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Using Animal Tracking Data from Movebank for Science Projects

What is Movebank?

Movebank, www.movebank.org, is an archive of animal movement data collected by scientists in the course of their research. Many of these scientists have agreed to share their real data with you, a user of the Science Buddies website, to analyze and use in your own science projects.

How do wildlife biologists track animals?

In order to understand more about animal behavior and habitats, wildlife biologists track animals. They do this by attaching tracking devices, often called tags to individual animals. There are several different types of tags, which range in price, type of data they can record, size, and geographic range. Table 1, below, describes four of the most commonly used types of tags.

Type of Tag Description Advantages Disadvantages

Band or ring

European robin being banded

A small band is being carefully closed around this European robin's leg. (Photo courtesy of Wolfgang Fiedler©.)

A physical tag, with no electronic components, that is attached to the animal. Each individual has a unique number code on its band.

These tags are inexpensive, and can be attached by trained volunteers, making it easy to tag many individual birds.

These tags can be lightweight enough for even the smallest animals, like hummingbirds.

Collecting information requires someone to physically make an observation that a banded animal is at a specific location and report that data back to the banding center indicated on the tag.

Very High Frequency (VHF) Radio Transmitter

Wildlife biologist tracking radio collared dear with antennae and receiver

Wildlife biologist using a receiver and antenna to track deer with radio transmitter collars.

An electronic tag that emits very high radio frequencies.

These tags are typically less expensive than GPS or Argos, but are more expensive than banding.

They have a long battery life and can be used for many years. These tags, which can be very lightweight, can be used on small animals.

Collecting information requires a person, either on foot or by low-flying airplane, to find and track the signal using a receiver and directional antennae. For this reason, they do not work well to get a full view of a geographically large migration.


Toucan with GPS tag on its back

A GPS tag attached to the back of a toucan. (Photo courtesy of Martin Wikelski©.)

An electronic tag where the tag itself calculates, using GPS technology, the exact location of the animal at specific time intervals.

These tags convey the most precise time and location data and do not rely on a person to make a physical observation.

Tags are expensive and cannot be attached by volunteers; this limits the number of individual animals tagged in a study.

Compared to Argos Doppler tags, they might have shorter working life spans.

Argos Doppler

European Cuckoo with a 5gm Argos Doppler tag

A 5-gram Argos Doppler tag on a European cuckoo. (Photo courtesy of Roine Strandberg©.)

An electronic tag that transmits signals to the Argos satellite at specific time intervals. The satellite then calculates the geographic location based on the tag signal.

These tags convey time and location data and do not rely on a person making a physical observation.

These are the smallest electronic tags that are currently available and can be used for smaller animals.

Tags are expensive and cannot be attached by volunteers; this limits the number of individual animals tagged in a study.

The geographic location data is less precise than with a GPS tag.

Table 1. Four of the most commonly used types of tags.

When designing a study, the wildlife biologists decide which tagging method will best enable them to answer the specific question they're studying. All of the tags require the scientists to capture the animals and attach the tag. The video below shows how biologists attach tags to birds. More images of scientist capturing and attaching tracking tags can be found here.

video of wildlife biologist attaching a tracking tag to a bird

to see how scientists carefully attach a tracking device to a bird's back being careful to not injure the bird. Researchers are always careful to make sure the tag does not inhibit the animal's natural movements. (Video courtesy of Carolina B. Proano.)
Watch to see how scientists carefully attach a tracking device to a bird's back being careful to not injure the bird. Researchers are always careful to make sure the tag does not inhibit the animal's natural movements. (Video courtesy of Carolina B. Proano.) http://www.flickr.com/photos/51345716@N06/4720632380/

What kinds of science projects can be done using Movebank data?

Scientists have shared a wide variety of animal movement data from Movebank with Science Buddies, and new data sets are being added as they become available. This means that the types of questions that can be asked are limitless.

Here are some examples of the types of questions you can ask using the available data:

Furthermore, Science Buddies staff scientists, in conjunction with researchers at the 2010 Migrate Meeting, have developed two Project Ideas that take advantage of specific data sets:

How do I access Movebank?

To access Movebank, all you have to do is type www.movebank.org into your browser address bar. Currently, Movebank.org supports these browsers: Internet Explorer and FireFox. If you use another web browser to access Movebank and experience problems, try one of the browsers listed above.

Do I need to log in or create an account?

There is no need to log in or create your own account at Movebank. All the data that scientists have made available to Science Buddies users is accessible without logging in.

To see all the data sets that are accessible to you, go to the Search box and check the square next to the words "Only studies where I can see data," then click the Search button. See the red circled number one in Figure 1, below, for a visual reference.

Screen shot of www.movebank.org with key features labeled
Figure 1. This screenshot of the Movebank homepage shows you several key features. (1) Check this box and then click the "Search" button to limit the search results to only studies where you can access the data. (2) Checking the box in front of a specific study allows you to select it for further investigation. (3) Clicking the "i" icon of a study you have selected opens a pop-up box allowing you to see the study details and to download the data. Clicking the magnifying box recenters the map. (4) This shows the part of the world to where the animal tracking data in this example corresponds.

How do I find out more information about a data set?

  1. In the search results section, check the empty box next to the data set title. See Figure 1, above, for a visual.
  2. Then click on the square containing an "i" at the end of the data set title.
  3. A pop-up box will appear. Click on "Open in studies page."
  4. All the available information will be in the studies page. If there is a paper listed in the Citations field, it will contain additional information about that data set. If you'd like to read the paper, but are having trouble finding a copy, read the Science Buddies page Resources for Finding and Accessing Scientific Papers.

How do I download a data set?

  1. In the search results section, check the empty box next to the data set title. See the red circled number two in Figure 1, above, for an example.
  2. Then click on the square containing an "i" at the end of the data set title.
  3. A pop-up box will appear. Click on "Download search results." Another pop-up box will appear asking you to agree to the terms of use for the data, as shown in Figure 2, below. Read the download terms carefully, you must agree to them before you will be allowed to access the data.
Screen shot of the download agreement from Movebank
Figure 2. The screenshot above shows an example of the download terms box. The location of the study name is labeled in red.

  1. There are two types of data available: tracking and weather.
    1. Tracking data: information about where an animal was, and when it was there.
      1. This can be downloaded as either spreadsheet files (.csv, Excel 97, or Excel 2007 formats) or Google Earth files.
      2. Each row in the spreadsheet files is a unique data point consisting of a single animal's location (longitude and latitude) at a specific time. Each spreadsheet is organized slightly differently, but they all contain these important columns:
        • Location-long gives the longitude of the animal's location.
        • Location-lat gives the latitude of the animal's location.
        • Sensor-type-id lists what kind of tracking device was used. See the section "How do scientists track animals?", below, to learn more about the different types of tracking devices.
        • Individual-local-identifier lists the animal's identification code. Each animal in the study has its own unique identifier.
        • Taxon-canonical-name gives the scientific name for the animal.
        • Study-local-timestamp gives the date (month/day/year) and time the animal was recorded as being at that particular location.
      3. The Google Earth files show the path of each animal on a map, complete with satellite images of each location. An example is shown below in Figure 3. To use these files, you'll need to download a free version of Google Earth from http://www.google.com/earth/index.html. To see all the available location points, make sure to drag and extend the timescale at the top of the map window so that it includes the whole period of record.
        • In the Google Earth view, each animal's movement is recorded in a different color. The round circles are actual locations reported by the animal's tracking device. The lines are projected paths between recorded location data points.
        • You might find it useful to try one of the tutorials or consult the Google Earth User's Guide to familiarize yourself with Google Earth. The Google Earth general help page, http://earth.google.com/support/is a useful starting point if you have questions about how to use different parts of the program.
    Screen shot of animal tracking data displayed using Google Earth
    Figure 3. Partial view, in Google Earth, of the migratory track of two ospreys. The dots show locations where they were tracked using Argos Doppler tags. The lines connect temporally sequential locations in an approximation of the bird's flight path. (Data shown here was collected by P. Nye and accessed through Movebank.)

    1. Weather data: Information about the meteorological conditions the animals are experiencing at a specific time and location.
      1. To access this information, check the box next to "Annotate weather data."
      2. You'll need to put checkmarks next to all the types of weather information you want.
      3. The data for the top three weather options (see Figure 4, below, for a visual) are available at various air pressures. Air pressure and elevation are linked. The default air pressure of 850hPa corresponds to an elevation of roughly 1.5 kilometers (km) and is a good approximation of the flight elevation for many birds. If you want to know the weather conditions a bird would experience during flight, these would be good data sets to download.
      4. The bottom three weather options (see Figure 4, below) give meteorological data at ground level for each location. These are the data sets you'd want to download if you want to know what weather conditions an animal on the ground is experiencing.
      5. Weather data can be downloaded alongside tracking data in .csv and Excel file formats. The Google Earth file format does not include weather data.
Screen shot of options for downloading animal specific weather data from Movebank
Figure 4. To download weather data, select a .csv or Excel file format, check the "Annotate weather data," and then select what types of weather data you want. The top three weather choices are available at different pressure levels. The default 850hPa level corresponds to an elevation of approximately 1.5 km and is a good approximation of the flight height of many birds.

  1. You can also use Movebank to download weather data that is not associated with an animal. For example, the Do Migratory Birds Like It Hot? project takes advantage of this feature to examine the temperature at the birds' wintering grounds, even when they are not there.
    1. To access this data, click on the "Weather" tab. Figure 5, below, shows the tab circled in red.
    2. Fill in the longitude and latitude of the location for which you want data, as well as the date range you want the data to cover.
    3. Choose the type of weather data you want from the options listed.
    4. Click the "Download" button to retrieve a .csv file containing the weather information.
Screen shot of options for downloading weather data from Movebank
Figure 5. Click on the weather tab (circled in red, above) to download weather data for a specific location and time range.

Give credit where credit is due.

For every Movebank data set you use in your science fair project, you must give credit to the scientist(s) who created the data set. When you download data from Movebank, a pop-up box appears asking you to confirm that you will follow the terms of agreement. This box contains all the data you need to credit the appropriate people. If the Citation field is filled in, use this information in your Bibliography. Otherwise, use the study name and the names listed in the Acknowledgments. Figure 2, above, shows an example of one of these pop-up boxes. The appropriate bibliographic entry for this example would be: