The final pieces are now in place for an international effort to take wildlife tracking to a new level. The International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space (ICARUS) seeks to attach tiny transmitters to creatures in unprecedented numbers, with astronauts this week installing the antenna on the International Space Station (ISS) that will collate all the data and relay it to scientists on the ground.

Once upon a time, tracking animals involved capturing them, attaching tags. setting them free and then capturing them again to retrieve the data. But since the 1980s, scientists have been using satellites to track wildlife movement, with tags able to relay positional data via radio signals and give scientists a more immediate picture of migration patterns.

All the while, the tracking devices have continued to get smaller, more accurate, cheaper and capable of sending more data. Scientists working on the ICARUS program – who hail from Princeton, the University of Copenhagen, Yale University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem among others – are at the very forefront of these advances.

By 2025, the ICARUS team hopes to have developed transmitters so small that they can be crammed into solar-powered backpacks that locusts can carry. But for now, it will settle for some of the planet's other small and mobile creatures like fruit bats, baby turtles, parrots and songbirds.

"The system represents a quantum leap for the study of animal movements and migration, and will enable real-time biodiversity monitoring at a global scale," said Walter Jetz, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale University. "In the past, tracking studies have been limited to, at best, a few dozen simultaneously followed individuals, and the tags were large and readouts costly. In terms of scale and cost, I expect ICARUS to exceed what has existed to date by at least an order of magnitude and someday potentially several orders. This new tracking system has the potential to transform multiple fields of study."

Key to this so-called quantum leap is a suite of sensors the team is able to pack into each of its transmitting devices. These weigh just 5 g (0.17 oz) apiece and house a GPS module, accelerometer and magnetometer, along with temperature, pressure and humidity sensors. With solar panels and battery onboard, they can take the form of a mini backpack, a band around an arm or leg or tags attached to more slippery customers such as fish.

The large ICARUS antenna is now in place on the ISS, installed by a pair of Russian cosmonauts on Wednesday. Every time one of the ICARUS transmitters passes through the beam of the orbiting laboratory, which will occur around four times a day, it sends up a 223-byte data packet for the program's scientists to digest.

While tracking migration patterns is the most obvious application, these sensors can give scientists plenty more food for thought. For example, they will be able to track an animal's acceleration, and how it aligns with the Earth's magnetic field, along with the humidity, air pressure and temperature as it moves through different environments.

"Tracked animals can act as intelligent sensors and biological sentinels and in near real-time inform us about the biodiversity effects of ongoing environmental change," explained Jetz.

This could refer to long-term trends such as desertification or climate change, along with short-term impacts that present clear danger, such as a herd of animals fleeing in anticipation of a natural disaster. Some ancient cultures relied on the behavior of animals as warning signs for disasters, be it a snake awakening from hibernation ahead of an earthquake or birds escaping ahead of volcanic eruption. The ICARUS program will seek to verify the science behind these phenomena.

Another interesting application could be monitoring the outbreak of deadly diseases. For example Martin Wikelski, chief strategist for ICARUS, plans to use the system to learn more about the behavior of African fruit bats, believed to be natural hosts of the ebola virus due to their superior immune systems. He says ICARUS will allow researchers to see "not only where an animal is but also what it is doing."

The ICARUS team expects to have 1,000 transmitters in play by the start of 2019, beginning with fruit bats, baby turtles, parrots and songbirds. It hopes to eventually grow that to 100,000, with all data to be initially analyzed by scientists at the Max Planck-Yale Center for Biodiversity Movement and Global Change. Some sensitive data, such as the locations of endangered rhinos, will remain private, but most will be published and publicly available online via a database called MoveBank.

"The new technology will allow us to put the bigger picture together," Jetz said. "Thanks to the near-global scale of ICARUS and satellite-based remote sensing of the environment, we are finally able to connect individual behaviors and decisions with the use of space and environments at large scales."

You can hear from scientists involved in ICARUS in the video below.

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