Wildlife Matters

The new technologies transforming wildlife research

07 Nov. 2023
Wayne Lawler/AWC

By Alana Burton, Development Officer, Grants; Andrew Howe, Senior Field Ecologist; Richard Seaton, Senior Ecologist – Pastoral Partnerships; Jess Teideman, Science writer

Locator map

Innovations in technology are rapidly changing the way AWC’s team of scientists are working. The use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) programs is increasing efficiency in processing camera trap images, and thermal imaging and drones are improving the monitoring of reintroduced mammals. Most recently, drone technology has been used to track reintroduced Chuditch (Western Quolls) at Mt Gibson Wildlife Sanctuary in Western Australia. This is the first drone sensor in the world that can track many animals at once in real time. Now, advanced acoustic monitors, environmental DNA processing and ground-penetrating radar are improving our ability to monitor species in remote and rugged landscapes.

Phoebe Dickins and Georgina Anderson, Australian Wildlife Conservancy Ecologists, prepare to launch a drone. Brad Leue/AWC
AWC Field Ecologist Phoebe Dickins and Senior Field Ecologist Georgina Anderson prepare to launch a drone to track Chuditch at Mt Gibson Wildlife Sanctuary in Western Australia.

Sampling environmental DNA

Biodiversity monitoring can be challenging, particularly when the focus is on animals that are difficult to detect using traditional methods or when a species’ distribution is unknown. To complement existing survey methods, AWC ecologists are collaborating with external researchers to deploy innovative detection techniques using environmental DNA (‘eDNA’).

When animals move through their environment, they leave behind little traces of DNA in the form of shed skin cells, scales, hair, faeces, or bodily fluids. This genetic material can be extracted from environmental samples and processed in the laboratory to determine its originating species. This is a rapidly developing field with the potential to greatly increase the efficiency of inventory surveys.

AWC is currently working on several eDNA projects. In the Kimberley, AWC ecologists and Dambimangari Rangers are collecting eDNA water samples to test for the presence of invasive cane toads across Dambimangari Country. Samples have been collected at a variety of sites, including Yampi Sound Training Area and a number of islands and rivers. Positive eDNA results are being recorded, supported by the subsequent detection of cane toads on camera traps. These results are allowing AWC and our partners to monitor the spread of cane toads in the region.

AWC Field Ecologist Naomi Blondel takes an eDNA sample to detect cane toads in a rainforest pocket at one of the monitoring sites. Larissa Potter/AWC
AWC Field Ecologist Naomi Blondel takes an eDNA sample to detect cane toads in a rainforest pocket at a monitoring site in the Kimberley.

While it is often used to detect a specific species of interest, eDNA can also be used for broad-scale biodiversity assessments to discern multiple species (a process known as ‘metabarcoding’). A few small samples can contain the DNA of dozens of species and yield a detailed snapshot of an ecosystem quickly and efficiently. At Karakamia Wildlife Sanctuary, AWC is hosting a PhD project from Curtin University which is examining the use of spider webs as passive eDNA filters to detect vertebrate species. At Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary, AWC is collaborating with a researcher from the University of Adelaide to detect historical vertebrate assemblages using eDNA extracted from soil. AWC is also progressing a collaboration with a researcher from the University of Queensland on a project using airborne eDNA to survey vertebrate fauna at sites in eastern Australia.

Raising the BAR for audio recording

Taking advantage of the uninterrupted skies and abundant sunlight in western Queensland, AWC is using solar-powered Bio-Acoustic Recorders (BARs) to monitor threatened species on North Australian Pastoral Company’s (NAPCo) Coorabulka Station.

Funded in part by a Queensland Threatened Species Grant and built by specialist bioacoustics company Frontier Labs, the BARs will be modified to tolerate the large temperature variations typical of the Channel Country’s desert environment. In situ, the BARs will also need to be protected from cattle and native animals like the abundant Long-haired Rat and Dingoes that love to investigate anything shiny.

In the arid Channel Country landscape, specialist remote sensing equipment requires protection from curious Dingoes and wiring has to be encased in braided hose to stop the investigations of native Long-haired rats. Richard Seaton/AWC
In the arid Channel Country landscape, specialist remote sensing equipment requires protection from curious Dingoes and wiring has to be encased in braided hose to stop the investigations of native Long-haired rats.

Sixty monitoring stations, each comprising an acoustic recorder and a camera trap will be established across this 629,000-hectare cattle station. Both the acoustic recorders and cameras will be set to record data 24 hours a day for 12 months, resulting in a huge dataset targeting the threatened Plains-wanderer, Kowari and Bilby. The data will also provide insight into the broad-scale biodiversity values present across this remote outback station.

By deploying this specialist remote sensing equipment, coupled with information collected on rainfall, vegetation and stocking rates, we hope to uncover the mystery of when and where species like the Plains-wanderer, Kowari and Bilby occur in this landscape and, most importantly, how we develop management strategies to conserve them into the future.

Mapping the underground with radar

Researchers have deployed the latest in ground-penetrating radar (GPR) technology to map out burrows belonging to one of the world’s rarest mammals, the Critically Endangered Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat. This notoriously shy species only emerges from burrows for up to six hours a night to forage for food. This makes the Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat a challenging species to study.

AWC, The Wombat Foundation, Subsurface Mapping Solutions and Queensland’s Department of Environment and Science (DES) are now using GPR to explore the wombats’ burrows, which can extend several metres below the ground. In late August 2023, the team spent three days deploying an advanced GPR system developed by Subsurface Mapping Solutions at Richard Underwood Nature Refuge in south-west Queensland. The system uses GPR pulses, which the wombats can’t feel or hear, to develop a real-time 3D map of burrows naturally dug by the wombats and DES-created ‘starter’ burrows.

Ground-penetrating radar is helping us to understand the habitat requirements of the Critically Endangered Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat. Nahrain John/AWC
Ground-penetrating radar is helping us to understand the habitat requirements of the Critically Endangered Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat.

The system has enabled the development of the most detailed subterranean mapping of the Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat burrows to date. This study is part of the Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat Recovery Action Plan developed as part of the DES Threatened Species Program 2020–40 framework. The purpose of the plan is to identify the priority actions required to recover the species, and deepening our understanding of the wombats’ habitat requirements will aid in the conservation of the Critically Endangered species.

Transforming conservation

The promising trajectories of eDNA capabilities, networked sensors, radar, AI, thermal cameras and drones represent new frontiers in wildlife conservation. When used with consideration, technology can vastly increase capacity and consistency and reduce ecosystem disturbance. As conservation technology becomes more accessible and user-friendly, the applications expand as far human ingenuity can take them.

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