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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Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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