Data from space provides a glimpse of animals in motion
Researchers have begun to track the global movements of individual animals using a new generation of miniature transmitters. This opens a new dimension in efforts to capture biodiversity change and the settlement of conservation areas. Project Icarus has recorded the movements of hundreds of animals from 15 species since March 2021. Given the low cost and small size of the transmitters, the researchers hope to expand the project to thousands of animal species and provide near-instant data on animal life around the world. The study shows how the “internet of animals” – along with other environmental and behavioral data – can inform scientists about changes in Earth’s ecosystems.
Ikarus transmitters, which have been collecting data since March 2021, provided several insights into the 15 species being monitored as part of the project. The tags’ small size, less than five grams, and solar batteries made it possible to observe even small birds for long periods of time, revealing little-known aspects of their migrations. The black-tailed godfather, for example, flies non-stop from non-breeding locations in southern Chile to Mexico or through Central America to land in Texas, USA. Cuckoos make long water voyages across the Indian Ocean from India to Africa. “This is the beginning of an era in which animal movements can monitor the health of our planet,” says Martin Wikelsky, Director of the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior in Germany, co-director of MPYC and initiator of Icarus. “The first data from Icarus is evidence that with increased efforts, a global network of animals as ambassadors can be established.”
However, the data provides more than just missing details about the lives of individual animals – it provides insight into how data on animal movements, when collected at a large scale, can provide a vivid picture of environmental changes on the planet. “Instead of using sensors in Earth’s orbit that take pictures of the planet’s surface for later analysis, animals seek to obtain their preferred conditions through a myriad of individual motion decisions and capture the quality and health of ecosystems in real time,” Wikelski said. In this way, scientists will not only be able to identify areas important for the animals’ survival, but also areas where biodiversity could be threatened by human encroachment or poaching if intended migration routes are blocked.
Most of the animals tagged so far are birds, but researchers believe that with the rapid development of smaller and smaller transmitters, many reptiles, mammals, and even insects could one day be equipped with sensors. Now that the technology is available, the Max Planck Yale Center is raising funds that will be used to purchase more sensors (currently about $300 each) to benefit researchers in different parts of the world to use the system, expand, train volunteers, and integrate platforms to share information. “Our dream is a perpetual swarm of about 100,000 animal ambassadors to help us humans measure, understand, and respond to changes on this planet,” said Walter Getz, lead author of the study and co-director of the center and professor of ecology, evolutionary biology. and Environment at Yale University.
Icarus (International Collaboration for Animal Research Using Space) is a collaboration of international scientists led by the Max Planck Society. It relies on volunteers attaching sensors weighing less than five grams to the animals. In addition to recording GPS data, sensors can also provide other information about the conditions the animal is exposed to, such as temperature. Data from sensors is collected by antennas in space and then sent to computers on Earth. The project’s first antenna, located aboard the International Space Station (ISS), is expected to be joined by other orbiting receivers soon. The group is working to significantly expand its space data collection equipment. Among other things, a small satellite and a larger satellite system are planned.
Spatial and ecological movements, key ranges, and migration corridors based on this new data can be found in the Digital Museum of Animal Life (animallives.org), an initiative of the Max Planck Yale International Center for Biodiversity Movement and Global Change (MPYC).