Minnesota-grown technology helps scientists track wildlife around the globe

Various wildlife tracking devices are seen
Various wildlife tracking devices manufactured by Advanced Telemetry Systems ranging from polar bear collars to devices for much smaller creatures on display at the company's facility on Feb. 12 in Isanti.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Updated: 2 p.m.

Five years ago, officials with the Washington Department of Agriculture made a frightening discovery.

They found two giant hornets, nicknamed “murder hornets” because of their sometimes fatal stings, and ability to wipe out entire honey bee colonies in mere hours.

At nearly two inches long, the northern giant hornet, as it’s officially known, is the largest hornet in the world. Native to Asia, they’re invasive to the U.S. And state entomologists suspected they had made a nest. They needed to destroy it.

A small hornet
A Washington state entomologist ties a tiny radio tracker to a "murder hornet" with a piece of Kevlar thread.
Courtesy of the Washington State Department of Agriculture

But first they had to find it.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

They started by devising a method to trap some live hornets.

“So then we were really posed with this challenge of how do we track these hornets back to their nest?” explained the Washington State Department of Agriculture’s Karla Salp.

After some trial and error, they chilled the captured hornets on ice to slow their movements, and used Kevlar thread to tie tiny radio tags to them. The tags were about the size of a Tic Tac and weighed just 0.15 grams.

A northern giant hornet with a radio tag
A northern giant hornet with a radio tag attached, to help entomologists locate the nest of the invasive insect.
Courtesy of the Washington State Department of Agriculture

Then the hornet hunters released the captives. Wearing headphones they tracked the insects using a receiver they carried in a pack with a small antenna held overhead. “And it’s based on the strength of the sound of the beep. And the closer you get the louder it gets,” said Salp.

As they tromped through the forest, the beeps got louder and louder, until they found the nest location. At first they stared at the forest floor — because all the scientific literature said the hornets nested in the ground.

“And then a hornet flew by one of their heads, and they looked up and saw it in the tree,” recalled Salp.

About 10 feet off the ground, the hornets had made a nest in a tree cavity — the first known nest the invasive insect had ever made in the U.S.

They destroyed that nest (by vacuuming out the insects), and the next year, they discovered and destroyed three more nests using the same technique. That was the last they saw of the hornets.

A person suctions hornets out of a nest
An entomologists with the Washington State Department of Agriculture suctions northern giant hornets out of a nest.
Courtesy of the Washington State Department of Agriculture

Minnesota grown

It’s a rare invasive species success story. And the technology that enabled it was developed in Minnesota at a small, unassuming business in Isanti in the north metro. It is called ATS, or Advanced Telemetry Systems.

“One thing I like to say is we track everything from bees to bears,” said Jamie Erickson, ATS sales manager.

 a world map is seen
Wildlife tracking devices manufactured by Advanced Telemetry Systems, sold worldwide, are pinned on a world map at the company's facility on Feb. 12 in Isanti.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

ATS makes trackers for hundreds of different animals, from huge mammals like bison, to reptiles, birds and fish, to small insects, as well as bigger ones like the hornets.

Some trackers are glued on the animal or even injected in them. Others are secured on collars and tiny backpacks.

Employees are working
Employees of Advanced Telemetry Systems at the company's facility on Feb. 12 in Isanti.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

During a recent visit, the company’s nearly 50 employees were preparing collars and transmitters for shipment to several far-flung destinations. Some were destined for Denmark to track Atlantic salmon, others to Taiwan to monitor rare pangolins, the most trafficked animal in the world, and yest others to Australia, to follow koala bears.

“We’re coming out of the big game season, going into a lot more fish and birds and smaller things. Then the race starts all over again,” said production manager Dana Muehlhauser.

The company was founded in 1980. But its roots go back to the early 1960s, when founder Larry Kuechle and other University of Minnesota researchers were among the early pioneers of radio tracking.

A person poses for a portrait
Advanced Telemetry Systems founder Larry Kuechle, poses for a portrait inside his office at Advanced Telemetry Systems on Feb. 12 in Isanti.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

“Before that, the way people got data on animals was they either would mark them, and then hopefully see them again, or set out a bunch of traps hoping they’d recapture them,” said Kuechle, who at 85 is still engineering new products.

Scientists would sometimes cover animals in bright paint to make them easier to spot again. They placed ear tags on them. Then they’d spend hours and hours hoping for a single sighting.

Now, with GPS and technology, researchers can schedule how often they want location data uploaded to satellites. Collars can send mortality signals when an animal stops moving.

A technician works on a transmitter
Eric Thompson works on transmitters designed for small fish at Advanced Telemetry Systems on Feb. 12 in Isanti.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

In Minnesota, the technology has allowed for groundbreaking findings in the study of wolf behavior. It’s also helped researchers better understand why the state’s moose population crashed about 15 years ago.

In India, scientists have employed tracking collars to uncover secrets of the daily lives of gharial, a critically endangered crocodile. That knowledge has helped develop conservation strategies.

Jeff Lang, a retired professor at the University of North Dakota who lives in the Twin Cities, has helped lead the gharial research for the past two decades. He placed tracking devices on 15 gharial earlier this winter.

“And I can sit here in my basement in St. Anthony Park and, in half an hour, I can find out where my 15 gharial are, make screenshots, and send them back on email to the trackers, so the guys that are on the river in real time can go and actually sit and watch them and see if they’re mating, or nesting, or taking care of hatchlings,” explained Lang.

A photo frame is seen
A photograph depicting a wildlife tracking device manufactured by Advanced Telemetry Systems in Spain is displayed alongside various sizes of batteries in Jamie Erickson's office, who is the sales manager, on Feb. 12 in Isanti.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

The main limitation of the technology is battery life, said Kuechle. The more often a collar collects and transmits data, the shorter its lifespan.

So now ATS is also developing trackers powered by tiny solar panels. Electrical Design Engineer Jacob White has worked on solar backpacks for wild turkeys, and ear tags for koala bears.

“So it’s kind of fun,” said White. “I get to come home and I can say, ‘I worked on some jewelry for koalas today.’”

Possums to pythons

As tracking technology has gotten smaller and lighter and more powerful, researchers around the world have used it to gain insights into the ecology of countless different species: from what they eat, to their reproduction, to the habitat they utilize.

But the technology has also demonstrated some more surprising uses.

Al Goldeman holds a reciver
Al Goldeman holds a receiver at Advance Telemetry Systems on Feb. 12 in Isanti.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

In Florida, researcher Mike Cove uses collars manufactured by ATS to track opossums. He’s always been fascinated by how well North America’s only native marsupial has adapted to living among people, and wanted to better understand the role they played in the ecosystem.

About a year and a half ago, a signal from a collar showed an opossum underground, barely moving. When technicians checked it out, they saw a 12-foot Burmese python on the surface. It took five guys to corral it before it slithered back underground.

“And lo and behold, we got the x-rays and you could hear the beacon, the radio signal, from inside that python’s belly,” Cove recalled.

X-ray of a snake
An x-ray of a 56-pound python removed from Key Largo shows two tracking collars remaining from opossums the snake had eaten.
Grayvik Animal Center

The python had eaten the opossum. And Cove’s project turned into something else — a way to locate invasive pythons that are notoriously difficult to find.

Since pythons first were discovered in the Florida Keys in 2007, Cove said people have tried all kinds of different methods to try to find, and catch them — different kinds of traps and survey techniques; searching at night with spotlights mounted on trucks; implanting transmitters in other snakes and following them back to nests; even python detection dogs.

But nothing has worked as well as collaring possums. They’ve since removed 8 pythons on Key Largo alone.

Two people hold a python
Mike Cove (right) a researcher with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, helps remove an invasive python from Key Largo that was found by following a wildlife tracker on a collared opossum that was in the snake's stomach.
Courtesy of the Washington State Department of Agriculture

Cove, a researcher at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, said they’ve deployed 80 collars since, with a goal of deploying hundreds more, in the Keys and beyond.

He’s still studying opossums. But the work now has a secondary benefit; locating large, breeding pythons.

“And so if we can remove them, and specifically target them using this methodology, then that can help us hopefully slow down that growth rate potential.”

A demonstration of wildlife tracking devices
A demonstration of wildlife tracking devices on a stuffed animal is seen at the company's facility on Feb. 12 in Isanti.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Correction (March 13, 2024): A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Jamie Erickson’s last name. This story has been updated.