By predicting a natural disaster or a virus, animals could one day help us. How ? Thanks to a large-scale study of their behavior, they are often guided by a sixth sense alien to a person. To do this, the researchers launched the massive ICARUS project two years ago, aiming to eventually equip 100,000 sentinel animals with sensors to monitor them from space and thus see what they can teach us. In the April issue of Trends in Ecology and Evolution, scientists detail their concept based on the Internet of Things, which they aptly call the “Internet of Animals”!
It all started with a blackbird, the first sensor-equipped adventurous animal in September 2020, which accompanied him from Belarus to Albania. Nothing original yet, as some 3.5 million wild birds around the world have been ringed since the 1960s to learn more about their movements and distribution areas.
However, this thrush boasts of being the first bird whose GPS coordinates were transmitted to the International Space Station (ISS) and then sent back to Earth! There is nothing useless here: while the rings allowed only a tiny fraction of the birds to move (less than 1% were seen more than once), a spacecraft in orbit at an altitude of 400 km was regularly in the radio range of the sensors, now allows you to get a huge amount of data freely available online on a platform called Movebank.
Looking forward to the next pandemic?
In autumn 2020, about 5,000 transmitters were made in this way to conduct initial studies on blackbird and blackbird migrations. Other experiments soon followed, involving not only birds, but also, for example, reptiles such as the Galápagos tortoises, which are known to be born, lay eggs, and die in well-defined locations.
But – and this is the main innovation of this technology – a miniature sensor weighing from three to four grams does not only report the position of the animal. They can transmit data about the environment, such as temperature or humidity, or even about its health, which is especially useful for mammals such as fruit bats, whose populations are already tracked by ICARUS. Those same bats that were talked about during the pandemic…
“For potential animal reservoirs of infectious disease, Earth observation with animal sensors can help identify potential disease transmission foci, map and track the possibility of transmission,” explains a study led by the Yale Biodiversity Center, USA and Max Planck. Institute of Animal Behavior, Germany. “Tracking people who test positive for antibodies gives epidemiologists the ability to locate the true carriers of zoonoses such as Ebola and coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). »
Complicated by the war in Ukraine
Other applications should be able to predict natural phenomena or track human-induced phenomena. Are the geese changing course? This is a possible indicator of snowmelt. Are the wild animals living near the volcano behaving strangely? What if it explodes! Do wild animals suddenly leave their habitat? It could be an earthquake announcement. According to the authors of the study, the only limit will be the imagination.
The sensors are currently deployed at 91 sites on all continents. And the goal is 100,000 animals? “I think we could be there in three to five years,” says Walter Jetz, professor of ecology at Yale University. “A large global community of scientists and trained hobbyists such as ornithologists are ready to support the deployment of lighthouses. At a cost of around $300 apiece, which is expected to decrease as the number of beacons produced increases, the initial investment will be substantial but small compared to the cost of large satellite missions. The number of 100,000 is obviously not set in stone, but it is a realistic goal that would allow tracking at least 500 species in the world with enough specimens of each species. »
One event, however, put the biologist and his partners to a standstill: the war in Ukraine. Because the antenna, which initially allowed data to be transmitted, is installed on the Russian segment of the ISS. However, the conflict undermined the joint programs of the Russian Space Agency, Roscosmos and its European counterparts. ICARUS information exchange has been completely stopped. As explained to Science magazine, the initiators of the project nonetheless snatched from the space players a promise to transfer data via other satellites before the end of the year. Human decisions, what could be more unpredictable…