Birds With Little Backpacks May Protect Us Against Earthquakes


We have been using birds to do our bidding for generations. We used homing pigeons in the 1900’s to send our letters before the postal service and cell phones. These pigeons really worked well for this task because they were universally known to return to their ‘home’ hence the name. People would attach letters to their feet and essentially have the bird delivered to the person of interest. Then the person would read the letter, write one back and let the bird go. The bird would then fly, ‘home’, back to the original sender (usually). These pigeons were also used in WWI and WWII for the same purpose, but they were deemed more official by the name of ‘military messengers’ — 32 of them even received a medal.

Not only have they been used for carrying messages, they have culturally been known for predicting weather patterns. The European Storm-petrel got its name because its arrival was said to predict sea storms by ancient European sailors. This theory has been tested many times over and the verdict is that birds do act strangely before storms or other ecological events.

Recently scientists have decided to put this to use in the understanding of when earthquakes will occur. If you live in a region with frequent earthquakes, you know that you never really get much warning before it happens. The news isn’t fast enough to send out warnings and sometimes we don’t even know it’ll happen until it actually does. Well, with the help of a satellite tracking project, the International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space (ICARUS), we might be able to change that. Martin Wikelski, an ecologist at Max Planck Institute for Ornithology has been working on this project. It aims to use little electronic tags that are attached to the birds as backpacks, leg bands or even little tiny bird hats. These tags will send location data to The International Space Station in order to monitor any activity patterns that are out of the ordinary and could suggest an earthquake is coming.

Earthquakes are incredibly difficult to predict. There are currently three known ways to predicts them and they aren’t 100 percent reliable and usually don’t provide much time to prepare. Scientists use light detection and ranging laser altimetry (LiDAR). Airborne LiDAR equipment bounces a stream of laser pulses off of the ground and sends them back to the machine recording the distance between the machine and the ground, allowing for surface feature measurements of the terrain. These, which have a centimeter accuracy, can show when tectonic plates move. But they can only see this the moment as it begins to happen, not leaving much time to report to the rest of the community.

Seismometers are machines that are used to pick-up vibrations in the earth’s crust. Increased vibrations can indicate that an earthquake is about to occur. Increased radon gas is the last known way of detecting earthquakes, which is the gas that escapes from the cracks of the earth’s crust. Heightened levels of this gas indicate that the tectonic plates are moving. All of these methods, however, are only useful right when an earthquake is about to occur, not before, and gives you no time to prepare.

With the birds, they can begin to flock before an earthquake occurs or become more active at times when they usually aren’t. In the past, the small size of the birds has made it difficult to use transmitters, and methods that are generally used for wildlife, such as radio telemetry, require you to relocate the animal in order to receive the data about where it’s been. With ICARUS, Wikelski has achieved these very minuscule transmitters weighing only five grams and hopes to soon develop a version that weighs only one gram. Those one-gram transmitters would be small enough to attach to insects, like bees, and track their movements. These transmitters are also solar powered and can, therefore, transmit data to the space station at all times.

ICARUS has a multitude of other uses as well. It’s useful in biology as we can use the devices to understand the birds’ behaviors and the ‘where why, and when’ of an individual’s death. This is also useful for everyone else because we can learn more about other disaster forecasts, and maybe predict the intensity of tornadoes or hurricanes. We can utilize them for understanding health and disease such as Avian Influenza and Ebola and how they spread. We can identify how many services the birds are providing within each location in the areas of pest control, seed dispersal, etc. Maybe they can even help us understand environmental shifts in temperature and habitat structure by changing where they decide to live, for example. The possibilities are endless for this type of technology. We are very much more ahead in technology than our relatives were in the 1900’s but we still need the help of birds to find our answers and solve our problems.