While you sip your complimentary beverage on your next flight, your plane could be gathering data on birds, butterflies and other difficult-to-track animals.

United Airlines is working with the Smithsonian on Partners in the Sky, a conservation project that will tag and track small animals.

Typically, scientists track animals by capturing them and equipping them with GPS-enabled collars, but GPS devices large enough to ping satellites are too bulky for smaller members of the animal kingdom.

That's where United Airlines comes in. Soon, some of its planes will be equipped with radio receiver antennas that can pick up signals from animals tagged with smaller, cheaper tags.

Partners in the Sky will focus on some of the planet's vanishing species like the American wood thrush and the monarch butterfly.

"The first step in stopping a decline is to figure out when and where animals are dying," Peter Marra of Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute told Wired.

Animals such as dragonflies and eagles can be easily be tagged with chips that use VHF radio technology and weigh just 0.15 grams.

Because of the chips' low cost, a variety of animals can be tagged, and then some of United's 5,300 daily flights will gather data as the planes fly through the lower atmosphere.

Previously, to use this method of tracking, researchers had to make dedicated flights with receivers to see what pings they could pick up. Now they can sit back and let the data come to them.

"I can sit at my computer drinking beer," Marra joked.

To learn more about Parnters in the Sky, watch the video below.

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Laura Moss writes about a variety of topics with a focus on animals, science, language and culture. But she mostly writes about cats.

How United is helping track tiny species
The airline teamed up with the Smithsonian to equip its planes with radio receiver antennas that will gather data on difficult-to-track animals.