Transmitter tags help scientists track animal movements. USFWS Mountain-Prairie / Flickr

A computer in space is helping researchers tune in to the movements of animals on Earth through a project led by the Max Planck Society in Germany. It’s called the International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space, or Icarus for short, and it’s being used to track the behaviors and migrations of birds, bats, turtles, bears, cheetahs, jaguars, and more. The project uses a network of wearable sensors on animals to transmit on-the-ground data to an Icarus antenna on the International Space Station.

The goal is to create an “internet of animals” that can tell researchers how ecosystems are changing in real-time and how animals are responding to those changes. This, they imagine, would be done by combining information from the wildlife wearables with other data on animal behaviors across space, time, and different environments. 

“Animals, through countless individual movement decisions, seek out their preferred conditions, sensing the quality and health of ecosystems in real time,” Martin Wikelski, research director at the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior in Germany, said in a press release.

In a paper published this week in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, the team provides an overview of the data they’ve been able to collect with the system so far, and outlines what they imagine the next steps to be.

Icarus came online officially in March 2020. A pilot project on blackbird migration across continents and climate conditions began a few months later. 

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Before the system could be switched on, researchers and volunteers had to outfit different animals across a variety of species with tiny tags containing sensors that could record information on the animal’s GPS position, movement, and its surrounding environment. These transmitters, weighing only a few grams, hold a lithium-ion battery, a radio, GPS, and control module with sensors for measuring acceleration, magnetic fields, temperature, humidity, and pressure. The battery, which enables measurements and data transfer, can be recharged through the solar cell atop the plastic housing. Two antennas jut out from the transmitter: a 200mm long one for radio transmission, and a 50mm long one for GPS.

The tag will transmit data whenever the space station comes within radio range. Each data packet is usually around 220 bytes and can be relayed in 3.5 seconds. The receiving computer on the ISS processes and forwards the data to a ground control center, which distributes it to the scientists on the Icarus team. After the team goes through the data, they will store it on an open online database called Movebank, hosted by the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior (the database receives funding from NASA and the NSF). The team has even built movement profiles for some animals in the Icarus system. 

[Related: While you sleep, scientists will use a space telescope to spy on migrating birds]

Beyond the space-based system, Icarus has a citizen science arm as well. A free animal tracker app is available to the public, and users can document animal observations as well as upload photos which are shared with scientists via the Movebank database. 

In the discussion section of their forum, the team called for more scientists globally to use and contribute to the system to help advance the data collection and research potential of the technology for studying the life cycles of animals, the movement of zoologic pathogens, the interactions between animals and humans, and animal responses to natural disasters

Currently, the Max Planck-Yale Center is raising funds to purchase more sensors, which cost about $300 per transmitter tag. Icarus is also talking with NASA and the German space agencies about the possibility of using satellites for data collection, according to the press release. The long-term mission is to build a cohort of around 100,000 animal sentinels from 500 species of birds, mammals, and reptiles that can deliver real-time data every half hour.

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By ASNF