In an age of rapid technological advances, ecologists need to keep abreast of how we can improve or reinvent the way we do things. Remote sensing technology and image analysis have been developing rapidly and have the potential to revolutionise how we count and estimate animal populations.
Using remotely sensed imagery isn’t new in ecology, but recent innovations mean we can use it for more things. Land use change and vegetation mapping are among the areas of ecology where remote sensing has been used extensively for some time. Estimating animal populations with remotely sensed imagery was also demonstrated more than 40 years ago by detecting indirect signs of an animal with some success: think wombat burrows and penguin poop.
A polar bear from a helicopter
Thanks to improved spatial and spectral resolution (see the text box at the bottom of the post for a definition), accessibility, cost and coverage of remotely sensed data, and software development we have now reached a point where we can detect and count individual animals in imagery. Many of the first studies to demonstrate automated and semi-automated techniques have taken computer algorithms from other disciplines, such as engineering or biomedical sciences, and applied them to automate counting of animals in remotely sensed imagery. It turns out that detecting submarines is not so different to detecting whales! And finding abnormal cells in medical imaging is surprisingly similar to locating polar bears in the arctic! Continue reading →
Animal biologging is a technique that’s quickly becoming popular in many cross-disciplinary fields. The main aim of the method is to record aspects of an animal’s behaviour and movement, alongside the bio-physical conditions they encounter, by attaching miniaturised devices to it. In marine ecosystems, the information from these devices can be used not only to learn how we can protect animals, many of whom are particularly vulnerable to disturbance (e.g. large fish, marine mammals, seabirds and turtles), but also more about the environments they inhabit.
Challenges when Tracking Marine Animals
Many marine animals have incredibly large ranges, travelling 1000s of kilometres. A huge advantage of biologging technologies is the ability to track an individual remotely throughout its range. For animals that dive, information on sub-surface behaviour can be obtained too. This information can then be retrieved when an animal returns to a set location. If this isn’t possible (e.g. individuals that make trips that are too long or die at sea), carefully constructed summaries can be relayed via satellite. This option provides information in real time, which can be very useful for researchers.
Tracks of juvenile southern elephant seals. Red tracks are individuals that returned to their natal colony. Grey are those individuals whose information would have been lost had it not been transmitted via the Argos satellite system.
This new Special Feature is a collection of five articles (plus an Editorial from Guest Editors Bill Sutherland, Lynn Dicks, Mark Everard and Davide Geneletti) brings together authors from a range of disciplines (including ecology, human geography, political science, land economy and management) to examine a set of qualitative techniques used in conservation research. They highlight a worrying extent of poor justification and inadequate reporting of qualitative methods in the conservation literature.
As stated by the Guest Editors in their Editorial “these articles constitute a useful resource to facilitate selection and use of some common qualitative methods in conservation science. They provide a guide for inter-disciplinary researchers to gauge the suitability of each technique to their research questions, and serve as a series of checklists for journal editors and reviewers to determine appropriate reporting.”
New method faster, more efficient and less damaging to the environment
A team of researchers from the University of Wollongong (UOW) and the University of Tasmania has developed a new method for assessing the health of fragile Antarctic vegetation using drones, which they say could be used to improve the efficiency of ecological monitoring in other environments as well.
The researchers have written about their method in an article published in Methods in Ecology and Evolution, a scientific journal of the British Ecological Society.
Movement ecology is a cross-disciplinary field. Its main aim is to quantitatively describe and understand how movement relates to individual and population-level processes for resource acquisition and, ultimately, survival. Today the study of movement ecology hinges on two 21st century advances:
Animal-borne devices/tags (biologging science, Hooker et al., 2007) and/or remote sensing technology to quantify movement and collect data from remote or otherwise challenging environments
Computational power sufficient to manipulate, process and analyse substantial volumes of data
Although datasets often involve small numbers of individuals, each individual can have thousands – sometimes even millions – of data points associated with it. Study species have tended to be large birds and mammals, due to the ease of tag attachment. However, the trend for miniaturisation of tags and the development of remote detection technologies (such as radar, e.g. Capaldi et al., 2000), have allowed researchers to track and study ever smaller animals. Continue reading →
To truly understand how species’ distributions vary through space and time, biogeographers often have to make use of analytical techniques from a wide array of disciplines. As such, these papers cover advances in fields such as evolutionary analysis, biodiversity definitions, species distribution modelling, remote sensing and more. They also reflect the growing understanding that biogeography can include experiments and highlight the increasing number of software packages focused towards biogeography.
This Virtual Issue was compiled by Methods in Ecology and Evolution Associate Editors Pedro Peres-Neto and Will Pearse (both of whom are involved in the conference). All of the articles in this Virtual Issue are free for a limited time and we have a little bit more information about each of the papers included here: Continue reading →
How many samples do you hope to collect on your next field assignment? 50, 100 or 1000? How about billions. It may seem overly optimistic, but that’s the reality when using Light Detection and Ranging, or LiDAR.
LiDAR works on the principle of firing hundreds of thousands of laser pulses a second that measure the distance to an intercepting surface. This harmless barrage of light creates a highly accurate 3D image of the target – whether it’s an elephant, a Cambodian temple or pedestrians walking down the street. LiDAR has made the news over recent years for its ability to unearth ancient temples through thick jungle, but for those of us with an ecological motive it is the otherwise impenetrable cloak of vegetation which is of more interest.
It’s very hard to make sensible choices without sensible information. When it comes to actions around changing land use and its ecological impact though, this is often what we are forced to do. If we want to reduce the impact of human activities on natural ecosystems, we need to know how much change has already occurred and how altered an ecosystem might be from its “natural” state.
Working out which parts of the landscape have been changed and mapping the absence of natural vegetation is an achievable (though onerous) task. However, moving beyond this binary view of the world is a huge challenge. Pretty much all habitat has been modified by human influences to some extent – by, for example, wood extraction, the introduction of invasive species or livestock grazing. This means that a lot of the apparently native habitat is no longer capable of supporting its full complement of native biodiversity. Continue reading →
In the UK, National Tree Week (26 November – 4 December) celebrates tree planting within local communities. The latest BES cross-journal Virtual Issue contains recent papers that highlight the global importance of trees and forests as habitat – for species from insects to primates – and in meeting human needs for fuel and agriculture. The selected papers also demonstrate novel methods scientists are using to study trees and forests.
National Tree Week is the UK’s largest tree celebration. It was started in 1975 by the Tree Council and has grown into an event that brings hundreds of organisations together to mark the beginning of Britain’s winter tree planting season.
Landscape connectivity is important for the ecology and genetics of populations threatened by climate change and habitat fragmentation. To begin our Virtual Issue Rayfield et al. present a method for identifying a multipurpose network of forest patches that promotes both short- and long-range connectivity. Their approach can be tailored to local, regional and continental conservation initiatives to protect essential species movements that will allow biodiversity to persist in a changing climate. The authors illustrate their method in the agroecosystem bordered by the Laurentian and Appalachian mountain ranges, that surrounds Montreal.
– ctmm: An R package which implements all of the continuous-time stochastic processes currently in use in the ecological literature and couples them with powerful statistical methods for autocorrelated data adapted from geostatistics and signal processing.