5 ways tracking animals from space can benefit us

The ICARUS Initiative aims to track migratory animals from space using special transmitters and antennae. The data retrieved from the project will help us conserve biodiversity but has the potential to promote human well-being and prosperity, too.

Imagine if you had a satellite that could spy on any animal from space. Day and night, you could track the animal of your choice and record its movements, behaviors, and vital signs. This wealth of information would then be compiled into a giant database, allowing you to learn the minutest details of its existence.

This scenario sounds like what you’d get if Napoleon the pig teamed up with Big Brother to rule the animal kingdom, but thanks to the International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space (ICARUS) Initiative, this prospective future will be anything but an Orwellian crossover.

“ICARUS is a global collaboration of research scientists that are interested in life on the globe,” Martin Wikelski, director of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology and the ICARUS Initiative’s chief strategist, said.1 “And once we put together all the information on mobile animals, then we’ll have a completely different and new understanding of life on Earth.”

ICARUS hopes to open for the scientific community by 2019. In a completely anti-Orwellian move, the initiative will make all of its data — with the exception of sensitive information — publicly accessible through the MoveBank database as a means to promote global cooperation.

This month, cosmonauts will install giant antennae to the exterior of the International Space Station. These antennae will collect data from transmitters attached to animals across the planet. The transmitters are solar powered, and ICARUS engineers are working to produce devices small enough that even insects and songbirds can be tagged and tracked. 2,3

“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,” Walter Jetz, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale, said in a press release.

The knowledge we gain from ICARUS will have obvious benefits for conservation efforts, but researchers are also looking at ways it may benefit humanity. Here are five potential ways it could do just that.

A wildfire in California, c/o Creative Commons

Preemptive warnings of natural disasters

Hours before the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, flamingos left their breeding grounds for safer forests and resort elephants broken their chains to escape to higher ground. Blacktip sharks are known to leave their regular hunting grounds for deeper waters in anticipation of hurricanes. And we’ve all heard stories of pets trying to warn their owners of impending disaster.4

It has long been suggested that animals can sense natural disasters, warning them well before our advanced technologies inform us. But while there are plenty of intriguing stories, there is no scientific consensus.  

Data from ICARUS could help us solve this mystery. It could inform us if animals can truly forecast natural disasters, which species have the best accuracy, and what sensory mechanisms enable the feat. With this information, we could use the migration of animals to develop better warning systems to save lives before disaster strikes.

Pathogens, c/o Pixnio

Understanding how pathogens spread

Zoonotic diseases are those that can transfer from animals to humans. Think dengue fever, bird flu, and West Nile virus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “[s]cientists estimate that more than 6 out of every 10 known infectious diseases in people are spread from animals, and 3 out of every 4 new or emerging infectious diseases in people are spread from animals.”

Tracking mobile animals that carry zoonotic pathogens can help us anticipate the spread of such diseases into human populations. Bats, for example, are known carriers of the lethal viruses Ebola and SARS, and research has suggested that analyzing their migrations can help us foresee outbreaks.

Another study has indicated that migration reduces disease levels among potential animals since migration allows potential hosts to escape infected habitats. Migrating animals may also evolve less-virulent strains of a pathogen, potentially making the disease less deadly and easier to deal should it leap over to us.

c/o Pexels 

Impacts of climate change

As the summers grow hotter and winters shorter, the migratory patterns of birds continue to shift accordingly. Some species are overwintering at higher latitudes than normal, some are migrating through new regions, and others are dwelling at breeding grounds for longer periods. Analyzing these migratory patterns can help us measure the effects of climate change.

Two areas where climate change will severely affect human wellbeing are agriculture and fishing – both industries highly dependent on the health of migratory species.

ICARUS data will help us map mobile pollinators, such as the monarch butterfly and Allen’s hummingbird, and diagnose if their routes have altered thanks to climate change (not to mention other detriments like land fragmentation). Transmitters could even track destructive species like locust to determine if their distribution area will expand as global temperatures increase.

Migratory fish are of central economic importance to many communities; however, warming waters and ocean acidification are decimating aquatic food sources. For species like salmon, warming freshwater streams are now breeding grounds for parasites and disease, not just the fish themselves. As numbers dwindle, so does the viability of local fishing industries.

ICARUS transmitters could track the life patterns of commercial fish and help devise strategies to keep their migratory routes and breeding grounds safe. The data could also help calculate more accurate carrying capacities to prevent overfishing.

Ant cluster, c/o Wikipedia Commons

Curbing the spread of invasive species

Invasive species can have devastating effects on ecosystems. Invasive plants can mar landscapes, while invasive animals can devastate local wildlife. Dealing with these unwelcome guests can make life very unpleasant for locals.

Tracking such species from space will help us more effectively cull their numbers. Consider the Florida Everglades. This region currently hosts tens of thousands of Burmese pythons. Since these pythons mate in “breeding aggregations,”5 following females will give authorities the opportunity to eliminate several males per breeding session. This will not only weed out individual pythons from the Everglades, but prevent additional births.

Attaching tracking devices to captive animals can limit the spread of invasive species, too. The release of exotic animals from zoos or buildings housing private collections is a very serious risk, especially in states like Florida, where hurricanes can easily destroy enclosures.6 Technologies like ICARUS can help authorities recover these specimens, regardless of where they roam.

Maintaining biodiversity

Back to birds. The Audubon Society’s birds and climate change report estimates that “314 species — nearly half of all North American birds — [are] severely threatened by global warming” and “will lose more than 50 percent of their current climatic range by 2080” [emphasis original]. Such species include the bald eagle, spotted owl, common loon, and rufous hummingbird.

These species perform a wide range of ecological roles, from predators to pollinators to prey. ICARUS data could provide a clear picture of how these mobile species interact in environments that are sometimes spread across international borders. This could aid countries that rely on these birds for biodiversity and healthy environments in coordinating their conservation efforts.

And it is through this spirit of cooperation that ICARUS may benefit us the most. As Wikelski said1: “We know that only if researchers work together as a global community can we really make big breakthroughs. This was the same in radio astronomy, when we looked at the origin of the universe, in [our analysis of] the human genome, and now we want to analyze life as a whole on planet Earth and therefore we need everybody to contribute to that.”


1. Countdown to Icarus. Max Planck Society. YouTube. Published Mar. 6, 2014. Retrieved on Aug. 14, from .

2. Space-based tracker to give scientists a beyond bird’s-eye-view of wildlife. Yale University Press Release. Phys.org. Published on Aug. 14, 2018. Retrieved on Aug. 14, 2018, from https://phys.org/news/2018-08-space-based-tracker-scientists-beyond-bird-eye-view-wildlife.html.

3. Technical Solution. ICARUS Initiative website. Published on Nov. 15, 2011. Retrieved on Aug. 14, 2018, from https://icarusinitiative.org/technical-solution.

4. A sense of doom: Animal instinct for disaster. Don Oldenburg. Washington Post. Published on Jan. 8, 2005. Retrieved on Aug. 14, 2018, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A57653-2005Jan7.html.

5. Python leads researchers to a big snake sex party with six males and a 15-foot, 115-pound female. Brett Clarkson. SunSentinel. Published on April 17, 2018. Retrieved on Aug. 15, from http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/florida/fl-reg-python-sex-party-everglades-20180417-story.html.

6. Forget the gators: exotic pets run wild in Florida. Abby Goodnough. The New York Times. Published on Feb. 29, 2004. Retrieved on Aug. 16, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2004/02/29/us/forget-the-gators-exotic-pets-run-wild-in-florida.html.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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