For the past five years, researchers in Canada have been spying on their local wild cats, the Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis), using accelerometers and audio recorders. The instruments have given the researchers an intimate look at how the animals engage with their environments, from how they hunt down food to how they communicate with other members of their species.
The research team’s work was published in Methods in Ecology and Evolution. It documents the lives of 39 different cats over five winters in the Yukon, on the traditional lands of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations. The last five years are just the most recent in some 40 years of work researchers have been doing to pin down the elusive behavioural habits of lynx. The intention of the recent work, in particular, was to better track the cat’s kills; they prey on squirrels and hares, among other small critters in the boreal forest. But researchers are less clear about how often they get to chow down, and tracking animals manually in the dead of a Canadian winter has its difficulties.
“The audio records the sounds of the movement of the animals,” said Emily Studd, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Alberta and lead author of the paper, in a phone call. “Whatever the animal is doing generates sound, but it also captures any sounds being made in local environments. And so the really useful information that we’re getting from them is when a lynx chases something, often successfully, prey will vocalise — cry out — when it gets captured, and we can actually identify what they’re feeding on based on that vocalisation.”
The accelerometers told the team when the animals were moving or resting, and at what rates, but the audio coloured that data with details — the sorts of animals a given lynx was hunting, whether it was successful, and if it had to fight for its meal.
“A lot of people want to know what wild animals do when we can’t see them,” said co-author Allyson Menzies, an ecologist at McGill University, in a university press release. “The ability to continuously record their movements and sounds in their natural environment can provide insight into mating rituals, parental care, social interactions — even how individuals differ from one another or change over time.”
The team only used older lynx for the work because the accelerometers were strapped around the animals’ necks and were a little too bulky for younger lynx to handle. The audio recorders were rewired Russian microphones repurposed for wildlife reconnaissance. Studd said that automating the audio analysis was an important step in the work, and a big hope is for the accelerometer and audio recording technologies to become more easily accessible for future use.