Conservation researcher Peter Hodum can remember the difficulty of observing nesting seabirds.
It was just over 20 years ago when Hodum and his peers would have to guess where a seabird’s underground nest was before digging a hole. They would then stretch their arms into the burrow and grasp for signs of a dwelling.
“You would get a feel for it,” he recently recalled. “It wasn’t perfect, but eventually, you could get good at it.” But that’s just a pleasant memory now, as technology has drastically changed the practices of animal conservation and Hodum’s work.
Hodum now uses infrared cameras to study seabird domesticity. He and other conservationists and scientists take advantage of a wide array of technology, including sensors, satellite tracking, camera traps and many other digital tools. These give them a far better understanding of wildlife ecology than they had only decades ago — or sometimes even less than a decade. These technologies offer detailed, nuanced perspectives of how animals survive, eat, reproduce and evade predatory threats.
It’s as if conservation went, almost overnight, from a black-and-white documentary with patchy audio to a surround-sound, 3D blockbuster film. For Hodum, an associate professor of biology and environmental policy at Puget Sound University, the technology isn’t just something to marvel at — it delivers unparalleled insights in real time.
“It has transformed how we’re doing seabird work,” he said.
Species Under Threat
Hodum and other conservationists approach their work with an urgency that tries to match two primary threats to wildlife: climate change and poaching.
“We’re in the midst of an extinction crisis. We’re seeing more loss of species than any other time, other than a few extinction events in the Paleolithic era,” said Martha Hoopes, a professor of biological sciences at Mount Holyoke College.
The World Economic Forum recently observed that “whether on land, in the air, or in the water, plants and animals large and small are struggling.” Indeed, the World Wildlife Fund reports that wildlife populations have plummeted by 94% since 1970 in the tropical sub-regions of the Americas, while the U.N. says more than one million species of animals and plants around the world face extinction.
“In the U.S., we forget about food and security,” Hoopes said. “Grocery stores are well-stocked, and the thought is there is always food available. But that’s not true everywhere else. Food is scarce, and you have to eat what you can. And there’s poaching for parts of animals like tusks and nails.” Poaching will be difficult to curb, she said, until perceptions of its value change. “When something becomes rare and embargoed, the more interesting it becomes,” Hoopes pointed out.
Nearly 6,000 different species of animals and plants have been seized between 1999 and 2018, with nearly every country in the world playing a role in the illicit trade of wildlife, according to a 2020 U.N. report on the trafficking of protected species. Meanwhile, wildlife that can escape poaching and gaming have nowhere to turn on a warming planet.
“The way we’re changing the climate […] leads to evolutionary changes,” Hoopes said. “We’re seeing organisms in different places. Their main threat is fragmentation, habitat loss and invasive species.”
A “Wow” Moment
Years ago, Hodum attended a British Antarctic Survey conference on the albatross and petrel and was amazed by a 3D-graphic presentation on the migration of those seabirds.
“I thought, ‘Wow. This is a seminal moment,'” he recalled. The presentation combined the scientific angle of the birds’ travel patterns with an arresting visual that mapped out the seascape. “When you see it that way, it gives you a very good understanding of birds and what they’re capable of.”
That was a precursor of things to come. Hodum, who also works for the nonprofit conservation outfit Oikonos, focuses on studying and preserving seabirds off the Pacific Ocean coastline of Washington state as well as the Juan Fernández Islands in Chile. Since that “wow” moment, he has been able to expand the scope of his work and understand wildlife ecology in greater detail because of evolving technology.
“It allows us to address conservation questions we couldn’t address 25 to 30 years ago,” he said. “People coming into the field now, they’re more digitally native and the technology is more established, so it’s hard to have that perspective of how groundbreaking it is.”
Tracking How Seabirds Eat, Dive and Travel
Hodum and his colleagues no longer have to dig a hole and poke around with their hands to feel for a seabird’s nest. They now carefully extend an infrared camera probe into a burrow. The small, unobtrusive camera, affixed to a flexible tube, can observe an adult, chick or egg without disturbing the natural rhythms of the seabird. Satellite tracking has even revealed where birds forage for food.
“We didn’t know before,” Hodum said. “We had suspicions, but we didn’t know if certain birds were actually representative of an area.” Geographic information system (GIS) technology, which powers tracking devices, helps researchers see where the birds travel, providing details that can be overlaid on a map with locations of fisheries. Conservationists can see if seabirds are going to hot-spot areas and how they are foraging.
The tracking sensors themselves are a further source of wonderment for Hodum. Time-depth recorders gauge the depth of water as a function of time, which is used as a means to study the birds’ diving behavior.
“It characterizes the dive profiles,” Hodum said, “which opens up all sorts of questions. When they get to these foraging grounds, how long are their dives? How deep? And do they immediately go low or slowly? All of this ties back to conservation, and gaining an understanding of foraging gives us an understanding of how they’re feeding and interacting with fisheries and how they’re surviving in certain environments.”
In Chile, Oikonos deployed camera traps in seabird colonies to not only record the movements of poachers — information the local park service uses for enforcement — but also the presence or absence of the birds. Analytics shortens the time needed to review the visuals of the camera traps as well as the sounds of audio recorders that are left in the field for months at a time.
Animal Conservation Advancements
The vast number of technologies and how they are used are plentiful enough to fill the pages of a long-form scientific journal.
For example, several projects attempt to identify animals through artificial intelligence. According to Conservation International, a collaborative program sits in Google Cloud and combines machine learning expertise with the knowledge of conservation groups. The program, known as Wildlife Insights, recognizes 614 different species with more than eight million images supplied by member organizations — a repository that’s expected to grow. Initial identification accuracy ranges from 80% to 98%, depending on image quality and the distinctiveness of the species.
Northrop Grumman employees are leading several projects that are helping scientists monitor, understand, and protect Earth’s wildlife and ecosystems. The projects incorporate technological and conservation know-how to help sea turtles, polar bears and Hawaiian crows. One such program has as many as 40 employees using off-the-shelf, modern technology solutions to better monitor the reefs of the Chesapeake Bay in a bid to preserve a threatened oyster population.
Hodum still uses a notebook and other manual tools in his animal conservation work — but despite his continued love for the old-fashioned, he’s excited about the promise that new technology holds for his field.
“Technological capacity has allowed us to be more efficient and effective in collecting data,” he said. “And the tools for collecting data in the field will only become better, more refined, and more affordable and accessible.”
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