By predicting a natural disaster or the appearance of a virus, animals could one day help us. How ? Thanks to the large-scale study of their behavior, often guided by a sixth sense alien to humans. To do this, researchers launched a large-scale project, ICARUS, two years ago, aimed at eventually equipping 100,000 sentinel animals with sensors to be able to follow them from space and thus see what they have to teach us. In the April issue of the magazine Trends in Ecology and Evolutionscientists detail their concept based on the Internet of Things, which they have appropriately dubbed the “Internet of Animals”!
It all started with a blackbird, the first adventure animal equipped with a sensor in September 2020, which accompanied him from Belarus to Albania. So far nothing original since, since the 1960s, some 3.5 million wild birds around the world have been ringed to learn more, in particular, about their movements and their distribution areas.
However, this blackbird can claim to be the first bird whose GPS coordinates were transmitted to the International Space Station (ISS) and then sent back to Earth. Nothing useless here: while the rings only allowed a small proportion of the birds to be relocated (less than 1% were seen more than once), the spacecraft in orbit at an altitude of 400 km, regularly within radio range of the sensors, now allows to obtain a large amount of data, freely accessible online on a platform called motion bench.
Anticipating the next pandemic?
In the fall of 2020, around 5,000 transmitters were produced in this way to conduct initial research on blackbird and thrush migrations. Other experiments soon followed, involving not only birds but also, for example, reptiles, such as Galapagos tortoises, which are known to hatch, lay eggs, and die in well-defined locations.
But – and this is the main innovation of this technology – the miniature sensor that weighs between three and four grams not only communicates the position of the animal. It can transmit data about its environment, such as temperature or humidity, or even its health, which is especially instructive in the case of mammals such as fruit bats, whose populations have already been tracked by ICARUS. These same bats that were talked about during the pandemic…
“For possible animal reservoirs of infectious diseases, Earth observation with animal sensors can help identify potential hotspots of disease transmission, map and monitor potential transmissions,” explains the study, led by the Center for Biodiversity of Yale University, USA, and the Max Planck Institute. Institute for Animal Behavior, Germany. “Tracking antibody-positive individuals offers epidemiologists the ability to locate true hosts of zoonoses such as Ebola and coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). »
Complicated by the war in Ukraine
Other applications should make it possible to anticipate natural events or monitor phenomena caused by human activity. Geese changing course? It is a possible indicator of thaw. Do wildlife living near a volcano behave strangely? What if it erupts! Wild animals suddenly leaving their habitat? It may be the announcement of an earthquake. According to the authors of the study, the imagination would be the only limit.
Currently, the sensors have been deployed at 91 sites on all continents. And the goal of 100,000 animals? “I think we could get there in three to five years,” says Walter Jetz, a professor of ecology at Yale University. “A large global community of scientists and trained hobbyists, such as bird banders, stand ready to support the deployment of beacons. At a cost of around $300 a piece, which is expected to decrease with the number of beacons produced, the initial investment would be substantial, but minuscule compared to the cost of large satellite missions. The figure of 100,000 is obviously not set in stone, but it is a realistic goal and would allow monitoring of at least 500 species in the world with enough samples per species. »
However, one event sowed stones in the boots of the biologist and his partners: the war in Ukraine. Because the antenna that originally allowed data transmission is installed on the Russian segment of the ISS. Prayed, the conflict has undermined the joint programs of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, and its European counterparts. ICARUS information sharing has been stopped dead in its tracks. As explained to the review ScienceHowever, the initiators of the project extracted from the space actors the promise to pass the data through other satellites before the end of the year. Human decisions, what could be more unpredictable…