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Animal Science

The Animal Science Blog is the place for conversation and discussion about scientific and technological topics related to pets, livestock, and other animals. See how cutting-edge advances help - or hinder - species around the world. SavvyExacta is a lifelong animal enthusiast with more than 20 years of experience with horses. Freckles (an English setter) is a frequent topic on the blog. Other CR4 bloggers occasionally add great posts.

ICARUS Flies Again

Posted July 25, 2016 4:50 PM by BestInShow

In 2017, an ambitious wildlife-tracking project will quite literally get off the ground. ICARUS (International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space) will install a radio receiver in the International Space Station (ISS) that will monitor movements of an assortment of small critters, from bats to birds to sea turtles. Scientists have used radios and GPS technology to track the migratory movements of large animals, including large birds, for 20 years or so. The ICARUS project marks the first time that wildlife biologists will be able to track flying foxes and European barn swallows, among at least 40 projects currently the project’s queue.

ICARUS takes off

ICARUS represents a remarkable conjunction of multi-national cooperation and support with vastly improved tracking technology and a serendipitous meeting between an ornithologist and a radio astronomer. Martin Wikelski, director of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, and George Swenson, a radio astronomer who helped pioneer radio telemetry, were in Panama, drinking beer and observing the canal, when Wikelski commented that wildlife trackers needed tiny transmitters – small enough for birds and even butterflies to wear – and a way to pick up signals from them, anywhere. Swenson told him radio astronomers do this all of the time: they scan the heavens for small radio sources. To track animals, Wikelski could put receivers in space to focus on earthbound critters.

Wikelski, mindful of Swenson’s warning that such a system would take 15 years to develop, started promoting the idea to potential supporters. NASA declined to participate, questioning the likelihood that Wikelski could accomplish his task. Ultimately the project garnered support from DLR, the German Aerospace Center; Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency; and Wikelski’s employer, the Planck Institute’s ornithology lab. The European Space Agency is also a supporter.

International Space Station. Image credit: Wikipedia

ICARUS Technology

Swenson accurately predicted the amount of time necessary to develop the extremely small, lightweight (5 gram) tags and tracking equipment. A team based at Bundeswehr University Munich, led by Prof. Andreas Knopp, has developed the complex transmitting and measuring techniques ICARUS requires, including the remarkable miniature transmitter. This team has packed impressive capabilities into this tiny package, including measuring GPS position and velocity, 3D-acceleration, heading in 3D, and temperature, plus the ability to transmit these data to the ISS. Previous tracking tags generally did not transmit data, which required recapturing the animal to download the accumulated information. Recapturing a bird is a lot more complicated that finding an elephant, so it’s hard to overstate the significance of this technical breakthrough. Space-based data collection equipment – which also store migration data in the global Movebank migration information database – will live in the Russian segment of the ISS.

ICARUS tag. Image credit:

Why do this?

Roland Keyes, one of the scientists associated with the project, says that ICARUS allows us to “use animals as sensors to tell us about our planet.” More specifically, what can animals tell us?

  • Where do Ebola-infected bats go? Seventy per cent of worldwide epidemic diseases (Ebola, SARS, West Nile, bird flu) are zoonotic. By tracking disease-vector movements, we could find out where to focus ameliorative efforts.
  • What migration routes do animals take? We can remove man-made obstacles and hazards that threaten different species, such as turning off wind turbines that decimate flocks of migrating bats.

Flying Fox Bats. Image credit: Wikipedia

  • How can we support species in decline? We need more migration-route information because populations of migratory birds like wood warblers, spotted
    fly-catchers and nightingales are declining fast, says the RSPB's Graham Madge.
  • What effects of climate change do aquatic species reveal? ICARUS tags are waterproof, enabling tracking of schools of fish and learning whether population densities are shifting.
  • Is specific animal behavior signaling a natural disaster, such as an earthquake? For example, Wikelski’s team conducted a two-year study, using transmitter collars to track the exact positions of goats that live on Mt. Etna’s slopes. The animals displayed unusual activity sufficiently prior to eruptions to enable accurate predictions.

ICARUS technology can track more than migrating animals. For example, tagging frequently-poached animals, like rhinoceroses, would enable law enforcement to identify animals and animal parts taken illegally. Another proposed application is protecting railroad rolling stock. ICARUS project staff estimate that 100K rail cars are stolen and scrapped worldwide each year. Since ICARUS tags are tiny and trackable from space, they could be more effective trackers than existing tags that use land-based networks. Mongolia suggested one of the first projects the ICARUS team will undertake: tracking the unauthorized “migration” of dinosaur bones from Mongolian sites.

The Future

The immediate future includes the 40 or so projects mentioned above. An intriguing possibility is figuring out how to send information to an animal’s tag, perhaps to change a migration trajectory. Could we someday prevent a horde of insects carrying a deadly disease from landing in a heavily populated area? Would we want to do that? The potential the ICARUS technology offers for both speculation and practical research is intriguing indeed.


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Following Ants Could End Traffic Jams

Posted July 11, 2016 2:06 PM by Chelsey H

It’s a fact of life – no one likes to sit in traffic. Watching people drive in a lane that’s clearly marked as ending in 400 ft. makes me crazy and rubberneckers should stay home and watch Cops.

But traffic happens and some companies, such as the app Waze, are making it their business to help people avoid traffic. Waze is a GPS app which links to users together to help reroute drivers on the “path of least resistance”. It does this by tracking users’ speed and direction as well as by having drivers input information such as a stalled car, crash, cops, etc. on the roads. This information is shared with other Waze users and the electronic bread crumbs help the app redirect a percentage of drivers to alternative routes.

What’s really interesting about this approach to traffic management is that it’s very similar to how ant colonies travel and communicate with each other.

The term “ant colony optimization” (ACO) is now a broadly used term that was originally credited to researcher Marco Dorigo in the ‘90s. ACO is a strategy for organizing movement largely based on actual ant behavior. As ants travel back and forth from food sources to their nest they leave a trail of pheromones. Other ants can smell the pheromone and choose the path with the strongest pheromone concentrations.

Similar to the Waze app, more feedback (AKA more pheromones) helps the ant choose the optimal path, while the pheromone concentrations evaporate on the sub-optimal paths. The term stigmergy is used to describe this mechanism of coordination used by insects. Specifically, that the insect leaves a trace in the environment that stimulates the performance of subsequent work.

Humans are not so efficient.

Ants have a strict, non-selfish adherence to optimizing their colony. In a recent experiment, ants were place in a chamber with two exits. Different levels of citronella oil were added to the chamber and the scientists tracked how ants exited from the chamber avoiding the citronella oil. The ants spread out over the area and more carefully arranged themselves ahead of time to avoid jamming the exits. The researchers ran a computer simulation to observe how humans would have responded in a similar situation and they immediately made for and began jamming the exits.

This tendency for humans to pursue “selfish routing” strategies, at the cost of the larger network, has long been noted in traffic. And one study shows that if one percent of drivers cancelled their trip, all drivers’ trips would be reduced by 18 percent.

What do you think? Will you cancel your commute today?

19 comments; last comment on 07/26/2016
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Mosquito PSA

Posted June 15, 2016 12:00 AM by Chelsey H

Hooray for summer! Get ready for the glorious sun, warm late-night campfires, beaches, and…. mosquitos. Ugh.

With mosquito-borne diseases like Zika and West Nile as major health concerns, it's important to take steps to preventing mosquito bites.

An easy way to do this is to get rid of their breeding ground. The Center for Disease Control recommends removing any collected water from your yard and from inside your house once a week. Standing water can be found hiding in old tires, clogged gutters, bird baths, and in a leftover cup from last week's backyard BBQ. Even the dish under a potted plant can hold enough water for mosquitoes to breed.

These bugs can also breed in the house, so be sure to check and change anything that collects water inside the house as well.

It's important to do this every week because the life cycle of a mosquito begins when one lays its egg on or near standing water. The egg turns to larva, pupa and then emerges as an adult in a week.

And don't forget - they're more attracted to you after a few brews!

2 comments; last comment on 07/15/2016
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New Species of 2016

Posted June 09, 2016 4:43 PM by Chelsey H

Every year on Carolus Linnaeus’s (the father of modern taxonomy) birthday, the International Institute for Species Exploration releases its list of the top new species.

What blows my mind is that the list below shows only 10 of 18,000 new species found over the previous 12 months. And scientist believe that 10 million species are still waiting to be discovered!

Top 10 New Species for 2016

Giant tortoise (Chelonoidis donfaustoi)

Although very similar looking to the other giant tortoises of the Galapagos, this giant was found on the eastern part of the island and there are only about 250 of them left. So this discovery has immediate conservation implications.

Giant Sundew (Drosera magnifica)

This giant sundew (a carnivorous plant) was discovered via photos posted on Facebook. Located in Brazil, the massive 48 inches sundew is the largest that’s ever been seen. So why'd it take so long to find it? It exists only at the summit of a single mountain in Brazil, 5,000 feet above sea level. Image Credit

Hominin (Homo naledi)

A new step in the evolutionary timeline has been pinpointed with the discovery of Homo naledi. Discovered in South Africa, the hominin shares some features with modern humans (similar size and weight) and some features with earlier ancestors that lived 2 million to 4 million years ago.

Isopod (Iuiuniscus iuiuensis)

Isopods are crustaceans that live in water or on land. What makes it a unique creature is that it makes shelters of mud to protect itself during the vulnerable time of shedding its exoskeleton. Found in Brazil, the luiunisus iuiuensis (say that five times fast!) is a third of an inch long, is blind, unpigmented and has a whole bunch of legs.

Anglerfish (Lasiognathus dinema)

While not the best looking entry on this year’s list, this anglerfish does have a cool feature – the fishing pole-like thing over its head is called the esca and it’s filled with bioluminescent bacteria that help it attract prey. The 2 inch long fish was discovered in the Gulf of Mexico. Image Credit

Tiny beetle (Phytotelmatrichis osopaddington)

A beetle named after a teddy bear? Yup. This tiny beetle is named after Paddington Bear. So tiny that you'd have to line up 25 of them before you'd reach the one-inch mark. This species was discovered in Peru, making its home in the pools of water that collect in the hollows of plants, such as tree holes.

New primate (Pliobates cataloniae)

This discovery raised an interesting question: Could we be more closely related to gibbons than great apes? The small ape, named Laia by scientists, lived about 11.6 million years ago, and she appears to be related to humans, apes and gibbons.

Flowering tree (Sirdavidia solannona)

This new tree species was found just feet from the main road at Monts de Cristal National Park in Gabon, Africa. But it probably eluded discovery because scientists focused on larger trees. The Sirdavidia solannona is less 20 feet high, with a diameter of just 4 inches.

Seadragon (Phyllopteryx dewysea) 

Taking the prize for the coolest looking new find, the seadragon is nearly a foot long, ruby red with pink vertical bars. Discovered off the coast of Western Australia, it is the third known species of seadragons. Besides – how cool is the name ‘seadragon’? Image Credit

Sparklewing (Umma gumma)

Also found on Gabon — sixty new species of dragonflies and damselflies. That's the most for any single paper in more than 100 years. Scientists have been very creative with their names: Umma gumma. (You don't have to be a Pink Floyd fan to get that.)

List adapted from Ugly anglerfish, intriguing ape: The top 10 new species of 2016

4 comments; last comment on 06/13/2016
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Kill All Mosquitos?

Posted May 25, 2016 7:57 AM by HUSH

True story: last February I was scheduled to attend a destination wedding in Jamaica. Except a week before we left, the bride-to-be announced she would not be attending. She was pregnant and her doctor advised her not to travel to the Caribbean, as the Zika virus was just beginning to emerge in the region. So while the couple tied the knot in a private ceremony back home on the intended wedding day, 24 of their closest family and friends partied in paradise without them.

This is just a sliver of the effects Zika promises to bring stateside, as summer arrives this weekend and in short order, mosquitos will arrive in full force. Zika can spread by two species of mosquitos: Aedes aegypti, a tropical climate mosquito, and Aedes ablopictus, which has adapted to cooler regions including majority of the Eastern and Midwestern United States, as well as most of California. Zika can also be spread by sexual contact. To combat the Zika virus nationally, the U.S. Congress has dedicated at least $662 million towards fighting it. Brazil, the country most affected by the current epidemic, has been fumigating and using drones ahead of the 2016 Olympics.

Zika first manifests as a fever and rash, but is rarely serious for healthy individuals. Instead the biggest threats are to unborn babies, who typically suffer from microcephaly, which can be fatal. It's unknown how long the Zika virus could affect future pregnancies, so some governments have advised women against getting pregnant until more research is done. Zika also has a link to Guillain-Barré syndrome.

So as the warmest months of the year approach, governments at all levels in the U.S. are beginning to research the spread of Zika mosquitos and initiate prevention programs. Reuters notices a large response gap between rural communities and well-off ones. Whereas the Florida Keys Mosquito District has a budget of $15 million, with four copters, two planes and 33 inspectors, towns with less resources may not even be able to conduct a basic fogging program.

Over the past couple of decades, the war on mosquitoes has increased after there were outbreaks of west Nile virus, dengue, Chikungunya and now Zika. Because of this, scientists have come up with novel, high tech ways to combat mosquitos without the use of toxins. One of the most prominent recent methods is the sterile insect technique. Overwhelming populations of radiation-sterilized male mosquitos are bred and released to mate with female mosquitos, which produces no mosquito eggs and lessens the population of the next generation. There are some drawbacks, as such a breeding program is expensive, not guaranteed to work, and often requires preceding use of pesticides.

In another technique male Aedes aegypti mosquitos are bred, but are genetically modified to require tetracycline to develop beyond the larvae stage. Tetracycline is supplied to these mosquitoes in the breeding facility, but offspring created by mating with a female mosquito in the wild won't have access to tetracycline and will never develop into a mosquito. Other genetically modified mosquitos produce 95% male offspring (males don't suck blood).

And then there is the mosquito laser, also known as the Photonic Fence. First patented in 2010, it uses infrared LED lamps and a CCD sensor to determine if an insect is present. Once confirmed, a non-lethal laser focuses on the target insect to determine if it's both a mosquito and a female mosquito. With a second confirmation, a blue laser is given permission to shoot--one shot and the zapped mosquito is killed.

When allied with conventional mosquito management options, such as pesticides, habitat removal, and mosquito predators, it's possible to eliminate mosquitos from the Earth entirely. And according to this 2010 article in Nature, ecological consequences would be quite minimal.

Considering mosquitos are the deadliest creatures on the planet (up to one million deaths per year from mosquito-carried illnesses), it makes some sense. And if there aren't significant ecosystem ramifications, what's stopping us?

26 comments; last comment on 06/15/2016
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