This is a series I’m doing using everyday situations to help kids explore science – particularly ecology and biology – more in depth.
PokemonGo, which is massively popular, is based on the idea of capturing wild animals and fighting each other for “research.” As a trained ecologist, I call shenanigans on the scientific validity of this method. But this fun game can help spark conversations about how real wildlife biologists study animals, including trapping them.
The scientific context
Wildlife biologists study how animals live and interact in the wild. While studying animals in zoos would be easier, animals lead fundamentally different lives in captivity and it doesn’t represent natural behavior. Unfortunately, animals in the wild don’t always cooperate! To better understand wildlife, researchers use a variety of tools.
Wildlife biologists frequently want to know how an animal’s physical characteristics – such as weight and height – change over time. By examining a number of animals in a certain location, they can assess the health of that group and if its population is getting larger or smaller. Unlike a person going to a doctor’s appointment, animals won’t just stand still to be measured or weighed.
In addition, wildlife biologists like to geographically track animals by putting a radio, satellite, or GPS tag or microchip under their skin. Tracking animals helps researchers know how far the animals are traveling, where they are going for food, and if the whole group is changing location. Again, animals usually won’t wander up to a researcher to get tagged voluntarily.
For big mammals, like bears, biologists can either use physical restraints like cage traps and nets or shoot them with a dart loaded with drugs. In addition to tranquilizers, the scientists may use drugs that immobilize an animal without knocking it out. When an animal collapses, the scientists go to work. They often weigh, measure and tag it. If it is a mother with cubs, they may rub Vicks Vaporub on her nose so she doesn’t know people were handling her cubs. In some cases, scientists have tracked animals for thousands of miles, such as gray whales from the Arctic to Baja, California.
With smaller animals, like rodents, researchers often use traps baited with something tasty, like peanut butter. That’s their equivilant of Pokemon lures or incense! The traps are similar to a Have a Heart ones, where they don’t hurt the animal, just confine it. Because these animals are most active at night, biologists often place the traps in the late afternoon and pick them up the next morning.
Things get a bit more complicated if the biologists are studying aquatic wildlife, like fish. Then, they may use nets that they either drag through the water by hand or on the back of a slow moving boat. Just like players keep Pokemon in Pokeballs, researchers need to keep the fish in a container with water so they can survive.
In all of these cases, the scientists release the animals back into the wild so they can return to their natural habitat.
In addition to physical trapping, scientists are using an increasing amount of “camera traps.” These “traps” have a motion sensor that sets off a camera when an animal walks in front of it. It’s one way to observe animal behavior and estimate the size of a population without biologists needing to spend continuous time observing in one location.
Explore it yourself
While only trained biologists should handle most wildlife, one way to get experience catching, observing, and releasing real animals is by collecting insects. In fact, fond memories of catching insects as a child was what inspired Satoshi Tajiri to create the original Pokemon game.
First, make or buy a bug house. You can build one by taking a plastic box and drilling some holes in it to let air in. Then, make it a bit more like a natural habitat by adding leaves and a stick.
To catch the bugs, just dig around in the dirt for a while. When you see one, coax it into the bug house. I’ve found using a piece of paper for the bug to crawl up on is useful, or if you aren’t too squeamish, your hand. If you’re using a shovel, be gentle – you may squish or split a bug in half by mistake! Common garden critters include various beetles, caterpillars, pill bugs, and earthworms.
Once you’ve caught them, try to identify them. As my field biology professor used to say, “You can’t know someone until you know their name.” You can use a printed field guide (the Golden Guides and Audubon Society ones are classic), or an online one. After you figure out what kind of insect or spider it is, make some observations. Look at how big or small it is, what its coloring is and how it behaves.
If you catch more than one bug, be sure you release the first one so they aren’t competing for space or eying each other as food.
If you catch quite a few, you can use them to evaluate the health of the soil. In particular, earthworms are indicator species that are more likely to appear if the soil is healthy.
When you are done, be sure to return your insects back to the dirt in approximately the same place you picked them up.
Questions for discussion
- What kinds of animals would you like to study if you were a wildlife biologist?
- In Pokemon, the game identifies the species, level, weight and height of the Pokemon captured. What kinds of measurements do you think would be useful for a wildlife biologist to make when they capture an animal?
- What other ways could wildlife biologists study animals besides capturing them?
Resources for More Information
- Selfies from the Animal Kingdom (on camera traps)
- Snow Leopard Fitted with GPS Tag
- Keeping Bears Wild – Or Trying – At National Parks
- Biological Bulls Eye: Practice Makes Perfect with Dart Guns
Check out past Science Adventures – Wild Baby Animals.