The aerosphere supports a range of animal life both at the Earth’s surface and in the air. While monitoring the movements and activities of terrestrial animals can be demanding, observation of volant organisms are even more challenging because they require novel technologies. Here we focus on the analysis of animal movements using radar. It has long been known that radio waves scattered from flying organisms (bioscatter) can be detected and processed using radar. Depending on the particular design, radar can be used to track individuals, observe the movements of organisms over a variety of spatial and temporal scales, and to some extent discriminate between and identify different taxa. These capabilities are being further enhanced through continuing innovations in radar hardware and signal processing technologies. Moreover, thousands of radar installations are located around the world with many of these already integrated into cohesive networks. For example, NEXRAD (Next-Generation Radar) operates continuously and provides near complete spatial coverage across the continental U.S. in near real time. In this presentation we explore the fundamental question: To what extent can radar observations be used to investigate questions about ecology, abundance, and airborne movement of animals over large spatial and temporal domains, and promote the transdisciplinary field of aeroecology.
Although designed to collect meteorological data, weather radars such as the WSR-88D also regularly detect bioscatter. We provide an overview of existing and developing radar technology within the framework of “radar aeroecology” and outline an approach to generate meaningful biological products. Our investigations have shown that observations from existing radar networks provide a viable means of observing and studying flying animals. Additionally, when coupled with measurements of the scattering properties of individual animals, we are using radar data to estimate numbers of birds and bats and the population sizes of roosting colonies. Results of this collaborative research are benefitting biologists and atmospheric scientists and creating crossover research opportunities. Our findings are timely given the importance of using this technology for understanding factors that affect movements of animals in the aerosphere relative to regional and global climatic variability. Together with complementary weather observations, NEXRAD data provide unprecedented opportunities to observe birds, bats, and insects in the aerosphere on both local and large scales.