Hundreds of animals now wear a transmitter on their backs for nothing.

It took some time, but in the fall of 2021 his project could finally take off. With a cage full of starlings, he led biologist Morrison Butt of the Netherlands Institute for the Environment, NIOO in Wageningen, into the dunes near Castricum to release a group of starlings with tiny transmitters on their backs. “The starlings were actually singing in their cages in the back seat,” Pot recalls. Not to say he was under the impression that the birds really saw it as a school trip, but rather to suggest that starlings are too “easy” animals to take part in the channel search. “They don’t get too nervous about taking pictures and sending them in,” Butt said.

Starlings should confirm or refute an old theory by Dutch biologist Albert Berdyk. Burdick had already flew a large group of starlings in the 1950s, transporting some to Switzerland and releasing some at their original hunt. Thus Burdick got the first indication that the younger starlings stuck to their original migration route and thus ended up in the wrong place after moving, while the older starlings flew on the experiment and corrected the displacement. Burdick came to this conclusion from a handful of ringed birds that have been found in various places. Butt wanted to replicate this research with micro-transmitters by means of his doctoral research.

In burlap and ashes

But since the end of February, as the first starlings were about to return from their winter home to their breeding grounds, a doctoral student has been in burlap and ash. The transmitters he has mounted on a starling connect to an antenna attached to the bottom of the ISS. This so-called Icarus antenna – an acronym for the International Collaboration on Animal Research Using Space – would mark a new era in animal broadcast research. Transmitters weigh no more than 4 grams, clean on the hook.

It is expected that in a few years it will be possible to equip bumblebees with transmitters much smaller than Icarus to communicate with the International Space Station. Until the German initiators of Ikarus had to stop cooperation with the Russian state space company Roscosmos at the beginning of the war in Ukraine. Roscosmos was responsible within Icarus for data collection and transmission, but this is no longer happening.


The International Space Station (ISS) in 2018.Reuters photo

He admits that in light of the humanitarian catastrophe in Ukraine, it’s a little beer, but for his PhD research, Bott calls this a little drama. “And not just for me. Hundreds of animals around the world, from terns in the Seychelles to rhinos in Africa, are equipped with Icarus transmitters. All for nothing! There are currently no alternative transmitters available for starlings that are light enough for a 75-weight bird. gram. For my PhD research, I will focus on another much larger bird at the moment: the cuckoo.”

Morrison Butt’s Icarus research coordinator, Henk van der Goegd of the Vogeltrekstation in Wageningen, still has little hope that the information about the starlings will be stored by the Russians and who knows, perhaps one day it will be released again. But this may also be against better judgment. “In any case, the beginning of the project was difficult. The antenna and computer from the International Space Station had been flown back to Earth for repair, and when everything finally worked, the data was slowly coming our way from Russia for unclear reasons.”

very painful

So van der Googd is gloomy about the future of migratory bird research, as it comes to cooperation with the Russians. “I have done a lot of geese research myself in the Arctic in Russia, and also made friends with Russian biologists. They are really ashamed of what is happening in Ukraine now. However, I also understand that cooperation cannot continue in the old way. I assure my friends, but As you advance in the Russian research hierarchy, it becomes unclear whether you will also end up with Putin’s friends. I have also heard of research groups no longer accepting Russian co-authors for articles. They are all very painful.”

Dozens of research projects around the world have been affected by the fall of Icarus. In addition to Morrison Butt, Theonis Birsma, a professor in Groningen for the ecology of migratory birds, was scammed in the Netherlands. “Even if we only have six black tails,” he adds a nuance. “It was an experiment on a small scale and probably more disturbing to the birds who now fly a transmitter on their back for nothing.”

Airplane hold (with ringed plovers) in De Slufter Nature Reserve.  ANP photo / Sijmen Hendriks

Airplane hold (with ringed plovers) in De Slufter Nature Reserve.ANP photo / Sijmen Hendriks

More broadly, Persma is also concerned about scientific cooperation with his Russian colleagues. Like Van der Jeugd, he himself knows only scientists who are ashamed of Putin’s actions. “Some want to leave Russia, others already live here, but are worried about family or friends. In any case, this is the terrible “brain drain” of Russian science in general and our small ecological field in particular. And this is at a time when environmental research in The Arctic is very important. Nowhere is climate change faster than in the Arctic. More than half of that is Russian territory.”

step back

Persma sees the period now approaching as a huge step back to his school days. “In the thirty years since the disappearance of the Wall and the Iron Curtain, we have gradually made good cooperation with ecologists from Russia. This cooperation has now been erased from the map in one fell swoop. Some Russian colleagues are going a step further. They are even comparing the collapse of their intellectual world with the flight of Jewish scientists from Nazi Germany,” says Bersma.

He also sees a very small bright spot. Currently, colleagues in West Africa are once again installing transmitters on nodes. These are birds that migrate back and forth between Siberia and Africa, with our Wadden Sea as a stopover. Their transmitters communicate with satellites that do not rely on Russian technology. So it’s like a little orchestra that once sang, that only birds fly from east to west Berlin. Those marking birds will soon be the only tangible link with Siberia. The satellite data is so accurate that we can even tell where birds are mating and not breeding. I would have preferred to check the research channel on Siberian soil, but this is no longer possible at the moment.”

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