Calculating the ecological impacts of animal-borne instruments on aquatic organisms



  1. Animal-borne instruments provide researchers with valuable data to address important questions on wildlife ecology and conservation. However, these devices have known impacts on animal behaviour and energetics. Tags deployed on migrating animals may reduce reproductive output through increased energy demands or cause phenological mismatches of foraging and nesting events. For marine organisms, the only tagging guidelines that exist are based on lift and thrust impacts on birds – concepts that do not translate well to aquatic animals. Herein, we provide guidelines on assessing drag from animal-borne instruments and discuss the ecological impacts on marine organisms. Of particular concern is the effect of drag from instruments to the welfare of the animals and for the applicability of collected data to wild populations.
  2. To help understand how drag from electronic tags affects marine animals in the wild, we used marine turtles as model aquatic organisms and conducted wind tunnel experiments to measure the fluid drag of various marine turtle body types with and without commercially available electronic tags (e.g. satellite, TDR, video cameras). We quantified the drag associated with carrying biotelemetry devices of varying frontal area and design (squared or tear drop shaped) and generated contour plots depicting percentage drag increase as a framework for evaluating tag drag by scientists and wildlife managers. Then, using concepts of fluid dynamics, we derived a universal equation estimating drag impacts from instruments across marine taxa.
  3. The drag of the marine turtle casts was measured in wind speeds from 2 to 30 m s−1 (Re 3·0 × 104–1·9 × 106), equivalent to 0·1–1·9 m s−1 in seawater. The drag coefficient (CD) of the marine turtles ranged from 0·11 to 0·22, which is typical of other large, air-breathing, marine vertebrates (0·08–0·26). The CD of tags in reference to the turtle casts was 0·91 ± 0·18 and most tags caused minimal additional drag (<5%) to adult animals, but the same devices increased the drag for juveniles significantly (>100%). The sensitivity of aquatic animals to instrument drag is a dynamic relationship between the fluid flow patterns, or CD, and the frontal area ratio of the animal and tag.
  4. In this paper, we have outlined methods for quantifying the drag costs from animal-borne instrumentation considering the instrument retention time (time to release from the animal) and the activity of the instrumented animal. With this valuable tool, researchers can quantify the drag costs from animal-borne instrumentation and choose appropriate tags for their intended study organism and question. Reducing drag will ultimately reduce the impact on the instrumented animals and lead to greater biological realism in the collected data.