Drones come to save endangered species

Efforts to save endangered species often require an army of volunteers, but a zoo’s conservation program shows how an air force can be just as useful. A range of innovative applications of drone technology could mean the difference between survival and extinction for many species (at least in the wild).

Australia has suffered a horrific extinction rate since European colonization, especially among small mammals, and a large number of other mammals are hanging on by their fingernails (or the hairy equivalent). Zoos Victoria is on a mission to save 27 species considered endangered or threatened, but that requires knowledge we often don’t have.

However, drones are beginning to fill the gap – proving they are useful for something other than warfare and annoying neighbors – by providing information about the locations of the animals needing help, and sometimes the delivery mechanisms.

“We use drones that can be mounted on radio tracking kits, which allow us to radio track animals we release into the wild from the air, covering much larger areas than we would on foot,” says Sakib, research assistant and field officer from Zoo Victoria. Kazi said in a statement to IFLScience. “These drones can also produce large, high-resolution maps that are far more detailed than any aerial imagery available on the internet.”

One drone-mounted program uses lidar to create a 3D model of the landscape, including the vegetation, helping teams choose the best places to reintroduce animals.

Drones are not only useful for mapping. Wildfires and floods can pose catastrophic risks to threatened populations – and often the danger lies not in the immediate disaster, but in the lack of food afterwards. Traditional methods of food distribution are slow and expensive, and the presence of people can disturb the more shy animals.

“Part of our emergency response strategy was to design a drone with a high-resolution camera underneath, which could target small areas for food delivery if necessary,” Kazi added.

These ideas may seem obvious, but Zoos Victoria has gone one step further and is using recording equipment they call song meters to identify the calls of rare birds. To do this, they have developed AI programs that allow the drones to distinguish between the sounds of the target species and those of more common conspecifics.

This allowed the Zoo team to monitor juvenile warblers, one of the state’s rarest birds, which can roam so widely that conservation efforts can be thrown into disarray without air support.

“Songmeters have helped conservationists locate Plains vagrants on 25 native grassland paddocks in Victoria’s Northern Plains and the South West, where they had never been found before,” said Threatened Species Program Coordinator Christ Hartnett.

The plains warbler is one of the most endangered birds in the world, but drones that can find its song could save it.

What do you mean my only hope for survival is a drone that can identify my song?

Image credits: Jo Howell/Zoos Victoria

Such approaches would be of little use if the drones proved so disturbing to the animals that their behavior was disrupted. However, as Kazi told IFLScience; “We discovered that the behavior varies quite a bit, not only by species, but also by circumstances. On farmland, drones often stir wildlife on take-off and landing, but when in the air they are usually drowned out by nearby traffic and ignored.”

Most importantly: with truly wild animals; “Drones don’t provoke much reaction,” Kazi added. “They can irritate, but luckily usually they don’t.”

Certainly Zoos Victoria has had none of the problems reported by the Western Australian gold mine, whose drones were targeted by eagles and came in second. “We’re taught that large birds of prey often take out instruments with multiple propellers,” Kazi told IFLScience, “but it’s only a problem with things that fly like a bird. Others are ignored.”

So far, Kazi says Zoos Victoria has not used drones to spot harmful introduced species – but others have, especially larger animals like deer that damage parts of the state, in part to guide hunters to them. There is a dystopian version of this, where ex-military drones take down species deemed harmful, but so far this is “highly illegal,” Kazi noted.

If You Somehow Track A Mountain Pygmy Possum With A Drone And Give It A Health Check, One Of The Cutest Animals On Earth Starts To Look Like A Plan Montgomery Burns

If you somehow track down a mountain pygmy possum with a drone and give it a health check, one of the cutest animals on earth starts to look like a devious Montgomery Burns.

Image credits: Pablo Rivas/Zoos Victoria

Other species benefiting from drone support include some of Australia’s most threatened species, such as Leadbeater’s possum, the helmeted honeyeater, the Pookila (once known as the New Holland Mouse) and the orange-bellied parrot, one of the few animals that is excluded. by a serving head of government.

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