From Animal Internet: Nature and the Digital Revolution,
by Alexander Pschera (translated from German by Elisabeth Lauffer).
Copyright © April 12, 2016, by New Vessel Press.
We currently know little more than one percent of the way animals live in the wild. That is to say, little more than nothing at all. We don’t know how little sea turtles behave just after they have slipped out of their eggs on the beach. We don’t know how a young cuckoo finds out where to go when autumn breaks. This is why it is also so hard to protect animals. Fundamental connections between the life of animals and their surroundings remain unknown. We know far too little about the lives of many endangered animals to help them effectively. We don’t even know if some species still exist. New species appear, or reappear, every year. Take, for instance, the Spotted-tail Quoll (Dasyurus maculatus), a carnivorous marsupial that was recently caught on remote digital camera in Australia’s Grampians National Park, after being presumed extinct for 141 years. The last of these animals was supposedly killed in 1872. They were considered a real pest then. The presence of this species, however, provides a wealth of information. It is a sign of a stable ecosystem, because, as a nocturnal carnivore, the Spotted-tail Quoll occupies a spot at the upper end of the food chain, therefore inviting comparison to the Tasmanian devil. If this animal has survived this long, then the same must be true of the species on which it preys. Generally speaking, however, humans’ prior knowledge of most animals is so minimal that it is impossible to deduce any further understanding from it. It does not provide any reliable empirical foundation upon which actionable strategies could be built. Every year, billions of birds and bats fly thousands of miles from their breeding grounds to their winter homes. What actually happens during these migrations, however, remains a mystery. What we know is that mortality rates are very high during migration. But what we don’t know is when and where highly mobile animals die. In many instances of endangered species, we cannot answer the question of what exactly we need to protect in order to save them: Is it food options? Water quality? Botanical diversity? What prevents us from creating a telling picture of nature and formulating effective rules for humans’ behavior toward it, is the lack of hard, empirical data and concrete information: What animals currently exist? How do they move around the planet? What do they do underground or at night? Whom do they eat, and who eats them?
The data gathered from the Animal Internet answer these questions. They produce a new image of nature. This image truly takes on form when considered within the context of a parallel development that began with the Information Age and continues to revolutionize our perspective on society. The concept we have of the structure of society has changed radically in the past ten years. The image of social strata and milieus, even of nationalities, used to be dictated by ideological default and assignation. The image associated with the working or middle classes used to align with the political theories that both engendered. “The Frenchman” or “the German” more or less represented national clichés. We primarily saw what we knew. We would then acknowledge representatives of these classes and nations and judge them accordingly. The ideologically fixed gaze first began softening with the introduction of new modes of direct communication and observation that established a new realism in perception. Telephone and television combined first with the Internet, then with social media, offering a visually supported opportunity for exchange and hypothetically providing any user with direct access to the unique lives of other users. The homogeneous, cut-and-dried preconceptions of class and nationality have increasingly fallen away as a result. Social media provides us with a picture of society as it truly is: full of contradictions, intersections, and dissonance. Today, those who want to hold tight to their ideological perspectives need to work a lot harder at it, and all too often, their efforts collapse when faced with the temptation to gain concrete impressions of the world. These new insights generate a dynamic that is also changing society. Because seeing creates knowledge, and knowledge leads to action. The social web is prepared to deconstruct social theories from the inside out, by starting an engine of social and systemic change free from ideological theorizing, as recent events in Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey and Ukraine have shown. Mobilizing the masses and coordinating social processes—these were the central functions of ideology. Social media has now taken on these duties. The Net has brought about a paradigm shift—out with theory and ideology, in with practice and reality.
The Human Internet has changed society, and the Animal Internet will change nature. We speak relentlessly about how modern technology has influenced human communication and interpersonal relationships. Since the birth of the Internet of Things (IoT)—that is to say, since furnishing inanimate objects with intelligent sensors, making these things trackable and “sentient”—the conversation has expanded to address the consequences of this technological revolution on humans’ relationship with their inanimate surroundings and on our society as a whole. It is no longer just humans who can use the Internet, sending and calling up data, but also devices, switches, and sensors that can be connected to the Web and interact without the need for human involvement. Packages that can be tracked by means of integrated electronics and printers that automatically order replacement cartridges when they are running low are innocuous examples of the IoT. The same goes for fitness bracelets, electronic pedometers, and the handy new features of the connected home. But rooms with sensors that register human presence and then identify these humans and match them with data pulled from the Net hold greater potential for risk—even if there are certainly many helpful possible uses for so-called “smart space” technologies.
What about when intelligent technology allows for not only things to start thinking and speaking, but animals, as well? What happens when wild animals start pinging us, and we are able to identify them as unique individuals with their own backstory? The discussion on the ways in which digital technology can reshape our relationship with other living creatures and with nature is still new; in fact, it hasn’t even really begun. We can, however, already foresee the revolutionary effects of the Internet on our awareness and knowledge of nature. The technology exists to allow animals to communicate autonomously, thereby affording us a realistic impression of nature that deviates from the necessarily ideological picture that two hundred years of natural history writing and ecological theory have painted. This new conception does not derive from theory—from Darwinism, behavioral theory, the notion of an ecological niche, and so on and so forth—that claims confirmation through a single concrete observation; instead, it emerges from a glut of data and information. The focus is now on the individual animal, rather than on confirming the individual class. In the animal kingdom, our attention is no longer paid to family, genus, or species, having shifted instead to the individual with its specific history.
The animals of the Animal Internet are not user-generated content; they are not memes, those packets of digital information that spread at the speed of light and have given rise to a new visual “culture.” Instead, they themselves generate and transmit data. Animals and even plants—like essentially inaccessible trees in the rainforest, the growth of which can be measured by so-called dendrometers—are equipped with sensors that transmit information about them, and not just about their movement, but also various environmental data (temperature, air pressure, etc.) and physiological readings from the animals’ bodies. Many animals are already tagged with powerful GPS devices on or even in their bodies: snow leopards, humpback whales, albatrosses, red-eyed tree frogs, fruit bats, ocelots, saiga antelopes, hammerhead sharks, orchid bees, mountain gorillas, storks, and brown bears. These transmitters make it possible to follow the animals, no matter where they are: in the heart of the rainforest, ranging the desert, or even far below the sea, and thanks to Internet technology, we can access this information from anywhere on earth. More wild animals are outfitted with sensors every day. As a result, a huge store of data is gradually coming together to form a nuanced and differentiated image of nature that will ultimately serve as a complex portrayal of animal life.
The Animal Internet is unquestionably a technological revolution. At the heart of the Animal Internet are miniscule transmitters powerful enough, even, to send information into space. In the first half of 2016, the International Space Station (ISS) will install a special antenna to receive these signals. Biologists anticipate an exponential increase in information. The signals, weakened from the distance traveled, will be processed at the space station and sent to a database, where the information will be translated into visuals. The ISS antenna is intended to accommodate around fifteen thousand receivable transmitters. Future plans include mounting antennas to low-flying satellites, to achieve yet wider coverage and the ability to follow animals in real time. This will then someday allow us to tag classes of smaller creatures, like insects (which represent the largest number of species in the animal kingdom), and follow them individually from space. After all, even the migratory patterns of butterflies remain largely unexplored. This is naturally not the solution to all the problems. A key challenge is powering the transmitters, which must operate without an electrical connection. They will all run out of power at some point, since batteries cannot simply recharge themselves. Through the development of intelligent, energy-efficient technologies, the Animal Internet is giving rise to a more tight-knit structure that unites macro- and micro-perspectives.
Four components define the system behind the Animal Internet: the first step consists of tracking the animals. This is followed by data transmission to mobile phone networks and Internet hot spots or out into space. Then the third component, a database located at Movebank.org, receives and processes the data. Finally, the visually formatted data can then be presented to scientists, laypersons, and hobbyists in mobile apps such as Animal Tracker. The analysis of movement and behavioral data offers insight into a multitude of problems within the fields of theoretical and applied biology, the solutions to which were long out of reach, because of a lacking or limited base of knowledge.
GPS units are particularly well suited for tagging wild animals because they can be pinpointed from long distances, which the practice of classic telemetry, requiring researchers to drive after the animals with a transceiver, did not allow. The transmitters have become so refined and so small that it is now possible to track many animals for months or even years. The transmitters should not weigh above five percent of the animal’s body weight, which presents a great challenge to researchers and their technicians, because it means a transmitter for a .70-ounce chickadee cannot weigh over .035 ounces. Transmitters have already been built, however, that weigh just .0007 ounces. This enables even insects to be tagged. How far does a bumblebee fly to reach its food? What is the radius of its movement? This was previously unknown, until a team at the Max Planck Institute on Lake Constance in southern Germany used transmitters to get to the bottom of these questions and discovered that bees will fly several miles to reach their food sources.
A transmitter implanted in the body of a wild animal is naturally a great disruption to the animal’s life and may impede its mobility. As light as the unit may be, the danger remains that it will limit the animal’s ability to move, along with its chances of survival. Attaching it to the animal’s body is also no mean feat. It is almost impossible to imagine sewing a transmitter onto the three-inch-long body of a red-eyed tree frog, which has the slippery skin typical of amphibians, without injuring the creature. This procedure must be tested repeatedly under controlled laboratory conditions before it can be implemented in the wild. The prototypes of each new generation of transmitters are designed such that, should they interfere with key life activities such as reproduction, the animals can easily free themselves of the devices.
The form the data transmission takes, whether permanent or piecemeal, depends on local communication infrastructure. In areas lacking infrastructure or when tracking animals over the course of a long migration, the data transfers occur via satellite; the data are fractionated, meaning they are collected and sent intermittently as bundles. In order to do this, the information must be stored temporarily on chips. A big technical hurdle at this point is how to supply the chips with power. Different types of batteries come into play, ranging from high-performance batteries to solar cells to kinetic systems. A key concern is efficiency, because the batteries are tricky to replace. It really comes down to the intelligence of the chip design. Chips can be programmed to be active only at specific times. Or they can be controlled remotely to turn on or off, bundle data, or upload data at a scheduled time. It is also possible to process the collected data on the chip itself, and to send only the results. Text message responses can even be programmed and stored on the chip, then sent automatically upon receiving certain signals.
This technique is frequently used in western Australia to warn swimmers and surfers of sharks approaching the coast that might pose a threat to humans. This applies primarily to great white and tiger sharks, over three hundred of which have already been tagged. In order to track them, the creatures are first caught, tranquilized, and pulled on board. Remaining at sea, marine researchers then perform a quick operation to implant a small transmitter into the sharks’ abdominal cavities. Since radio waves travel poorly through water, the devices emit sound waves that are picked up by underwater microphones. Whenever a shark swims within range of a microphone, it logs in with an individual identification badge. The signal is then forwarded to a network of monitoring stations. These data provide important information about the animals’ migration patterns. The moment a shark crosses one of these so-called digital “geo-fences,” its arrival is announced via text message or Twitter. Signals also travel via satellite to monitors installed on beaches.
Another, somewhat spooky example of a tagged shark demonstrates the chasms GPS technology will reveal to us in time. Off the coast of Australia, a ten-foot-long, tagged female great white shark that went by the name “Shark Alpha,” disappeared from the radar. According to the tracking device, at four o’clock in the morning, the shark was suddenly torn five hundred yards into the depths, with astonishing power and speed. Within seconds, the chip also recorded a spike in ambient temperature, from 8 degrees Celsius to 25. That is the temperature of an animal’s insides; the shark must have been eaten by an aquatic predator. The chip could be followed for the next eight days, at which point it vanished from the control monitor. It was most likely voided. Four months later, it was found on shore, bleached by gastric acid. Researchers suspect Shark Alpha fell prey to a much larger creature. It will have to have been at least five meters long and weighed two tons or more. But what was it? An orca? Orcas usually hunt close to the surface. The deepest killer whale dive on record is 260 yards. Another great white? This species has a body temperature of 18 degrees—not 25. Could it actually have been a monstrous octopod or a megalodon, a gargantuan prehistoric predator that some say may has survived, hidden in the darkest depths of the ocean?
As this example illustrates, the data collected need not be limited to sending updates on an animal’s position. The chips can also relay information about surrounding conditions, from climate data to air and water pressure. In some cases, specialized sensors can provide readings on an animal’s general physiological condition. The primary foci may include heart rate, body temperature, and blood sugar levels, but more complex bodily functions may also be captured by means of EKG, EMG, or EEG tests. Researchers can thus determine from a distance whether an animal is sick. Not only does this technology improve the care wild animals receive, it also better enables scientists to determine the prognosis of spreading diseases or even epidemics. Finally, these data may be combined with audiovisual information to convey the most precise possible account of each animal’s current situation; these accounts then serve as the building blocks of a realistic overview. With this in mind, Martin Wikelski, director of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology and one of the Animal Internet’s leading zoologists, is planning to equip birds’ beaks with tiny cameras that are triggered by characteristic head movements during feeding. This would allow the animals’ daily menu to be recorded in high definition.
With such precise and readily available data, nature researchers are no longer dependent on supposition, deduction, or their own imagination; the impact such an informative, objective image of nature will have on conservation campaigns is evident. After all, these data provide crucial insight into migration routes and population sizes, as well as into habitat issues and possible areas of conflict with humans. They help answer questions that have long been unanswerable.
A glaring number of questions remain about the unknown lives of animals, but with the help of digital technology, researchers are getting to the bottom of them and using their findings to help improve animal habitats and living conditions. Tracking animals that live underwater still presents some of the greatest challenges. For those who used to rely on assumptions about the tortuous routes elephant seals take through the dark North Pacific, however, it has been possible to hitch a ride on “Lady Penelope’s” hind flipper and share in her experiences. This impressive representative of the world’s largest seal species greets visitors to her Facebook page—which users have followed from the Tagging of Pelagic Predators (TOPP) website—with a warm, “Hi, my name is Penelope, my home beach is Año Nuevo, and I have swum a distance of 8,910.04 miles since I was tagged.”
Elephant seals are especially well suited to tagging, because they always return to the same beach. The chips can then be changed or read. Since elephant seals travel far distances in the ocean, they’re interesting objects for study. Researchers can collect a lot of data from their extended travels. Thanks to continuous digital monitoring, Penelope’s life story can be recounted from start to finish. In addition to charting her movement, her chip records the depth and length of her dives, as well as variance in light. Her august history reads as follows: Born in the former half of January 1998 in Año Nuevo State Park on the coast of California, she weighed but a dainty forty-six pounds. Today, the noble creature registers fifteen hundred pounds on the scale. All her life, and like a true aristocrat, Penelope has disdained the sensibilities of the petite bourgeoisie, rejecting conventions of monogamy, and unreservedly seeking the company of multiple partners. She lives in a so-called polygynous society, in which she shares her mate with other females. Fidelity has never been her strong suit, though, and she has been known to socialize with other beta males from time to time. She has six children, the first of which she had at age five. This carefree lifestyle has paid off—at age twenty-six, Penelope can be considered one of the great survivors of her species. As it happens, fifty percent of these animals die before reaching maturity. Meanwhile, Penelope has taken an even greater stage: she was recently integrated into the Oceans Street View in Google Maps. Her travels through the ocean yield pictures of regions that are then added to the virtual underwater atlas.
Since 2000, the TOPP project has connected marine researchers from all over the world. In this time, the zoologists have managed to tag twenty-two different species—elephant seals, great white sharks, sea turtles, squid, tuna, albatrosses—and over two thousand individual animals with satellite transmitters. From its inception, the program has aimed to make these scientific data available to the general public. One of its stated goals is to lift these animals from obscurity and share their life story. This push to “let nature tell its story” is a central feature in the new era of nature conservation. It draws on the power of story. On the one hand, scientists are using technological tools like websites with integrated blogs for individual animals, or smartphone apps like Shark Net that allow users to select specific sharks they want to follow. On the other hand, the researchers also do not shy away from crowd-pleasing events like the annual Elephant Seal Homecoming Day, at which the tagged animals returning to their home beach are greeted with beers and barbecue; or the Great Turtle Race, in which various sea turtles compete in a virtual race to the Galapagos that is broadcast online for fans to follow. The primary goal of these formats is to get users and viewers to adopt the animals’ perspective in a playful manner that creates a sense of connection. Nature can be entertaining again.
Nevertheless, the gravity of the situation keeps returning to the forefront. Take, for example, the Magellan penguins that move along the Argentine coast. These animals often encounter oil slicks when swimming through shipping lanes. When the oil comes into contact with their plumage, the penguins can no longer maintain their body temperature, and they die of hypothermia. Those that survive are plagued by health issues and can no longer reproduce. The oil pollution along the Argentine coast kills as many as forty thousand penguins every year. P. Dee Boersma, one of the world’s leading penguin researchers, started tagging penguins with GPS devices as early as the mid-nineties. This allowed her to determine the penguins’ usual migration routes. She then used these data in negotiations with the Argentine shipping authority, which agreed to move its lanes farther out to sea. This series of events drastically improved the survival rates of this penguin species, if not, in fact, protecting it from extinction.