German researcher and his team think they’ve found a low-cost, quickly deployable detecting network
Pets and farm animals could soon be drafted to provide a ready-made early warning system in regions at high risk of natural disasters in a pioneering effort by an international team of animal behavioral experts. By tracking the behavior of creatures both big and small in areas prone to earthquakes, tsunamis or cyclones, scientists at the Icarus project argue it may be possible to detect warning signs before a disaster occurs.
Martin Wikelski, a director at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior explained how the team initially worked on the ground in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where they attached tracking devices to surviving elephants after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. However, they learned a valuable lesson from the neighboring island of Simeulue, where only a few people died during the disaster.
Professor Wikelski told Express.co.uk: “So we started out actually in Banda Aceh, where the tsunami happened before, we tagged some of the elephants that survived.
“But I think that the key there was that in Banda Aceh people were dying like mad, 300,000 or so but on the neighboring island Simeulue, which was much closer to the epicenter of the tsunami, I think only seven people died because they had to learn the songs about the chickens and the water buffalos going crazy in school.
“When they see the animals go crazy, they just leave everything behind and run into the highlands and that’s what saved them.”
Martin Wikelski’s team typically talks to people in the area who are familiar with the local animals
Icarus is seeking to give humans access to many animals’ exceptional sensory talents
He added that although the team was unable to test this method in Banda Aceh, the observation of animal signs could be an effective way of saving lives during disasters.
Professor Wikelski detailed how over the last year and a half, Icarus has worked with an Austrian company called Tractive to implement an algorithm that can track the activity and health of dogs and cats using tracking tags.
He told Express.co.uk that this system can be used to quickly deploy up to 600,000 tags over the network.
“So what we see is that animals usually have a very good pre-warning time, so it can be hours. Now, what we have done over the last year and a half, was we worked with a company in Austria, Tractive, they are a world leader in providing dogs and cats with tracking tags, just for people to know where they are and monitor their health,
“We have implemented an algorithm that gives us information about the real activity of these animals, and that’s something that we can now farm out to basically 600,000 tags almost immediately over the network,” the professor told Express.co.uk.
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He added that while this method is not foolproof, it is cheap and easily deployable, making it a “prudent” precaution to take.
Professor Wikelski added: “If you had a lot of dogs and tags, dogs and cats tracked in these areas, if many of them go crazy before an earthquake, then you know that you know something is wrong.
“So say in Istanbul you would have 10,000 dogs tracked, and even if only 500 go crazy, at the same time, then you know something is coming.
“You don’t know for sure what it is because we don’t yet have enough experience. But the system is so cheap and so easily deployable that I think it would be prudent to do it.”
Researchers are tracking the behavior of dogs and cats in areas prone to earthquakes
The researchers do not yet have enough data on which animals are the most sensitive to natural disasters. . To identify these animals, the team typically talks to people in the area drawing on their own expertise of the local wildlife.
“We don’t know yet because we don’t have enough data on that yet. But what we usually do is that we go in an area, we talk to the people that know that animals they could be local farmers in Sicily or the herders in Indonesia,” said Professor Wikelski.
“They usually tell you which animals are the most sensitive ones and not only the species, but also the individuals.
“So say the farmers in Sicily, they told us ‘oh, take the goats because they are the most sensitive, but out of the goats out of these 300 goats don’t take all of them just take 15 the most sensitive ones, we select them for you'”
Martin Wikelski attaches an Icarus sensor to a chicken
He added: “It’s almost like a dog handler at customs or somebody who’s doing a bloodhound trail for the police.
“I mean, they know they’re the best animals. It’s not all of them, that they’re all equally good. But, that is something we don’t know yet. I mean, it’s, it’s easy to find out, but we just have to do it.”
As to why animals appear to have this sixth sense, the professor suggested the cause may be a Dwarnian fear response which has pre-wired wild creatures to be alert to subtle atmospheric changes.
Professor Wikelski said: “Natural selection has really selected the most sensitive animals out there, and what we think is happening is that they have this fear response because out there, every animal is constantly in fear of being killed.
“I mean, except maybe the grizzly bear or so but everybody else is constantly eaten by somebody and, and therefore if something happens in their environment, or something changes, then they, we see this fear response. And that’s basically what we take up with the tags, if all of the animals in an area have this fear response, then something is wrong. So it’s beyond wolf hunting or bear hunting, it’s something that is generally in the environment.”
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The biggest problems facing the rollout of the system right now is the mindset of scientists and funding, according to Professor Wikelshi, who argues the potential application of the project is also being held back by resistance to change and a focus on getting immediate results.
He said: “So one thing is it has only recently been technologically possible. So the recent bio-logging revolution that’s about, say, five years old means you can continuously observe an animal, but these electronic tags also need to be affordable.
“So now we are going by using the Internet of Things, the network that is connecting your washing machine with your car, and all those things.
“Now, the biggest problem, I think, is one of a mindset of the scientist, because the seismologists and volcanologists, some are open, but many say, ‘oh, no, we are doing this forever, and we haven’t solved it. it, so you won’t solve it.’
“We just say, well, we only provide additional information, we don’t want to claim that we can now do a forecast. But we have additional information that could very well be helpful.”
He continued: “So it’s a mindset, but it’s also the mindset of funding because the funding in science the way it works is that you apply for funding for a three-year project, for grad student postings, or whatever and then you have to have results.
“Now in an earthquake, how do you want to have results in three years? I mean, you don’t know where it happens.
“So you have to have just a few million to put these tags out in the world and hope that eventually they will be in the right area where your animals are.”