Tracking Wildlife From Space

Meg Crofoot is taking wildlife investigations out of this world.

Meg Crofoot, a biologist at the university of California-Davis, is no stranger to animal tracking. She’s studied the social lives of monkeys for 10 years, employing techniques ranging from old-fashioned foot pursuit to radio and GPS collars. Soon Crofoot will take more tracking studies out of this world. In 2015 the ICARUS Initiative, an ambitious international project she’s co-leading, will launch a remote sensing device into space, where astronauts will attach it to the International Space Station. The receiver will give researchers a greater ability than ever before to follow animals bearing tiny GPS tags around the world for months at a time, producing unprecedented pictures of migrations and movements from orbit.

Audubon: What kinds of mysteries will ICARUS help us solve?

Meg Crofoot: Ornithology has an amazing tradition of citizen scientists. We have much better data on bird movements than on any other set of species on the planet. But just as often we have no idea where they go. We see them in their wintering grounds or in their summering grounds, but rarely in between. Through ICARUS, scientists will use long-lasting, 5-gram tags to track more birds than ever before. Five grams is the smallest weight available currently with ample battery life, but we’re hoping to get even smaller ones in the next couple of years. Currently, if a bird is below a certain size, the tag is too heavy and we have no way of tracking it. Small songbirds are especially hard to track.

A: How does ICARUS actually work?

MG: The way GPS chips work is that the tag, which attaches to the animal, is a receiver, using signals from satellites to estimate a location. The simplest GPS devices log location, but we have to recapture the animal to get that data. More sophisticated GPS tags log location and automatically upload the data to satellites, so we can follow an animal without recapturing it. But battery life is a major limiting factor for tracking small animals, since small batteries don’t last long. The International Space Station is closer to the earth than satellites, decreasing the amount of power it takes to transmit data, so battery life won’t be as much of a limitation. That, combined with smaller tags being developed, will allow us to follow smaller animals in real time, all from orbit.

A: What kind of projects using ICARUS are brewing?

​MG: We will track migratory waterfowl in relation to disease transmission in Asia, especially the movements of ducks, which are natural carriers of bird-flu viruses. Another project on the horizon will monitor tigers and wild boars in Russia, both of which move over large distances and have a highly interconnected ecology. And tracking both species is helpful in mitigating conflict between humans and wildlife—knowing where the tigers are is good for both their sakes and for ours.

A: Where is the ICARUS project going?

​MG: With our smallest transmitters currently weighing 5 grams, we’re not able to track insects yet, but that’s the direction we’re headed. We believe that transmitters that weigh less than a gram will be available soon, and that will open up all kinds of new avenues of study. Take the monarch butterfly. Their migrations are becoming more and more erratic, so there’s a huge demand for tracking them, which means there’s a mass market for tiny electronics. The hope is that with ICARUS, we’ll soon be at a point where we can track monarchs and other insects over long distances. I think ICARUS will address a lot of questions that have to do with pure discovery. If we don’t know where animals go, how can we set conservation priorities?

This story originally ran in the May-June 2014 issue as "Rocket Science."