Star-gazing technology reveals ape insights

11/04/2019

Star-gazing technology reveals ape insights

Star-gazing technology is being used by scientists to produce detailed monitoring of orangutans in Borneo.

The ground-breaking scientific collaboration between astrophysicists, conservationists and ecologists is combining drone technology and thermal-imaging cameras to spot and classify the endangered animals’ heat signatures.

The project will feature in the BBC Two ‘Equator from the Air’ series later in Spring 2019.

Part-funded by UK Research and Innovation’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), Liverpool John Moores University, WWF and the HUTAN orangutan conservation programme came together to examine better ways of detecting the great apes in the Bornean forest canopy.

Known for their distinctive red fur, orangutans are the largest arboreal mammal, spending most of their time in trees. Long, powerful arms and grasping hands and feet allow them to move through the branches. Orangutans share 96.4% of our genes.

Traditionally orangutan numbers are estimated by counting their sleeping nests from the ground. However, this method is costly and time consuming due to the large areas that need to be surveyed.

It is estimated that there are now around 104,700 Bornean orangutans, from around 230,000 a century ago. Orangutans can also be found in Sumatra (7,500 – Critically Endangered) and Tapanuli (800).

Dr Claire Burke, an astro-ecologist at Liverpool John Moores University said: “We tested the technology on orangutans in the dense tropical rainforest of Sabah in Malaysia. In thermal images, animals shine in a similar way to stars and galaxies, so we used techniques from astronomy to detect and distinguish them. We were not sure at all whether this would work, but with the thermal-infrared camera we could see the orangutans quite clearly because of their body heat, even during fog or at night.

“The biggest difficulties occur when the temperature of the ground is very similar to that of the animal we are trying to detect, so the images from morning or evening flights are more reliable. Absolute surface temperatures cannot be used to differentiate species as animal body temperatures change with that of their environment.”

This innovative technology could potentially be used to understand and monitor population numbers of orangutans or other endangered primate species.

The astro-ecologists are now developing a machine learning algorithm to tell animal species apart, based on their unique thermal fingerprint.

You can learn more here.

This research is funded in part by the STFC, WWF-UK and the UKRI Global Challenges Research Fund.


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