Tiger research is currently on going at the Dallas Zoo to ‘fingerprint’ tiger vocalizations. Courtney Dunn, a Senior mammal keeper at the Dallas World Aquarium and a doctorate degree candidate at the University of Texas Arlington, helped to develop what is now known as the Prusten Project. Digital devices are used to record various tiger vocalizations around the nation. The species include Amur, Bengal, Malayan, and Sumatran tigers. There are ten zoos currently participating in the project with another ten zoos planning to contribute to the vocalization library.
These vocalizations are being used to build a computer program that can assist in identifying specific tigers with the hope of determining a more accurate population estimate. Tigers have a plethora of vocalizations consisting of three types: chuffing (grunt-like snorts) often used in greeting, short roars often used for intimidation, and long roars often used to find mates. Not only can it distinguish between species, but gender as well, indicating healthy breeding populations. This can ultimately lead to their protection, as park rangers can more effectively patrol areas where tiger populations are denser in order to monitor for poachers. Park rangers have difficulty in managing areas because they have to rely on secondary evidence of the animal being in a location due to their elusive nature. “What we have discovered with our research is that tiger voices can be used like a fingerprint for individuals, like a vocal fingerprint as unique as you and I,” said Dunn, who is also a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Arlington.
While work has already been done in the zoological facilities, the project does not stop there. There are plans to use digital recorders in wild locations in India and possibly Indonesia. The recorders allow for researchers to collect data on tigers without spotting them, which would help researches because these apex predators tend to be elusive. The recordings can help park rangers patrol areas with a higher density of tigers to monitor for poachers, said Lisa Van Slett, the assistant supervisor of carnivores at the Dallas Zoo.
There have been three tigers at the Dallas Zoo that were recorded last year. The zoo plans to record their two newest tigers as well. “The tigers are so talkative every morning they come in they all have something to tell us as we visit them. They do have their individual voices”, Van Slett said. “I think we’re going to end up finding more uses like this as we learn more.”.
In addition to attaining data to meet their research goals and to construct their vocalization library, the team unexpectedly discovered another use of the database. An Indian village used some of the recordings to lure out a tiger that had been killing the villages livestock. They were able to humanely capture it and relocate it instead of having villagers kill the tiger, which is the normal outcome. It is a great win for tiger conservation. Tiger populations have been decimated and according to the World Wildlife Fund and Global Tiger Forum, there are less than 4,000 tigers left in the wild. The project was initially financially supported by an initial grant from the University of Central Arkansas. Continued financial support is being provided by the American Association of zookeepers and zoological facilities around the country.