The Growth of the Motus Wildlife Tracking Network in California

Image above © Levi Souza. 

Special thanks to Rodd Kelsey and Levi Souza for contributing their time to be interviewed for our blog.

The Motus Wildlife Tracking Network, commonly referred to as Motus, was launched by Birds Canada in 2014. In less than a decade, Motus has been implemented in 34 countries, with more than 500 projects involving more than 300 species. The information from these species is then recorded in the Motus open-source database. Founded with a commitment to conservation, collaboration, and community science, Motus depends on support from technology partners like Cellular Tracking Technologies; researchers; and cooperation from both public and private landowners to house infrastructure.

This Dunlin wears a LifeTag from Cellular Tracking Technologies. Photo credit Rodd Kelsey.

Why Use Motus?

Using scientific data to validate the manyfold obstacles facing wildlife is a critical component of conservation work. Several tools are available to researchers to obtain these data in flying animals, such as leg bands, handheld antenna-and-receiver transmitters, and cellular and digital radio products. However, the infrastructure required for these systems and the form factors of the transmitters themselves create their own barriers when tracking lightweight flying species. 

Enter the Motus network (motus is Latin for "movement"). Lightweight Motus transmitters allow research teams to outfit units on very small species like birds, bats, and even large insects. As an international network, the stations that comprise Motus allow for large-scale ecology and conservation monitoring of migratory animals.

How Motus Works

Motus Tracking System incorporates automated radio telemetry with small, affordable radio transmitters. This is a considerable advantage compared with other tracking technologies that require field techs to follow an animal (as with directional antenna and receivers), or those using satellite- or LTE-based transmitters, which are costlier and too heavy for very lightweight species. Receiver stations are comprised of antennas, an electronic receiver/datalogger (like our SensorStation) and a power supply system. When a station receives a tag's signal from either nodes or tower detections, the researcher who registered the tag is able to view the data. Although many factors affect signals, under ideal circumstances, a tag can transmit a signal to a station up to 10 km away.

Antenna array assembly for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife's Eden Landing Ecological Reserve Motus station. Photo by L. Souza.

The growing number of Motus-based projects and increased prevalence of receiver stations are a win-win. As it grows, the network captures ever-increasing amounts of data with high temporal and geographic precision over ever-increasing distances.

Motus in California: The Importance of Collaboration and Partnerships

Between 2018 (top map) and 2022 (bottom map), the Motus Wildlife Tracking System expanded westward, with significant increases across California.  

Levi Souza, Senior Environmental Scientist with California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), recently shared how the expansion of Motus is making a positive difference in California. “Motus expansion opens up not just California, but the continental western US and beyond, to studying smaller bird species and bats, and for a reasonable price.”

CDFW initially chose Motus to help the Department and its partners collect data to understand the impacts to wildlife movement from the increase in cannabis farming in designated areas of California. However, the Department has since broadened the scope of its investment in Motus and will be including stations as part of wildlife monitoring at Sentinel Sites to be established on CDFW lands. According to Levi, part of the appeal of Motus is its inherent potential for collaboration. For anyone considering using Motus, he did have some advice. "One thing I would suggest is to talk to others interested in similar research questions or locations," he explained. "It benefits everyone involved to have additional Motus stations to provide detections of tagged animals as they pass. Working with other interested organizations or individuals can mean cost-sharing and potentially great partnership opportunities."

The Department is partnering with a wide variety of conservation and research groups. These include USGS bat researchers, and The Nature Conservancy and Point Blue bird biologists studying drought impacts on shorebirds.

USGS researchers tag hoary bats in northern California. Photo by L. Souza.

One of these biologists is another California-based Motus user, Rodd Kelsey, who works as Strategy Director, Rewilding the Central Valley, of The Nature Conservancy (TNC). Rodd's work involves understanding the impacts of habitat availability on shorebird migration, physiology, and body condition.

As he shared, "We want to especially understand the impact of droughts, and to apply this information to our own conservation programs with landowners, and to push for greater conservation efforts overall." For his project, Rodd's team is using CTT LifeTags and HybridTags along with SensorStations at all their receiving stations.

By tracking their movement via transmitters such as the HybridTag shown here, Rodd hopes to better understand the impact of drought on shorebirds like this Dunlin. Photo credit: K. Strum.

TNC has purchased and installed 12 new stations in the last year in California and led deployment of a thirteenth station in Alaska, with plans for more. "We anticipate helping deploy one more in Alaska in 2023 and are collaborating with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to strategically deploy their stations," said Rodd. "We are also hoping to install several more of our own over the coming year."

True to the Motus philosophy of collaborative research, Rodd's project involves several organizations across North America. "We are working with Point Blue Conservation Science and Audubon California, and also collaborating with Birds Canada (Amie MacDonald), Environment Canada, and ProNatura Noroeste on this overall study, which is generously funded by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife"