An external telemetry system for recording resting heart rate variability and heart rate in free-ranging large wild mammals

Sean D. Twiss*, Naomi Brannan, Courtney R. Shuert, Amanda M. Bishop, Patrick. P. Pomeroy, Simon Moss

*Corresponding author for this work

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Measures of heart rate variability (and heart rate more generally) are providing powerful insights into the physiological drivers of behaviour. Resting heart rate variability (HRV) can be used as an indicator of individual differences in temperament and reactivity to physical and psychological stress. There is increasing interest in deriving such measures from free ranging wild animals, where individuals are exposed to the natural and anthropogenic stressors of life. We describe a robust, externally mounted heart rate monitor for use in wild mammals, deployed here on wild breeding adult female grey seals (Halichoerus grypus), that delivers millisecond precise measures of inter beat intervals (IBIs), allowing computation of resting HRV parameters. Based on Firstbeat™ heart rate belts, our system allows for remote, continuous recording of IBI data from over 30 individuals simultaneously at ranges of up to 200m. We assessed the accuracy of the IBI data provided by the Firstbeat™ system using concurrent IBI data derived from in-field electrocardiogram (ECG) recordings. Bland-Altmann analyses demonstrated high correspondence between the two sets of IBI data, with a mean difference of 0.87±0.16ms. We used generalized additive mixed-effects models to examine the impact of the default Firstbeat™ software artefact correction procedure upon the generation of anomalous data (flats and stairs). Artefact correction and individual activity were major causes of flats and stairs. We used simulations and models to assess the impact of these errors on estimates of resting HRV and to inform criteria for subsampling relatively error free IBI traces. These analyses allowed us to establish stringent filtering procedures to remove traces with excessive numbers of artefacts, including flats and stairs. Even with strict criteria for removing potentially erroneous data, the abundance of data yielded by the Firstbeat™ system provides the potential to extract robust estimates of resting HRV. We discuss the advantages and limitations of our system for applications beyond the study system described here.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0252013
Number of pages22
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 4 Jun 2021


  • Medicine and health sciences
  • Computer and information sciences
  • Engineering and technology
  • Biology and life sciences
  • Earth sciences
  • Research and analysis methods
  • Social sciences


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