What’s your book about?
Oliver: From footprints to fallen feathers, nests to droppings, the history of where animals go has been a history of physical traces. This book is about a new era, one in which the traces we follow are imprinted not in the earth but in the silicon of computer chips. Satellites, drones, camera traps, cellphone networks, apps and accelerometers now allow us to see the natural world like never before.
The field goes by many names: bio-logging, biotelemetry, movement ecology. For most of the stories in this book, we’re talking about ‘tagging’, wherein a scientist has attached a device to an animal. With the rise of mobile technology and the miniaturization of computing power, these devices – or ‘tags’ – can gather gigabytes of behavioural, physiological and environmental data on everything from the spirals of a soaring vulture to the flight of a bumblebee.
James and I combined our skills in geography, data processing, design and journalism to take you to the forefront of this animal-tracking revolution. We’ve spoken to scientists from around the globe and combed through periodicals and online datastores to show you some of the most cutting-edge studies on land, sea and sky.
Where DO the animals go?
Oliver: Where an animal goes not only depends on what species you’re talking about, but also on which individual. Animals are not furry robots. Like you and me, each one is searching for food, water and security and making individualized choices on how to obtain those essentials.
In March 2016, Save The Elephants collared ten elephants in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park to see how the animals are reacting to a new high-speed railway bisecting their range. They saw ten different responses. One fled immediately to the security of a nearby park ranger training school; another crossed back and forth beneath the railway as if nothing had changed.
How did you get the idea for the book?
Oliver: The idea for Where the Animals Go began with an elephant named Annie. Ten years ago, while on the design staff at National Geographic, I worked on a map of Annie’s movements in and around Zakouma National Park in southeastern Chad. Researchers had equipped her with a GPS tracking collar to see where she went and how vulnerable Zakouma’s elephants were to poaching outside the park. Annie travelled 1,015 miles over 86 days. Then the signal went dead. By the time the researchers reached her last known position, all that was left were bones and skin and the tattered bodies of eight of her companions. There was no doubt they had been poached.
Working on that story was the first time a map had ever engaged me in the life of an individual animal, and the shift in consciousness it provoked was irreversible. I began to see more stories like Annie’s coming across my desk: radio tracking a wolverine in Glacier National Park, satellite tracking tuna across the Atlantic, the light logger data of albatrosses circling Antarctica.
Years later, I teamed up with James to produce our first book, London: The Information Capital, a collection of maps and graphics that visualized a variety of open data available in London. We considered a follow-up on data from other cities. Then I remembered those tracking stories from my days at Geographic. We asked our publisher, ‘What about animal tracking?’
At first, it might not seem like a logical fit. James and I are not biologists. He’s a geographer; I’m a designer. But that’s the beauty of the animal-tracking revolution. The convergence of ecology and technology invites more people from more disciplines into the conservation conversation, in part because scientists are now gathering more data than they could ever process alone. They need help. They need engineers, coders, statisticians, geographers and designers.
How are animal systems similar to the ones you tracked in the book about London?
James Cheshire: Once we began working with tracking data, it all felt oddly familiar to the datasets we had visualized for London. This is because in order to fully understand why something happens we often need to know where it happens. Location is everything. And the way we study this is the same whether it relates to an ant, a diving whale or a person with a smartphone packed full of its own tracking tech. For example, in The Information Capital we mapped human traces from data collected by fitness apps. We can ask exactly the same questions of these traces as we can of those logged by animal-tracking devices. We want to know where the flows coalesce and come apart, when they’re strongest and what environments they are passing through. The technology and analytics required to answer these questions are exactly the same.
Oliver lives in the US. How do you know each other?
James: I was a PhD student studying the geography of surnames. Oliver was a design editor at National Geographic. He got in touch to ask if I could supply surname data for North America, from which Oliver produced a brilliant typographic map.
Oliver: To make great graphics you need great data. Full stop. I know no one better at mining and processing great data than James.
Who did what on the book? How did you divide up the work?
James: Every graphic was a collaborative effort but we each played to our strengths. I did the number crunching and plotting of the maps and worked hard to ensure that we had the best data. Many of the researchers we worked with have datasets crying out to be mapped, but they are too busy or lack the skills to visualize the movement patterns. I worked alongside many of them to do this. Oliver worked on highlighting the individual animals’ stories in addition to creating the book’s layout, typography and illustrations.
Oliver: An extraordinary amount of research and reporting went into this book. The book’s structure mirrors our efforts. The book opens with a preface from me on the inspiration behind the project and concludes with an essay from James on the similarities between human and animal data. I travelled to Kenya to write an essay about elephant tracking. James went to Iceland to write one on tracking killer whales. The essay on the history of studying bird migrations was a joint effort. As for the text on the individual animal stories, we split those between us.
How did you collaborate across an ocean?
James: This book was made possible thanks to Google Hangouts and Dropbox. The physical distance between us was a double-edged sword. Sometimes it took tens of emails and an hour on a hangout to go from an idea to a layout for a spread – something we could do in minutes face to face – but it also meant that the graphics themselves had to work harder. It is much easier to convince someone that a dodgy idea is a good one when they are sitting next to you, much harder over an email at 1 a.m. their time.
Oliver: In March 2016, I flew over to London for a few days en route to Kenya. James came to visit me in Michigan in April for a road trip to visit the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario, Niagara Falls, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and a golden-winged warbler expert at his home in Ohio. We also used animal-tracking data to spot some snowy owls in the wild along the way.
Do you have a favourite graphic or map in the book?
Oliver: I’ll never forget kneeling beside a snoring elephant while accompanying a team from Save The Elephants on a collaring operation in Kenya. On the other end of the spectrum, it’s incredible that researchers are now tracking animals as small as ants, bumblebees and plankton – all of which we feature in the book.
James: I don’t have a particular favourite, but the one I am proudest of is the map of albatrosses circling Antarctica. Almost every twist and turn in an animal’s journey is triggered by something in its environment. We were keen to help readers see the influence of these environments. Showing albatross flight paths without showing polar wind patterns would miss a huge part of their story, so I worked hard to find a way to visualize global wind data. As soon as I’d cracked it, the birds’ chosen routes made perfect sense.
How long have you been at work on this book?
Oliver: Two years. I started researching the book proposal in November 2014.
Which one required the steepest learning curve?
Oliver: In bio-logging, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Each species requires different technology and different study methods, so they all required steep learning curves. To write these stories and decide what to map, we had to learn much more than what appears on the printed pages. For example, Michael Noonan’s badger tracking gets a brief mention in the book’s introduction, but it took many drafts to grasp how he tracked them in their burrows using magnetic fields.
James: I needed to learn a new piece of computer code or way of manipulating a particular data format for almost every graphic. Handling the data from the animals’ tags took some patience because researchers often formatted their data differently. Then there was the challenge of mapping the terrain the animals passed through. I had to find a way to show the mountain passes crossed by a European wolf and the ocean trenches visited by a seal. Once I’d put processes in place for those, I needed to visualize global wind patterns, ocean currents and then the back gardens of a village in Germany.
Oliver: Similarly, map labels don’t come out of mapping software looking very pretty. I had to develop a set of cartographic symbols plus a style guide for what fonts we used to label rivers, cities, motorways, etc. Keeping these styles consistent across 174 pages was a real chore. Most of the first maps we drafted had to be revised to match the styles of the later ones.
How do you make one of these graphics? Is there specific software you use?
James: Most of my data analysis was undertaken in open source software – a statistics programming language called R and a Geographic Information System called QGIS. The visualizations from these were exported as PDF files and them loaded into Adobe Illustrator for refinements before passing to Oliver for his design work in Illustrator and InDesign.
Is this book only for scientists?
Oliver: We hope it will be exciting to anyone interested in animals, technology, data, graphics and design. If you have dreams of working with animals or if you want to join a citizen science project, let this book be your compass. We show the efforts of many pioneers who have assembled international and interdisciplinary teams to make the most of their animal data. They’re always looking for new talent. If you are a scientist, we hope this offering will serve as a conduit to collaboration.
What message do you want your readers to take away from the book?
Oliver: We believe data can do for animals in the twenty-first century what photography did in the twentieth. Data can put the lives of these incredible wild individuals – and the threats they’re facing – in the public view. We hope the stories and maps in our book will inspire conversations – and new graphics – about the geographic needs of animals. We hope a cetologist can learn a new technique from a chiropterologist and vice versa. But mostly, we hope these animals will inspire you the way Annie inspired me.
Where did you get your data for the variety of species you cover in the book?
James: Many academic journals now insist that researchers share the data behind their published findings. We found many studies, such as Danielle Mersch’s ant tracking, by browsing two digital data repositories: Movebank and Dryad.
Oliver: I started with research I already knew about from my work at National Geographic. Then we started scouring the internet and scientific journals such as PLoS ONE, Science and Current Biology. Once we started collaborating with scientists on the maps, many were kind enough to introduce us to colleagues or other leaders in the field. For instance, Iain Douglas-Hamilton of Save The Elephants told me about Yossi Leshem and his method of tracking migratory birds with radar in Israel. Truly, I can’t say it enough. As much as this book is about animals, it is a tribute to the brilliant men and women who study them.