The aerosphere is a three-dimensional “landscape” of wind currents, with varying directions, temperatures, humidity, and turbulence mostly invisible to our human eyes. Like our familiar terrestrial environment, the aerosphere also changes over time, shifting with night and day and the seasons. In the daytime, heat rising from the ground leads to thermals, which animals can use for vertical transport (e.g. hawks rising in circles, but aphids do this too!). But at night, fast-moving nocturnal jet winds flow hundreds of feet above the ground, even when the air is still at ground level. The direction and speed of these jets are influenced by barometric pressure and weather fronts, and temperature is sometimes warmer than at ground level.
Living in this environment requires sensory and physiological adaptations currently very poorly understood, especially because it is generally too dark to use visual cues. For example, insects may be able to sense turbulence within those jet winds and use that to align themselves with favorable directions. Many animals use celestial or geo-magnetic cues for navigation. Insects migrating in these jet winds are vertically collected in layers, possibly in warmer or less turbulent air. Predators like bats must deal with strong winds and effects on echolocation calls from variation in temperature, humidity, and pressure. Those adapted to this environment use it for transportation, finding prey or avoiding capture, and likely many other behaviors currently unknown.
The challenges of studying this environment mean that aeroecology requires a collaboration of many different science disciplines: atmospheric, earth, geography, and computer sciences in addition to biological approaches such as behavioral and physiological ecology. We also have to be creative in developing or adapting technologies for this fascinating and important research. For example, decoding weather radar to detect animal signals, or flying helium balloons to lift bat detectors up high. So if you see blinking lights in the night sky, it could be aliens, but it’s more likely scientists studying nocturnal aeroecology!
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