Today I learned bats are trendsetters in tracking tech

Bats are elusive little creatures, which makes them the perfect subjects for scientists to try out new animal tracking systems. This is great news for me specifically, because I love both bats and seeing images of animals with goofy little trackers on them. How can you look at these seals with ridiculous antenna hats and not laugh at least a little?

One of the latest innovations in tracking wearables is the dulog system, a wireless sensor network built by biologist Simon Ripperger and engineer Niklas Duda, which was put to the test in several bat-tracking studies over the past few years. Now that the dulog has proven its mettle with bats, which are tiny, nocturnal, and generally tough to observe, the pair believe it could be useful in monitoring all kinds of animals.

“If your project can succeed with bats, it can probably work with most species,” says Ripperger in a recent Silicon Labs blog post. When he first got started in the bat-tracking business, he saw that his adviser was “essentially running behind bats, chasing them with an antenna.” I will be holding that image in my mind for a while, but Ripperger and Duda think the dulog’s tiny sensors will make animal studies easier — less chasing required.

A bat with reddish fur sits on a tree branch with a small sensor on its back.

A tiny common noctule bat wearing the latest in sensor fashion.
Image: dulog

The data collected with dulog tags can be downloaded remotely, meaning after the initial attachment, scientists don’t have to wrangle animals to retrieve data from their tags. They’re also smaller and lighter than current GPS tracking systems that enable remote downloads — the bat pictured above would fit in the palm of your hand, and the sensor weighs less than a gram. What’s most exciting to Ripperger is that the tags “talk to each other,” meaning they can be used to track the social behavior of tagged animals based on their proximity to each other over time.

So far, the dulog system has been used in studies that have produced some delightful findings: mother bats guide their pups from roost to roost, formerly captive bats maintain their social relationships when released in the wild, and bats exhibit “social distancing” behavior when they’re sick. After these bat-based successes, Ripperger and Duda hope to soon start selling the system to researchers for use with other animals, both large and small.

In terms of possible applications for the system, “the sky is the limit,” says Ripperger. I am not involved in any important animal research, but personally I would love to hook a tag to my dog to keep tabs on her general mischief. I imagine they would also be helpful for keeping track of which squirrels are the biggest offenders in eating my bird seed. For now, they’re not available for direct order, so I will leave the science to the scientists and continue to enjoy pictures of animals with backpacks and hats.

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