"My vicuña sense is tingling"
"My vicuña sense is tingling"
Ulrike Roll

RADOLFZELL — Biologist Martin Wikelski put sensors on goats living on Italy's Mount Etna and watched what happened. He found that if you watched their movements, you could predict when there would be volcanic eruptions. So now he wants to do satellite research on how animals roam and escape on a world scale.

What happened on Etna was that the goats suddenly made a run for it, fleeing down the flanks of the volcano. Some six hours later, on the night of Jan. 5, 2012, lava shot out of Etna as a hefty eruption began.

For researchers working with Wikelski, who is director of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Radolfzell, Germany, this was a first — the first time scientists could deliver proof of animal premonitions.

"Before the eruption we'd been observing the goats' behavior in a steady targeted way," Wikelski says. The sensors the scientists had equipped the animals with documented their movements in various directions.

Based on the pattern of movement, a computer program identified when individual animals were sleeping, running from a dog, or if a whole herd was fleeing the mountainside. It is still not known why goats are best at sensing approaching danger, perhaps because they can smell the rising magma.

History is full of anecdotes about how elephants, geese, toads and snakes have warned of natural catastrophe. In 2009, in Italy's Abruzzi region, residents noted that toads disappeared in the middle of their spawning season. A few days later, an earthquake killed more than 300 people around the city of L'Aquila.

When the devastating tsunami rolled over Southeast Asian coasts nearly 10 years ago, elephants, water buffalo and chickens fled to the hinterlands. "But all reports came after the fact and were very subjective," Wikelski says by way of explaining the difference between such reports and his scientific findings.

What animals tell us

His goal is to use the "sixth sense" of animals as a comprehensive early warning system. "We're only seeing the tip of the iceberg," he says. "Every animal has its own understanding of its environment, and we have to learn to read the signals." He wants access to the particular knowledge that generations of animals have collected over the course of evolution.

The University of Konstanz professor has been researching global animal migration for many years and equips birds such as storks with GPS devices. He is currently developing a worldwide biological early warning system based on a number of animal species. He and his colleagues travel the globe capturing animals to attach these devices.

Among the birds they use are albatrosses because they are able to avoid storms. Frigate birds are considered "living buoys" because they react to temperature differences on water surfaces and can warn of impending hurricanes.

Large gatherings of storks may presage a plague of locusts, "something that threatens a fifth of the world population," Wikelski notes. His team also has turtles on the Galapagos Islands, highland cattle in the Himalayas and fruit bats in Ghana all wearing tracking devices.

Observing bats also yields other information pertaining to disease control. The flying mammals often carry the Ebola virus and could be the source of the present epidemic in West Africa.

Wikelski's method, known as DAMN (Disaster Alert Mediation using Nature), doesn't just include animal observation but also the transmission, processing and interpretation of data.

When are thresholds reached when populations should be warned? Wikelski has a patent "accorded on principle" for the idea and technology, and just has to complete a last link concerning specific regions.

According to Wikelski, insurance companies are already talking to the researchers because current methods can't predict major volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Which is why the Sept. 27 Mount Ontake eruption in Japan caught climbers by surprise.

For the planned comprehensive warning system, the devices worn by animals will emit signals out into space that will be picked up by the International Space Station (ISS). So far the data has traveled over cell phone radio networks, which are full of dead zones, particularly in thinly populated areas.

In the framework of the ICARUS Initiative (International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space), project astronauts are due to set up an antenna at the space station in early 2016.

The 1 million euro project is financed by the German Aerospace Center and Russian space travel authorities. "Our present problem is support on the ground," Wikelski explains. "We're looking for private investors."

The movements of birds with sensors can already be followed on the Internet. On Movebank, for example, school classes can follow the movements of "their" stork.

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