Animals in motion: enabling data sharing from Movebank

An open-source workflow extends the usefulness and impact of animal-tracking data by sharing it with GBIF and OBIS

Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus Linnaeus, 1758 observed in Germany by Jakob Fahr. Licensed under CC-BY 4.0

The Flanders-based Research Institute for Nature and Forest (INBO) has published more than 4.4 million occurrence records on behalf of its partners with movepub, a new R package that automates the transformation of animal tracking data from Movebank into GBIF-ready formats.

Ecologists frequently gain insights into animal behaviour and support wildlife protection through the use of GPS trackers that follow the movements of numerous of animal species. More than 7,500 animal studies manage and share the resulting telemetry data on Movebank, a free online platform. However, these datasets are seldom available through either GBIF or the Ocean Biodiversity Information System (OBIS), the most widely used infrastructures for biodiversity research.

Recognizing the unrealized potential of down-sampled animal tracking datasets to inform wider research, a team of researchers from Radboud University, INBO, Sovon, the Dutch Bryological and Lichenological Society (BLWG), and the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior (IMPRS) developed an open-source workflow that automatically reads GPS-tracking data in the Movebank format and converts it into to down-sampled datasets suitable for both GBIF and OBIS.

"These infrastructures store slightly different information in different formats with many possible ways to 'translate' between them, so the challenge is technical rather than scientific," said Peter Desmet, open data coordinator at INBO's Open Science Lab for Biodiversity and lead researcher on the project. "We hope other research groups will embrace this approach building new connections between movement ecologists and biodiversity experts."

Oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus) on the shore, Vlieland, Netherlands—note the GPS tracker and colour rings on the individual on the left. Photo by Henk-Jan van der Kolk.

The team began by demonstrating the workflow with tracking data on Eurasian oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus). Since 2008, ecologists equipped more than 200 birds with GPS trackers in their breeding and wintering grounds in the Wadden Sea. The resulting data, comprising six million GPS locations that document oystercatchers migrating from the Netherlands to Scandinavia, forms part of the University of Amsterdam Bird Tracking System.

“We always thought oystercatchers returned, almost stubbornly, to the exact same breeding and wintering location year after year,” said Henk-Jan van der Kolk of BLWG. “By following individuals over time with GPS, we discovered that although this was indeed true for many individuals, there were also others that visited a variety of different locations. This exploratory behaviour was especially clear in young individuals.”

To offer one data transformation that can be applied to many studies and species, the researchers considered the most commonly collected information in tracking studies and the most important for biodiversity research. The new workflow reduces high-resolution GPS data to hourly positions per animal, in line with likely applications in GBIF and OBIS, and has helped prepare datasets for several other bird species.

“Increased access to animal tracking data offers the possibility to improve our understanding of biodiversity and contribute to assessments, policy decisions and conservation efforts,” says Sarah Davidson, curator for Movebank at IMPRS.

Learn more

The MOVE2GBIF project is funded by the Netherlands Biodiversity Information Facility. Descriptions of the data and software developed through this project are published at Zenodo and ZooKeys.

Movebank is a free, online database of animal tracking data hosted by the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior and coordinated with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and the University of Konstanz.