Quirks and Quarks

Tracking animals from space could provide early warning of natural disasters

Scientists will watch animal movements and behaviour using an instrument on the International Space Station
Groups of goats move in anticipation of large volcanic eruptions, researchers have found. Now they hope an eye in the sky at the International Space Station will offer an unprecedented view of mass animal movement to greater forewarn of geological disasters. (Pixabay)

Cosmonauts successfully completed a spacewalk this week to install an antenna on the International Space Station that will function as a special kind of "eye in the sky." It will allow scientists to track how animals on Earth move and behave, and perhaps give us an early warning system for natural disasters.

The International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space, or ICARUS, project has been 17 years in the making.

Eye in the sky

ICARUS is animal tracking on steroids. The project is the brainchild of Prof. Martin Wikelski, director of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Radolfzell, Germany. One of his goals is to learn how animals change their behaviour as they migrate.

Wikelski said the animal tracking data could be used for several purposes, for example:

  • To see how birds in the Arctic and Antarctic respond to climate change.
  • To follow fruit bats in Africa that are important for dispersing seeds. Fruit bats can also reveal where the Ebola virus hides since they have antibodies for it but don't transmit the disease.
  • To watch European storks that fly to Africa to congregate and feed on desert locust pests.
This bird is one of the eventual thousands of small animals that will send packets of data up to the newly installed ICARUS antenna on the International Space Station via the tiny transmitter that it wears like a backpack. (Max Planck Institute for Ornithology)

But beyond biology, one fascinating potential use for this technology might be to carefully watch how groups of animals move and change their behaviour before natural disasters, allowing scientists to use them as sentinels.

"It's really like decoding the sixth sense of animals that we are trying to do right now," said Wikelski.

Goats predict volcanic eruption 

For instance, Wikelski worked with goat herders at Mount Etna in Sicily who reported that their animals got nervous before volcanic eruptions. When researchers tracked the movement of animals before and after a large eruption, they found goats collectively acted nervous a few hours beforehand and fled to safety. 

The change in animal behaviour also seems to happen before other natural disasters such as earthquakes.

"There's at least an indication that something may be in the signal from animals in the nervousness of these animals beyond their regular schedule. And that's something that we want to follow up on now with Icarus."  The ultimate potential might be to detect animals behaving in this way, and use it to warn humans of the potential for a volcanic eruption or earthquake.

Animal collective key

For biologists worldwide, including some in Canada, ICARUS offers the chance to form a life and death map of animals' life cycle, said Wikelski, who is also a professor at the University of Konstanz.

The technologies also give an an unprecedented view into the lives of some of Earth's smallest and most mobile creatures.

To that end, scientists are placing small, solar-powered tags on birds, mammals and even insects on land as well as fish and turtles in the oceans.

The large, newly installed antenna at the International Space Station is able to pick up data from 120 tagged animals at a time using a system of coded signals like those used to locate an individual car in the parking lot. Then a computer on board ISS separates and cleans up the data and sends to an open-source database for scientists.

ICARUS is also expected to be cheaper  than current methods of animal tracking that are limited to following a few dozen individuals at most.

The sophisticated instrument is scheduled to start collecting data by early 2019.