Field Fiasco Friday: Case of the Missing i-Pad

The animal I study (the kinkajou, Potos flavus) is arboreal and nocturnal. This means that to watch one, I have to run through the Panamanian rainforest at night. While looking up.

To manage this, I rely a lot on technology. First, I put collars on my kinkajous that transmit a radio signal. I can use a large antenna and a wide-range receiver (like a walkie talkie for very high frequencies) to track this signal and keep up with the kinkajous while they are out of sight. The collars also collect GPS data of the kinkajous’ location and transmit these data to my “Base Station” – a rather large data processor to manage all that data- I bring with me. I use an i-pad to record my observations of the kinkajous’ behavior; a powerful app called Animal Observer allows me to create buttons for all the behaviors I expect to see. At the push of one of these buttons, I can record what a kinkajou is doing and the app will record the time and GPS location of that behavior without me having to take my eyes off the animal. All this equipment adds up, though. With the base-station slung over one shoulder, the ipad over the other, an antenna in one hand, a red spotlight in the other, and the wide range receiver clipped to my backpack chest strap, I bear a striking resemblance to a Ghostbuster.

All the gear I wear on a given night. From left to right: Antenna, wide-range receiver and base station, iPad, red flashlight, and binoculars.
Calixto Rodriguez and I return from our first night tracking a kinkajou, too excited to take a decent picture.

One night, the equipment overload got the better of me. I’d been tracking a kinkajou, fondly named Tony Stark, for over two hours and it had been a challenging night. First, I had chased down the radio signal deep into an overgrown valley, only to discover it was an echo. Tony was actually well up the ridge and the signal from his collar was bouncing around the hills. Once I had clawed my way back up the hillside, he had gained a significant head start. By the time I caught up with him an hour later, I was covered head to toe in sweat, dirt, and sandfly bites. None of this is unusual, but this night my elation at finally catching sight of Tony Stark evaporated quickly. I reached for my i-pad – it was gone!

A kinkajou with a GPS collar checks out a field camera.

My heart caught in my throat. The i-pad was my only means of collecting data, and this was my only one. Certainly my hopes of collecting data that night were shot, but if I couldn’t find the i-pad it could take weeks to get a new one, never mind the cost! I bade Tony Stark good night and turned around to retrace my steps. I had my handheld GPS to help me, but with no idea whether the ipad had dislodged 10 minutes or an hour ago, searching in the dark was a lost cause. Once I made it back to the valley I started in, I called it a night. I kept the ipad in a ziplock bag – it would be fine until I could come back in the morning.

As I lay in bed that night stressing, I had an idea. I use a bluetooth GPS system to keep the i-pad synced with satellite time; this GPS has two indicator lights – one for satellite signal and the other for bluetooth connection. First thing in the morning, I grabbed the bluetooth GPS and my handheld GPS and struck out for the spot I left Tony Stark. From there, I retraced the previous nights track on my handheld until the light on the bluetooth indicator turned on. I dropped a pin on the handheld, then kept going. When the light turned off, another pin.

Turn around, drop a pin where the light turns on.

Strike out in a new direction, light turns off. Drop a pin.

Turn around. Light on. Drop Pin.


20 pin drops later, I had a circle about 100 meters in diameter. I got to the center and dug around at a spot I must have passed by at least five times. Sure enough, half buried in the leaf litter at the dead center of my bluetooth perimeter, my i-pad!

I kept that baby tucked tight to me for the rest of my field season.

Tony Stark’s GPS tracking over satellite imagery. He travelled a lot!

Alexander Vining is a fourth year Ph.D. Candidate in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group. In affiliation with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, he studies the spatial memory and movement of frugivorous mammals (including the kinkajou) on Barro Colorado Island, Panama. Alexander has a particular love for the elusive animals of the canopy and enjoys any research that brings him into the tree-tops. Follow his work on twitter

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