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Even eagles have data roaming limits, researchers find

FREQUENT flyers often find themselves with hefty phone bills, and global travellers can drain their roaming data allowance. But eagles?

Russian ornithologists tracking the migration routes of 13 endangered steppe eagles carrying SMS transmitters ran out of money when one of the birds, Min, drained the researchers' phone credit for the project.

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, a researcher said.

The researchers, from the independent RRR Conservation Network, have been tracking eagles' migration routes since 2015 in an effort to focus conservation efforts on specific areas. The birds can come into contact with power lines, poison traps and a veterinary drug that killed millions of vultures in the 1990s.

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Elena Shnayder, a scientist based in Siberia who works for the conservation network, said in a phone interview on Saturday that the team had equipped the 13 steppe eagles with tracking devices that send text messages with their coordinates four times a day.

Every time a message is sent back, the Russian company operating the eagles' SMS transmitters, MegaFon, bills the network. The scientists expected to receive periodic text messages when the eagles flew over countries.

Ms Shnayder said the team also had expected to lose track of some eagles over the summer, but then they lost contact with Min. When he reappeared in Iran in early October, the researchers gasped when they began receiving a rush of data.

Hundreds of text messages flooded in from Min at once, each costing 49 rubles, or S$1.04 - more than five times the expected price - and blowing through the project's budget.

"He disappeared for five months, and all of a sudden here he is, with a very, very heavy phone bill," Ms Shnayder said.

The conservation group has resorted to a crowdfunding campaign to cover the extra costs. As of Friday evening, it had raised US$5,000, she said. The money will help track birds throughout 2020, the group wrote in a message posted on the Russian social network VK. NYTIMES