ICARUS: Tracking animals from space could warn of epidemics and natural disasters | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 02.10.2020
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ICARUS: Tracking animals from space could warn of epidemics and natural disasters

The ICARUS project can observe the behavior of animals all over the world from space. The initiative might help research the spread of epidemics, ecological changes and natural disasters.

In mid-September, biologists from New Mexico State University sounded the alarm after "hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of migratory birds" were found dead in White Sands National Park. So far, it is unclear why so many warblers, sparrows, swallows, blackbirds and flycatchers suddenly died. The biologists suspected that the completely exhausted animals might have fled the devastating forest fires in the west of the United States.

A dead bird in the US state of Arkansas

Huge numbers of migratory birds have died in New Mexico

ICARUS, an acronym for the International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space, aims to throw light on just these kinds of phenomena, says project leader Professor Martin Wikelski. "In most cases, we biologists and scientists do not know what happened to the animals before, why they die somewhere and why they are no longer doing well at a particular place in the world. The new ICARUS system changes that," he says.

Small sensors, large amounts of data

ICARUS is an IOT (Internet of Things) system. The animals it tracks are equipped with small transmission devices that send data to the International Space Station (ISS). There, the data is bundled and sent back to a ground station.

"This is great, because it works everywhere in the world. The transmitters are autonomous; they have a solar panel, a battery and a sensor unit. This sensor unit is a bit like a fitness bracelet. It uses GPS to measure the acceleration, that is, the behavior of the animals. It can tell if the animal is dead or alive.

"It records the temperature, humidity, air pressure and so on to measure the environmental conditions as well," Wikelski, an ornithologist, says. He is also director of the Max Planck Institute for Behavioral Biology and developed the satellite-based animal observation system ICARUS together with the Russian space agency Roskosmos and the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

Portrait of Prof. Martin Wikelski, director of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Radolfzell and director of the Max Planck Institute for Behavioral Biology, who has developed the satellite-based animal observation system ICARUS

Prof. Martin Wikelski is director of the Max Planck Institute for Behavioral Biology

Even though the mini-transmitters do impede the individual animals slightly, the researchers made sure that they do not worry the animals too much. "We know that the survival rates of our blackbirds are as high as for others. But if we see any problem, we stop the research for a while and think about how we can attach the transmitter less intrusively," says Wikelski.

Trust even in times of crisis

Thanks to ICARUS, researchers from all over the world now have access to huge datasets that they can use for animal behavioral research and species conservation, as well as to study the spread of infectious diseases or predict ecological changes and natural disasters.

Watch video 03:50

Protecting Kenya’s endangered grey crowned crane

After a test phase lasting several months, ICARUS is now working much better than expected, says Wikelski. "The cooperation was very good. It is clear that no matter what other nations you work with, there can always be a few hitches on the way. But it helps that we trust each other and that we have good colleagues on the Russian side. And that is maintained even during international crises. It was a bit difficult, but it has stood the test," he says.

'Scouting': Which animal has something to tell us?

As a joint pilot project, several thousand blackbirds and thrushes in Europe, Russia and North America were initially equipped with mini-transmitters. "In Europe alone, we have lost 420 million songbirds in the last 20 years, so you can understand the magnitude of the loss," says Wikelski.

The team hopes that the pilot project will provide insights into species protection and animal migration movements and answer questions about where the animals are doing well, where they are dying, whether they are being hunted, and whether they are dying of diseases or climate-related causes.

Hand holding the ICARUS Sensor

'We now have the opportunity to tap into the most intelligent sensor network in the universe, namely the network of animals'

Worldwide, 900 animal species have already been tagged with mini-transmitters or implanted data loggers for the global database.

A "scouting" procedure aims to show which animal species can provide the most valuable information, says Wikelski. "We want to give animals the opportunity to communicate with us and say: 'What do you know about the world?' We do not yet know exactly who can tell us what, what the most exciting animals are. We will have to do a lot of research in the next few years," he says.

Where will the next epidemic or natural disaster hit?

With the ICARUS system, these small observers can also provide us humans with valuable information about changes on Earth, such as those caused by global heating. As Wikelski says, "We now have the opportunity to tap into the most intelligent sensor network in the universe, namely the network of animals, the involved knowledge of life itself. In principle, we can now tap into the animals' sixth sense by asking: 'What do you know between you all?'"

In this way, the researchers hope to gain important insights into where the next epidemic is beginning, where the host animal of the diseases is located or where the next migratory locusts are coming out of the ground. ICARUS also makes it possible to observe which fish in the world's oceans migrate and where to.

Locust plague in Kenya

ICARUS could predict where the next locusts will hatch

In addition, animals could possibly also provide crucial information about impending natural disasters. Since ancient times, there have been reports of animals that sense earthquakes or volcanic eruptions in advance and seem to flee from them. Perhaps one day ICARUS will even be able to predict such events, Wikelski hopes. "We're on to it. We have already taken measurements during earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. It seems that animals can give us important information. We are very convinced that things look good in this regard. But we are still at the very beginning and a lot of research is still needed," he says.

Non-animal observers

Observing the Earth using ICARUS doesn't just work with animals. The small transmitters can also be placed elsewhere in nature. "We can place these small sensors on toothpicks above a glacier, for example, and measure glacier growth or changes. We can put belts around trees in the Amazon and have measurements sent to us from the tree tops on the [capture of CO2] in these trees in the Amazon, the Congo or in Southeast Asia," Wikelski says.

Turtle in fishing net

Huge 'ghost nets' floating in the oceans are to be located and removed with the help of ICARUS

 The mini-transmitters can be sent by balloon into hurricanes to improve weather forecasts. Or they can be used to locate the huge torn-off "ghost nets" that are drifting in the oceans as potential death traps for thousands of sea inhabitants. "There is an incredible amount that can be done, and it is also very important that a lot of people participate, not only by observing the animals, but also with their ideas about where technology can best be used for the benefit of mankind," says Wikelski.