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Nikola Plejić

Tracking Butterflies

2024-04-23 in link, longread, paper

Link: Technical Perspective: Creating the Internet of Biological and Bio-Inspired Things – Communications of the ACM (full paper)

I love the CACM’s “Technical Perspective” series where they provide an accompanying (technical) summary of a larger research paper! More than once it made me dive deeper into papers that I would’ve skipped otherwise — like this research wholesome enough to warrant a break from the all-encompassing cynicism of 2024. I’m unsure about the animal welfare aspects of this, but it seems non-invasive and useful so I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.

Humanity has tracked migratory patterns of different animals for a while, but these were limited to larger species that make it easy to attach the necessary devices. I recently heard Felix Stalder talk about the project “Infrastructure of a Migratory Bird” based on data collected by such research, and it’s a wonderful (and beautiful) way to understand what’s involved in these undertakings (spoiler: it’s a lot).

In this paper, the authors build infrastructure to track the migration of monarch butterflies. Butterflies are tiny, and attaching a full-blown tracking device to a minuscule living thing that travels up to 4000 kilometers sounds impossible… yet here we are. It’s utterly fascinating to read what goes into this: it combines seemingly contradictory features like low-power computing, offline-first (with 16 kB of memory!), and machine learning to provide insight into the Earth’s ecology.