'Cat Tracker' gathers data about the secret life of cats

15 December 2014

Cat owners who want to know what their cat gets up to during those long, unexplained absences now have another opportunity.

Heidy Kikillus and Pancho Villa (a cat) who is wearing a GPS tracking device.

Heidy Kikillus and Pancho Villa

Victoria University researcher Dr Heidy Kikillus is using a WWF-New Zealand Conservation Innovation Award to expand her ‘Cat Tracker’ research into the secret life of cats.

Last summer she got 10 pet cats to wear video cameras and watched what they got up to when no one was looking. Heidy and her research assistant Mya Gaby analysed 80 hours of footage showing cats killing skinks and geckos, but they did not catch any cats on film killing birds as everyone expected.

Heidy now plans to use GPS to see where these cats go. “With the camera study, unless we were familiar with the landmarks in the footage, we couldn’t tell where the cats were going.”

Her new study will involve as many as 500 Wellington cats, especially in the suburbs around Zealandia Sanctuary, who will wear a GPS device on a harness for a week. The device will then pass on to the next cat.

She says there were many cat owners who had wanted to take part in the camera study. “We had to turn so many people away; we only had 10 spots. With the Cat Tracker GPS units, pretty much anybody can be involved.”

Of course it will depend on whether the cat is happy to wear a harness. “People’s cats will wear this for a week and we can generate the data and download the data, and do a swap.” The data does not transmit, but records exact locations, giving an idea of the cat’s home range – “if they go into conservation areas and how much time they are spending in those areas”. She says it will also reveal daytime and night-time patterns.

Heidy says her cat tracking research is part of an international study, with cats being tracked in the United States and in Australia.

“In America cats also have predators, but in New Zealand the cats are at the top of the food chain. Colleagues in the USA have only tracked about 60 cats so far, but they have found a lot of individual patterns.”

The project combines GPS tracking and citizen science to turn cat owners into researchers. It aims to help better understand the cats’ home range, how much time they spend in different kinds of habitat, and how owners can manage pet cats to reduce their impact on wildlife. Comparisons will be made between the different countries.

Heidy is developing a Cat Tracker website so people can follow what the cats are doing. This work is part of a three-year collaboration between the Wellington City Council and Victoria University, to explore issues around the city’s resilience, ecology and urban environment.