A tool to track tiny animals
TRACKING WILDLIFE HAS improved our understanding of animal activities such as migration and hunting. Yet most species remain invisible to biologists. Transmitter devices that exceed 5 percent of an animal’s body weight can negatively impact its behavior and chances of survival. Size concerns put the vast majority of animals—including an estimated 75 percent of the world’s mammals and birds—off-limits.
Martin Wikelski, head of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology near Konstanz, Germany, hopes to change that. This summer he started distributing tags weighing just 5 grams, or 0.17 ounce, to researchers ready to place the trackers on thousands of birds, baby sea turtles, and even eels.
Dubbed ICARUS, for International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space, the project could also create what Wikelski calls “an internet of animals.” In the same way that signals from thousands of cellphones yield traffic patterns, so the data swarm from critter tags might help us understand and halt the decline of migratory species, map how pathogens like bird flu spread, and perhaps even prove certain species as an early-warning system for natural disasters such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Here’s a look at the tracker tech and pilot programs.