The International Space Station, orbiting some 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, installed by spacewalking Russian astronauts in 2018, are being tested and will become fully operational this summer.
The system will relay a much wider range of data than previous tracking technologies, logging not just an animal's location but also its physiology and environment. This will assist scientists, conservationists and others whose work requires close monitoring of wildlife on the move, and 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 also be able to track animals across far larger areas than other technologies. At the same time, ICARUS has shrunk the size of the transmitters that the animals wear and made them far cheaper to boot.
These changes 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 in where and when species migrate.
"It's a new era of discovery," said Walter Jetz, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale, whose center is working with the project. "We will discover new migration paths, habitat requirements, things about species behavior that we didn't even think about. That discovery will bring about all sorts of new questions."
As an added bonus, people all over the world will one day be able to log on with a smartphone app to what's known as the internet of animals to follow their favorite bird or tortoise or fish as it migrates and is tracked by the space station practically in real time.
The science of wildlife tracking, known as bio-logging, has come a long way in recent years. In the 1990s, researchers were still tracking large mammals using devices the size of lantern batteries. The technology has grown smaller since then, but many collars and tags are still too big for some three-quarters of the world's wild creatures.
This space-based approach to uncovering the hidden lives of animals is led by Martin Wikelski, the director of migration research at the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior in Germany, who pursued it with a passion for years to overcome gaps and drawbacks in current technologies. It has been funded primarily by DLR, the German space agency.
ICARUS combines off-the-shelf technology, which includes solar and GPS units, and new communication technology that was developed for this mission and 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. They weigh less than 3 grams, about one-tenth of an ounce, and technicians say they will soon have 1-gram trackers.
Once secured — an easy process that seldom harms the animal — the sensors will hitch a ride on an array of animals and insects, like locusts, songbirds and baby tortoises. Most current wildlife tracking technologies can't be attached to creatures that weigh less than 100 grams. And while the new sensors are smaller and lighter, their 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.
Wikelski has studied the ability of cows, domestic goats and sheep in Italy to sense earthquakes and volcanic eruptions hours before they happen. Behavioral changes can be picked up by the sensors, he said, so herd behavior may provide an early warning.
"We think something smells wrong to them and there is static in the air," he said. "So they move into wooded areas where they have shelter."
Why the animals react is not yet known.
ICARUS could also help track elephants vulnerable to poaching in Africa or keep tabs on species of bats, pangolins and other animals that have played a role in viral 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 new approach is partially based on the fact that the space station can pick up the signals of these animals almost anywhere on the planet (the station does not pass over Earth's polar regions). And while other conservation 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.
The sensors it relies on, at about $500 each, are a fraction of the price of other widely used tags.
They can last an animal's lifetime and even be reused. They are able to store up to 500 megabytes, an entire lifetime of data on an animal. A researcher need not retrieve the tag; its data can be downloaded with a computer or a smartphone.
ICARUS "will truly change the study of animal migration," said Nathan Senner, a biologist at the University of South Carolina. He plans to use it for a study tracking the Hudsonian godwit, a shorebird that makes one of the world's longest migrations, from southern Chile to Alaska.
"We could get location estimates that are much more precise and help us develop targeted on the ground conservation measures," Senner said.
In Europe, studies show some 30% of migratory songbirds, or about 420 million, have disappeared. ICARUS may give a much more detailed answer to where and why the animals are dying and guide conservation measures.
Wikelski said he was asked by a farmer in the German village where he grew up why there were no swallows this year.
"It's hard to say," Wikelski said. "Did they die on the way south? Were they eaten in the Mediterranean? Were they hunted in North Africa? Were they poisoned in the Sahel? Was the weather really bad? Those are the kinds of things we will find out."
ICARUS will provide data on an individual bird, as well as a collective. In a study by Wikelski and others at Max Planck Institute, researchers are tagging 1,200 blackbirds in the hopes of better understanding the timing and route of their travels and where and why their numbers are declining.
In the Galpagos Islands, sensors will be used on baby tortoises to track their migration, a project of the Galpagos Tortoise Movement Ecology Programme.
"No one knows how the hatchlings survive," said Wikelski, who works with the program. "Those are the lost years of the sea turtles. Knowing where they go will allow us to protect them better."
Because ICARUS has the capability of tagging many more animals than other technologies do, Wikelski likened it to a smartphone traffic app that can track many cars on a highway at once. One phone can provide a lot of information about one car, but many phones sending information to one app can offer information about traffic patterns.
One of the goals of the project, Wikelski said, is to help conservation managers respond to a changing world. Protected areas like wildlife parks and forest preserves are defined by fixed boundaries. But many species are on the move as climate and other changes cause shifts, and protecting them will require an understanding of where they are going and where new protected areas and corridors may need to be created.
The system will be open to researchers worldwide to use for research. And the data, with some exceptions, will be accessible to everyone. Wikelski said readings from ICARUS could be combined with other kinds of information, like the eBird database, to make the data even more robust.
Another ambition of ICARUS is to allow anyone with a smartphone to follow tagged migrating animals. One app, called Animal Tracker, already exists as a way to tap into ground-based wildlife tracking systems.
Wikelski hopes that connecting people to a single charismatic animal whose movements they can follow will build support for conservation. "If people hear Cecil the lion died it's very real to them," he said, referring to a lion in Zimbabwe that was killed by an American hunter in 2015. "But if you say 3,000 lions died nobody cares."