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Animal tracking tech based on the ISS could predict future pandemics

Solar powered equipment installed on the International Space Station (ISS) could help detect the spread of infectious diseases in animals, as well as changes in climate.

The tracking devices, to be operational by the end of the year, will allow scientists to follow and monitor the migration paths and welfare of thousands of animals on Earth.

Russian cosmonauts installed the equipment during a spacewalk in August 2018 as part of a collaborative research program, ICARUS (International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space), between the Max Planck Society, Russian space agency Roskomos and the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

The ICARUS antenna was switched on in March and will be fully operational by 2021. It will pick up signals from thousands of lightweight transmitter tags that scientists have already attached to more than 800 species, situated everywhere from Australia to Siberia.

A key part of the technology, say researchers, will be its potential to track pathogens in animals, which could even prevent a future pandemic. The researchers want to use ICARUS “to find out more about the life of fruit bats, for example, where the infection risk is particularly high. Contacts between animals and humans could be minimised with this information,” they say, adding:

“The health of millions of people around the world could thus be protected if the necessary knowledge about animals and their migrations were available.”

“These animals are providing really important information, maybe for the survival of humankind…we’ll get a lot of things from ICARUS we can’t get any other way, it’s exciting,” said Dr Martin Wikelski, ICARUS’ Scientific Director.

ICARUS will also help researchers track vulnerable animals threatened by poaching and habitat loss. For instance, scientists in the Galapagos already have plans to use ICARUS to track the migration patterns of baby tortoises to inform their conservation efforts.

“It is a new era of discovery…we will discover new migration paths, habitat requirements, things about species behaviour that we didn’t even think about. That discovery will bring about all sorts of new questions,” according to Walter Jetz, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale, who is working with the project.

ICARUS will be made available to researchers around the world. The data could also be coupled with other types of information such as the eBird and CITES databases to develop even more thorough findings. In addition, there are plans to allow the public to track tagged migratory animals via an app on a smartphone.

Take Action

We all have a role to play in preventing pandemics and infectious diseases spread by animals from happening in the first place. Covid-19 has shown us that when we mess with nature, it bites back. Every disruption in nature causes a wave of changes which can ultimately lead to our own extinction.

We must reassess our relationship and connection to nature. We can do this by transforming our diet to one that is kind to the planet and buying goods and services that are not complicit in destroying our home and the lives of the next generation.

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