Photograph by CHRISTIAN ZIEGLER FOR MAX PLANCK INSTITUTE
Photograph by CHRISTIAN ZIEGLER FOR MAX PLANCK INSTITUTE

Can Tagged Birds Predict Coming Earthquakes?

A program called ICARUS will monitor their reactions from the International Space Station.

This story appears in the July 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Scientists are betting on a new system to alert us to impending earthquakes: birds wearing tiny backpacks.

Though no one knows precisely why, animals often act atypically before an earthquake or other disaster. Flocks of birds might migrate off course or be active at unusual times, says Martin Wikelski, an ecologist at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Ornithology and a fellow of the National Geographic Society. He directs a satellite tracking project called International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space. ICARUS will use lightweight electronic tags—affixed as backpack harnesses, leg bands, or even hats—to monitor the activity patterns of tens of thousands of birds, bats, and other creatures for irregularities that suggest an earthquake is imminent.

A global network of volunteers has started to tag animals with the devices—Wikelski calls them “wearables for wildlife”—which will track and beam their movements and other data to the International Space Station. There Russian astronauts will install the ICARUS data-gathering hardware during an upcoming space walk. The result, Wikelski hopes, will be a disaster-prediction network akin to an “internet of wings.”

Watch: Monarch Butterflies Get Tiny Radio Trackers National Geographic grantee Martin Wikelski tries to put electronic tags on free-flying monarch butterflies for the first time ever in order to track their remarkable migration.