A first-rate network for observing life on earth

ICARUS will deliver first-rate opportunities for observing life on earth.
Professor Martin Wikelski, Director, Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior

Project 1: Eavesdropping on our planet from space

Imagine if we had the power to follow migrating animals on every step of their journey across the globe. With that power, we could intervene to help threatened species. We could curb the spread of epidemics. We might even be able to predict where a natural disaster will strike next.

From 2018, that power will be in our hands.

Space-borne systems for observing the global migration of wildlife

May 2018 marks the launch of the ICARUS Initiative, the first space-borne system for observing the global migration of wildlife. Pioneered by Professor Martin Wikelski in association with the German Aerospace Center (DLR), the system involves tagging animals with extremely light (<5 gram) radio tags that can measure location, temperature, pressure, and more.

Ein Empfänger der Raumstation ISS trackt tausende Tieren

A receiver on the International Space Station ISS tracks thousands of animals

A dedicated receiver installed on the International Space Station will then allow us to follow the movements of thousands of animals in real-time, and - just as crucially - will give us snapshots of their environment as they travel across the globe. Beginning an era of unprecedented discovery, ICARUS is a revolutionary tool connecting us to wildlife and the wider world.

Project 2: Creating a global safe space for storks

Copyright: Max-Planck-Institut für Verhaltensbiologie
Copyright: Max-Planck-Institut für Verhaltensbiologie

2017 has been a good year for storks in Baden-Württemberg. Fifty years ago, their population was down to only 10 breeding pairs. This year, 1000 chicks were counted in nests around the state. This phenomenal turn-around is thanks to conservation practices rooted in a real understanding of the storks’ biology. Now, a team from the Max Planck Institute of Ornithology is in the process of drawing an even clearer picture.

Radio transmitters accompany the storks on their journeys

With the help of the ICARUS Initiative, the team are tracking 491 storks flying between Europe and Africa each year. The radio transmitters attached to the storks are sending back crucial information about what happens to the birds on their journey, which can reach a length of up to 10,000 km.

Already, project LifeTrack White Stork has revealed that the most common cause of stork death is due to electrocution from sitting on electric poles, and has shone a light on hunting in Western Africa as a recent threat.

Which factors threaten their survival?

Copyright: Max-Planck-Institut für Verhaltensbiologie
Copyright: Max-Planck-Institut für Verhaltensbiologie

“We always knew that storks travel far. But what happens to them on that long journey was largely a mystery”, says Dr Wolfgang Fiedler, a lead scientist on the project.

“Now, we can see exactly what threatens their survival and where these threats occur, which can help improve conservation practices in and outside of Germany”.

Project 3: Can animals forecast disasters?

Dogs becoming restless before earthquakes…birds hunkering down before storms…worms streaming out of the ground before floods.

The tales of animals sensing natural disasters span ages and continents. But can science reveal if these tales are tall or true? In an interdisciplinary effort between biologists and mathematicians, Professor Martin Wikelski and Professor Winfried Pohlmeier are testing if animals can be used as a biological early-warning system for disasters like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

Where does the data come from?

Past studies were limited by their inability to continuously monitor animals, which meant that there was no baseline data with which to compare a subsequent disaster. But thanks to modern tracking technologies, especially those developed for the ICARUS Initiative, Professor Wikelski can now monitor animals before, during, and after disasters.

Using state-of-the-art tracking technology, the animals are monitored before, during, and after disasters.


The project has begun tracking animals in high-risk areas, including goats and sheep near Mt Etna, the most active volcano in Europe, elephants and water buffalo in Banda Aceh, which was the location of the devastating 2004 tsunami, and in the Italian Appenine where huge areas were destroyed during the October 2017 earthquake. The results will provide the strongest empirical evidence yet for whether animal behaviour can help mitigate the damage of natural disasters.

Project 4: Giving budding scientists wings

Kids love space. Kids love animals. Now, school children in Germany can combine these two loves with a programme that connects them to wildlife via the International Space Station.
Professor Martin Wikelski’s team are joining forces with the German Aerospace Center (DLR) to produce Earth Guardian, an outreach programme that allows school children to observe and explore the earth and its inhabitants via the ICARUS Initiative. Dr Jesko Partecke from Wikelski’s team will attach radio transmitters to blackbirds, which have a large distribution across Eurasia and represent the perfect species for children to explore the earth and environment.

The collected data can be evaluated in class

The transmitters will collect data, which will be sent via the ISS into an online repository that can be accessed by teachers. With the help of specially designed educational materials, teachers and students can probe the data to answer sophisticated questions, such as the interplay between blackbirds and the earth’s ecosystem. Scientists from Wikelski’s team will also provide hands-on guidance and expertise to classrooms via MaxCine, the outreach arm of the Max Planck Institute of Ornithology.

ICARUS (“International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space”) is a joint project of the University of Konstanz and the Max Planck Institute of Aninmal Behavior (Radolfzell) in cooperation with the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the Russian space agency Roscosmos. The project is supported by the European Space Agency ESA. Scientific director of ICARUS is Professor Martin Wikelski, one of the two directors of the Max Planck Institute of Aninmal Behavior in Radolfzell and honorary professor at the University of Konstanz.

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