In a new study just launched by a number of Dutch district water boards and knowledge institutions, a team of scientists including statistical ecologist Emiel van Loon of the UvA Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics will be researching the behaviour of muskrats, coypus and beavers. The two-year project is titled 'Dyke Diggers in Focus'.
Digging in banksides and dykes by muskrats, coypus and increasingly also beavers is causing significant safety risks, economic damage and structural maintenance expenditures in the Netherlands, where flood control is a constant concern. While capturing muskrats and coypus remains as important as ever, better insight into these rodents' habits may enable faster and more targeted detection and ultimately allow a reduction in not only the number traps that are deployed, but also unintended by-catch and the needless killing of animals. Improved understanding of beavers' behavioural patterns and territorial use, meanwhile, would make it easier to detect beaver damage and perhaps even 'steer' them away from burrowing in dykes.
To gain a clearer picture of these 'dyke diggers', the research will use transmitters equipped with GPS location and activity sensors. The project's strength lies in pairing of science with practical techniques, with a hands-on component for students, too. Use of this new technology will enable district water boards to answer the pressing question of how to prevent waterside damage through practical insight into the behaviours and territorial use of muskrats, coypus and beavers in the Netherlands. In future, the new technology will also be available to track and study other animals.
Emiel van Loon has been engaged to advise on the design of the experimental transmission component and will focus on questions such as how many animals should be tagged with trackers and where they should be captured. Additionally, Van Loon will be responsible for interpreting the tracking data and creating and validating the movement models to for example predict the use of space for the whole animal populations.
Animal tracking data harbours a wealth of information about behaviour and ecology, but actually capitalising on that potential is rather difficult. Because these systems are only partially observable, conflicting explanations (different ecological models) explain the available tracking data equally well, says Van Loon. Not only that, analysing tracking data also entails various dangers, including unintended effects due to data pre-processing and selection.
But, Van Loon continues, 'Developments in sensor technology alongside new modelling techniques are now bringing solutions within reach. I look forward to the challenge of unlocking this tracking data with better and more robust analysis techniques, and it's rewarding to gain new insights into the behavioural patterns of these species and test current theories on things like their spatial use, naviation, memory and foraging behaviour. Also, the partners make this project extra fun. It's an incredibly knowledgeable team, and the outcomes will immediately be relayed into fauna management measures'.
The 'Dyke Diggers in Focus' project is made possible through a SIA-RAAK grant to the Animal Behaviour, Health and Welfare research group at Van Hall Larenstein University of Applied Sciences. Other project participants are the Association of Regional Water Authorities (UvW), the Hunze and Aa’s, Drents-Overijsselse Delta and Zuiderzeeland district water boards, Saxion University of Applied Sciences and a market consortium of Altenburg & Wymenga, SODAQ, International Wildlife Services and Sense for Innovation.