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Birds’ migration secrets to be revealed by space tracker

Wood Thrush

The new radio transmitters will help provide more information on the migratory habits of birds such as the wood thrush. Photograph: William Leaman/Alamy


Powered by article titled “Birds’ migration secrets to be revealed by space tracker” was written by John Vidal, for The Observer on Sunday 19th January 2014 00.03 UTC

Small birds, butterflies, bees and fruitbats will 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 revolutionise our understanding of long-distance bird migrations, and give advance warnings of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. And it should also help protect human populations from animal-borne diseases like Sars, bird flu and West Nile Virus, say conservationists.

Many animal species migrate continuously but biologists know the exact movements of only very few, mostly large ones. But the low-orbit Icarus wildlife receiver circling 200 miles (320km) above Earth should allow even butterflies to be followed, said Uschi Müller, co-ordinator of the €40m project, which is backed by the German and Russian space agencies and 12 scientific groups.

“To start with, Icarus scientists will use 5g transmitters but in the future we will use much smaller ones, under 1g, which will allow us to follow insects. It will be used for conservation, health and disaster forecasting”, she said.

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,” said Müller.

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 (BTO), which started to tag them in 2011, will not finish their 4,000-mile annual journey until mid-March at the earliest. But the tiny 5g transmitters show that one cuckoo called Skinner flew nearly 800 miles north last week, stopping briefly in Gabon, and is now in southern Cameroon. Others are on their way back from lakes and rivers in Congo-Brazzaville, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Equatorial Guinea.

The mystery of exactly where the world’s 10-20 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,” said Chris Hewsom, research ecologist at the BTO.

Moreover, Hewsom has found that Welsh, Scottish and English cuckoos all take different routes to and from Africa. Some make 1,850-mile detours, others zig-zag across the Sahara and some have found several ways to navigate the Mediterranean.

One Welsh cuckoo, David, reached Somerset last April but turned back possibly to wait until the weather warmed up or because he found his favourite 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.

Watts, who tracks whimbrels, which breed in the high Arctic and winter in Venezuela, says satellite tracking has opened up a new world. “We were astonished to find the first bird that we tracked made a 3,500-mile nonstop flight from Virginia to Alaska, flying 35-40 mph for five solid days. We don’t know how they’re capable of these types of flights.”

Others, he has found, take a massive detour towards Africa to avoid “hurricane alley”, an area of warm water in the Atlantic stretching from the west coast of northern Africa to the US Gulf Coast where most hurricanes start. “They went right off the continent unexpectedly. It was amazing,” he says.


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