Skip to main content

Wild! Scientists Are Watching Baby Turtles from Space

Thanks to technology that cosmonauts are installing on the International Space Station, scientists will get an extraterrestrial view of baby turtles and other wildlife.

On a spacewalk Wednesday (Aug. 15), two cosmonauts are attaching antennae to the space station as part of a cutting-edge animal-tracking system for the International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space (ICARUS) Initiative. Within this initiative, biodiversity researchers at the Max Planck-Yale Center (MPYC) for Biodiversity Movement and Global Change will be able to monitor animals such as fruit bats, baby turtles, parrots and songbirds from space, according to a statement from Yale. The project is a collaboration between the Russian and German space agencies.

This is not the first time that animals have been tracked from space. Previously, space-based instruments have helped to track animal migration and even show how species respond to seasonal or climate changes. With these new efforts, however, researchers will be able to see "not only where an animal is, but also what it is doing," Martin Wikelski, chief strategist for the ICARUS Initiative, director of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology and co-director of the MPYC, said in the statement. [Photos: Pioneering Animals in Space]

This bird is wearing a tiny transmitter, which will send data about the birds' movement and environment to the ICARUS Initiative antennae on the International Space Station as part of a large biodiversity study. (Image credit: Max Planck Institute for Ornithology)

This does not mean that researchers will be able to see exactly when every single baby turtle or songbird eats, makes a sound or takes a step, but researchers will get a much more detailed picture of how these populations are behaving.

To get this exceptional data, transmitters attached to animals in the field will send a data packet of 223 bytes up to the antennae on the space station. Data packets will be sent up about four times per day, or every time a transmitter enters the space station's beam, the researchers explained in the statement. After it is received on the space station, the data will be sent to researchers on the ground.

The transmitters will send data on everything from individual animals' acceleration; their alignment to Earth's magnetic field; and specific and moment-to-moment conditions, like ambient temperature, air pressure and humidity, according to the statement. By early 2019, the team hopes to have 1,000 of these transmitters out in the field, and the researchers hope to ultimately grow that number to 100,000. By early 2019, researchers will be able to start analyzing the data collected.

"In the past, tracking studies have been limited to, at best, a few dozen simultaneously followed individuals, and the tags were large and readouts costly," Walter Jetz, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale and co-director of the MPYC, said in the statement. "In terms of scale and cost, I expect ICARUS to exceed what has existed to date by at least an order of magnitude and, someday, potentially several orders. This new tracking system has the potential to transform multiple fields of study."

Email Chelsea Gohd at or follow her @chelsea_gohd. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at:

Chelsea Gohd

Chelsea Gohd joined as an intern in the summer of 2018 and returned as a Staff Writer in 2019. After receiving a B.S. in Public Health, she worked as a science communicator at the American Museum of Natural History and even wrote an installation for the museum's permanent Hall of Meteorites. Chelsea has written for publications including Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine, Live Science, All That is Interesting, AMNH Microbe Mondays blog, The Daily Targum and Roaring Earth. When not writing, reading or following the latest space and science discoveries, Chelsea is writing music and performing as her alter ego Foxanne (@foxannemusic). You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd.