Electronic eggs warm mommy bird bottoms, transmit data, save species

Electronic eggs that transmit real-time incubation data from the nest to researchers are all the rage this summer. The telemetric egg, placed in the nest after the mother has laid her eggs, contains sensors that record temperatures on four quadrants of the egg's surface as well as in the egg's interior. Motion detectors record how frequently the mother turns the egg during incubation. Data are sent wirelessly via an antenna to a receiver and data logger. The data are recorded 24 hours a day and downloaded to a computer every 48 hours.

The data have been key this summer at the Smithsonian's National Zoo to record important information about Kori Bustard - a threatened African bird species - during their incubation and subsequent hatching.

The telemetric eggs have also helped two flamingo pairs sitting on eggs at the same zoo. The data obtained from the telemetric egg can then used to improve the techniques we use to incubate flamingo eggs.

Telemetric eggs like the ones used for the National Zoo's Kori Bustards have been used for whooping cranes at the Calgary Zoo in Alberta, Canada, and for waterfowl at the Saint Louis Zoo, but the technique is not yet widely applied. Telemetric eggs are not yet available in sizes smaller than duck-sized eggs; but, eggs for smaller species should be technologically feasible in the future, the zoo executives said.

Understanding the normal activities of breeding is essential for improving husbandry practices for a species. But much of this basic biological information remains unknown for many threatened and endangered species. Temperatures and turning frequencies for artificially incubating eggs can sometimes rely as much on guesswork as on hard data. Improving the success rate of breeding not only increases the numbers of birds in captive populations, but also helps maintain their genetic diversity, which is essential for a healthy population, National Zoo executives said in a release.

The Smithsonian has had great success breeding Koris. Since it began its Kori Bustard breeding program in 1997, the National Zoo has bred and raised to adulthood nearly 40 Koris, which have been shared with other zoos. Kori bustards, native to eastern and southern Africa, are the heaviest birds capable of flight, with males reaching up to 40 pounds; still, they are primarily ground-dwelling birds, inhabiting grasslands and feeding on an omnivorous diet. Wild populations are threatened by habitat loss and poaching for their meat and feathers.

Other forms or telemetry have helped other species survive. For example, wireless packs strapped to 50 4-pound cane toads show the amphibian pests are spreading faster through Australia by traveling along roads and highways, according to research carried out in Australia and reported. The telemetry data shows that the toads, like people, move faster along and beside roadways than through thick vegetation. The toads appear to seek out the roadways, lie over during the day and take up their march at night, report the researchers who are led by Gregory Brown of the University of Sydney in Australia. The study will be detailed in an upcoming issue of the journal Biological Conservation.

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.