Introduction

The core impact of the case study is the popularisation and dissemination of information on animal movement and migrations to over 330 million people around the world (reaching 166 countries and in 34 languages) via the National Geographic TV portal consisting of 7 hour-long episodes, in addition to six books for both children and adults, maps, mobile apps, retail products, a DVD and an educational curriculum. This undertaking follows 2.5 years filming in the field on all continents and travel of over 420,000 miles in National Geographic’s global initiative, the largest in its 122 year history.

Underpinning research

Underpinning research was based around one major concept; the realisation of a single generic archival tag that could be attached to free-living animals to revolutionize our understanding of animal biology. This tag was conceived to be equipped with a carefully selected variety of sensors whose interaction enabled four cornerstones of animal behavioural ecology to be resolved:

  1. Fine-scale resolution of animal movements for animals in any environment (determined using magnetometers, accelerometers and speed sensors that allowed vectorial calculation of trajectories).
  2. Finely resolved determination of animal behaviour (determined using accelerometers and magnetometers) which can be related to (1).
  3. Determination of the movement-based energy expenditure of free-living animals on a second by second basis (using dynamic body acceleration from tri-axial accelerometers as a proxy) which can be related to (1) and (2).
  4. Determination of the environmental conditions to which animals are exposed (using light, temperature, relative humidity etc. sensors) which can be related to (1), (2) and (3).

Rory Wilson, at Swansea University since 2004, was initially awarded a Rolex Award for Enterprise (2006), which facilitated development and testing of the proposed tag. The proposition for the tag has resulted in a number of companies worldwide emulating it to sell to the biological community (e.g. http://cats.is/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=12 and http://www.wildlifecomputers.com/). To date, a total of 45 peer-reviewed publications document the advances in methods, ethical issues and animal understanding that have resulted from this approach, all stemming from RPW and Swansea University (see http://scholar.google.co.uk/citations?hl=en&user=CZkZV88AAAAJ&oi=sra).

Scientifically Robust

Cutting-edge research relating to the above led National Geographic’s producer, David Hamlin, to ask (in 2007) Swansea about concepts for a proposed new series involving animal migrations with the specific request for Swansea to lead and advise the series. This resulted in RPW becoming chief scientific consultant (see http://www.ouramazingplanet.com/502-national-geographic-great-migrations-premiere.html) and featuring extensively in the ‘science of great migrations’ and Swansea’s team conducting work to inform the program. In addition to the normal consultation procedures, National Geographic awarded two grants ($50,000 and $20,000) to Swansea to facilitate their research to inform the proposed series.

National Geographic is very keen that their programs are science-driven and insist that they be scientifically robust, hence the drive to base their programs on the latest research and, where appropriate, the latest research techniques. The unique ability to resolve animal movements with sub-second resolution (via dead-reckoning) as well as determine the energetic costs of locomotion in wild animals (both methodological advances conceived by RPW) was pivotal in the way National Geographic set-out their concept for ‘Great Migrations’ because the paths and energies used by animals are critical in the success of animal movement strategies.

The contribution, impact or benefit

The airing of ‘Great Migrations’ as a seven-part (7 X one-hour documentaries) series showed National Geographic’s high definition coverage of animal migrations around the globe. This work, the biggest in National Geographic’s 124 year history, was premiered world-wide on 7th October 2010 to an estimated audience of 330 million people from 166 countries (translated into 34 different languages). The response to the series was very positive.