Today, we’re excited to share an inside look at the work of Daniel Kinka, one of our National Geographic Fellows. Daniel is the wildlife restoration manager at American Prairie Reserve, a partner in National Geographic’s Last Wild Places initiative to help protect the places that sustain life on Earth.
In his role, Daniel focuses on monitoring and restoring wildlife at the American Prairie Reserve. He has implemented various technologies at the reserve, such as the National Geographic CRITTERCAM, to learn more about animal behaviors—especially those of bison, which have been reintroduced to the landscape after a 120-year absence.
Below is an excerpt from our interview with Daniel, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Tell us about one of the highlights for you of being a fellow with National Geographic.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a scientist. I wanted to be a marine biologist first—like a lot of kids who grow up in Florida do. Once I got further on in my training and I was working on my Ph.D., I realized that it wasn’t a scientist I wanted to be all those years ago, not really. What I wanted to be was an adventurer or explorer—I wanted to be Indiana Jones. But I figured the opportunities to do what George Mallory, Jane Goodall, and Jacques Cousteau did were gone. I thought it was a bygone era of adventuring researchers that didn’t exist anymore. Becoming a fellow with National Geographic showed me how those opportunities still exist today. I think my favorite part of being associated with National Geographic as a fellow is being able to connect with some of the other Explorers that are doing incredible work around the world.
Why are bison so important to the prairie ecosystem?
Bison are what we call ecosystem engineers. They disproportionately affect their ecosystem by sculpting the environment that they inhabit and building habitat for a number of other species, from invertebrates and birds all the way up to other mammals. Bison wallow, which is a fancy word for rolling around in the dirt. When they wallow, they create depressions in the land that fill up with water when it rains in the prairie, which is otherwise a very dry place. These areas become important breeding grounds for bugs and insects. When bison wallow, they also pick up a bunch of grass seeds in their coats and distribute these across the prairie, helping distribute plants across the landscape. Just by virtue of having bison on the American Prairie Reserve, we have expanded the capacity of the ecosystem for biodiversity.
You and your team at American Prairie Reserve recently tagged a group of bison using GPS technology and CRITTERCAMs. How does this activity aid your research?
We were able to deploy LoRa ear tags that functionally work like GPS collars. These ear tags use an own outdoor data network, similar to a wifi network, to track the bison. National Geographic CRITTERCAMs are cameras made by the National Geographic Labs team that the bison wear on their collars to monitor their behavior through video that is collected. I then correlate that data with other types of behavioral data. Through both these technologies, we have this extraordinarily robust data set of bison behavior and movement that is truly unprecedented. This work is at the cutting edge of wildlife science in terms of movement and behavioral ecology.
Why is communicating science effectively important in our effort to protect nature?
Nobody’s born speaking like a scientist, but people are natural storytellers. Taking the science and putting it into the human language of storytelling is absolutely necessary for everything—from effectively communicating the urgent need for conservation action, to empowering people who want to do something and who are not research scientists. That is what we’re talking about when we talk about science communication. And I think it is a big part of what it means to be an explorer in the modern era.
What advice would you give to other scientists looking to use new technology in their research and conservation efforts?
I would say that there are new and emerging technologies—things like the National Geographic CRITTERCAM and the LoRa network—that allow us to really push the envelope in ecology and restoration science. We can be better and more efficient at our jobs as conservationists if we lean into these technologies. I really feel as a wildlife manager for American Prairie Reserve that these technologies will mark a fundamental change in our research and ability to help restore this iconic species.