Saving the Planet through Animal Movement Tracking

Around the millennium’s turn, an individual began working at Princeton, aiming to use this high-profile platform to promote his innovative concept. His proposition – a satellite system to track bird movements – was met with bemusement when presented to the head of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Despite seeming dismissive, a meeting at NASA took place, but the idea was received with laughter. The concept of tracking birds, akin to what Monique, the Monarch butterfly, had achieved, seemed far-fetched.

Nonetheless, in 2002, this individual initiated ICARUS, a project poking fun at its own audacious objectives. ICARUS aimed to leverage GPS tags and satellites to instantly send data to an Earth-based center, similar to the ARTS system.

The vision, however, was met with skepticism: the technology was deemed unfeasible and proposals to space agencies a decade ago were advised against, favoring traditional Argos-style communication over digital technology. Critics advised against pursuing digital solutions, deeming them far-fetched and advocating for analog techniques.

However, the past two decades have seen the ICARUS dream inch closer to reality, thanks to advancements in consumer technology. With the evolution of the Internet of Things, two-way digital communication with smaller devices became possible. Miniaturization of lithium batteries allowed a wider range of animals to carry them, and the widespread use of smartphones made low-cost GPS and accelerometers readily accessible.

“We are bridging the gap – from being unable to track most vertebrate species on the planet to being able to track virtually all,” says Yanco, stressing that this feat is possible at varying levels of precision and resolution.

Technological leap in data systems and the evolution of Movebank, an animal tracking data collection hub based on Wikelski’s ARTS system, has also made a significant difference. Movebank synthesizes data from terrestrial animal tracking, including information from the Argos system and new high-res digital satellites like ICARUS’s antenna on the ISS. With plans to integrate CubeSat data, Movebank has gathered 6 billion data points from more than 1,400 species, monitoring animals’ life cycles in unprecedented ways.

Significant breakthroughs in the field have yielded potential for broader applications. For example, in 2016, London researchers used sensor-equipped racing pigeons to monitor air pollution, identifying hotspots often missed by weather stations.

Diego Ellis Soto, a NASA fellow and Yale Ph.D. candidate in animal ecology, underscores a 2018 experiment where flocks of tagged storks monitored air motions over open ocean waters, providing real-time turbulence data—an elusive metric for airlines.