A tool to track tiny an­i­mals

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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.

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