed Serengeti cats


Researchers have confirmed that canine distemper virus is the cause of an epidemic that killed over 1/3 of the lion population of Serengeti. Genetic analysis indicates that the organism is a new variant that probably mutated from the form that infects domestic dogs.

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“If you were a dog, I’d say you had canine distemper,” veterinarian Melody Roelke-Parker remembers thinking in February 1994 as she watched a male lion in Tanzania convulse and twitch. “But you’re a cat, and cats don’t get canine distemper.” Yet by June of that year, Roelke-Parker–who works at Tanzania’s Serengeti Wildlife Research Institute–had her suspicions confirmed: Researchers had identified canine distemper virus (CDV) as the culprit in an epidemic that wiped out more than a third of the Serengeti’s lion population. The pathogen, a member of the morbillivirus family, also killed hyenas, leopards, and bat-eared foxes (Science, 17 June 1994, p. 1664). But how a virus historically restricted to dogs suddenly jumped to cats has remained a puzzle.

Now, thanks to a new genetic analysis, an answer is beginning to appear: The Serengeti organism seems to be a new variant, or biotype. In this week’s issue of Nature, Linda Munson, a veterinary pathologist at the University of Tennessee’s College of Veterinary Medicine, and her colleagues report that the Serengeti strain is genetically different from normal CDV. While the researchers have not yet been able to show how the genetic shift caused the new infection pattern, they have been able to trace environmental changes that apparently prompted the mutation: growing human settlements along the Serengeti National Park’s western border, with large populations of CDV-infected domestic dogs. “When you have a wildlife population in close proximity to domestic animals like this, you’re going to see an exchange of diseases–and you’re going to encourage the emergence of successful mutations,” Munson says.


This, to other researchers, is convincing evidence. “These findings fit with the overall pattern of emerging viruses” such as that of the hantavirus, says Richard J. Montali, head of pathology at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. “This is one of the most globally important cases,” he adds, “because it points out that morbilliviruses have made incredible gains in evolving to increase their host range.” Although CDV itself has previously been shown to infect black-footed ferrets, new morbilli-viruses have recently been identified in seals, dolphins, and horses. Further analysis of the Serengeti variant might reveal genetic changes that make such expansion possible.

Munson and her team suspected they were looking at something new when they learned that the pathology of the disease had changed in the jump to the cats. “It infects the lions’ hippocampus, whereas the other strain primarily causes inflammation of the brain stem in dogs,” explains Munson. And while both strains cause pneumonia, they do so in different ways: Normally CDV affects dogs’ bronchial tubes, but the Serengeti variant attacks the alveoli, air sacs in the lungs. These changes could simply be the result of new opportunities in a new host, Munson says. “But when you see a virus that not only has a broader species range but affects different tissues, you suspect you’re looking at an emerging biotype,” she adds.

To confirm these suspicions, her team compared virus samples from the lions to the best known strain, Onderstepoort, which was isolated from a domestic dog in South Africa. Margaret Carpenter, a molecular biologist at the U.S. National Cancer Institute’s research center in Frederick, Maryland, who did the genetic analysis, explains that the group focused on a well-studied gene, coding for a phosphoprotein that helps transcribe the viral genome as it prepares to replicate. In her analysis of a 389-base-pair fragment, Carpenter found 18 nucleotide substitutions, suggesting that the two viral strains were “significantly different.”

Changes in genome replication could underlie the virus’s ability to jump into a new host, says Carpenter. Then again, she says, “we really don’t know which parts of the virus’s genome need to be changed in order for it to switch hosts.” Carpenter is now sequencing part of the viral hemagglutinin gene, which is thought to affect the host’s immune response. Again, mutations in this gene might enable the virus to take up a new residence.


Although the team has not been able to pinpoint the genetic mechanism for the jump, they have been able to point a finger at the jumping point. Between 1993 and 1994, a CDV epidemic swept through villages to the west of the Serengeti, killing thousands of domestic dogs. Monoclonal antibody tests show similarities between this strain and the one that infected the lions. The researchers propose that the virus then entered the park, perhaps via jackals and spotted hyenas, which frequently scavenge near humans. Because CDV is shed in mucus, these animals, in turn, probably infected lions at kill sites, where there is often a lot of biting and snarling between species.

Then, between February and October 1994, at least 1000 of the park’s 3000 lions are thought to have died of the disease; the survivors probably developed immunity. Like all morbilliviruses, CDV requires a susceptible population to sustain itself, and no new cases have been seen in the last year.

The lion population is now on its way to recovery, reports Craig Packer, director of the Serengeti Lion Project and one of the study’s authors. Veterinarians have also launched a program to vaccinate the local domestic dogs against CDV and other diseases–a step that they hope will stop the virus before it jumps again.

>>> Click here: A Flying Heavyweight

A Flying Heavyweight

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Once a common sight on European farmlands, the handsome great bustard is now one of the most endangered species in the world.

It is wintertime in Austria. Peering through his telescope, Rainer Raab scans the fields of Marchfeld, an agricultural area northeast of Vienna. He is estimating the number of great bustards that are wintering in this area. The shy birds are hard to detect amid the tall stands of rape, their main food source during the cold season.

After World War II, more than 700 members of this magnificent species lived in Austria. The population declined in the following decades and, despite conservation efforts that began in the 1960s, dwindled to 61 individuals in 1995. Efforts to reverse the trend are finally beginning to bear fruit, for the number of these birds in Austria has slowly climbed to almost 100.

Raab, a 33-year-old zoologist, works for a government-sponsored program to protect the great bustard. He persuades local residents to spare the bird’s breeding areas from intensive farming. The Austrian government subsidizes the cultivation of rape as part of the conservation effort. About 350 farmers currently participate in this program.

After a heavy snowfall, the fields need to be cleared with machines because the great bustard is unable to dig for food. Moreover, if the rape freezes and becomes spoiled, it loses its nutritional value and the birds may die of malnutrition. During severe winters, great bustards tend to migrate to better feeding territories dozens or even hundreds of miles away, and there is no guarantee of their return the following spring.

Raab is concerned that if the migratory birds stay away, their small population in Austria may decline further. He and his coworkers hope that this population can be kept intact by genetic exchanges with other members of the species in neighboring Hungary. Last winter, however, the population in Hungary suffered a loss of nearly 100 birds. Some of them were probably poached while wintering in warmer places such as Italy or the Balkans.

Meet the bird

The great bustard (Otis tarda) is the largest bird native to Europe and one of the heaviest birds capable of flight worldwide. The adult male can weigh up to 35 pounds, with a length of about four feet and a wingspan of about eight feet. It is boldly colored, with orange-brown feathers on its lower neck and a pattern of brown and black bands on its back and tail. Its head, upper neck, and underside are white. The female has a more subdued coloration and reaches only 13 pounds in weight.

Despite their size, these birds are excellent long-distance flyers. Those living in Russia migrate in winter to the Crimean Peninsula. Satellite observations have documented the birds crossing a distance of more than 600 miles within five days.


Great bustards generally inhabit open grasslands, steppes, and extensively cultivated areas. They feed mainly on plants, including agricultural crops like rape and alfalfa, but they also prey on insects such as grasshoppers and locusts and may even catch mice.

During the winter, small groups of great bustards join together to form larger groups, sometimes numbering more than 100 birds. These congregations dissolve at the onset of the mating season at the end of March and beginning of April.

Courtship is nothing short of spectacular. Several males form a group, displaying their plumage to nearby hens. The courting male produces a drumming sound, resembling “oh-oh-oh,” that can be heard from more than 100 yards away. In response, hens occasionally utter a soft “geek-geek-geek” sound.

Franz Josef Kovacs, an Austrian photographer who has spent much time watching the birds, describes the courtship display. “The males ruffle their feathers, throw their heads backward, raise their tails, and turn the white undersides of their wings outward. They seem to produce feathery balls that can be seen from far away, attracting the hens to the mating site. Most females seem to favor the same male, and interestingly, the female may take the initiative after she has made her choice. Once I watched a hen pecking a hesitant cock, trying to make him mate with her.”

During courtship, the male struts around the same place every day, ignoring obstacles in his path. If a hen shows interest, he pumps up the baggy skin on his large larynx and starts wobbling. Eventually, he lowers his head to the ground. When the hen comes close, he starts moving around her slowly, touching her gently with his wings. If the hen accepts him, she sits down. The mating lasts one to two minutes–an unusually long time for birds.

While great bustards are generally peaceful, the mating instinct may drive them to behave aggressively. They may peck each other, push with their breasts, or fiercely bite their rivals’ necks. “Once, as I watched two males fighting each other, four nearby hens felt so excited that they also started to fight among themselves,” smiles Kovacs. For the rest of the year, the males and females live in segregated groups, though in close proximity to each other.

After mating, the hen digs a simple hollow in the soil in which she lays two or three eggs, colored pale olive or brown with dark spots. She sits on the eggs for four weeks, but if disturbed by humans or animals, she immediately abandons her nest, never to return. Nest-robbing predators, such as the fox, contribute to a high loss of eggs. For this reason, Raab spends most of his spring and summer days on the farmlands, keeping walkers, joggers, and dogs away from the nesting sites.

For the first two weeks after hatching, the mother feeds her young with insects. She then teaches them how to find food and avoid being eaten by other animals. After five weeks, they are capable of flying but stay with their mother for several more months. The growing female reaches sexual maturity around the age of three or four, while the male takes five to six years or more before being able to compete for the hen’s attention.

The need for intense motherly care during the early stages is one reason why captive breeding has met with limited success. Captive-bred juveniles become used to human care and lack some important survival skills when released. Lately, however, some progress has been made with captive breeding in Germany and Ukraine.

Population growth and decline

Scientists believe that the great bustard originally populated the boreal steppes of the Eurasian continent. After the Ice Age (which ended about 10,000 years ago), the population expanded westward, following cultivation of the land. Feathers and bones of this species have been discovered in graves dating back to the Bronze Age, suggesting that the bird inhabited farmlands of that era.

The population growth reached its climax during the Middle Ages, when many of Europe’s primeval forests were turned into farmland. The open fields benefited the great bustard so greatly that it preferred them over its former habitat on the virgin steppes. The birds were a common sight throughout Europe until the nineteenth century. In some places, they were so numerous that they were considered pests.

When traditional agriculture was replaced by intensive farming, the great bustard lost much of its habitat and many sources of food. Today, it is among the 24 most endangered species in Europe. To provide the great bustard with maximum protection, its status is listed in the European Community Birds Directive, and the governments of about a dozen middle European nations have signed a special Memorandum of Understanding.

Spain has the largest population of great bustards: an estimated 23,000 individuals. This number has been held steady by maintaining large, nonintensive farmlands and well-managed protected areas with a prohibition on hunting. A recent analysis by scientists of the Institute of Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin shows that the Spanish population differs genetically from the birds in other countries. The second-largest population, roughly 7,200, occurs in Russia and Ukraine.


In Hungary, with the expansion of intensive farming, the number of great bustards dropped from 3,000 in the 1980s to about 1,100 at present. Ornithologist Attila Bankovics of the Hungarian Natural History Museum notes that as a result of management efforts at the Kiskunscg National Park, it is “the only area in Hungary where the population has not decreased but shows a growing trend.” Between 1975 and 2002, the number of these birds in the park increased from 140 to 440. Protective measures included feeding the birds during severe winters and keeping visitors and grazing cattle away from breeding sites.

Outside Europe, the great bustard can be found in Morocco, Turkey, Mongolia, and the steppes of Central Asia. Estimates of the worldwide population range from 38,000 to 42,000. In many places, however, the numbers have rapidly declined, and in some regions the species is on the brink of extinction.

In the wild, the great bustard’s life span may stretch to 20 years, but many birds die much younger. “Some juveniles are killed by harvesting machines, while most are killed by foxes and birds of prey. The birds also die in collisions with power lines. From November 2002 to June 2003, six birds were found dead below power lines,” says Raab, voicing his concerns. Nevertheless, he and his fellow conservationists throughout Europe are determined to win the battle for survival of this “flying heavyweight.”

Barbara Grabner, a journalist based in Vienna, works for the Austrian Union for Nature Conservation and the Donau-Auen National Park. She expresses her gratitude to Austrian zoologist Rainer Raab and Hungarian ornithologist Attila Bankovics for their expert advice and review of the manuscript.

Of rats, turtles, moose and Marconi


Wildlife researchers are taking advantage of advances in radio telemetry equipment, which makes it much easier to use and less hindering to the animals being tracked. Telemetry was used to determine why the population of the Allegheny woodrat has been in decline.

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Gone are the days when wildlife researchers went afield armed only with binoculars and note pads. Today’s researchers benefit from advances in technology which help them gather information about nature. One of these is telemetry – a way to extend one’s power of observation far beyond the limits of the five senses.

Telemetry is one method used by researchers to gather information about animals that they cannot observe directly. It requires a transmitter, which is attached to the animal being studied, and a receiving device, usually held by the observer.

One form of telemetry uses radio waves to link transmitter and receiver. The transmitter emits a series of radio pulses, which are translated by the receiver into audible beats or tones or into readings on a meter. Changes in the beats or the meter readings indicate how close the observer is to the animal being studied.

Wildlife researchers have used radiotelemetry for more than 30 years, but recent technological advances have made the tool useful in new ways. Improved electronic parts have made transmitters light and tiny – some small enough to implant in an animal’s body. Small, powerful batteries have paved the way for transmitters that are compact and long-lived. Some transmitters get their power from solar panels instead of batteries.

Other types of transmitters are used on animals that travel long distances. They send their data to satellites orbiting hundreds of miles above the earth. Some transmitters that are used to study aquatic creatures emit high frequency sound instead of radio waves which are easily blocked by seawater. This is ultrasonic telemetry.

Although usually thought of as a homing device, telemetry can answer many other questions about wildlife. Staff from the Endangered Species and Nongame and Habitat Units of DEC’s Division of Fish and Wildlife are using telemetry to uncover vital and interesting information about several threatened and endangered animals in New York State.


Rats and Radios

Radiotelemetry is the tool that implicated disease as a possible cause of the decline of the Allegheny woodrat (Neotoma magister) in New York State.

The Allegheny woodrat, a grayish-brown rodent about the size of a squirrel, is on the endangered list in New York State. This creature shares part of its common name and a superficial resemblance with the reviled European species of rat, but not much else. Its living habits differ markedly from what you would expect of a rat.

The woodrat lives in talus slopes – piles of rock rubble that collect at the base of some hills and mountain ranges. Deep within the crevices between these fallen rocks and boulders, woodrats build houses of sticks furnished with nests of shredded bark. Entire generatAons of these vegetarian rodents may live and die within a few hundred yards of their birthplace. Woodrats have lived in the Shawangunk Mountains in southeastern New York State for thousands of years.

In the late 1970s, a respected naturalist in the region alerted DEC to a possible decline of woodrat populations in the Shawangunks. In response, Endangered Species staff surveyed dozens of suspected woodrat sites but found only five that were occupied. Of those five only one harbored more than a handful of woodrats.

A series of observations over time led to the conclusion that this largest and last known population had disappeared by 1987. Although other, undiscovered, populations might exist, researchers concluded that the fate of the woodrat in New York State was looking pretty grim.

A records search and examination of preserved museum specimens uncovered evidence of a healthy and widespread population of woodrats in southeastern New York State as late as the 1960s. Unfortunately, this research did little to explain the woodrat’s sudden and catastrophic decline. Were the rats dying because of disease? Environmental factors? The records shed little light on the matter.

Endangered Species staff suspected that carcasses of woodrats that have recently died might provide some important clues.

Much easier said than done. Woodrats live in an environment that is very difficult to enter. It would be nearly impossible to spot any that died within the talus slopes. The few woodrats that expired outside their rocky abode would be picked over by carrion eaters before researchers find them. Endangered Species staff decided that they had to develop a reliable way to find dead woodrats.

The Plan

The staff got a group of woodrats from a healthy population in West Virginia, which they planned to release near former habitat on the Mohonk Preserve near New Paltz.

They equipped the rats with tiny radio collars which were designed to vary the rate of transmitted pulses in response to the temperature of the unit. The warmer the unit, the faster the pulse rate. Drawing on their knowledge of woodrat behavior, staff were able to make some useful interpretations of the information sent by the radio collars. Rapidly repeating audible beats coming from the receiver probably meant that the rat was sleeping in its characteristic curled-up position, thereby encircling and warming the radio collar. An intermediate frequency had died, allowing the transmitter to cool.

With this information, researchers took their receivers afield to pinpoint and collect the carcasses of the radio-collared rats. Although many rats died in inaccessible places, researchers located enough carcasses to develop some intriguing information.

Most carcasses of rats collected at the Mohonk site were infected with a roundworm parasite that lives in the intestines of raccoons. The intestinal parasite lays eggs which the raccoon excretes in its feces. It’s not certain how wo/drats come into contact with infected feces, but the behavior of this species offers at least one possibility.

The woodrat, like the packrat – its counterpart m the western United States – picks up and stores objects that catch its eye. For reasons unknown, feces hold particular interest.

The mystery of the decline of the Allegheny woodrat has yet to be fully solved, but radio telemetry has provided a clue that may not have been discovered any other way.

The Tale of the

Sea Turtle

Scientists used three types of telemetry to make surprising discoveries about the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempii) – and about the important role that the waters surrounding Long Island play in their lives.

The numbers of dead and cold-stunned sea turtles washing ashore on Long Island during the winter raised questions in the minds of scientists. They had always considered these turtles to be creatures of tropical waters. Why were so many of them coming here in the first place? Were they carried here by ocean currents? Did illness or some other factor cause them to wander far from their normal habitat? The mystery went begging for a solution.

Kemp’s ridleys begin life on a few beaches on the Gulf Coast of Mexico. Each spring, over the course of a few nights, waves of gravid females lumber ashore to lay clutches of about 100 eggs, each the size of a Ping-Pong ball. Their business concluded, the females immediately turn tail and head back into the ocean leaving their sandy nests to the mercies of predators and the elements.

These turtles have a tough childhood – even before they hatch. The eggs are often infected by fungus, crushed by heedless mother turtles on their way to and from the sea and dug up by foraging mammals such as raccoons and coyotes.

Some of the eggs – less than 10 percent – produce young turtles which are small enough to hold in the palm of your hand. Fresh out of their eggs, they follow their instincts in a desperate dash to the sea. Those turtles lucky enough to escape hungry birds on the beach begin a new struggle – evading a host of predators in the ocean.

Kemp’s ridleys that meet these challenges will grow to weigh 100 pounds, to measure 30 to 40 inches in length, and to spend the next 50 years or so cruising the warm Caribbean Sea. Until recently, however, scientists have known relatively little about their adult lives.

Volunteers to the Rescue

In the early 1980s, the Okeanos Ocean Research Foundation, located in Hampton Bays, Long Island, formed a partnership with DEC. They established the New York Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding Network, a group of citizens who rehabilitate, when possible, and gather biological and ecological data from marine wildlife that washes up on Long Island beaches. Their sea turtle observations eventually piqued the interest of the scientific community and DEC.

As a result, DEC’s Return a Gift to Wildlife (RAGTW) program began, in 1988, to fund a five-year study project with Okeanos. The goal of the project was to develop information about the population of Kemp’s ridley sea turtles in New York’s coastal waters.

New Study, New Methods

Researchers knew they needed to gather more detailed information than they were likely to get from the usual study method – tagging turtles and drawing conclusions from recaptured specimens. They planned to study the turtle’s diets by collecting feces from captured specimens. They also turned to radio, ultrasonic and satellite telemetry to provide detailed answers to other specific questions about Kemp’s ridley sea turtles.

The study began with cold-stunned turtles collected by the stranding network during the winter months. Researchers kept these turtles for a short observation and recovery period, and then fitted them with radio transmitters. They released these turtles and tracked them from boats, aircraft and from shore.

Radiotelemetry studies conducted in local waters showed that these turtles eventually returned to normal patterns of behavior. These early studies also provided the first bits of evidence that these turtles were preparing to migrate southward from Long Island at the onset of winter.


Intrigued by this new information, researchers wanted to further test the assumption that this migration was a normal part of the turtle’s behavior. To do so, they set out to find a source of turtles that had not been cold-stunned.

They turned to Long Island fishermen, who often pull live sea turtles aboard in their fishing nets during the summer and fall months. By agreement, fishermen contacted Okeanos whenever they hauled in a live sea turtle.

Researchers fitted many of these turtles with radio and ultrasonic transmitters. These units helped scientists to follow closely the daily movements of these turtles, and to form a detailed picture of how they dove, fed and moved about in the shallow, warm water that surrounds Long Island. Ultrasonic tracking also allowed divers to enter the water, pinpoint the exact location of a turtle and capture it. Then it was studied and released again.

Having learned about the activities of these creatures around Long Island, researchers now set out to prove the suspected connection between these turtles and the breeding population in tropical waters. To do this, they employed satellite. telemetry – a tool that can send information even as these creatures migrate over long distances.

Starting in the fall of 1990, researchers began to attach satellite telemetry units to turtles. These satellite units provided detailed information on the paths these turtles followed once they left Long Island at the beginning of winter. Occasional recapture of other tagged turtles served to reinforce the satellite data.


Evidence gathered through the five-year study paints a picture that is in stark contrast to the traditional view of Kemp’s ridley sea turtles.

During the warm weather months, the waters around Long Island are home to young (two-to five-year-old), healthy turtles. They are probably getting experience in hunting several species of slow-moving, bottom-dwelling crabs that are abundant in these waters.

Satellite tracking suggests that there are one or two well-used migration paths between Long Island and southern U.S. waters. Other information developed during the study indicates that changes in water temperature trigger the arrival and departure of the turtles.

Much research remains to be done, but it is now clear that Long Island’s coast is far more than an unplanned stopover. These waters seem to be an important part of the life cycle for many young Kemp’s ridley sea turtles.

A Primer on Telemetry


Radiotelemetry transmitters can be built for many different types of land and aquatic animals.

To lessen their effect on the animal, transmitters are made as small and light as possible. A general rule is that the transmitters weigh no more than two percent of the weight of the animal.

Most radiotelemetry units transmit at frequencies near the VHF television broadcast band. The amount of power produced by subminiature units can be as little as 5 to 10 milliwatts – about 1/500th the power output of a CB radio.

The working life and range of these transmitters depend on the amount of available battery power. Units attached to large animals like moose can carry large batteries, which gives them a range of several miles and a working lifetime of up to five years. Units for small animals like woodrats may last only a few months and have a range of no more than a few hundred yards.

Environmental conditions also affect range. For example, moisture absorbs radio waves, cutting their range considerably. Researchers working with woodrats at the Mohonk site often found that wet vegetation reduced their working range to a matter of yards.

Radiotelemetry can, within limits, be used to track aquatic animals, The practical depth to which radiotelemetry transmitters are useful in fresh water is about 30 feet. Sea water, in contrast, is virtually opaque to these radio waves. Therefore, transmitters used on aquatic animals in marine environments are often encased in a streamlined float which is attached to the animal by a line.

Satellite Telemetry

Satellite telemetry is the method of choice when tracking animals over long distances. Satellite telemetry units work very much like radio units. There is, however, one crucial difference – satellite units send their signal to a satellite in earth orbit, not to a hand-held receiver.

The Long Island study used the Argos satellite system to monitor seaturtles. Argos is a group of satellites launched over several years from Europe and the United States. Designed primarily for weather observation and communication purposes, each satellite orbits the Earth in a slightly different way.

Some orbit from pole to pole while the Earth turns beneath them, Others cover more limited areas of longitude and latitude. Together, the group of satellites forms a network that covers the entire surface of the earth.

About six times a day, an Argos satellite that orbits the Earth From pole to pole passes over the turtle’s migration route. If the turtle is at the surface, the satellite will intercept the transmitter signal and record the data. The satellite periodically sends this data to a facility in Maryland. From there, the information is available to sea turtle biologists via computer link.

The satellite need not pass directly over a transmitter to intercept a signal. In general, however, the closer they are to being directly overhead, the more reliable the data, The most reliable satellite data can locate a turtle to within 150 yards.

Satellite transmitters are attached to sea turtles by a break-away lanyard looped through a small hole drilled in the rear of the upper shell. The floating transmitter unit is about 1 1/4 inches in diameter and 11 inches long.

To conserve the battery, an internal timer restricts operation to daylight hours when the turtles are most likely to be on the surface. Even so, battery power gives out after 50 to 65 days. This is usually about the some time the lanyard separates, letting the transmitter break free.

Ultrasonic Telemetry

Ultrasonic transmitters generate sound waves in the range of 30,000 to 100,000 hertz (cycles per second). For comparison, the range of human hearing is about 20 to 20,000 hertz.

Quite the opposite of radio waves, ultrasound dissipates rapidly in the air, but travels long distances underwater. This property makes ultrasonic transmitters ideal for use with aquatic animals. The five-ounce ultrasonic transmitters used on Kemp’s ridleys often enabled researchers to monitor them from more than a mile away.

>>> Click here: Saving Florida’s Fish and Wildlife: research institute embraces metadata management

Saving Florida’s Fish and Wildlife: research institute embraces metadata management

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As the leading marine and terrestrial resources monitoring organization in Florida, the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) in St. Petersburg manages and archives significant volumes of spatial data. Spatial datasets include satellite imagery and aerial photography as well as vector maps defining the natural habitats of countless sea creature, vegetation and wildlife species. In addition, the institute maintains numerous other nonspatial data relating to its research projects.

Despite the volume and variety of data, FWRI research scientists are learning not to waste precious time wondering if the dataset they need for a new project is already available within the institute or if the files are archived down the hall or across the state. They can obtain these details–and many others–for many of the datasets maintained at the institute by performing fast and easy metadata searches on the FWRI intranet site.

Data about Data

The term metadata refers to “data about data.” It describes the content, quality and attributes of a dataset as well as how and when it was created and for what purpose. At FWRI, metadata also contain details of the project for which the data were created or in which the data are being used. Metadata answer the basic questions of who, what, where, when, how and why–the key elements required to conduct fast and accurate searches for specific data files within a large database or set of databases.


“Metadata” is a “bad word” at many research institutes. Scientists complain about the time required to enter the information, and managers gripe about the costs to maintain them. But you hear little grumbling about metadata at FWRI.

Just five years into a comprehensive metadata development and implementation plan, most researchers and managers at the institute have embraced the notion that efficient and cost-effective data management starts with metadata.

Although the project is ongoing, FWRI expects to see direct benefits from its investment in metadata editing and search tools. Cost savings will be incurred through the elimination of duplicate data development and acquisition as well as the minimization of staff time spent searching for data.

Already, metadata management has positioned FWRI to fulfill a goal of making its data more accessible to the public and outside researchers. FWRI is implementing the metadata database and Web-based server capabilities it needs to go online in 2005 as a node in the Federal Geographic Data Committee’s (FGDC) Geospatial Clearinghouse.

Creating a Metadata Strategy

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) formed FWRI in July 2004 by integrating the biological and research support staffs of its Florida Marine Research Institute (FMRI) and its divisions of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. The new institute is tasked with providing the information needed to protect the state’s marine and freshwater resources and terrestrial wildlife habitats. Metadata management is more important than ever at FWRI, because it now must organize data from these three formerly separate entities.

The current metadata management strategy was initiated in 1999 by FMRI in response to President Clinton’s establishment of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI), which encompasses policies, procedures and standards–including metadata–so organizations can cooperatively produce and share geographic data. As a partner in federally funded research projects, the institute could have chosen to apply metadata policies only to data involved in government programs, but instead opted to adopt an enterprisewide metadata strategy.

“FWRI stands out as an organization whose management decided to emphasize metadata as a critical part of a comprehensive management plan for the efficient use and distribution of its data,” says Bruce Westcott, metadata product manager for Intergraph Mapping and Geospatial Solutions. “As a result, FWRI and its partners are seeing the benefits of responsible data management, which ultimately saves money for tax payers and ensures information accessibility to the public.”

A Management System

FWRI purchased two metadata products from Intergraph to enact the plan. This first is the Spatial Metadata Management System (SMMS), which provides metadata entry, editing and capture capabilities. Utilizing XML/SGML exchange formats and compatible with Oracle and SQL Server databases, SMMS came equipped with built-in FGDC metadata standards for spatial data.


Most appealing to the institute, the software incorporated U.S. Geological Survey/NBII biological metadata profiles. It also offered the unique ability to link with a spatial database and extract basic metadata from raster images and vector coverages, including the geographic coordinates of the “bounding box” (i.e., its northern-, southern-, eastern- and western-most locations).

Another advantageous feature was that the SMMS metadata authoring software can run on top of any GIS package or as a standalone desktop application, which the institute preferred.

The system’s second component is Intergraph GeoConnect, an application that allows users to search the metadata database via a standard Web browser. Out of the box, the application can be queried with key words or location coordinates that return a metadata abstract or full record, depending on the user’s desire. The application also can be integrated with Intergraph’s GeoMedia WebMap to create a geographical interface, allowing users to search by defining an area of interest on a digital map.

FMRI unveiled the system in 2002 following an extensive period in which metadata training and procedures were developed and documented. Rather than “cut the researchers loose” on the system, the institute educated them on the importance of proper metadata entry and trained them to create their own metadata reports. The institute credits the current success of the metadata program to this education, which helped foster “buy-in” among data users.

Entering and Searching Metadata

When an FWRI researcher receives approval to begin a new project, he or she commits in writing to create metadata for any data that are used or created. Researchers may work with technicians to extract, derive and prepare datasets throughout a project. Often the technicians take the lead in metadata development during the data production stage.

The institute’s metadata coordinator assists the technician or researcher in writing the metadata report. The user creates the report by accessing SMMS on one of 50 desktop computers that run the software. A graphical user interface prompt enables users to give the dataset a descriptive title, relating to the project in which it’s used.

The next crucial field contains an abstract of the research being conducted. Such emphasis on project-level metadata is because most FWRI scientists are likely to perform searches on research topics, such as “seagrasses” or “manatees,” as opposed to data types.

From this point, the software presents users with a variety of fill-in-the-blank fields and point-and-click selections to complete the report. In all cases, FGDC terminology and definitions for documentation are offered or verified by the system.

Based on the type of data involved, SMMS documentation highlights the appropriate fields and choices that should be satisfied. The entry procedure follows the FGDC content standards for data, which includes information relating to seven key sections of data content:

1. Data identification

2. Data quality

3. Spatial data organization

4. Spatial reference

5. Entity and attributes

6. Distribution

7. Metadata reference

While the complete metadata record is being generated, the system stores it in an Access database that the metadata coordinator can review when the researcher or technician has finished the entries. After the record has been completed and approved, it’s “promoted” to the Oracle database where it can be searched and viewed via GeoConnect by anyone on the FWRI intranet.

“The metadata search interface is easy to use; it involves selecting search terms from a menu or typing in key words. The user doesn’t need to worry about Oracle code,” notes Gail MacAulay, FWRI research scientist and Oracle administrator. “The search returns a list of metadata titles, which the user can select from to ‘drill down’ deeper into the database to find just the right dataset.”

When the searcher finds a suitable metadata file and pulls up the full report, the query results will contain pointers to where the actual data can be found and who is responsible for them. Rather than have researchers contact each other directly to request permission to obtain and use the data, FWRI has established procedures whereby the interested party e-mails the metadata coordinator, who then facilitates the acquisition of the data from the data source.

FWRI plans to become an active node on the FGDC Clearinghouse Web site ( in 2005. This will allow outside researchers and the general public to search for data maintained by the institute. For security purposes, the GeoConnect tool is being considered because it would allow FWRI to designate certain metadata reports for access only within the institute.

Reaping the Benefits

From FWRI’s perspective, the metadata management program has been a significant accomplishment, because it has succeeded in giving data a life beyond a single project. Too often in the research world, a valuable dataset is stored away and forgotten after a project is completed. But at FWRI, data are becoming easier to share and reuse. And, most importantly, researchers only need a few minutes of browsing to accurately assess the value and relevance of an existing data file.

In terms of streamlining overall operations, the program also has improved staff efficiency. In the course of a year, FWRI gets many requests from federal and state organizations to participate in surveys regarding data availability on various research topics. Gathering the details required to complete these surveys once consumed hundreds of hours of staff time. Now the institute staff can generate such reports in minutes.

The most important benefit of metadata management, according to FWRI, will come in the near future, after the institute is linked as an FGDC Clearinghouse node. That’s when the general public and international research community will be able to view the institute’s considerable metadata holdings and multiply the return on investment that has been made on imagery, air photos and vector layers, often at taxpayers’ expense.

“The federal government is clearly pushing for publicly funded organizations to share their data and use them more efficiently,” adds Westcott. “FWRI is way ahead of most public agencies in this regard, and other organizations will be scrambling to play ‘catch up’ in the future if they don’t pay more attention to metadata now.”

Author’s Note: I’d like to thank Jill Trubey of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute for considerable contributions to the content of this article.

Kevin Corbley is the principal in Corbley Communications Inc.; e-mail:

Wildlife Research Center

Full Text:

It is fun to read about the underdog who makes good. I love rags to riches stories. I’m not sure you can get much more humble than the first few years that Wildlife Research Center was in business. John and Brian Burgeson are the American Dream personified.

Like many of today’s deer scent companies, Wildlife Research Center grew from a passion for trapping. As teenagers in the mid 1960s, John Burgeson and his brother, Brian, spent much of their free time running trap lines. To improve their success, the brothers constantly experimented with scents resulting in a keen understanding of how to combine odors to attract animals and how they react to different scents, including human odor. After time, the brothers perfected their scent concoctions and began selling scent to other local trappers. But they certainly weren’t ready to quit their day jobs.

As deer populations rose in the early 1980s, John and Brian became interested in deer hunting and naturally took their knowledge of scents and began formulating a buck lure. Just like their trapping products, it also sold well, locally. However, it wasn’t until 1983 that they incorporated their small business with the intent of selling their products nationally by mail order.

“Don’t let anyone tell you mail order is easy,” John laughed. “We were excited about our new company and had big goals. The first thing we did was run $10,000 worth of advertising in hunting magazines for our Trail’s End #307 buck lure. That first year we sold just 200 bottles that we mixed in a salad bowl and bottled in the basement of the house using a plastic funnel! Needless to say we didn’t turn a profit that year!”

Nor the next year for that matter. In fact, it was their ninth year in business before either John or Brian took the first penny from the company. “We had other jobs and relied on them to pay the bills and put food on the table,” John said. “To make the company grow through those nine years we poured all the money back in. As we grew, we changed the packaging and added other avenues of distribution beyond mail order. We started going to trade shows and deer classics. We also put on many miles driving from dealer-to-dealer to sell the product direct. I can remember how excited we’d be walking out of a sporting goods store after selling the owner a few bottles of our scents.

“We moved from the basement to a garage and then to a barn that we fixed up for our production facility. After several years, we moved into a commercial building where we made the improvements needed to increase the efficiency of the business. Finally, in 2006 we moved to our present facility, which is even larger and more efficient.


“We had to work our way up,” John said. “Nothing came easy, but the business has grown steadily. Today, we also use manufacturer’s reps to sell the product all over the country, but Brian and I keep up many accounts ourselves. Some dealers have become very good friends dating back to the humble beginnings when we had to handle every sale ourselves.”

The W.R.C. Philosophy

“Consistency is the mark of a good scent,” said John Burgeson. “A lot of scents will work, meaning they’ll attract some of the deer some of the time. But, the best scents will attract more deer more of the time. Wildlife Research Center products go beyond basic recipes to include combinations of other natural ingredients that no other companies use. These extra ingredients ‘soup-up’ our scents a little and make them more effective under a wider range of circumstances.

“For example, we may take estrus urine and add other types of attractor scents and curiosity scents,” John added. “We’re constantly experimenting with scents and trying new combinations. We’re also very particular about how our ingredients are collected. They have exceptional purity and quality and that’s very important. As a result, our scents work when others may not. That’s why we offer a money back guarantee with everything we sell. Anyone less than satisfied with the performance of our products, may simply return the empty bottle with the receipt for a full refund.”

Best-Known Products

The original Trail’s End #307 that the Burgeson brothers bottled in their basement 24 years ago is still the company’s best-known scent product. According to a survey Wildlife Research Center conducted, three out of four Trail’s End users (hunters in 34 different states) saw evidence that the deer lure was effective where they hunted.

The Ultimate Scrape Dripper is another core product. Burgeson and company designed this automatic mock scrape freshener to release liquid scent as the temperature warms during the day. A 10-degree differential between nighttime and daytime temperatures is all that’s required to activate the device and cause it to drip scent onto the scrape below. The Ultimate Scrape Dripper will stretch one ounce of scent for up to five days.

Special Golden Estrus scent is fresh doe-in-estrus urine that’s labeled with the year in which it was bottled. Consumers can always tell when they are getting fresh product. But to give the dealer a reason to carry a dated product, Wildlife Research Center maintains an exchange program that permits the dealer to trade any unused Special Golden Estrus left over at the end of the season for credit toward next year’s shipment. You always know you are getting a fresh product because its bottling date is stamped right into the packaging.

The Scent Killer system is a key part of the Wildlife Research Center line. There is a spray-on eliminator for clothing, unscented bar soap, deodorant, clothing detergent (and now reformulated for high efficiency wash machines) and liquid body soap. “We have access to some very talented people,” John Burgeson said. “Scent Killer Spray was recently tested at Rutgers University using replicated human scent in a passthrough test. The product eliminated 99-percent of the human scent from passing through the fabric.”


New Products

The most exciting new products from Wildlife Research Center are in the Trophy Leaf line. The Trophy Leaf is a convenient method for carrying and dispensing scent. Scent saturates the specially formulated porous plastic that is shaped like a leaf. It evaporates from the Leaf slowly during the day. When you put the Trophy Leaf back in the scent-proof carrying case, it actually regenerates as scent from the inner layers plastic works its way to the surface.

The Trophy Leaf comes in four-packs and according to John Burgeson, one pack should last you for the entire season. For 2007, Wildlife Research Center added Golden Estrus, Trails End #307 and Red Fox Urine scented leaves.


Wildlife Research Center is the nation’s largest deer scent producer. A company doesn’t get that big unless they’re doing things right. Wildlife Research Center promotes its products well, but most importantly their scent products produce results for archery hunters in the field–where it counts!

For more information contact: Wildlife Research Center, Dept. PB, 14485 Azurite St. NW, Ramsey, MN 55303; (763) 427-3350;