Follow 100,000 animals to take advantage of their sixth sense: the crazy bet of the “Internet of animals”

Predicting a natural disaster or the emergence of a virus, animals could one day help us. How ? Thanks to the large-scale study of their behavior, often guided by a sixth sense foreign to humans. For this, researchers launched two years ago a large-scale project, ICARUS, aimed at eventually equipping 100,000 sentinel animals with sensors in order to follow them from space and thus see what they have to teach us. . In the April edition of the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, the scientists detail their concept based on the Internet of Things, which they have opportunely dubbed “Internet of Animals”!

It all started with a blackbird, the first adventure animal to be equipped with a sensor in September 2020, which accompanied it from Belarus to Albania. So far nothing original since, since the 1960s, some 3.5 million wild birds around the world have been ringed in order to find out more, in particular, about their movements and their distribution areas.

This blackbird can nevertheless boast of being the first bird whose GPS coordinates were transmitted to the International Space Station (ISS) and then sent back to Earth! Nothing futile here: while the rings only made it possible to relocate a tiny proportion of the birds (less than 1% were seen more than once), the spacecraft in orbit at an altitude of 400 km, regularly within radio range of the sensors, now makes it possible to obtain a wealth of data, freely accessible online on a platform called Movebank.

Anticipating the next pandemic?

In the fall of 2020, around 5,000 transmitters were produced in this way to carry out initial research on the migrations of blackbirds and thrushes. Other experiments soon followed, involving not only birds but also, for example, reptiles, such as Galapagos tortoises, known to be born, lay eggs and die in well-defined places.

But – and this is the main innovation of this technology – the miniature sensor weighing between three and four grams does not only communicate the position of the animal. It can transmit data on its environment, such as temperature or humidity, or even on its health, which is particularly instructive concerning mammals such as fruit bats, whose populations have already been traced by ICARUS. These same bats that were talked about during the pandemic…

“For potential animal reservoirs of infectious diseases, Earth observation with animal sensors can help identify potential disease transmission hotspots, map and monitor the potential for transmissions,” explains the study, led by by the Yale University Center for Biodiversity, USA and the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behaviour, Germany. “Tracking antibody-positive individuals offers epidemiologists the ability to locate true hosts of zoonoses such as Ebola and coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). »

Complicated by the war in Ukraine

Other applications should make it possible to anticipate natural events or to monitor phenomena caused by human activity. Geese changing course? It is a possible indicator of snowmelt. Wildlife living near a volcano behave strangely? What if it erupts! Wild beasts suddenly leaving their habitat? It may be the announcement of an earthquake. According to the authors of the study, the imagination would be the only limit.

Currently, sensors have been deployed at 91 sites on all continents. And the goal of 100,000 animals? “I think we could get there in three to five years,” says Walter Jetz, professor of ecology at Yale University. “A large global community of scientists and trained hobbyists such as bird banders are ready to support beacon deployment. With a cost of around $300 per piece, which is expected to drop with the number of beacons produced, the initial investment would be substantial, but miniscule compared to the cost of large satellite missions. The number of 100,000 is obviously not set in stone, but it is a realistic objective and one that would make it possible to monitor at least 500 species in the world with enough samples per species. »

One event nevertheless sowed stones in the boots of the biologist and his partners: the war in Ukraine. Because the antenna which originally allowed the transmission of data is installed on the Russian segment of the ISS. However, the conflict has undermined the joint programs of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, and its European counterparts. The sharing of ICARUS information has been cut short. As they explained to the journal Science, the initiators of the project however wrested from space players the promise to pass the data through other satellites by the end of the year. Human decisions, what could be more unpredictable…

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