Twitter-like technology can reveal songbirds’ social lives

September 25th, 2009 - 1:28 pm ICT by ANI  

London, Sep 25 (ANI): Creating what could be called Twitter for tweeters, scientists have developed a new social networking technology that could find out which songbirds spend time together, and could also reveal how they learn their tunes.

Developed by biologist John Burt and his colleagues at the University of Washington in Seattle, the technology, called Encounternet is a network of small tags that will be attached to birds and then record and transmit where, when and for how long their wearers come close to each other.

The researchers are planning to deploy the tags on song sparrows in a forest near the city next spring, and have claimed that their “open source” tracking tool will find other uses among ecologists, too.

The 1-gram tags, powered by a solar cell, with a capacitor to store energy, use radio to report every time another tag comes near and how long it sticks around.

The information is picked up by a base station placed in the woods to log the data.

Future versions may use small batteries to spy on nocturnal species, or get energy from an animal’s movement.

Burt will be attaching his first tags to male song sparrows, which serenade females with a variety of tunes and also sing to communicate with males in adjacent territories.

Young males spend the first year of their life learning and practising a repertoire of songs before they stake out their own territory. They tend to learn songs from adults in neighbouring territories.

The birds signal aggression by singing the same tune that a neighbour belts out.

However, they can also defuse a tense situation by responding to an aggressor’s call with a different tune that the two birds also share, which means knowing your neighbours’ “greatest hits” is important.

Burt said that birds that fail to do this get into frequent fights and often abandon their territory, and thus reduce their chances of landing a mate,.

But it is not known exactly how young males know which of the dozens of potential tunes to learn from adults, researchers are hoping to find the answers by putting the new tags on a number of adults and youngsters

“We have to know where [a bird] is on a continuous basis, who he’s spending time with, who he’s listening to,” New Scientist quoted Burt as saying.

Burt said that the prototypes cost around 400 dollars per tag, but that should fall to below 200 dollars each, low enough to deploy hundreds on a single project.

He thinks that Encounternet tags could support other tiny instruments, such as audio recorders, accelerometers or GPS units.

The Encounternet project was presented at the Human-Environment Mobile-Based Interactions Symposium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (ANI)

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