Satellite antennas, other tech are about to transform conservation as we know it

David Festa

Recent advancement in wildlife tracking technology is revolutionizing our understanding of wildlife behavior, habitat needs and relationships among species.

As much as I personally enjoy watching the webcam of peregrine falcons nesting atop PG&E headquarters in downtown San Francisco, there are far more advanced technologies that allow us to see and track wildlife movements and migrations at a large scale. I’m talking about helping species in peril, planetary scale.

For centuries, tracking wildlife meant following footprints. Today, citizen science apps, camera traps, drones and satellites are showing, in new ways, what the greatest threats are to wildlife and how we can help species survive.

Satellite captures movements of animals never studied before

Late last year, a new satellite antenna named “ICARUS” – short for International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space – was attached to the International Space Station. The goal of the instrument is to observe global migratory movements of small animals that have never before been studied, using GPS technology.

The antenna can collect a variety of data on species – including altitude, temperature and speed – and provide up to 12 readings per day, using solar-powered animal tags weighing less than 5 grams each, the lightest ever made. The antenna and tags are currently in a testing phase, with researchers set to begin studying species’ movements in 2019.

In the meantime, other planetary-scale data are already being made available via Google Earth Engine for scientists to get a birds-eye view of wildlife movements from satellite images and geospatial datasets.

My colleagues at Environmental Defense Fund have so far used these data sets to map oil and gas development across the 11-state range of the greater sage-grouse and to analyze broader impacts to the western sagebrush landscape.

The opportunities for how such data can influence conservation planning, practices and policies are endless, but I have three near-term uses in mind for this rapidly advancing technology:

1. It can detect habitat changes more quickly

Now that we can track how species’ movements will adjust, especially needed amid climate change, we can implement more dynamic conservation strategies that will respond quickly to drought and other shifts in habitat quality.

We already have some of these strategies in place. For example, the Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange is crowdsourcing the creation and protection of milkweed and wildflower habitat from landowners across the country. With more data on other species’ migrations and habitat needs, we can broaden these applications.

2. It’ll help us intervene before species are on the brink

With better data on the status of wildlife populations and habitat quality, we can act sooner and with more certainty that conservation actions will be successful. This action will require coordination among federal and state wildlife agencies, industries and landowners to design conservation solutions that can reverse species declines – and keep species off the endangered species list.

By acting sooner, we can also help landowners and industries avoid the regulations or restrictions that can accompany endangered species listings, ultimately increasing economic resilience.

3. It can help raise public awareness

One of the more creative applications of wildlife tracking that I’ve come across is a book that offers a comprehensive, data-driven portrait of how species like ants, otters, owls, turtles and sharks navigate the world. Where the Animals Go by James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti is a beautiful collaboration between a designer and a scientist who used wildlife tracking studies to visualize wildlife behavior and habitat needs in a changing climate. Increased engagement through such outlets will bring more interest in conserving biodiversity in our communities at a time when we mustn’t lose track of America’s threatened wildlife, or its survival.

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