The International Space Station Just Became a Powerful Tool for Tracking Animal Migration

The so-called ‘internet of animals,’ powered by an antenna aboard the ISS, will track thousands of creatures across the entire planet

International Space Station
The ICARUS antenna (right) on the exterior of the International Space Station. ESA / NASA / AstroSerena

In 2018, scientists launched an antenna into space dedicated solely to tracking the world’s animals. From its perch 240 miles above Earth on the International Space Station, the antenna receives signals from tiny transmitters attached to more than 800 species of animal ranging from elephants to bats, reports Katharine Gammon for Inside Science. After some early setbacks, the tracking system was switched on in March. Data from the project may be available to researchers on Earth as early as this fall, according to a statement.

"The sensors allow animals to be our eyes and ears and noses in the world, and we are linking it all together," Martin Wikelski, the director of migration research at the Max Planck Institute, tells Inside Science. Wikelski has championed the project, called ICARUS (International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space), for just shy of two decades and hopes to expand it in coming years to a network of satellites capable of tracking hundreds of thousands of animals in real time, reported Andrew Curry for Nature in 2018.

ICARUS won’t just map the locations of its legions of animal collaborators, the transmitters also record information on the creature’s physiology and surrounding environment, reports Jim Robbins for the New York Times.

“In the future, we’ll use every animal that flies as a meteorological drone,” Wikelski told Nature. “To measure the temperature in the middle of the Pacific at 20-metres altitude is impossible, but birds do it all the time.”

The tags will also be lighter and cheaper than existing technology, opening up a host of new possibilities that excite researchers.

“It’s a new era of discovery,” Walter Jetz, an ecologist at Yale University working with Wikelski on ICARUS, tells the Times. “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.”

Animal tracker
Special transmitters designed for use with the ICARUS project weigh only five grams. They can transmit the animal's location and other data including temperature to the ICARUS antenna aboard the International Space Station. MPI f. Animal Behavior / J. Stierle

All the world’s insects, 70 percent of its birds and 65 percent of its mammals are too small to be fitted with existing tracking technology, according to the project’s website. But researchers working on ICARUS have created transmitters that weigh just five grams, and in the next five years, they expect to shrink the trackers enough to attach them to insects such as locusts, according to Inside Science.

The solar-powered tags can be reused and are sturdy enough to last an animal’s lifetime, according to the Times. The tech is also rather cost effective compared to exsisting technology. Each ICARUS tracker currently costs $500, while traditional satellite tags can cost several thousand dollars. This price point has obvious benefits for the tight budgets of researchers and conservation organizations, and the project hopes to reduce costs even further.

Nathan Senner, a biologist at the University of South Carolina, tells the Times that ICARUS “will truly change the study of animal migration.” Senner hopes to use the system to track the Hudsonian godwit, a bird that migrates nearly 10,000 miles from Chile’s southern tip to Alaska. “We could get location estimates that are much more precise and help us develop targeted, on the ground conservation measures,” Senner tells the Times.

Monitoring animal movements could also benefit humans. Trackers affixed to goats living near the volcano Mount Etna in Italy have confirmed what many farmers suspected all along: the animals retreat to the forests in the hours before an eruption, according to Inside Science. Such behaviors can act as an early warning sign, giving humans a “sixth sense,” Wikelski tells Inside Science.

ICARUS could also help monitor animal species tied to disease outbreaks or threatened by poaching, per the Times. Though the technology isn’t yet light enough to directly track crop-devouring locusts, but the researchers write that tracking storks that travel to feed near the locusts’ eggs can warn locals of an impending swarm.

But perhaps the clearest application of this ‘internet of animals’ is for conservation. Climate change is changing migratory routes, the timing of seasons and altering habitats in ways that have sent animals to unexpected places. Wikelski tells the Times that the massive tracking network can help land managers understand how and where wildlife needs protection even as climate change seems to move the ground under their feet.

The system will allow everyone to access its data online with few exceptions, allowing it to be combined and overlaid with other data streams. And for those looking to follow their favorite creatures around the globe, there is an app called Animal Tracker which also allows users to report observations if they lay eyes on a tagged animal in the wild.

Some are concerned about the potential negative impacts that attaching trackers of any size to everything that flies, hops or runs, citing the trauma of being tagged in the first place and the burden of carrying the device, reported Jason Gregg of Mongabay in 2019. The tags themselves also become bits of trash the second the pop off, with the potential to pollute pristine ecosystems.

Others worry that properly interpreting the onslaught of data could prove challenging without a historical backdrop. Birds’ migratory routes can change drastically and unpredictably from year to year, Mark Hebblewhite, a wildlife biologist at the University of Montana, tells the Times. He says ICARUS creates a danger of conservation decisions being made by managers “who don’t know anything about birds except dots on a map.”

But despite those worries Hebblewhite’s assessment is positive: “We’ll get a lot of things from ICARUS we can’t get any other way,” he tells the Times. “It’s exciting.”

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