Scientists hail golden age of tracing bird migration, envision an internet of animals

A plum robin wearing a tiny metal backpack with an antenna hops around a suburban yard in Takoma park, then plucks a cicada from the ground for a snack.

Ecologist Emily Williams watches through binoculars from behind a bush. On thisclear spring day, she is snooping oh his dating life. Once the bird moves on at seasons end she will rely on the backpack to beam frequent location data to the Agros satellite, then back to Williams laptop to track it.

The goal is to unravel why some American robins bmigrate long distances but others do not. With more precise information about nesting success and conditions in breeding and wintering grounds,

Putting beacons on birds is not novel. But a new antenna on the international space station band receptors on the Argos satellite, plus the shrinking size of tracking chips and batteries, are allowing scientists to remotely monitor songbird movements in such greater detail than ever before.

The second new tag, for only the heaviest robins, includes an accelerometer to provide information about the bird’s movements, future versions may also measure humidity and barometric pressure. These Icarus tags work with a new antenna on the International Space Station.

The antenna was first turned on about two years ago but there were some glitches with the power+supply and the computer, so we had to bring it down again with the Russian rocket, then transport it from Moscow to Germany to fix it. As researchers deploy precision tags, Wikelski envisions the development of ‘an internet animals’ – a collection of sensors around the world giving us a better picture of the movement of life on the planet.

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