Rio is a movie for kids, that many of us have seen (or been forced to watch multiple times). The movie follows the heartwarming story of Blu, a Spix’s Macaw who is thought to be the last of his kind. When it’s discovered that there is a female, named Jewel, Blu is taken to meet her and the two are captured by smugglers. The rest of the movie follows Blu and Jewel as they attempt to make their way home, and hopefully some little Macaws.
Recently, it was revealed that the Spix’s Macaw is now extinct in the wild. It is the eighth bird species (that we have been able to record) to become extinct during this century, and based on climate predictions and political blindness, this rate of extinction is more than likely to continue or accelerate, and not just for birds.
Scientists predict we may be entering, or already experiencing, the next Great Extinction Event. We’re losing species at an alarmingly rapid rate, and advanced conservation techniques and technology have never been so important. These include everything from genetic technologies that allow population monitoring to more advanced forms of camera trapping, to bioacoustic monitoring devices.
But enough of the bad news - today we’re here to explore 8 of the most promising new developments that are being used to help fight extinction.
1 - Advanced cameras for trapping and monitoring
Camera trapping has been used for research for a long time, but new technology is allowing researchers to view animals in different settings and ways. For example, researchers in the US adapted thermal imaging technology to study the effect of a common disease on bat hibernation behaviour and activities throughout the winter. They were able to leave the cameras there, meaning the bats weren’t disturbed and the researchers were able to get lots of valuable footage.
While camera traps are usually used for larger or hibernating animals due to their slow frame rate, some researchers found a way to use camera traps on Hummingbirds. Camera traps work by being activated when a warm-blooded animal walks past cooler surroundings, and the difference in infrared lighting triggers the camera to record. This works really well for larger animals like big cats or bears, but Hummingbirds are a different game altogether. The researchers were able to develop a new camera trap in which the sensor was separated from the camera, which allowed them to set up a system with multiple sensors attached to one camera. This then gave the camera advance warning of when the Hummingbird was approaching.
2 - DNA sequencing technology
Collecting DNA from organisms that you are studying can grant a huge amount of insight into population dynamics, breeding dynamics, levels of health, disease and migration, along with many other things. However it can be incredibly time consuming. Say you need to collect genetic samples from a field of plants. You need to go around and collect the samples, store them efficiently, and return them to the lab where you can then begin to study them. Traditional DNA extraction and sequencing protocols can take a long time, but some researchers from the UK have recently been able to develop a handheld, real-time device to sequence DNA of plants, meaning they can now potentially sequence an entire field of plants in real-time and on-site. This kind of technology has awesome implications for monitoring plant populations and their dynamics and health, for example when selecting potential areas for Koala habitat based on the Eucalyptus species available.
3 - Using drones and AI to fight poachers
The Lindbergh Foundation is an environmental non-profit who are researching and improving drones using AI technology in partnership with other research foundations. While drones have been used to fight poachers before, there is a high chance that they might miss the poachers just by being in the wrong area at the wrong time. However, the researchers were able to train the AI to identify herds of elephants, herds of rhinos, and poachers. This means that the drones can accurately identify where the herds of animals are, and therefore where the poachers are likely to be. Additionally, the presence of the drones near the herds may prevent the poachers from ever getting to the herd in the first place.
4 - Protecting bees with circuit boards
Bees are incredibly important to our environment, and recently they have been dwindling. The exact reasons are not 100% certain, but one large issue they are facing is the presence of the Varroa destructor mite. These mites lay eggs in beehives, and grow by attaching themselves to bees and feeding from fat bodies.
In order to combat this without using pesticides that are harmful to both the bees and the environment, researchers developed a circuit board complete with 32 sensors that can be placed inside a beehive. The sensors monitor the temperature in different areas of the hive, and if temperatures are detected which correspond to the presence of Varroa mites, a notification is sent to an app that controls the temperature in the hive. The temperature in that area is then altered to kill the mites without harming the bees.
5 - Tracking endangered animals using Smart Collars
When monitoring endangered animals, sometimes just getting a sighting isn’t enough to accurately assess the animal or it’s movements and behaviours. Researchers are developing new Smart Collars that allow us to not only monitor the location of the animal, but can also be fitted with accelerometers and cameras, monitor the body temperature and vital signs, and allow real-time information on when the animal is hunting or travelling. Human interactions with animals, particularly in rural or farming areas may often be dangerous to both the human and the animal (for example wolves). However, these Collars may soon give us the potential to decrease the chances of human-animal interactions.
6 - A new way to monitor and understand bird calls
Monitoring bird populations is often difficult, as they are often discrete and can travel far distances. Additionally, many bird species call at different times throughout the day, making it difficult for one researcher to collect information on all the species present. On top of this issue, it is very easy to mistake bird calls for an incorrect species when an individual is trying to listen and identify without seeing the bird. Researchers have managed to develop a tool which can record multiple bird songs at once and analyse them with greater efficiency than previously possible. While this technology still has a failure rate relative to an experienced researcher, there is no denying how useful this tool could be in monitoring population responses to climate change or environmental disturbances, among many other topics.
7 - Predictive software to help focus conservation efforts
IBM has recently created a predictive analytics software which can be used to collect and analyse a huge amount of information about species. The information that can be collected includes what people think about the animals, where they are located, why they are hunted and access to medicines, among many other factors. The software can then figure out the best areas in which to focus conservation efforts.
While we’re living in an increasingly scary time environmentally, and we face the potential loss of thousands of species, researchers all over the world are trying to work on technology and techniques that will hopefully allow us to protect as many species as possible.
And if you’re wondering why we’re writing about this on a UX blog, the answer is simple. UX is about improving the experience - but for us, at least, it’s also about making the world a better place. More usable, more pleasant, but generally ‘better’. And that counts for the planet too. If we don’t get our combined acts together there’ll be no birds, no bees, and no ‘us’ to build experiences for.
So let’s hope we can collectively start making a difference.