Eager researchers are already lining up to use the tags. To begin with, between 40 and 50 teams will use ICARUS to study birds, bats, sea turtles, and more. All the data from this work will eventually be uploaded to MoveBank, a free online database for animal tracking studies. “It’s a big data project for life on the planet,” says Wiselski.
Roland Kays from North Carolina State University is especially interested in bats. In North America, tree bats are hit by windmills at a surprisingly high rate. “They migrate, but we don’t know where they’re going,” says Kays. “By understanding their routes, we can decide where to put turbines, or just turn turbines off for a few weeks when the bats are moving through.” Another group is using the tags to track orangutans. “A lot of money gets poured into relocating them, and releasing them into the wild,” says Crofoot. “But we don’t know where they go once we let them go.”
By tracking animals, researchers may also be able to discover the secret pathways and hiding places of viruses and other pathogens. Consider Ebola: the identity and location of its wild reservoirs are still hotly debated, although it seems that certain bat species can harbor it. “We can take a blood sample and check if they have Ebola, put tags on them, let them go, recapture them and take another sample,” says Wiselski. “We can then say that bats that have been through this part of the Congo have seen Ebola.”
Beyond charting the movements of animals, Wiselski thinks that ICARUS could be a deterrent to those who would stop animals from moving altogether. If wildlife managers start tagging elephant ears or rhino horns, it might deter poachers from killing the animals and transporting their body parts, lest they in turn be tracked by overhead satellites. “We have request from people in Mongolia, because people are stealing the bones from the dinosaurs,” adds Wiselski.
And just as ICARUS will provide researchers with information about animals, the animals will in turn provide them with information about the planet. “We can consider the animals as sensors,” says Kays. Using hearing, smell, vision, and more esoteric senses like magnetoreception, they detect and react to changes in their environment. They’re like a living fleet of thermometers, barometers, and more; through their movements, they reveal the world—as in the case of the red knots I recently wrote about.
Controversially, Wiselski suspects that some species might even be able to predict disasters like volcanic eruptions or earthquakes. “There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence, but I think there’s something to it,” he says. “We have to do a lot more research obviously.”
“The tech is finally at a state where this is all possible. We all carry GPS trackers in our pockets and purses,” says Crofoot. It also helps that science is becoming increasingly international, making it easy for aficionados of animal movement to migrate towards each other. An International Bio-Logging Society has just formed, and they plan to start a “Decade of Bio-Logging” in 2018. Meanwhile, Wiselski is in talks with other space agencies about putting ICARUS payloads on their satellites, or even to build a bespoke ICARUS network. It’s a far cry from handwritten notes on swallow legs.