At over 6,000 years old, shepherding is one of the world's most venerable occupations. While some technological advancements have occurred, the structure and patterns have remained pretty much the same.
To predict herd movement, evolutionary biologists relied on computer simulations of grouping behaviour such as swarming insects, schools of fish, and herds of various animals. The data in those previous studies had been collected via photos and video, which was labor-intensive and somewhat spotty with regard to accuracy. Sheep, after all, look strikingly similar.
Recently, a group from Turretfield Research Centre in Rosedale, Australia set out to collect more accurate data on how herds react to danger and a theory called "grouping behavior". Not content to count fuzzy white dots on a screen, they outfitted a flock of 46 sheep and a sheep dog with GPS tracking devices to monitor their movements in real time.
Using the GPS situated in backpacks harnessed to the animals, researchers were able to accurately pinpoint the location of each sheep, their relative position to one another, and the dog. The GPS data-loggers were simple and non-instrusive, weighing less than one percent of the sheep's body weight.
The findings of this study show that when faced with danger, sheep head to the safety of the flock's center. Almost all of them. This GPS-based experiment provided data that backed up what's known as the 'Selfish Herd' theory; that sheep will actively reduce their exposure to attack from a predator by trying to shield themselves with other sheep, not physical distance. This has paved the way for other such research projects, and we're excited to see the new and varied ways in which GPS technology will advance age-old professions.