Wed, Jan 22, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Space station to track birds’ migration secrets

Next year, a radio receiver circling above Earth is to monitor the epic journeys of birds and eventually insects, helping to warn us of volcanic eruptions and to protect us from diseases

By John Vidal  /  The Observer

Illustration: Mountain people

Small birds, butterflies, bees and fruit bats are to be fitted with tiny radio transmitters and tracked throughout their lifetimes from space when a dedicated wildlife radio receiver is fitted to the International Space Station next year.

The ability to follow the movements of very small organisms hour by hour from space will revolutionize our understanding of long-distance bird migrations, and give advance warnings of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. It should also help protect human populations from animal-borne diseases like SARS, bird flu and the West Nile Virus, conservationists say.

Many animal species migrate continuously, but biologists know the exact movements of only very few, mostly large ones. However, the low-orbit Icarus wildlife receiver circling 320km above Earth should allow even butterflies to be followed, said Uschi Muller, co-ordinator of the 40 million euro (US$54.2 million) project, which is backed by the German and Russian space agencies and 12 scientific groups.

Because animals are known to sense imminent tectonic activity, she envisaged birds and other animals living near disaster-prone zones being fitted with the transmitters.

“It could give people an extra five hours’ warning of a disaster,” Muller said.

Rapidly developing miniature telemetry using satellites has already helped ornithologists understand the start of the British spring. Transmitters the size of a three-amp fuse have been fitted for three years to 13 British cuckoos. Last week scientists could see they were on their way back from the Congo rainforest.

The birds, given names like Whortle, Patch, Ken and David by the British Trust for Ornithology, which started to tag them in 2011, will not finish their 6,437km annual journey until mid-March at the earliest. However, the tiny 50g transmitters show that one cuckoo called Skinner flew nearly 1,287km north last week, stopping briefly in Gabon, and is now in southern Cameroon. Others are on their way back from lakes and rivers in the Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Equatorial Guinea.

The mystery of exactly where the world’s between 10 billion and 20 billion migratory birds go and how they navigate perilous journeys across continents and oceans without experience or guidance from parents has long puzzled people.

“All we knew until we attached the tracking devices to cuckoos was that British birds left in a south-easterly direction and that there was one record of a ringed bird found in Cameroon in 1938. It was a very big surprise when we found that nearly half were leaving in a south-westerly direction and migrating via Spain and West Africa,” British Trust for Ornithology research ecologist Chris Hewsom said.

Moreover, Hewsom has found that Welsh, Scottish and English cuckoos all take different routes to and from Africa. Some make 2,977km detours, others zigzag across the Sahara and some have found several ways to navigate the Mediterranean.

One Welsh cuckoo, David, reached Somerset in April last year, but turned back, possibly to wait until the weather warmed up or because he found his favorite caterpillars had not emerged from a particularly long winter.

“Every time we put a tracking unit on a bird, we find something incredible. Our knowledge is exploding. We are getting answers to questions which have been around for years. We are now able to precisely identify the routes they take, where they stop to feed, even how high they fly,” said Bryan Watts, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at William and Mary college in Virginia, US.

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