Scientists Take to Space to Keep an Eye on Birds

This bird is one of the eventual thousands of small animals that will be sending packets of data up to the newly installed ICARUS initiative antennae on the International Space Station via the tiny transmitter that it wears like a backpack. Max Planck Institute for Ornithology

Tracking animals is common enough these days that no one bats an eye at it. Implanted chips, signal collars, camera traps and more help us to keep an eye on wildlife and their movements.

This process of monitoring animals is changing, however, thanks to the International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space (ICARUS) Initiative. A joint project between Yale University and the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, ICARUS will track small animals, like songbirds, bats and sea turtles, with tiny transmitters. Those transmitters will send not only location information of the animal but movement, air temperature, humidity and air pressure data as well.

And it will all be collected by an antenna attached to the International Space Station starting early 2019.

"The system represents a quantum leap for the study of animal movements and migration, and will enable real-time biodiversity monitoring at a global scale," Walter Jetz, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale and co-director of the Max Planck-Yale Center (MPYC) for Biodiversity Movement and Global Change, said in a statement released by Yale.

The eye above

Tracking animals from space, like the signal and camera traps, isn't anything new. Systems like Argos have used satellites since the 1980s to track large marine animals. ICARUS, however, is scaling up space-based monitoring by scaling other things down, namely the transmitter.

The smallest of the ICARUS transmitters is solar-powered and weighs less than 5 grams and measures 26 millimeters by 15 millimeters by 9 millimeters. As a result, the transmitters can fit on a number of small creatures without impairing their mobility. By 2025, ICARUS engineers hope to shrink the transmitter even more, to the point that they can be attached to desert locusts — yes, those grasshopper-looking insects that ravage agricultural fields.

The ISS, meanwhile, provides a unique platform for the ICARUS data-collection. As it flies over Earth roughly four times a day, the antenna will collect information each time, gathering data packets up to 223 bytes each time. The data is then beamed back down to Earth and distributed to research teams. It also released on Movebank, a free database of animal tracking data hosted by the Max Planck Institute that anyone can access. Sensitive conservation data won't be released, of course.

By the start of 2019, ICARUS researchers hope to have 1,000 trackers out in the field, though the hope is to get that number up to 100,000 at some point.

"In the past, tracking studies have been limited to, at best, a few dozen simultaneously followed individuals, and the tags were large and readouts costly," said Jetz. "In terms of scale and cost, I expect ICARUS to exceed what has existed to date by at least an order of magnitude and someday potentially several orders. This new tracking system has the potential to transform multiple fields of study."

A web of connections

A herd of goats
Goats may be able to detect things like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, acting like a biological early warning system. Arisara T/Shutterstock

Those fields are varied indeed, and they can further demonstrated just how interconnected our environment is.

For instance, Martin Wikelski, the chief strategist for ICARUS, director of the Max Planck Center for Ornithology and co-director of the MPYC, hopes to use the ICARUS system to track the movement of African fruit bats. Monitoring their movements can provide insight into finding hosts of the Ebola virus. Other researchers see an opportunity to track the spread of bird flu.

Tagged animals can also act as biological early-warning systems, whether it be for an earthquake or for the effects of climate change.

"Tracked animals can act as intelligent sensors and biological sentinels and in near real-time inform us about the biodiversity effects of ongoing environmental change," explained Jetz.