At Yale symposium, experts envision the future of spaceborne animal tracking

January 31, 2023

In Italy, a herd of sheep predicts impending earthquakes. In the Bahamas, a school of tiger sharks discovers the world’s largest seagrass ecosystem. In the U.S., a flock of migrating songbirds wins protection for an important stopover region.              

What all these animals have in common is that they were tagged with sensors and remotely tracked by scientists who used that tracking data to gain critical insights into the natural world.  

During a three-day symposium at Yale University, a community of animal tracking experts convened to share exciting developments in their animal tracking projects and discuss the future of spaceborne animal tracking.            

Ever since Monique the Space Elk became the first animal to be tracked via satellite in 1970 with NASA Nimbus 3, researchers using satellite-based animal telemetry have sought to learn about the behavior and ecology of animals by tracking their movements and monitoring their physiological and environmental conditions.         

The left image is an old newspaper clipping showing an illustration of an elk with a large radio collar around her neck. The concept art also depicts a satellite "beaming" information back and forth with the collar. The right image is a photo of a Flammulated Owl in a human hand with a small GPS tag attached to its back and a short antennae sticking out. The owl is a peppered brown and grey color and about the size of a human hand.

(left) Concept art for Monique the space elk and her 23-pound radio collar. Image credit: The Jackson Hole Guide, Feb, 19, 1970. (right) Photo of a Flammulated Owl with a modern GPS tag attached to its back. Image credit: Scott Yanco.

Back then, Monique had to wear quite a cumbersome collar. But today’s tags are small enough to fit in the palm of a human hand and can be attached to an animal without causing great discomfort. These tags are equipped with a GPS unit and can include a variety of sensors that measure, for example, the animal’s altitude or depth and surrounding air temperature, and sometimes even cameras or audio recorders. All this information is transmitted back to scientists via satellite, giving them unique glimpses into that individual animal’s life.

These advances, combined with a growing demand for track-based insights from stakeholders, have prompted NASA to create the Internet of Animals project, which convenes animal movement experts across academic, agency, and conservation arenas to define the key questions, needs, and opportunities for the future of spaceborne animal tracking.   

In November, these experts gathered for the first Internet of Animals Symposium, co-hosted by the Yale Center for Biodiversity and Global Change and NASA.              


“We’re here today to understand the needs of the animal tracking community,” Ryan Pavlick, a NASA project scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a lead of the project, told the group during his opening talk.              

What can we learn from the lives and movements of animals? Quite a lot, according to experts at the event – including representatives from NOAA, USGS, the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Audubon Society. Possible new insights into the drivers of species population change, better understanding the effectiveness of management actions, and opportunities to fill gaps in existing climate and land cover models were all discussed as ongoing and future applications within the field.              

“Tracking data are foundational, critical, for conservation,” said Pete Marra, a professor at Georgetown University, who discussed how tracking data drives bird conservation in the Road to Recovery initiative. Not only can tracking data reveal the movements of animals and their habitat use, but also how stressed they are, where they die, and how they interact with human infrastructure. All of these insights, he said, are crucial for conservation managers.            

The ability to fit animals with sensors that track environmental variables like air temperature and wind speed can also have monumental implications for research beyond animal ecology, according to Keith Gaddis, the program manager of the NASA Biological Diversity and Ecological Conservation program.  “What’s been so compelling about this symposium is seeing how…gathering [animal tracking] data will influence our ability to track other Earth system processes,” he said, describing how access to high-tech tracking systems and multi-species global datasets could help researchers refine land cover maps, ocean models, and climate models using data gathered by tagged animals.

“It’s probably the best time ever to be an animal ecologist,” says Martin Wikelski, director of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior and head of the ICARUS (International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space) initiative. “You can work globally, you can have data transmission systems that work across scales, and you can link through other systems on a global scale.”               

Effectively mobilizing global scale, multi-species tracking data for these ambitious purposes will require an interdisciplinary community, experts said. Together, they will raise key questions and technological needs, devise standardizations to aid in data integration, and build networks of information sharing so that data from animal tracking is available to a variety of users, not just tracking experts. 

The symposium, they said, was one step towards cultivating such a community across agency, non profit, and academic lines.               

On several occasions, attendees cited the importance of building these collaborative networks and gathering people across the tracking community in the same room. “It’s been great to be part of this workshop with these other federal agencies…where we can work on developing common interests and better utilizing shared resources,” said Cara Wilson, a satellite oceanographer at NOAA, who also spoke at the symposium about NOAA’s efforts to connect animal tracking users through the U.S. Animal Telemetry Network.                   

Animal telemetry isn’t just about animals anymore, according to Walter Jetz, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale and director of the Yale Center for Biodiversity and Global Change. “We’re entering a whole new phase in which we can start to think of animals as sentinels of our planet,” said Jetz, whose presentation focused on the fusion of animal tracking and remote sensing data. Far from being a niche subset within ecology, he said, today’s animal telemetry reaches far and wide across science and societal applications, from conservation to climate change.     

“Animal tracking has tremendous potential to help us tackle the twin challenges of climate change and mass extinction,” said Scott Yanco, a postdoctoral associate at Yale University and a lead of the Internet of Animals project. “This symposium brought together experts in the field to show us what is currently possible given today’s technology, what will be possible with tomorrow’s, and what grand challenges we should have in our sights after that.”         

Every tagged animal on the planet shares with the tracking community vital information about their unique experience, gathering data no human scientist could obtain on their own, according to Yanco. Whether those insights help inform more proactive conservation action, mitigate human-wildlife conflict, predict adverse weather events, fine tune ocean circulation models, track atmospheric pollutants, or address some as-of-yet unasked question, is up to the communities of animal trackers and data users.              

Experts at the symposium reiterated a key point: animals are no longer just our research subjects. With the innovative and increasingly widespread use of animal tracking technology, they are now also collaborators with humankind in the quest to better understand Earth system processes.  

Several talks from the symposium are available to view online