Wildlife Matters

From bytes to biodiversity

08 May. 2024
Judy Moosmueller/AWC

How the smart use of technology is helping to protect wildlife

By Jess Teideman, AWC Science writer

When it comes to wildlife conservation, technology offers transformative ways to increase capacity, decrease manual data processing and support discussion and planning. This allows Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) ecologists and land managers to focus attention where it’s needed, with benefits for biodiversity. As technology continues to evolve and advance, so too will our ability to protect Australia’s most vulnerable species.

AI image processing Judy Moosmueller/AWC

Wildlife recognition technology:

Although camera traps have revolutionised biodiversity monitoring, a single camera can collect thousands of images and ecologists spend days, sometimes months, manually reviewing them. Artificial Intelligence is improving image processing speed and cost-effectiveness. Our system has processed ~23 million images since we launched, and staff are now regularly processing single camera trap surveys with more than 1.5 million images. The efficiency gains are huge: the AI system is saving two people at least three months’ work each year, just from the AI filtering out images that have no animal in them. AWC aims to develop species recognisers for up to 120 mammals and reptiles.

Accelerometres Judy Moosmueller/AWC

Accelerating beyond observational limits:

Observation of animal behaviour in the field can be a huge challenge for ecologists due to physical tracking limitations and the potential to influence animal response. Accelerometers are helping scientists overcome these challenges. Animal-attached accelerometers record fine-scale data on animal movements and behaviour that provide detailed information on activity budget. Accelerometers can collect data multiple times per second on multiple axes allowing scientists to determine if an animal is running, foraging or resting. This has recently allowed AWC ecologists to study how Numbat activity changes during different temperature conditions at Mt Gibson Wildlife Sanctuary in Western Australia.

Bioacoustic recorders Judy Moosmueller/AWC

All ears for conservation:

Environmental sound, often referred to as eco- or bio-acoustics, is a powerful data source for investigating ecosystem health by captured sound. The non-intrusive technology is particularly useful for detecting animals that are hard to find, like Koalas, frogs, and some species of bird, and can help monitor the recovery of threatened species after events like bushfires, or map migratory patterns throughout a season. Current advancements have seen the development of solar-powered units capable of recording continuously (or scheduled) for years with only minimal service visits to change the memory cards. This is delivering efficiencies for staff and benefits for monitoring shy wildlife. AWC is now using such units to listen to arid-dwelling species such as the critically endangered Plains Wanderer.

Satellite imagery Judy Moosmueller/AWC

Satellites for fire management:

Designing where to conduct fire management is as complex as scheduling when. There are many factors to consider, and planning begins months in advance. Satellite imagery is critical to this process. “To start, we look at all the fire scars from the previous year using satellite data – which highlights all the fires that occurred in the landscape. From this data, we produce a map that highlights where all these fires occurred. We sift through this imagery with fuel ages, topographic features and a multitude of other layers layered on top and work out where best to carry out burning to keep the fires that we put into the landscape as small and as low intensity as possible” says AWC Kimberley Regional Fire Coordinator Dale Tucker.

Drones Judy Moosmueller/AWC

A bird’s-eye view:

Efficiently tracking reintroduced species and producing reliable estimates of population trends over time is fundamental to the planning, delivery and ongoing evaluation of AWC’s ambitious reintroduction program. Drones equipped with advanced radio-telemetry systems are now being piloted to monitor reintroduced species at Mt Gibson. These drones can detect multiple animals simultaneously, enabling ecologists to monitor movements across large areas. “In the past, tracking translocated animals has involved hours of walking and searching for collar signals,” says AWC Senior Wildlife Ecologist Sophia Callander. “The drone, on the other hand, has proven to be a great tool for detecting multiple signals and finding animals in a much shorter time.” Since first acquiring the drone in 2022, AWC has conducted nearly 200 flights to track radio-collared Brushtail Possums, Chuditch and Numbats at Mt Gibson.

Transmitters Judy Moosmueller/AWC

Towering over wildlife:

To assist with monitoring reintroduced species, AWC uses solar-powered VHF (Very High Frequency) systems that operate 24/7. Upon reintroduction, half of the animals are fitted with uniquely coded VHF transmitters. Antenna towers scan for these unique codes continuously and provide data on the whereabouts and survival of individuals. This technology delivers significant efficiencies by reducing the ecologist hours required for monitoring animal dispersal and narrows the search area when tracking animals on foot. Manual tracking is still critical for understanding how animals are using habitat. AWC uses these systems at Mallee Cliffs and Pilliga (NSW) and at Newhaven (NT) and Scotia (NSW) wildlife sanctuaries.

Felixers Judy Moosmueller/AWC

Taking aim at feral cats:

Felixers are box-like units, which use LiDAR, cameras and AI to distinguish feral cats from native animals. Once a feral cat is recognised, a toxic gel is sprayed and ingested when the cat grooms itself, making the system a more humane and less time-consuming model for feral animal control. The units also act as a camera trap, collecting data on prey species and cat distribution across an area. Following the 2019–20 ‘megafires’, Felixers were deployed on Kangaroo Island in South Australia to reduce the impact of cats on populations of displaced species such as the Kangaroo Island Dunnart. AWC is also trialling their use at Mt Gibson as part of an ‘outside the fence’ research project.

Starlink Judy Moosmueller/AWC

Connection via the stars:

Starlink is the world’s largest satellite constellation using a low Earth orbit (sixty-five times closer to Earth compared to traditional satellites) to deliver broadband internet. The system has provided high-speed internet connectivity to remote locations across our sanctuaries and partnership areas, enabling AWC staff in the field to upload and send vital research data, conduct meetings in real time, and host events to educate from locations previously unavailable. The network has made a huge difference in solving challenging connection issues.

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