Technology reveals secrets of majestic big-game migration

Maps reveal animal migration routes
Maps reveal animal migration routes

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Maps reveal animal migration routes 03:00

The Art of Movement is a monthly show that highlights the most significant innovations in science and technology that are helping shape our modern world.

Pinedale, Wyoming (CNN)It's negative 21 degrees Celsius outside the U.S. town of Pinedale, Wyoming. Two men trek across the frozen snow-covered plains to reach one of the many trap cameras set up in the area -- cameras that give them a clearer picture of animal migration through the state.

Majestic elk, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, and moose all journey through this wild landscape. The area is also the site of the world's longest mule deer migration -- a 150-mile trek.
From afar the migration of animals like elk and deer looks like an organized marathon from one point to another, but technology is letting researchers take a closer look, giving a unique understanding of the strategy behind the movement. The trap cameras are equipped with motion sensors that record three images per second, capturing images of migration in motion.
"What it allows us to do is not only determine how many animals are using those crossing structures, but what type of animals, and what direction they're moving," says Hall Sawyer, a research biologist with the Wyoming Migration Initiative (WMI).
    This type of information is invaluable to the WMI -- a cooperative trying to protect the state's big-game migratory routes from development, allowing the movement of these animals to continue as nature intended.
    "When you see these animals moving through these landscapes, traveling through all these different obstacles, it really gives you a whole different sense of appreciation of what they have to go through each year to complete these migrations," says Sawyer.
    The motion cameras give a glimpse of how the animals move, but to learn exactly where they move, you have to get much closer. The WMI now fits animals with GPS collars that can collect location data at time points ranging from every 15 minutes to an hour.
    "When you have that detailed movement information it allows you to see the precise migratory path that these animals took, how they navigated the landscape, and also the timing of these migrations," says Matt Kauffman, director of the WMI.
    That precise data has allowed the initiative to create detailed maps of the migratory routes taken by each animal.
    "Once you map a route then you can start to see some of the obstacles these animals face," says Kauffman. "You can see where they have to cross highways, you can see where they have to cross fences. You can see where they have to navigate through rural subdivisions. And so that sort of detailed mapping also allows you to see where some of the solutions are to making some of those migrations easier."
    The initiative plans to compile the maps to create an atlas of wildlife migration. It believes projects like this will draw attention to the importance of preserving migratory routes.
    "It's about a journey," says Sawyer, "and everybody is interested in journeys or road trips, everybody wants to go on one. When we're able to get a glimpse or window into how these animals journey across the landscape each year, I think it resonates with people and people are interested with it."