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The original Twitter? Tiny electronic tags monitor birds' social networks
Date:9/20/2012

If two birds meet deep in the forest, does anybody hear? Until now, nobody did, unless an intrepid biologist was hiding underneath a bush and watching their behavior, or the birds happened to meet near a research monitoring station. But an electronic tag designed at the University of Washington can for the first time see when birds meet in the wild.

A new study led by a biologist at Scotland's University of St. Andrews used the UW tags to see whether crows might learn to use tools from one another. The findings, published last week in Current Biology, supported the theory by showing an unexpected amount of social mobility, with the crows often spending time near birds outside their immediate family.

The study looked at crows in New Caledonia, an archipelago of islands in the South Pacific. The crows are famous for using different tools to extract prey from deadwood and vegetation. Biologists wondered whether the birds might learn by watching each other.

The results, as reported by St. Andrews, revealed "a surprising number of contacts" between non-related crows. During one week, the technology recorded more than 28,000 interactions among 34 crows. While core family units of New Caledonian crows contain only three members, the study found all the birds were connected to the larger social network.

The new paper is the first published study using the UW tags to record animal social interactions.

"This is a new type of animal-tracking technology," said co-author Brian Otis, a UW associate professor of electrical engineering whose lab developed the tags. "Ecology is just one of the many fields that will be transformed with miniaturized, low-power wireless sensors."

Biologists normally tag animals with radio transmitters that broadcast at a particular frequency, and field researchers use a receiver to listen for that frequency and detect when the animal is present. An encounter between small animals would onl
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Contact: Hannah Hickey
hickeyh@uw.edu
206-543-2580
University of Washington
Source:Eurekalert  

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