San Diego, California - A team including researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research has developed a novel methodology that, for the first time, combines 3-D and advanced range estimator technologies to provide highly detailed data on the range and movements of terrestrial, aquatic, and avian wildlife species.

One aspect of the study focused on learning more about the range and movements of the California condor using miniaturized GPS biotelemetry units attached to every condor released into the wild.

"We have been calculating home ranges for the tracked condors in three dimensions for the first time using this GPS location data, and our novel density estimator was used to incorporate the vertical component of animal movements into projections of space-use," said James Sheppard, Ph.D., a postdoctoral associate at the Institute for Conservation Research.

While its population now stands at approximately 400 birds, up from only 22 in the mid-1980s,  conservation efforts to reintroduce the California condor to its former habitat in the mountains of California and Mexico have been hampered by a lack of understanding about condor movement patterns and habitat use.

"This data will be used as a predictive management tool to inform conservation efforts to restore condor populations, particularly with regard to emerging threats such as climate change and wind energy impacts," added Sheppard.

The team created highly detailed data sets and visualizations relying on expertise from researchers at the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) at the University of California, San Diego, after they tracked three highly iconic but threatened species: California condors, giant pandas, and dugongs, a large, marine animal somewhat similar to the manatee.

"We were able to speed up their software by several orders of magnitude," said Robert Sinkovits, SDSC's director of the Scientific Applications Group, which helps researchers make optimal use of SDSC's larger supercomputers. "In this case, calculations that had formerly taken four days to complete were finished in less than half an hour."

A paper detailing the project, called "Movement-based Estimation and Visualization of Space Use in 3-D for Wildlife Ecology and Conservation," was published July 1 in the PLoS-ONE online science journal. A video of the project can be viewed on SeedMe at https://www.seedme.org/condor_vis.

In addition to Tracy and Sheppard, researchers for the study included Jun Zhu (University of Wisconsin, Madison); Fuwen Wei (Chinese Academy of Science, Beijing); Ronald Swaisgood (San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research); and Robert Fisher (USGS, San Diego).  The California condor tracking part of the study was funded or supported by San Diego Zoo Global, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Sempra Energy and Mexico-based organizations including  Instituto Nacional de Ecologia, Comision Nacional Para El Conocimiento y Uso de la Biodiversidad, Secretaria de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, Wildcoast/Costasalvaje. The giant panda research was funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China, Wildlife Experimental Platform of Chinese Academy of Sciences, and San Diego Zoo Global. Funding and support for the dugong research was provided by CRC Reef, Australian Research Council LIEF Scheme, and James Cook University.

As an Organized Research Unit of UC San Diego, SDSC is considered a leader in data-intensive computing and cyberinfrastructure, providing resources, services, and expertise to the national research community, including industry and academia. Cyberinfrastructure refers to an accessible, integrated network of computer-based resources and expertise, focused on accelerating scientific inquiry and discovery. SDSC supports hundreds of multidisciplinary programs spanning a wide variety of domains, from earth sciences and biology to astrophysics, bioinformatics, and health IT. With its two newest supercomputers, Trestles and Gordon, and a new system called Comet to be deployed in early 2015, SDSC is a partner in XSEDE (Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment), the most advanced collection of integrated digital resources and services in the world.

The San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy is dedicated to bringing endangered species back from the brink of extinction. The Conservancy makes possible the wildlife conservation efforts(representing both plants and animals) of the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, and international field programs in more than 35 countries. The important conservation and science work of these entities is supported in part by The Foundation of the Zoological Society of San Diego.