Tracking animals from space could warn of epidemics

The ICARUS project can observe the behaviour of animals all over the world from space. The initiative might help research the spread of epidemics, ecological changes and natural disasters.
ICARUS could predict where the next locusts will hatch; Huge 'ghost nets' floating in the oceans
ICARUS could predict where the next locusts will hatch; Huge 'ghost nets' floating in the oceans


In mid-September, biologists from New Mexico State University sounded the alarm after “hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of migratory birds” were found dead in White Sands National Park. It is unclear why so many warblers, sparrows, swallows, blackbirds and flycatchers suddenly died. The biologists suspected that the completely exhausted animals might have fled the devastating forest fires in the west of the United States.
ICARUS, an acronym for the International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space, aims to throw light on just these kinds of phenomena, says project leader Professor Martin Wikelski. “In most cases, we biologists and scientists do not know what happened to the animals before, why they die somewhere and why they are no longer doing well at a particular place in the world. The new ICARUS system changes that,” he says.
Small sensors, large amounts of data
ICARUS is an IOT (Internet of Things) system. The animals it tracks are equipped with small transmission devices that send data to the International Space Station (ISS). There, the data is bundled and sent back to a ground station. “This is great, because it works everywhere in the world. The transmitters are autonomous; they have a solar panel, a battery and a sensor unit. This sensor unit is a bit like a fitness bracelet. It uses GPS to measure the acceleration, that is, the behavior of the animals. It can tell if the animal is dead or alive.
“It records the temperature, humidity, air pressure and so on to measure the environmental conditions as well,” Wikelski, an ornithologist, says. He is also director of the Max Planck Institute for Behavioural Biology and developed the satellite-based animal observation system ICARUS together with the Russian space agency Roskosmos and the German Aerospace Center (DLR).
Even though the mini-transmitters do impede the individual animals slightly, the researchers made sure that they do not worry the animals too much. “We know that the survival rates of our blackbirds are as high as for others. But if we see any problem, we stop the research for a while and think about how we can attach the transmitter less intrusively,” says Wikelski. Thanks to ICARUS, researchers from all over the world now have access to huge datasets that they can use for animal behavioural research and species conservation, as well as to study the spread of infectious diseases or predict ecological changes and natural disasters. After a test phase lasting several months, ICARUS is now working much better than expected, says Wikelski.
“The cooperation was very good. It is clear that no matter what other nations you work with, there can always be a few hitches on the way. But it helps that we trust each other and that we have good colleagues on the Russian side. And that is maintained even during international crises. It was a bit difficult, but it has stood the test,” he says.
As a joint pilot project, several thousand blackbirds and thrushes in Europe, Russia and North America were initially equipped with mini-transmitters. “In Europe alone, we have lost 420 million songbirds in the last 20 years, so you can understand the magnitude of the loss,” says Wikelski. The team hopes that the pilot project will provide insights into species protection and animal migration movements and answer questions about where the animals are doing well, where they are dying, whether they are being hunted, and whether they are dying of diseases or climate-related causes. Worldwide, 900 animal species have already been tagged with mini-transmitters or implanted data loggers for the global database.
A “scouting” procedure aims to show which animal species can provide the most valuable information, says Wikelski.
— This article has been provided by Deutsche Welle

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