How Animals Can Predict the Future

The Icarus project is tagging animals for use as early-warning systems for earthquakes and other events.

Martin Wikelski (right), migration expert at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, sensor-tags a sheep.

Source: Max Planck Institute for Ornithology

Martin Wikelski is the kind of guy who drives toward an earthquake. Last October, when a 6.1 devastated the Italian town of Visso, Wikelski was eating dinner with his wife, Uschi Müller, in the South German town of Konstanz, some 560 miles away. When he got the news from an online alert, he put down his fork and wine glass, grabbed his keys, and hopped into the family Volkswagen. He and his wife drove 12 hours over the Alps toward Visso, at one point navigating a destroyed mountain road.

Wikelski, 51, isn’t a seismologist or a Superman type. He’s the migration expert from Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Ornithology—an animal tracker. He tests whether sharp changes in animal behavior, such as herd migration, can predict seismic and other events. In Visso, that meant taping 1/6th-ounce, solar-powered sensors on whatever creatures he could find and waiting for aftershocks to see if the animals anticipated them. A farmer whose farm had been badly hit let Wikelski rig up sensors on six cows, five sheep, pairs of dogs, chickens, and turkeys, and a rabbit.

Wikelski with a bat.
Source: Max Planck Institute for Ornithology

Pay dirt. Days later, Wikelski’s sensors detected “dynamic body acceleration,” meaning the animals expended dramatically more energy than usual as many as 14 hours before the aftershocks hit, at times when they’d normally be asleep or docile. He’s putting the finishing touches on a study, due out later this year in the journal Science, that solidifies the concept of movement ecology—the causes and effects of organisms’ movements on the world around them. The sensors turn animals into something like environmental buoys, using them to predict and monitor things beyond earthquakes, perhaps illustrating environmental patterns with broad economic significance for humans. The big data collected from the animals can “do absolutely crazy things,” he says.

Soon the best example will be Wikelski’s Icarus project, an open-source online database designed to follow animals around the world via embedded tracking devices that relay their locations to a satellite scheduled for launch in October. He says the 16-year venture by the Max Planck Institute, the German Aerospace Center, and the Russian Federal Space Agency has tagged dozens of mammals, birds, fish, and even flying insects with the tiny tracking sensors, usually with super glue. With help from volunteers who sign up online, he says, he expects to hit a few thousand by the end of next year.

“It’s something like a new global SMS [Short Message Service] with animals as autonomous units,” Wikelski says of Icarus, short for International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space. “People have been calling it the internet of wings.”

Attempts to document animals learning things before people date to antiquity but typically with little scientific rigor. Wikelski documented Indonesian elephants moving to safe ground before a tsunami devastated the country in 2004, and from 2012 to 2014 he monitored goats and sheep on Italy’s Mount Etna to better foreshadow volcanic eruptions. By then he’d already begun using customized versions of the kinds of radio tags made by Lotek Wireless Inc. and Vectronic Aerospace GmbH.

For Icarus, most of the animal tagging is done by local volunteers. “People come from all around the world, and we get requests from Niger, Mali,” he says. “They say, ‘We think these birds built a nest on a level above where they expect a flood to be. Give us some tags—we want to find out.’ ” Müller, also a professor at Max Planck, juggles logistics and finances.

The German and Russian space agencies have granted Wikelski’s five-person staff—and small army of about 50 grad students from 37 countries—$13 million to build and launch his satellite, designed by a Princeton aerospace engineer. The late professor George Swenson Jr., who developed NASA radio beacons to compete with Sputnik in the ’50s, advised Wikelski on radio tagging, and in July the Russian space agency approved the Icarus hardware for a spacewalk this fall.

“The implications for navigation, for humans, it’s massive,” says Deakin University doctoral candidate Antoine Dujon, who studies how sea turtles use the Earth’s magnetic field as a road map to return to their birthplace. “Animals can carry diseases. What we want to know is where. If we know where, we can design protected areas.” Navinder Singh, an ecologist at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, says Icarus has the potential to help land managers make use of a growing wealth of movement data that so far has little clear purpose.

The dark side of Wikelski’s sensor network is that it could be used on humans. “That’s a real problem in the making,” he acknowledges, adding that he’s keeping his source code private and carefully tracking where and when the network is used. That doesn’t make it hackproof.

For now, though, the Icarus team is focused on tagging more creatures to gradually widen the scope of what its satellite can monitor. With a net and some super glue, Wikelski says, he should be able to tag swarms of desert locusts to warn farmers or track outbreaks of certain diseases. Beyond natural disasters, he’s hoping Icarus will be able to monitor fishery populations to better regulate fish feeding and breeding, measure atmosphere and temperature more precisely from birds’ flights, and track the spread of Ebola based on which African fruit bats have developed antibodies. “We never would have expected having a phone in a moving car would influence how we look at traffic and our movements,” he says. “Look at us now.”

(Updated ninth paragraph to correct description of Dujon's research)

    BOTTOM LINE - The Icarus project has united scientists and space agencies around the world in the hope that sensor-tagged animals really do detect things before people do.
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