eEcology: Inspiration & discovery in ecology

Ecologists, historically speaking, are not used to Big Data. But because of the development of smartphones, we nowadays have so many sensors that produce data, and we can measure much more. For example, we use radars that produce 1,5 MB per second. And for that we need eScience infrastructure to cope with all these data. Together with the Netherlands eScience Center and with SURFsara developed our Virtual Lab. For example, we tag Honey Buzzards, Raptors, we deploy
a GPS logger on their back as a kind of rucksack which is measuring and storing the data while for
example it goes all the way, during winter, to Africa. We tagged a male and a female from one nest. They went to Africa for the wintering period. And normally the male comes back and prepares the nest for
the female. The female then arrives a few days later. But in this year, we had a female that had problems on the way back because she somehow got stuck in a duststorm. She was 2 weeks late. So the male did not want to wait for her and he found another female. And when the first female came back, the nest was already taken. So she had to find something different. That summer she did not lay any eggs. Not only our Virtual Lab, but also our trackers are unique in the world. The trackers have a solar panel, a battery, a computer with storage, a GPS, an accelerometer to monitor behaviour, and a radio transceiver to download the data from
the logger and to upload a new measurement program. These trackers work with base stations. The ecologists will place a base station usually in the area around the nesting site of the bird. The bird then flies around, and when it comes back close to a base station again, all the data from the tracker is transferred
from the tracker to the base station. From the base station it is then cleaned up and transferred to a central database for easy access. In our Virtual Lab we have all the functionality that we need as a researcher. We can visualize the data, we have access to the database,
and we have access to, for example, the base stations. If I click here on ‘Remote Control’ I get to the base station,
in this case in Italy where we have Raptors flying around. Through this system I can change the measurement settings of the tracker on the bird while it is flying in Italy. We study migration, but we can even, for the whole route, measure at 3 second intervals. So we have a lot of detail in how Honey Buzzards use thermals and how they glide. The data from the tracker is interesting on its own. But the real eScience starts when you try combining that data with data from other sources. For example weather information, tidal flow information, wind direction. Then you can start studying what the effect of climate is on the behavior of the birds.

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