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$10M in Prize Money for Mapping Rainforest Biodiversity

Science
$10M in Prize Money for Mapping Rainforest Biodiversity

Drone image of the Mata Atlantica tropical rainforest in Brazil. FG Trade / E+ / Getty Images

Efforts to catalog the fast-declining biodiversity of tropical rainforests just got a $10 million boost via a new competition from XPRIZE, an organization that has more than a dozen competitions on topics ranging from spaceflight to oil cleanup over the past 25 years.


Last week, XPRIZE formally unveiled the $10 million Rainforest XPRIZE to catalyze development of "technology capable of identifying and cataloging rainforest biodiversity" that can underpin the emergence of new bioeconomy based on the value of standing forests as heathy and productive ecosystems.

Lowland rainforest in Indonesian Borneo as seen by drone. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

XPRIZE hopes the initiative will help address the perceived value gap between living and felled rainforest. At present, standing rainforest is generally viewed as less economically valuable than clearing the land for agriculture, timber or plantations, but many of the services afforded by healthy forests — from carbon sequestration to water provision to biodiversity — are unaccounted for.

"Despite their importance in supporting life on Earth, rainforests are undervalued because we simply do not yet know everything that exists in this ancient ecosystem," said Executive Director of the Rainforest XPRIZE Jyotika Virmani, in a statement. "I'm excited to see the innovative technologies that will emerge from this competition and give us a better assessment of the incredible biodiversity. Our goal is for the Rainforest XPRIZE to provide new understanding and reveal the true potential of the standing forest, allowing local communities to lead the way for all of us to live in harmony with these magnificent rainforests."

The winner will be selected based on a challenge:

    The winning team will survey biodiversity in at least three stories of a rainforest (emergent, canopy, understory and forest floor) in eight hours to produce the most comprehensive biodiversity assessment and utilize this and other data to produce the greatest number of insights in 48 hours. Insights may include, but are not limited to, new ecological dependencies, biodiversity and climate connectivity, anthropological findings or even sustainable societal interactions with the forest.

The competition offers a grand prize of $5 million, $2 million for second place and $1.25 million for two runners-up. There is a $500,000 bonus prize for technology that can rapidly identify previously undocumented species.

Topher White of Rainforest Connection installing a bioacoustic device in the forest canopy. Image by Ben Von Wong

Current efforts to survey rainforest biodiversity often employ a combination of technology — like camera traps, audio sensors and remote sensing from drones to airplanes to satellites — and old-fashioned boots-on-the-ground surveys. But these have been limited by the challenge of hot and humid conditions, dense canopy cover, remoteness and the sheer diversity of species of tropical rainforests, which may have upward of 400 types of trees per hectare. As such, XPRIZE expects the winning team in involve multiple technologies.

"The current methods used to identify and catalogue biodiversity, including in situ human-led studies, remote sensing by satellites or radar, or sophisticated spectroscopy, cannot operate to scale and gather the data necessary to understand the full ecosystem wealth of rainforests in sustainable ways. The competition accelerates a new bioeconomy, while also engaging indigenous and local communities, as well as local academic institutions in developing the solution. The Rainforest XPRIZE is a call-to-action to help save rainforests through the development and implementation of transformative, scalable and affordable technology," said XPRIZE in a press release.

A team led by Greg Asner from the Carnegie Airborne Observatory (now at the Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science) developed a system for mapping tropical forests using a multispectral approach. The resulting laser-guided imaging spectrometer data are fully three-dimensional, providing the structure and architecture of the forest, while simultaneously capturing up to 23 chemical properties of the canopy foliage. These colors indicate the diversity of canopy traits among co-existing tree species in the same hectare. Image courtesy of Greg Asner, Carnegie Institution for Science

"The teams of the Rainforest XPRIZE will develop sophisticated technologies to inventory rainforest biodiversity faster, affordably and in unprecedented detail in challenging harsh environments, delivering insights to support the sustainable use and well-being of the standing forest. Interdisciplinary teams can use emerging technologies such as robotics, remote sensing, data analysis, artificial intelligence and machine learning to survey biodiversity, deal with the challenges of a harsh environment and demonstrate that these ecosystems are worth preserving."

The deadline for registration is June 30, 2020.

Diagram showing the timeline for the Rainforest XPRIZE.

XPRIZE's approach is based on the premise that prizes generate investment in an objective that far exceeds the value of the prize itself. One of the most prominent examples of the idea is the Orteig Prize, which put up a $25,000 prize in 1919 for the first nonstop flight between New York City and Paris. Ultimately nine teams invested $400,000 in pursuit of the prize, which was captured in 1927 by Charles Lindbergh.

Reposted with permission from Mongabay.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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