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Do Ruddy Turnstones ask Red Knots for directions?

May 10, 2024

A review of The Internet of Animals: Discovering the Collective Intelligence of Life on Earth. 

A half-century ago, radio telemetry pioneer Bill Cochran heard something surprising while listening to migrating songbirds: when a Swainson’s Thrush called, a Veery answered.

The Internet of Animals, by Martin Wikelski, 272 pages, published by Greystone Books on May 14, 2024.

This observation helped inspire a lifetime’s work for Cochran as well as for the much younger scientist and author Martin Wikelski. In The Internet of Animals, Wikelski recounted one of the many unconventional theories suggested by the Thrush-Veery call-and-response:

“The constant chirping back and forth in the night sky indicated that even though the birds had some innate tendency to migrate coded into their genes, they still communicated constantly on their journey. An even more radical interpretation of Bill’s data was that the only innate tendency the birds needed to have in their genes would be the drive to fly toward warmer areas in fall. … All the birds would need to do to find their way south to Central and South America would be to follow others flying along the nocturnal highway.” (The Internet of Animals, page 17)

Wikelski’s book, to be released on May 14, describes many successful radio telemetry projects, and offers tantalizing hints at what we might learn if the promise of the far more ambitious “Internet of Animals” is realized. But the hurdles to be surmounted are daunting.

For example, scientists around the world have had to develop communication tags that are light enough to be comfortable for diverse species of animals, durable enough to last an animal’s lifetime, powerful enough to communicate with orbiting satellites, and cheap enough to be manufactured in the tens or hundreds of thousands.

The current versions of the tags typically contain: a GPS receiver, so that the tag can report its geographic position at any time; sensors that measure acceleration and magnetic fields in three dimensions; temperature, humidity and altitude sensors that report what kind of weather the animal is coping with; a battery to power a transmitter to send all this data to a satellite up to 465 miles (750 km) away; and a tiny solar panel to keep the battery charged. In Wikelski’s summary, “In just two decades we went from a battery-powered collar with a beeping transmitter with a limited life to an intelligent smartphone-style ear tag powered by the sun that an animal could wear all its life.” (p. 151)

No less daunting has been the challenge of securing cooperation from the space science establishments in several countries, some of whom are now in military conflict.

For years the team worked on permission to attach an antenna to the International Space Station. The antenna was installed and tested, and in 2021 “we started to get amazing data”:

“Our red-footed falcons were on their way from Angola back to Hungary; the Hudsonian godwits were making their nonstop flights from Chile across the Galápagos and Guatemala into Texas; the supposedly stationary black coucals, an African cuckoo, were migrating more than 620 miles (1,000 km) from southern Tanzania to northern Democratic Republic of Congo ….” (p. 151)

And then, in early 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, scuttling scientific co-operation between Russia, Western Europe and the US. Wikelski’s team had to devise a new method for receiving transmissions, settling on the use of CubeSat satellites yet to be launched.

A Long-Billed Dowitcher, left, and Hudsonian Godwit, right, at Bowmanville Marsh on the north shore of Lake Ontario, October 5, 2022. Hudsonian Godwits, part of a family of ultra-long-distance flyers, are thought to make the migration between arctic and sub-arctic Canada and southern South America with as little as one rest stop. The appearance of this bird brought people from all across southern Ontario, many of them hoping to see a rare visitor for the first time. The Long-Billed Dowitchers nest in the western Canadian arctic and on the Alaska coasts, but they migrate only as far as the southern US and Mexico for the winter.

In his first discussions of a worldwide animal-tracking system made possible through satellites, Wikelski wryly recalls, he thought that it could be implemented in four years. He made that guess in 2003; if all goes well the system will start living up to its potential later this year, after the launch of a CubeSat antenna device. The hope is to have a second CubeSat receiver in orbit in 2025, and a third in 2026. “The goal,” he writes “is to have enough receivers in space to deliver near real-time data transmission ….” (p 215)

The Internet of Animals could give us much greater understanding of the behaviours of many animal species. In Wikelski’s vision, however, the benefits both to animals and to humans will go far beyond merely learning more about migration routes and timing.

If we can follow the daily movements of many animals from birth to death, he writes, we’ll have much better understanding of the decisions they must make and the challenges they must face – and therefore we’ll be better able to take effective actions to protect many species and the environments they live in.

It is also possible that through changes in behaviour, animals far from the sight of any humans may give us advance warning of potential new pandemics, or earthquakes, or severe weather:

“[I]f collectively animals tell us that something has changed in the environment, that their world now feels more dangerous, then we should listen. … [T]he natural intelligence of animals, the collective interaction of the most intelligent sensors we have on this planet, is perhaps our most important early warning system to help us anticipate natural catastrophes, at least on a local level.” (p 184)

One of the mentors Wikelski credits with inspiring the Internet of Animals was radio astronomer George Swenson. Much of Swenson’s career was spent developing instruments capable of collecting and sifting through radio waves that might turn out to be communications from an extraterrestrial intelligence.

Yet the legacy of Swenson’s work, Wikelski writes, might be that we get in touch with another intelligence, the collective intelligence of the many other animals that share this planet with us:

“Listening to animals might actually change our human way of thinking more profoundly than any unlikely message from outer space. As we start receiving messages from animals and truly listen to them, humans would also be more disposed to losing their culturally ingrained perception (at least in the Western world) that they are the God-give pinnacle of all life forms.” (p. 221) 

If such an enlightenment occurs, Wikelski believes the Anthropocene could be succeeded by “the Interspecies Age,” in which “we will be considering other living species when we make decisions about what happens next on our planet.”

“We are going to link the knowledge these other species have to our own knowledge,” he adds. “We are going to become partners.” (p 182)

The Internet of Animals relies on the latest products of high-tech manufacturing, and it is vulnerable to the turbulence of human power struggles. But at its heart the project is the life’s work of dedicated scientists simply doing their best to learn from animals.

Bart Hawkins Kreps

Bart Hawkins Kreps is a long-time bicycling advocate and free-lance writer. His views have been shaped by work on highway construction and farming in the US Midwest, nine years spent in the Canadian arctic, and twenty years of involvement in the publishing industry in Ontario. Currently living on the outermost edge of the Toronto megalopolis, he blogs most often about energy, economics and ecology, at anoutsidechance.com.