5 May 2011

Tracking the secret lives of black swans

Cosmos Online
The mystery of why swans habitually travel over huge distances could soon be solved, as millions of 'citizen scientists' team up with Australian zoologists to monitor these large, nomadic birds.
black swan

Black swans are nomadic birds that can often travel over hundreds of kilometres, which can be very difficult to track. Australian scientists have now enlisted an army of citizen scientists to help them follow their whereabouts. Credit: Catherine Payne

SYDNEY: The mystery of why swans habitually travel over huge distances could soon be solved, as millions of ‘citizen scientists’ team up with Australian zoologists to monitor these large, nomadic birds.

As part of a long-term study launched six years ago, scientists from the University of Melbourne have tagged more than 250 swans at Albert Park Lake, about 3 km south of the Melbourne CBD, the numbered collars designed to allow the identification of individual birds from a distance.

Members of the public can submit a sighting directly to an interactive website to instantly provide data on the bird’s movements and history.

“Swans are nomadic animals and travel huge distances but the problem is that we don’t understand why and where they move,” said Raoul Mulder from the Department of Zoology. “But with the help of millions of pairs of eyes across Australia, we hope to collect valuable data on the whereabouts of the swans.”

Large and promiscuous

Swans are among the largest flying birds and are the largest members of the duck family Anatidae. They often mate for life, however ‘divorce’ does occur, particularly following nesting failure, and the females have proven to be particularly promiscuous, regularly straying from the nest and cheating on their fiercely protective partners.

While species found in the Northern Hemisphere have pure white plumage, Southern Hemisphere species can be either black or white, and the Australian Black Swan (Cygnus atratus) is both, sporting white flight feathers on its wings.

Black Swans have the longest necks relative to their body of all swan species and can grow to between 110 and 142 cm in length and 3.7 to 9 kg in weight with a wingspan between 1.6 and 2 m. Due to the influence of climatic conditions on their movements, their migration patterns are erratic and difficult to read.

A two-way dialogue

The researchers hope that by monitoring large populations of wild swans over massive distances, they can learn more about their individual movement patterns and survival rates, and work towards better conservation strategies. But it’s a challenge that can only be met with the help of the public.

“There are lots of really interesting biological questions that involve measuring things over huge scales and for a research project to do that with limited funds and limited manpower, it’s very, very difficult,” said Mulder. “But members of the public… are a great resource for helping scientists to collect data.”

In order to collect this data, the research team designed the website, MySwan.org.au, which aims to encourage people to submit sightings of tagged individuals in return for an instant profile of the bird listing its age, movements, partner and a map of its favourite nesting spots.

“I think that people are only starting to realise how valuable the information is that members of the public can provide for scientific study,” said Mulder.

“In the past it’s been a very one-way process with people contributing data to researchers, but we want to make it more of a two-way dialogue where people that contribute the information are also rewarded in terms of learning more about the birds they’ve seen.”

Tracking kangaroos around town

Zoologists at the University of Melbourne are also using the citizen scientist initiative to monitor the population of over 300 wild kangaroos that call the seaside town of Anglesea in Victoria home.

By tagging individual kangaroos and fitting them with named collars, the researchers are working with Anglesea residents to learn more about the general movement of the population around the town, and the reproduction and survival rates of the individuals living in such an urban environment.

“We’ve got this marvelous resource of people out there who can help us with the records. People almost ‘adopt’ kangaroos sometimes – they become very familiar with them,” said Graeme Coulson, senior lecturer in wildlife management in the Department of Zoology.

“Now we can look at their growth rates and the success of their young, and can gradually accumulate a lot of data on the population dynamics and individual life stories of each of these kangaroos.”


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