Every fall, hundreds of Canada geese congregate in the fields and marshes around my hometown. It is the start of their annual southward migration. Geese are only one of many animal species that travel great distances every year to find more abundant food and/or water or to mate.
Many of these great wildlife migrations have become more challenging over time as humans develop more land and build more fences, roads, and other barriers to movement.
Part of designing solutions is understanding the problems. Engineers are helping scientists map out animal movements with GPS trackers, satellite sensors and unmanned drones, even motion-sensing cameras. Genetic testing, catch and release programs, and efforts to reintroduce animals into the wild also rely on tools and technologies developed through biomedical, materials, electronic, and mechanical engineering.
Engineers not only help scientists better understand migratory patterns, they can help animals around obstacles.
Fish ladders or fishways are a example of one way we have engineered a solution to help animals migrate. Salmon is one kind of fish that live most of their life in the ocean but are spawned in shallow, freshwater streams. They return to the same streams to spawn. When rivers are dammed, the salmon cannot return to their spawning grounds. Fish ladders are a series of low steps that the fish can leap up and swim across to bypass the dam.
Many of the last great mammal migrations happen in central Asia. This region contains the largest intact, interconnected grasslands in the world and there are several species of mammals - some critically endangered - that migrate across it each year. There is a lot of construction in the region: new railways, roads, and border fences are putting pressure on wildlife. Good planning and engineering can create greenways with over- and under-passes on roads and railways. Wildlife-friendly fencing and gates can help as well.
Like most engineering challenges, designing solutions to help migrating animals involves working with many different stakeholders: local communities, national and international governments, businesses, scientists, and of course, wildlife. Resources are limited and competing interests are many.
What will engineers design in the future to help keep our wildlife free and on the move?
Photo courtesy of the US National Park Service.