The Economist cites need for biodiversity data

The Economist, of all publications, draws attention to the need for better data around biodiversity conservation in a recent short article, “Extinct and unmourned.”

In June the Zoological Society of London launched an online version of Scott’s books [“Red Lists” of endangered species]. It unpicks the existing global lists held in Morges and examines them at the national level. It should thus be possible to identify which species are at risk of extinction within any given country’s borders. The database contains details of more than 50,000 species in 40 countries and regions, such as the Baltic Sea.

That may sound impressive, but it is not. It demonstrates that whole swathes of the world have been left unexamined … The list’s sparsity shows that in the parts of the world where biodiversity is greatest and conservation planning is most important, conservationists lack the information with which to prioritise their efforts.

My hope is that projects like EOL will seek to provide not only a baseline of information about individual species, but also a platform where aggregate information like this can be more easily collected, presented, and acted upon.

iPhone as platform for automated species identification

nyt digital field guides.png

The NYT ran a quick “novelties” story on smartphone applications for identifying species of trees by matching cameraphone images of leaves to a database of leaf shapes — Foliage Field Guides for Cellphones. I hope the EOL project is taking notes. Lightweight iPhone-type apps may be the quickest development path towards some exciting new citizen science initiatives.

The promise of automated species identification has been a taxonomic dream for some time. Species identification mobile applications could be a platform for more widespread and persistent biodiversity surveys, e.g., bringing more users to collaborative birding surveys now coordinated online. Given enough uptake and use of such applications, one could imagine an ambient level of biodiversity awareness emerging from this data, a Wikipedia-like record of species sightings. Even a simple map showing the geographic range of sightings of a particular species over time would be hugely interesting.

Science and science fiction has been awaiting the device that would enable this type of information since before Captain Kirk first held a tricorder. Ecologist Dan Janzen articulated the vision of a handheld DNA analyzer just a few years ago:

Imagine a world where every child’s backpack, every farmer’s pocket, every doctor’s office and every biologist’s belt has a gadget the size of a cell-phone. A free gadget. Pop off a leg, pluck a tuft of hair, pinch a piece of leaf, swat a mosquito, and stick it in on a tuft of toilet tissue. One minute later the screen says Periplaneta americana, Canis familiaris, Quercus virginiana, or West Nile virus in Culex pipiens.


However, we may not have to wait for science to catch up with fiction. I would wager that image-based species identification — next-generation versions of the iPhone app covered by the New York Times — will be enough to correctly identify 90% of the species images that are thrown at them. Most of us would use these in our back yards and beyond, not in the Amazonian rainforest. Facial-recognition algorithms are getting increasingly sophisticated, and there will be no shortage of amateur taxonomists to help systems learn when they mis-identify recognizable species. Given a march towards better cameras and faster mobile data networks, it’s not unreasonable to assume that one could do real-time matching on an uploaded image to narrow the range down to a given species by querying a number of EOL-type taxonomic databases. It’s ultimately a tractable software problem, not an incredibly difficult hardware problem.

I’ve been waiting for my jetpack since we entered the 21st century, and will probably have to wait a lot longer. But a handheld species identification device — sounds like I could be hiking with a beta version on my iPhone pretty soon!

Biodiversity informatics conference

The EO Wilson-founded Encyclopedia of Life is sponsoring a conference on biodiversity informatics — the application of DNA barcoding, IT, and other forms of technology to the issues of biodiversity and taxonomy. E-Biosphere 09 brings together all of the major players involved in barcoding — this will be a great event for understanding the state of the science if nothing else.

Happily, the organizers have created fora for online engagement with the conference — self-organized groups are being asked to produce papers that may end up in the conference proceedings on such topics as:

* A current landscape and future roadmap for Biodiversity Informatics
* Standards development and management
* Global Names Architecture
* Cybertaxonomy
* Basic biodiversity science research
* Training in biodiversity informatics
* Developing world
* Sustainable economic development
* Ecology and ecosystems, environmental sustainability, climate change
* Conservation and land use
* Agriculture
* Forestry
* Fisheries
* Public Health
* Uses in public, K-12 and higher education
* Citizen science

This is a great start, but one thing that immediately struck me as missing was the role of business. If EOL and its peers envision developing and sharing taxonomic information on every species in the world, they need to start thinking now about commercial models that will support and facilitate this development. What will be the role of the DNA-taxonomy-driven Red Hats?

BCICT4C: Pacific Wild’s wireless wildlife cams

wolf cam.png

Pacific Wild is a conservation organization in Western Canada dedicated to protecting the Great Bear Rainforest region, which constitutes nearly 2/3 of British Columbia’s coastline and coastal forests stretching up toward Alaska. With their new project Pacific Wild Live, they are using innovative panoramic videocameras to document wildlife activity remotely — a great example of ICT for conservation (ICT4C).

Pacific Wild is building on two decades of experience in wildlife conservation by investing in the research and development of wireless video systems that will allow our researchers to observe and document wildlife behaviour in a non-invasive manner.

Traditional approaches to wildlife behaviour research have caused habituation to humans and displacement of wildlife in prime feeding and foraging areas. While trophy hunting and poaching remain a threat to wildlife, habituation may leave species such as wolves and bears at a disadvantage. Quite simply, it is difficult for bears and other large carnivores to differentiate between a human carrying a video camera or a gun. Additionally, coastal wildlife such as wolf, bear, cougar, wolverine, marten, and others, naturally avoid people, making it difficult to document their occurrence and behaviour using traditional techniques.

Here’s a video that explains the Pacific Wild Live project:

via Tides Canada via Renewal Partners

Tracking deer on Google Earth


Readers of my last several posts may have noticed a strange obsession with wildlife and communications technology. I’m interested in how information technology — especially imagery and mapping tools — can and are being used in service of biology and conservation. I keep harping on cameras and charismatic megafauna, but truthfully that is only one facet of a larger trend of what I would call “ICT4C” – information and communication technology for conservation.

This time, the story that caught my eye was a man in Pennsylvania who built a system for tracking a radio-collared deer in near-real-time using a bunch of free online tools. The radio collar sends GPS coordinates by SMS every five minutes to an email account (unclear if this is through the radio collar itself or jerry-rigged GPS & mobile), where the information is automatically uploaded to a blog linked to a Google spreadsheet and viewable via dynamic KML file in Google Earth.

I speculated about the likelihood of such real-time tracking technology for wildlife almost a year ago, but didn’t think we would see something similar so soon – it shows how versatile the tools are and how far the costs have dropped. I could easily imagine a company selling this capability to pet owners, ranchers, or wildlife preserve managers. In fact, it’s somewhat surprising to me that there is not a military version of this kind of real-time location tracking of items/individuals that has been spun off and packaged for civilian use. Looks like the tinkerers are mapping the territory.

Click the deer diagram for discussion and detailed technical instructions of how the system was created.


[via Evgeny Morozov via Lunch over IP]

Wildlife documentaries filmed by wildlife

Picture 1.png

Love this idea: Wildlife film-making outsourced to Indian…elephants? Nature documentary producer/director John Downer trained elephants in the jungles of Madhya Pradesh, India, to carry HD cameras while following tigers through the jungle. Looks like some pretty fascinating footage. The film, entitled Tiger – Spy in the Jungle, will be shown on BBC on March 30.

The camera setup looks high-budget and somewhat unwieldy, relying on trained elephants, active remote camera manipulation, and retrieval of the cameras — it’s currently suitable only for a BBC-type wildlife documentary project. However, it is worth remembering that the technology involved is getting better and better — cameras are shrinking, GPS units are becoming more accurate and powerful, and both are getting cheaper. While this indicates a bright future for nature documentaries, there will surely be conservation applications as well.


This kind of video footage (uh, the kind shot by elephants) is essentially anecdotal, vs. fixed cameras used by researchers to record activity in a particular location. However, this “embedded” roving footage can provide confirmed sightings of species for which there may otherwise be scant evidence — see stills from the Downer footage interspersed here for species variety and image quality.


It’s only a matter of time before the technology curves enable a) simultaneous video, wireless transmittal, and GPS triangulation, b) longer battery life, and c) smaller unit size to be mounted on smaller animals. As there is not a huge market for wildlife research and film-making, most likely we’ll see development come from other fields and sources first – to be applied later to wildlife science and conservation.


One new angle on tackling these technology challenges comes from Chris Anderson of Wired Magazine, who has launched a project called DIY Drones to encourage the development of amateur unmanned aerial vehicles. Many of these UAVs have the same technology requirements as wildlife GPS and video: light weight, autonomous operation, long battery life, and reliable remote camera/video transmittal. Between the big-budget film-makers, individual scientific researchers, forward-thinking conservation organizations, and hobbyist communities, we should see some interesting developments in this particular niche of the ICT for conservation (ICT4C) space.

If we do not know them all


[Image: via]

Either we do know all the varieties of beings which people our planet, or we do not. If we do not know them all -— if Nature has still secrets in the deeps for us, nothing is more conformable to reason than to admit the existence of fishes, or cetaceans of other kinds, or even of new species … which an accident of some sort has brought at long intervals to the upper level of the ocean.

—Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, 1870

Kevin Kelly outlines the history of the All-Species Project and the Encyclopedia of Life. Like Kevin, I see the “all-ist” nature of the project as crucial; the semantic shift from “catalog as many species as possible” to “catalog all life on earth” tips the endeavor from the simply monumental into the sublime.

Remote camera spots wolverine in Sierra Nevada

Wolverine outside of Truckee, California, 2008

The above photo has been making waves in the wildlife science and conservation communities, as it is the first confirmed sighting of a wolverine in the Sierra Nevada since 1922. Oregon State grad researcher Katie Moriarty set up the motion-sensor camera to track martens, another elusive and weasel-like species, but wound up capturing the first-ever photo of a wild wolverine in California.

Drawing of Wolverine by C.G. Pritchard (Hall and Keson, 1959)

No documented sightings since 1922? What kind of gentle, solitude-loving creature is this, you ask? Noted naturalist and pioneer of the Boy Scout movement Ernest Thompson Seton, writing from the mid-1920s, is here to set you straight with a sensationalistic if not outright Lovecraftian description:

Picture a weasel — and most of us can do that, for we have met that little demon of destruction, that small atom of insensate courage, that symbol of slaughter, sleeplessness, and tireless, incredible activity — picture that scrap of demoniac fury, multiply that mite some fifty times, and you have the likeness of a Wolverine.


Thanks, Ernest!

[via jml]

Managing Nature

Peter Kareiva, chief scientist of the Nature Conservancy, has an article in Science that builds on an idea which biologist Dan Janzen outlined several years ago in a Long Now talk entitled “It’s All Gardening.” Janzen’s talk centered on the unusefulness of the concept of wilderness as geography free of human influence and argued for more effective conservation through active management and citizen involvement. The Science paper is almost a year old, but was new to me.

Kareiva et al. drive for more sophisticated understanding of the tradeoffs we make in this management process, e.g., by choosing one set of ecosystem services (in the form of land use) over another, in “Domesticated Nature: Shaping Landscapes and Ecosystems for Human Welfare.” [PDF]

There really is no such thing as nature untainted by people. Instead, ours is a world of nature domesticated, albeit to varying degrees, from national parks to high-rise megalopolises. Facing this reality should change the scientific focus of environmental science. Instead of recounting doom-and-gloom statistics, it would be more fruitful to consider the domestication of nature as the selection of certain desirable ecosystem attributes, such as increased food production, with consequent alteration to other ecosystem attributes that may not be desirable. Under this paradigm, our challenge is to understand and thoughtfully manage the tradeoffs among ecosystem services that result from the inescapable domestication of nature.

The video of Janzen’s talk is ironically enough not preserved on the Long Now site in full, but is available on Google Video. Audio of the talk is here. It’s truly a great talk, and Janzen here introduces an idea that could revolutionize conservation in the 21st century — the idea of a handheld DNA barcode-driven species identification tool.

Reality TV meets nature

I love this story of a guy in Germany who mounted a cheap digital camera with a timer on his cat’s collar and has posted pictures of his cat’s adventures throughout the day.

I hope this “street use” of off-the-shelf technology for novel purposes is getting some attention in the field biology world. There are early signs of this with the multidisciplinary TOPP project (Tagging of Pacific Pelagics), which is mounting sensors and GPS tags on fish, turtles, and other ocean-going creatures. And scientists have been putting GPS collars on animals for several years now. But some very interesting options would open up once you can satellite upload GPS info and get real-time imagery (eventually video + night vision) from a small package.

I can’t wait for the megafauna versions of this idea — mountain lions, wolves, and grizzly bears roaming around while I plot their progress on Google Earth and watch their FPS-style livecams like! There’s definitely a business model in here somewhere — maybe pitch it as a unique conservation and safety measure for an endangered species.

Put a livecam on each of California’s 7000 mountain lions! They’re supposed to be protected from hunting, but people worry just as much about being protected from the lions — this would allow the public to keep an eye on every single animal. You could “adopt” them, get Facebook feed-style updates when they’re at rest or on the move, and create a puma version of Youtube for the best bits of footage. Seriously, imagine the thrill of tuning in to watch a mountain lion stalking its prey in real time. Unless you’re at a remote campsite in the woods watching on your laptop via satellite: “Hey, I recognize that tent…”

I’m thinking joint venture btw Google and Encyclopedia of Life. Sell ads on collar-mounted LCD screens for those lucky (or unlucky) enough to have a close viewing. Cost per impression is high, but it’ll be one hell of an impression…OK, that was terrible.

Back to reality, it really is an exciting time for information science and biology. And I hope EOL makes a difference in organizing some funding and attention around high-tech-fueled wildlife conservation. That German cat is just the beginning of all this.