Animals Were Wearing Fitness Trackers Before It Was Cool

Hopefully the new Apple Watch comes in "polar bear" size.

More and more human beings are strapping fitness trackers to their bodies as the devices become more useful and prices plunge. This week, consumer electronics powerhouse Apple got in on the action with the Apple Watch, which includes a built-in accelerometer and heart rate monitor. But it turns out that long before any person carried one of these devices around all day, researchers were strapping them to wild beasts to collect data.

First widely applied as the sensors that trip air bags in cars, accelerometers contain tiny weights that shift with a change in speed. When biologists initially packaged them with data loggers and batteries to measure animal motion, the devices were unwieldy. In the late 1990s, Williams put flipper cuffs and the equivalent of small scuba tanks on Weddell seals (Leptonychotes weddelli) in Antarctica. “It was a pretty exotic piece of equipment,” she says. As costs plummeted, however, companies began to offer ready-made accelerometers combined with memory chips that record dozens of data points each second for weeks or even months at a time. And wildlife biologists immediately saw an opportunity to fix them to animals. Since 2009, more than 130 papers have been published using accelerometers to study animal behaviour. “It's really exploded in terms of interest and technology,” Williams says. “Now we can sample so much, we know every time an animal takes a stroke or a paw hits the ground.”

For more on the ways scientists are using fitness trackers to understand creatures ranging from lumbering polar bears to barely mobile scallops, head over to this post on Nature.