Going wild: what a global small-animal tracking system could do for experimental biologists

Tracking animals over large temporal and spatial scales has revealed invaluable and spectacular biological information, particularly when the paths and fates of individuals can be monitored on a global scale. However, only large animals (greater than ~300·g) currently can be followed globally because of power and size constraints on the tracking devices. And yet the vast majority of animals is small. Tracking small animals is important because they are often part of evolutionary and ecological experiments, they provide important ecosystem services and they are of conservation concern or pose harm to human health. Here, we propose a small-animal satellite tracking system that would enable the global monitoring of animals down to the size of the smallest birds, mammals (bats), marine life and eventually large insects. To create the scientific framework necessary for such a global project, we formed the ICARUS initiative (www.IcarusInitiative.org), the International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space. ICARUS also highlights how small-animal tracking could address some of the ‘Grand Challenges in Environmental Sciences’ identified by the US National Academy of Sciences, such as the spread of infectious diseases or the relationship between biological diversity and ecosystem functioning. Smallanimal tracking would allow the quantitative assessment of dispersal and migration in natural populations and thus help solve enigmas regarding population dynamics, extinctions and invasions. Experimental biologists may find a global small-animal tracking system helpful in testing, validating and expanding laboratory-derived discoveries in wild, natural populations. We suggest that the relatively modest investment into a global small-animal tracking system will pay off by providing unprecedented insights into both basic and applied nature. Tracking small animals over large spatial and temporal scales could prove to be one of the most powerful techniques of the early 21st century, offering potential solutions to a wide range of biological and societal questions that date back two millennia to the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s enigma about songbird migration. Several of the more recent Grand Challenges in Environmental Sciences, such as the regulation and functional consequences of biological diversity or the surveillance of the population ecology of zoonotic hosts, pathogens or vectors, could also be addressed by a global small-animal tracking system. Our discussion is intended to contribute to an emerging groundswell of scientific support to make such a new technological system happen.