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Remote Sensor Networks Could Track Biodiversity on a Large Scale

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Interconnected networks of remote cameras could be used to monitor biodiversity globally, helping to answer pressing ecological questions and guide conservation policy. A number of case studies have demonstrated the feasibility of using large-scale camera networks to monitor biodiversity trends across thousands of square kilometers of diverse habitats, including tropical forests and alpine ecosystems.

A leopard photo taken with remote sensing camera. University of Montana.
A leopard at Mole National Park in Ghana. Courtesy of Cole Burton.

With recent advances in camera technology, reductions in cost and increased interest in wildlife images as an outreach and education tool, the use of remote cameras has grown exponentially for the past 10 to 15 years. Investment in infrastructure combined with ongoing collaborative efforts to standardize metadata, field protocols and databases could serve to harness the power of remote-camera technology as a tool for monitoring biodiversity at a global scale.

The first step toward a standardized global network for biodiversity might be to link current in situ data streams with global-scale data, such as satellite-based remote sensing data. Linking and expanding current local remote-camera projects into nationally or internationally coordinated efforts would permit continental and global-scale questions to be asked from locally point-sampled data. This scaling up from local to global would require not only time and money but also innovation and cooperation.

Researchers from the University of Montana believe that remote cameras could transform the way wildlife and habitats are monitored worldwide.

Grizzly bear photo taken with remote sensing camera. University of Montana.
A grizzly bear in the Canadian Rockies. Courtesy of Robin Steenweg.

“There is so much remote camera data being collected out there by both research scientists and citizen scientists, we just need to link it together,” said researcher Robin Steenweg. He points to examples such as Snapshot Serengeti and Snapshot Wisconsin, which use citizen-collected, remote-camera data to drive conservation.

Researchers and resource managers currently use remote cameras to monitor wildlife all over the world — an estimated 20,000 cameras in 2015. The researchers say ecologists already are linking together hundreds of remote wildlife cameras to successfully monitor biodiversity trends at regional scales, and they believe a global collaboration is the next step.

An alternative to expensive aerial helicopter surveys, remote cameras have been used to document the first evidence of wolverine recolonization in California, endangered wildlife in Montana and elk and deer population trends in Idaho. In the tropics and developing countries where it is difficult to observe or capture wildlife, noninvasive cameras are transforming ecology and conservation.

Professor Mark Hebblewhite points to the Yellowstone and Yukon regions as examples of resource sharing.

“We're linking together hundreds of remote cameras in the Canadian Rocky Mountain national parks so that wildlife managers can track trends of grizzly bears, lynx, wolverine and other sensitive wildlife species,” he said.

The research was published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment (doi: 10.1002/fee.1448).

May/Jun 2017
Research & TechnologyAmericaseducationimagingenvironmentSensors & Detectorscamerascamera technologyremote sensorbiodiversityBioScan

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