The International Space Station, orbiting 240 miles above the planet, is about to join the effort to monitor the world’s wildlife — and to revolutionize the science of animal tracking.
A large antenna and other equipment aboard the orbiting outpost will soon be able to relay a wider range of data than previous tracking technologies, logging not just an animal’s location but also its physiology and environment. This will provide much more detailed information on the health of the world’s ecosystems.
The new approach, known as ICARUS — short for International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space — will be able to track animals across far larger areas than other technologies. It will allow researchers to track flocks of birds as they migrate over long distances, for instance, instead of monitoring only one or two birds at a time, as well as far smaller creatures, including insects. And, as climate change and habitat destruction roil the planet, ICARUS will allow biologists and wildlife managers to quickly respond to changes.
“It’s a new era of discovery,” said Walter Jetz, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale. “We will discover new migration paths, habitat requirements, things about species behavior that we didn’t even think about.”
As an added bonus, people all over the world will one day be able to log on with a smartphone app to follow their favorite bird or tortoise or fish as it migrates.
This space-based approach is led by Martin Wikelski, director of migration research at the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior in Germany. ICARUS combines such technology as solar and GPS units with technology specifically designed for tracking small animals.
On the ground, researchers will attach solar-powered bio-loggers that are far smaller than other technology — the size of two fingernails. The advanced design will allow them to collect far more data by monitoring an animal’s physiology, including skin temperature and body position, and external conditions like weather metrics.
The technology can also be used to accomplish a range of goals beyond wildlife studies, such as picking up behavioral changes among animals prior to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that could provide an early warning.
It also could keep tabs on species of bats, pangolins and other animals that have played a role in epidemics. “With skin temperature we can see in the ducks in China whether the next avian influenza is starting,” Wikelski said.
The power of this approach is partly based on the fact that the space station can pick up the signals of these animals almost anywhere on the planet. And while other projects have tracked sharks, birds and other migratory species with satellites, this one aims to be useful for any species that researchers wish to examine.