Quantcast

To Save Endangered Species, Scientists Point Stargazing Software Back to Earth

Animals
Infrared images of South African Rhinos. Endangered Wildlife Trust / LJMU

Attendees at the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science (EWASS), hosted in Liverpool, UK from April 3 to 6, had the chance to hear a surprising presentation.


Dr. Claire Burke, an astrophysicist at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU), explained how software used to identify galaxies is being used closer to Earth—to resolve problems involved with the tracking of endangered species.

"With thermal infrared cameras, we can easily see animals as a result of their body heat, day or night, and even when they are camouflaged in their natural environment," Burke explained in an LJMU press release.

"Since animals and humans in thermal footage 'glow' in the same way as stars and galaxies in space, we have been able to combine the technical expertise of astronomers with the conservation knowledge of ecologists to develop a system to find the animals or poachers automatically," she said.

The project uses machine-learning algorithms developed for astronomy to train software to recognize different animals in varying landscapes based on infrared images. It is an important technique because it can identify animals at night, when most poaching occurs.

The story of how the system developed, as reported by BBC News April 3, is almost as fascinating as the technology itself.

LJMU conservationist Serge Wich developed a system to track endangered animals using infrared cameras mounted on drones. Monitoring the populations of endangered species has traditionally been done by physically counting animals or the signs they left behind, but such methods are time-consuming and inaccurate, since scientists can't always follow where different populations move.

Wich's tests with drones at Chester Zoo and Knowsley Safari Park showed promise. Wich could detect the animals' presence, but he couldn't always tell which animal was which.

He lamented his problem to his neighbor in a conversation over a shared fence. Fortunately, his neighbor was Dr. Steve Longmore, an astronomer also working at LJMU, who told him about Burke's work identifying galaxies from the patterns of light they emitted.

"I collaborated with quite a few people during my career but astrophysicists were not on my list of potential collaborators," Wich told BBC News.

"But here we are. It shows how the serendipity of how science works."

LJMU reported that the team tested the software in the field in September 2017 by tracking Riverine rabbits, one of the most endangered mammals in the world. They sighted five of the highly elusive creatures.

"Given that there have only been about 1,000 sightings of Riverine rabbits by anyone in total, it was a real success," Burke said in the LJMU release.

Their next tests will involve tracking orangutans in Malaysia and spider monkeys in Mexico in May and monitoring Brazilian river dolphins in June, LJMU reported.

Longmore explained to BBC News why the new technique is such a breakthrough for protecting vulnerable species.

"Conservation is not only about the numbers of animals but also about political will and local community supporting conservation. But better data always helps to move good arguments forward. Solid data on what is happening to animal populations is the foundation of all conservation efforts," he said.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

A common green darners (Anax junius). Judy Gallagher / Flickr

By Jason Bittel

It's that time of year again: Right now, monarch butterflies are taking wing in the mountains of northwestern Mexico and starting to flap their way across the United States.

Read More Show Less
JPM / Getty Images

Gluten is the collective name for a group of proteins found in grains like wheat, barley and rye.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
fstop123 / iStock / Getty Images Plus

At EcoWatch, our team knows that changing personal habits and taking actions that contribute to a better planet is an ongoing journey. Earth Day, happening on April 22, is a great reminder for all of us to learn more about the environmental costs of our behaviors like food waste or fast fashion.

To offer readers some inspiration this Earth Day, our team rounded up their top picks for films to watch. So, sit back and take in one of these documentary films this Earth Day. Maybe it will spark a small change you can make in your own life.

Read More Show Less
Denali national park. Domen Jakus / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

By Stephanie Gagnon

Happy National Parks Week! This year, between April 20 and 28, escape to the beautiful national parks — either in person or in your imagination — and celebrate the amazing wildlife that calls these spaces home.

Read More Show Less
Sesame, three months old, at Seal Rescue Irleand. Screenshot / Seal Rescue Ireland Instagram

On Friday, Seal Rescue Ireland released Sesame the seal into the ocean after five months of rehabilitation at the Seal Rescue Ireland facility. Watch the release on EcoWatch's Facebook.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Beer packs of Guinness will now come in a cardboard box. Diageo

By Jordan Davidson

Guinness is joining the fight against single use plastic. The brewer has seen enough hapless turtles and marine life suffering from the scourge of plastic.

Read More Show Less
Maskot / Getty Images

People of all ages are spending more of their day looking at their phones, computers and television screens, but parents now have another reason for limiting how much screen time their children get — it could lead to behavioral problems.

Read More Show Less

Rapper and comedian Lil Dicky released a 7-minute climate change awareness song and video today, ahead of Earth Day on Monday, with proceeds going to the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation.

Read More Show Less