Thursday, June 27, 2019

Khulan’s view of Gobi desert life

Khulans on the hill. (C) Petra Kaczensky_VetmeduniVIenna
Khulans on the hiill (c) Petra Kaczensky
The Gobi desert, a vast expanse of arid land in China and Mongolia, is home for herds of animals such as the Asiatic wild ass (Equus hemionus, locally called “khulan”). 

Individual khulan roam over areas of thousands of square kilometres. The scale of their movements is among the largest described for terrestrial mammals, making them especially difficult to study.

It is possible to track the movement of individual animals using GPS satellite telemetry. However, the technique does have limitations - it misses important information such as details of interactions with other animals and humans.

Now further light has been shed on the activities of the Gobi khulan by an international research team led by Vetmeduni Vienna using a new type of satellite collar which included a camera. 

The results of the research project have been reported in the journal PLOSOne. 

As well as providing information pertinent to science and wildlife conservation, the images also offer the general public exciting new insights into the way of life of a far-ranging species in a very remote and challenging environment.

The team of researchers from Vetmeduni Vienna, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the National University of Mongolia and the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, used a satellite collar with an integrated camera to gain new insights into habitat use, life history and potential threats khulan face in the Gobi. The deployment of this innovative camera technology on an adult khulan mare resulted in several thousand images over a one-year-period.

“The images provided us with important new insights into life history events of this mare and other khulan. The images allowed us to document khulan behaviour near human infrastructure, where and when the animals gathered in larger groups, and the frequency of encounters with semi-nomadic herders and their livestock,” says lead author Petra Kaczensky from the Research Institute of Wildlife Ecology at Vetmeduni Vienna and the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research. 

The image material also allowed an estimate of the availability of water at different times and at different places. “The success of our pilot project shows the added value of deploying camera collars on animals in remote, highly variable ecosystems for research and conservation purposes,” adds Sanchir Khaliun from the National University of Mongolia.

The migratory behaviour of khulan puts them especially at risk from the influence of human activities, in particular concerning the need for regular access to water and pasture lands. 

“The new camera technology has allowed us to gain information about important life history events, e.g. when and where the collared khulan’s foal was born. And the images allow us to draw conclusions about behaviour, for example, that khulan seem to avoid people and their livestock. The images also make it possible to better determine the impact of local weather conditions on water availability and, consequently, on nomadic movements than had previously been the case,” says Chris Walzer from the Research Institute of Wildlife Ecology at Vetmeduni Vienna and the Wildlife Conservation Society.

According to the study’s authors, images from camera collars also have an enormous PR potential, as documented by an increasing number of images used in popular science articles, books or documentaries. These images and videos provide insight into the secret lives of animals and are guaranteed to attract public attention. 

“The newly developed camera collar is therefore an important tool to communicate new research findings to the public, develop attractive educational material and raise awareness for conservation issues,” says Petra Kaczensky.

A selection of images from the camera collar can be seen at:

For more details, see the open access article:

Through the eye of a Gobi khulan – Application of camera collars for ecological research of far-ranging species in remote and highly variable ecosystems.
Kaczensky P, Khaliun S, Payne J, Boldgiv B, Buuveibaatar B, Walzer C (2019)
 PLoS ONE 14(6): e0217772.

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