ICARUS: Behavioural Observation of Animals using Mini-Transmitters and Satellites

Some transmitters are so small they can be attacked to insects.

A satellite-based system for the observation of animals can assist in researching infectious diseases, forecasting natural disasters and protecting species.

Author Leonie Asendorpf:

Translation Leonie Asendorpf, 08.05.20

Natural disasters, species extinction, infectious diseases due to climate change and massive human intervention in the global natural and animal world: these phenomena are becoming ever greater threats to our entire ecosystem. Researchers worldwide are already working on solutions to these challenges, but one problem is that the research data collected is often only stored locally, which makes it difficult to obtain an overview of the situation. However, the current pandemic shows that it will become increasingly important in the future to share precisely this knowledge in order to be able to fight internationally against natural disasters, infectious diseases and the death of numerous animal and plant species.

The international cooperation ICARUS (“International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space”) now wants to close this knowledge gap. With openly shared data on animal behaviour and a satellite-based system, the researchers hope to make it easier to meet future challenges. The project is led by a research group from the Max Planck Institute for Behavioural Biology (MPI Radolfzell/Constance) and the University of Constance. It is additionally supported by the Russian space agency Roskosmos, the German Aerospace Center (DLR), and the European Space Agency (ESA).

Mini-Transmitters Linked to the International Space Station

For the project, animals worldwide are equipped with mini-transmitters, which can then send the data they have measured to the International Space Station (ISS). From here, the data is sent to a ground station, from where it is forwarded to the respective research teams. The sensors themselves are equipped with a small solar panel, a battery and an approximately 15cm-long antenna.

While larger animals such as cows or sheep are fitted with ear tags (which are a usual feature for cattle) or collars, larger birds such as storks are fitted with a ring on their foot, while smaller animals such as bats are fitted with a kind of cloak to which the sensor is attached. According to Martin Wikelski, head of the ICARUS project at the MPI, the lifespan of the animals will not be negatively affected. But how can the observed data help in predicting natural disasters or researching ecological changes?

Sensors Measuring Temperature, Air Pressure and Animal Health

The sensors collect various different data. They track the environment, i.e. measuring temperature, humidity and air pressure where the respective animal is located. This makes it possible for them to detect ecological changes. And the sensors also measure the physiological condition of an animal. The data recorded provides information about their feeding behaviour, their travel patterns, their body position and animal’s state of health.

Among other things, the collected data is intended to contribute to protecting biodiversity.

“At the moment we do not understand where all the animals are lost. In Europe, for example, we have lost 420 million songbirds, or almost 30 percent of our biomass of songbirds. Here it is incredibly important for us to understand where the animals were still doing well and where there are problems,” Martin Wikelski, Director of the Max Planck Institute for Behavioural Biology, explained to RESET.

In the case of larger animals such as gazelles or rhinoceroses, the transmitters can also be used, for example, to track where poachers have hunted illegally. In the case of fish, too, by tracking large shoals of fish, the researchers can identify where overfishing is occurring.

Animal observation is essential not only for species protection, but also for monitoring the spread of infectious diseases. “In principle, it works just like the corona app, but for animals,” says Wikelski. In the long term, the measurement of movement patterns, the interactions between the animals and subsequent antibody tests in the laboratory would thus enable the early detection and control of the spread of infectious diseases.

“Biocaching” with the Animal Tracker App

Another method to observe the behaviour of animals is the Animal Tracker App. “When we see that an animal is dead with the help of the transmitters, we either go there ourselves or send the location to the Animal Tracker App,” says Wikelski. Amateur animal observers or scientists who have installed the app can then take a picture of the animal, remove the transmitter and send it to the researchers.

This is a new form of geocaching or “biocaching” that prevents the battery-powered sensors from being left out in nature. It also allows the data stored in the transmitter to be saved for a complete evaluation of the animal’s life and for the transmitters can be reused. The users of the app can not only contribute to increasing the amount of data available for behavioural research, but can also follow in real time the routes used by animals tracked with the mini-transmitters.

Movebank: The “Internet of Animals”

In order to make the collected data available to as many people as possible, they are published and made freely accessible on the Movebank database. “The open database has massive advantages because it allows us to make global comparisons,” reports Martin Wikelski. “The Internet of animals can only exist if we combine the data of all animals, thereby making it open and learning from it.”

The database is financed by the Max Planck Society and the University of Constance. The development was also supported by the National Science Foundation, the German Aerospace Center, the German Science Foundation and NASA. According to the website, Movebank now has over 20,000 users and thousands of data owners from universities, government agencies and research and conservation groups worldwide. “With the data we can show how important animals are. That’s what we can give back to the animals in return,” Wikelski explains.

This article is part of the RESET Special Feature “Satellites for Sustainable Development”. Click here to explore all of the articles in the series.

This is a translation by Mark Newton of an original article that first appeared on RESET’s German-language site.

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