Studying the movement of birds is challenging work. They’re fast, small, and can travel thousands of miles per year. Tracking devices are too large for many migratory species to carry, and that technology is also limited by cost, battery life, and antenna range. But movement biologists say their field is about to be revolutionized, thanks to a new satellite antenna set to go online this year.
ICARUS (International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space) is a 16-year-old project with the goal of tracking the movement of small mammals via satellite. “Every year since we started, there were at least two or three times when we thought, We finally have to give up,” says Dr. Martin Wikelski, managing director of ICARUS at Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, in Germany. But the project moved closer to reality in October when a Russian ship delivered an ICARUS antenna to the International Space Station. The system will be installed during a spacewalk later this year, and Wikelski calls the potential scientific impact “massive.”
Staff at Hawk Mountain, a research center and sanctuary in Kempton, Pa., are eager to apply the system to their work with golden eagles, turkey vultures, and other birds of prey. “It’s allowing us to ask questions we couldn’t ask before,” says Keith Bildstein, Hawk Mountain’s director of conservation science and a collaborator on ICARUS.
ICARUS will orbit Earth much closer than the GPS satellites typically used to track animals, meaning tags placed on birds will be cheaper, lighter, and require less battery power. This will allow researchers to track entire families or flocks instead of individuals and to follow them for much longer—complete lifespans, in some cases. As the tracking units get smaller, researchers will be able to track more species and to gather physiological, as well as location, data.
Results won’t be immediate, though. Tagging the birds requires time, as does data collection. “It’s going to take several years,” Bildstein says. But, he adds: “A dream come true for movement biologists is now becoming less a dream and more a reality. I’m really happy with that.”