So You Want To Be A Scientist?

Russian scientists are currently tracking 13 steppe eagles. The birds breed in Russia and Kazakhstan, but fly to South Asia for the winter. Credit…Igor Karyakin, Russian Raptor Research and Conservation Network

Studying wildlife can sound exciting, but the truth is there’s a large element of unpredictability. Like when a bird runs up your phone bill.

Researchers from the R.R.R. Conservation Network have been tracking the migration routes of 13 endangered steppe eagles since 2015 in an effort to refine conservation efforts. They thought they had a sound method of gathering data — equip the eagles with tracking devices that send text messages with their coordinates four times a day. The Russian company operating the eagles’ transmitters, MegaFon, billed the network for each message.

They expected to lose track of some eagles over the summer, so they weren’t concerned when they lost contact with a bird named Min. But when he reappeared in early October, he suddenly sent hundreds of backlogged text messages at once as he flew from Kazakhstan, where rates are cheaper, to Iran, where they are more expensive. The Network was billed 49 rubles, or 77 cents, for each message. This was more than five times the expected price and quickly exhausted the project’s budget. Min apparently flew for months in areas without coverage, mostly in Kazakhstan. The roaming messages were sent all at once when his transmitter connected to a network in Iran.

The work is critical. According to the Network, Russia had fewer than 10,000 steppe eagles in 2013. The species breeds in southern Russia and in Kazakhstan, but their yearly migration can take them as far as India, the Middle East and Africa. Along the way, they can come into contact with all kinds of threats like power lines and poison traps, so the more known about migration routes, the better to understand the threats.

To keep the project going, the Network has resorted to a crowdfunding campaign, and MegaFon said it would refund a few months’ worth of roaming charges from Min and the other 12 eagles. It also offered special rates to the project in the future. The researchers plan to begin equipping new eagles with free SIM cards after other phone companies reached out with offers.

Meanwhile, Min left Iran, flew to Saudi Arabia and was last reported in Yemen, according to its tracking device.

Taken from “Even Eagles Have Data Roaming Limits, Researchers Find” by By Elian Peltier (

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