A NSW Government website

Animal Ethics Infolink
A NSW Department of Primary Industries and Animal Research Review Panel initiative

Radio tracking and GPS tracking

Animal Research Review Panel Guideline 9
Revised: January 2020

These guidelines have been prepared to assist Animal Ethics Committees (AECs) when considering the use of radio tracking or GPS tracking devices by researchers. The aims of these guidelines are to:

  • Assist Animal Ethics Committees and researchers to:
    • assess whether the practice can be justified as part of a particular project;
    • assess the impact of radio tracking or GPS tracking devices on individual animals that are caught and fixed with these apparatus;
    • assess the feasibility of alternatives to radio tracking or GPS tracking devices.
  • Detail the responsibilities of the senior investigator in projects involving radio tracking or GPS tracking.

1.  Definitions

Abdominal attachment – Where a transmitter is surgically implanted into the intraperitoneal cavity of the abdomen of the animal by a veterinarian. This method is only used on species for which collar, glue on, or harness attachments are not-considered adequate but cannot be fitted in the field and typically have a short detection range. This method has been used in some species such as larger lizards and snakes.

Collar attachment – Where a circular collar is placed around the neck of the animal. Typically the animal needs to be caught at the end of the study to remove the collar, but in some cases the collar may be designed to fall off after an approximate period of time. Collar attachments are the most used method of attachment of transmitters for terrestrial mammals.

Glue on attachment – Where the fur or feathers are clipped as close to the skin as possible to allow adhesion of a transmitter to the skin. Cotton gauze is then attached to the skin and the transmitter is attached to the gauze. The length of time these transmitters stay varies from days to months and has been used successfully with various effectiveness for platypus, echidnas, bandicoots, seals and cetaceans.

Harness attachment – Where the transmitter is attached to the animal with the use of a harness and is often used when tracking birds. There are three main types of harnesses that include:

  • Full body harness (or backpack harness) – that uses a central breast strap and sometimes a neck loop.
  • Leg-loop harness – that avoid the chest and wings.
  • Wing harness that avoid the use of a central breast strap and uses two loops either side under the wing so it minimises the potential disruption to muscle contraction during flight.

Radio tracking device - Includes the transmitter, power supply (battery), antenna, casing to hold it all together and a collar, harness or adhesive to attach the transmitter to the animal. These use a radio frequency to locate the animals in the field using either a hand held or stationary antennae.

GPS tracking device - Includes the transmitter, power supply (battery), antenna, casing to hold it all together and a collar, harness or adhesive to attach the transmitter to the animal. These send data via satellite to a desktop computer, which dramatically increases the ability to gather and analyse movement data.

2.  General principles

Justification and a detailed description of the methods, equipment, monitoring and impact on the animals will be required by the Animal Ethics Committee (AEC). Radio tracking and GPS tracking devices should only be used by individuals with extensive expertise.

The methods used, including weight and attachment should be one that has been previously used on the same or similar species and has been proved to be satisfactory.

As a guide the total transmitter weight should ideally be less than 5% of the animal's body mass but in some cases may be larger. The mass of a transmitter should be less than 5% of body mass when placed on a bird. The researcher should provide details of the device used and provide advice on the outcomes of its usage.

Issues to be considered when proposing to use a radio tracking or GPS tracking device include:

  • Size of the transmitter (as a percentage to body mass).
  • The most appropriate method of attachment based on the animal’s size and mobility.
  • The number of days it will be attached.
  • How it will be removed.
  • Possible chewing of the transmitter aerial that will reduce its effectiveness.

3.  Justification

Radio tracking or GPS tracking are very important techniques in wildlife research that allows important data to be collected that may otherwise not be available. Various potential benefits of tracking studies include the identification of:

a) Home-range.

b) Time-budgets.

c) Distances travelled.

d) Social behaviour.

e) Location of nesting, denning or roosting sites and their usage.

f)  Migration routes.

g) Survival rates (transmitters may also include a mortality sensor).

h) Diet and foraging behaviour.

i)  Causes of mortality.

This information is critically important in the understanding of the ecology and management of many species.

4.  Animal welfare considerations

  • Minimising stress on the animal during the capture and handling process.
  • Will the animal need to be anaesthetised to attach the transmitter.
  • Chose the most appropriate attachment method (abdominal attachment, collar attachment, glue attachment or harness attachment) to minimise the impact on the animals and ensure that it does not impede their movement or entry into a hollow or den. Antennae should be incorporated into the collar wherever possible. Where freely attached, antennae should cause minimum disruption to the movement of the animal and the animal should be closely tracked for the first 24 hours.
  • The collar or harness is fitted correctly so that it is not too tight or too loose and result in the animal getting its feet caught in it.
  • Appropriate preparation will be used for glue-on attachments to minimise the chance of damage to the skin or tail.
  • The design of the collar minimises the potential for abrasion on the neck of the animal. If abrasion occurs all reasonable attempts must be made to remove any attachments immediately if they are found to be causing distress to the animal.
  • In areas where ticks occur, care should be taken in using collars as they may prevent the animal from grooming normally and removing the tick, alternatives to collars should be used. Any problems which are encountered should be reported to the AEC.
  • Adult breeding females may be affixed with a radio tracking or GPS tracking device if the proposed study clearly outlines the benefits of this research and advises how any potential animal welfare issues may be mitigated.
  • The collar or harness is expandable, if placed on a juvenile, to allow for the growth of the animal.
  • How will the radio tracking or GPS tracking devices will be removed from the animal at the end of the study, unless otherwise approved by the EAC?

5.  Possible alternatives to radio tracking and GPS tracking

Though radio tracking or GPS tracking is often the most appropriate technique for the study of animals. Several alternative techniques that may be useful, particularly in the fine scale movement of small animals, include:

  • Spool and line attachments that allows the path of the animal to be followed after the point of release.
  • Fluorescent powder tracking that allows the path of the animal to be followed after the point of release.
  • Trapping that may allow the approximate home-range of individual animals to be determined if using a trapping grid.
  • Light-emitting diodes that allow animals to be followed at night.
  • Coloured bands that allow individuals to be identified during observation studies.

6.  References

Australian Wildlife Conservancy (2013) Animal trapping handling sampling and photographing guidelines. Australian Wildlife Conservancy. 34pp.

Coetsee, A., Harley, D., Lynch, M., Coulson, G., de Milliano, J., Cooper, M. & Groenewegan, R. (2016) Radio-transmitter attachment methods for monitoring the endangered eastern barred bandicoot (Perameles gunnii). Australian Mammalogy 38: 221-231.

Collins, G.H., Peterson, S.L., Carr, C.A. & Pielstick, L. (2014) Testing VHF/GPS collar design and safety in the study of free-roaming horses. PLoS ONE 9(9): e103189.

Kenwood, R. (1987) Wildlife Radio Tagging: Equipment, Field Techniques and Data Analysis. Academic Press, London.

Lunney, D. (2012) Ethics and Australian Mammalogy: Reflections on 15 years (1991-2006) on an Animal Ethics Committee. Australian Mammalogy 34: 1-17.

Mech, L.D. (1983) Handbook of Animal Radio-tracking. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.

Radford, S. L., McKee, J., Goldingay, R. L. & Kavanagh, R. P. (2006) The protocols for koala research using radio-collars: a review based on its application in a tall coastal forest in New South Wales and the implications for future research projects. Australian Mammalogy 28: 187–200.

Smith, B.L., Burger, W.P. & Singer, F.J. (1998) An expandable radiocollar for elk calves. Wildlife Society Bulletin 26: 113-117.

Stratham, S.M., Lotimer, J.S., Kolenosky, G.B. & Lintack, W.M. (1984) An expanding break-away radio collar for black bear. Journal of Wildlife Management 48: 939-942.

Sikes, S. & Animal Care and Use Committee of the American Society of Mammologists (2016) 2016 Guidelines of the American Society of Mammalogists for the use of wild mammals in research and education. Journal of Mammalogy 97: 663-688.

Thalmann, S. (2013). Evaluation of a degradable time-release mechanism for telemetry collars. Australian Mammalogy 35: 241–244.

Thaxter, C.B., Ross-Smith, V.H., Clark, J.A., Clark, N.A., Conwa, G.J., Marsh, M., Leat, E.H.K. & Burton, N.H.K. (2014) A trial of three harness attachment methods and their suitability for long-term use on lesser black-backed gulls and great skuas. Ringing & Migration 29: 65-76.

Wilkinson, G.S. & Bradbury, J.W. (1988) Radio telemetry: techniques and analysis. Pp. 105-124, in T.H. Kunz (ed.) Ecological and Behavioural Methods in the Study of Bats. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C.

Wilson, D.E., Cole, F.R., Nichols, J.D., Rudran, R. & Foster, M.S. (eds.) (1996) Measuring and Monitoring Biological Diversity: Standard Methods for Mammals. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.


Stephen Jackson (NSW DPI) for the development of the current edition and Dan Lunney and Mike Fleming for providing comments on the draft document. The previous edition of these guidelines was developed with the assistance of Walter Boles, Dan Lunney, Jack Giles, Burt Sheridan, Alan York, Andrew Braid, Leslie Reddacliff and Margaret Rose.