Monitoring Animals From the Space Station To Improve Their Conservation

Astronauts installing an antenna on the Space Station to track animal movements on Earth.  Photo: A. Gerst, ESA, NASA

Using inexpensive tracking technology and a large antenna installed on the International Space Station, a consortium of researchers is hoping to gather a wider range of data than they had using previous tracking technologies, including long migration patterns, allowing them to better understand how climate change and habitat loss impact wildlife.  The New York Times reported on the project, called the International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space (ICARUS), which is funded primarily by the German Space Agency, 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.”

Why This Matters:  In addition to better understanding of wildlife migration and threats, the technology could be used for a range of other goals.  For example, the researchers found that certain animals may be able to sense earthquakes and volcanic eruptions hours before they happen. It will also be used to see shifts in wildlife populations due to climate change.  It can also track elephants, bats, pangolins, and other wildlife that may be vulnerable to poaching or play a role in the spread of future viral pandemics.   And the space station can pick up the signals of these animals almost anywhere on the planet.

Change The Study Of Animal Migration

One bird researcher in the US hopes to use the system to track a small bird called the Hudsonian godwit, a shorebird that makes one of the world’s longest migrations, from southern Chile to Alaska.  Because of the ability to more precisely track its migration, the researchers can develop much more precise and targeted conservation measures on the ground.  The Times explains the importance of this type of precision — the system provides a “much more detailed answer to where and why the animals are dying and guide conservation measures.”  For example, some 30 percent of migratory songbirds, or about 420 million, have disappeared, so conservation efforts can hone in on how to best save them.   Similarly, on the Galápagos Islands, “sensors will be used on baby tortoises to track their migration, a project of the Galápagos Tortoise Movement Ecology Programme.”

The Sensors and Cell Phones

The sensors the system uses only cost $500 each, are a fraction of the price of other widely used tags and can last the entire animal’s lifetime and even be re-used.  They store massive amounts of data — an entire lifetime’s work, and the data can be downloaded to a computer or a smartphone – the researchers do not have to retrieve the actual tag.  The system’s data will be open to the public, creating unlimited potential for uses.  One other goal is to allow anyone with a smartphone to follow tagged migrating animals, and according to The Times, one app, called Animal Tracker, already exists as a way to tap into ground-based wildlife tracking systems.

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