Biodiversity Technologies: an eye-opening symposium at the Biodiversity Institute, Oxford

Last week I was able to attend a number of sessions of an exciting symposium organised by the Biodiversity Institute at the University of Oxford. I was earning my ticket by pouring teas and coffees during the breaks, and setting up and clearing away lunch, so didn’t quite make it to all the talks, but it was a fascinating couple of days. All the details of speakers and talk titles can be found here, if you’re interested to check out all the topics that were covered. Sessions ranged from citizen science and bioacoustic technologies to genetic and genomic tools and novel technologies for data collection.

Some technologies have become well known for their use in fieldwork, such as radio telemetry, satellite tagging, and the use of GPS, and improvements in these tools continue to be made, but the main insight for me was how online resources can radically alter how data are collected, collated and accessed.

I’ll discuss a few of those in a minute, but first want to highlight a super cool innovation that will have a big impact in the field: Conservation Drones. These have had a lot of media interest already, and I wasn’t the only one eagerly waiting to hear the talk by Lian Pin Koh, one of the inventors. The Conservation Drones are “inexpensive, autonomous and operator-friendly unmanned aerial vehicles for surveying and mapping forests and biodiversity. Non-technical operators can program each mission by defining waypoints along a flight path…” according to their website, and their potential is huge. Not only are they relatively affordable (~ $3000), and easy to transport, they make it possible to survey otherwise inaccessible areas, and to cover a greater area far more rapidly than can be done on foot. 

They could be particularly useful for monitoring land use changes within remote protected areas, as well as being an invaluable addition to survey techniques for rarely encountered animals (they have successfully photographed orangutan nests, rhino, and elephant). As you can program their exact route, you could monitor the same transect at regular intervals, take video or photographic images (designed to suit your needs), stitch together photos, and now also make 3D models of the forest based on your images…

When working on biodiversity research, two major issues frequently present themselves: firstly, taxonomy is in a constant state of flux, with species names changing to reflect the latest knowledge of the relationships between different branches of the evolutionary tree. Secondly, personal data collections can be huge, but it is often some time before your data is ready for publication, and some data may never make it into a paper anyway. This means that a great deal of valuable data is effectively hidden from the scientific community, sometimes indefinitely. Making data collation and access more rapid and wide-ranging is the aim of a number of online initiatives such as Scratchpads, which make it easy to develop a website for your research group or collaboration, bringing together all info on your area of study, and making sharing and publishing your data simple; and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility which is a hub of open access biodiversity data.

Feeling very ignorant about plant identification, I was really interested to learn about the eMonocot project, currently in development. This aims to be a global resource for all those working on monocot plants (a quarter of flowering plants), to provide an up-to-date taxonomy, and to make it possible for anyone to identify monocots from anywhere in the world using their online interactive identification tools via the eMonocot portal – useful for scientists and non-scientists alike.

And for anyone interested in knowing more about the wildlife they see when out and about, iSpot is the place to upload your photos. Not only can you get other people to help identify what you have seen, you can also help others with their identification, and all the data regarding what has been seen where feeds directly into an ever-growing dataset of distributional information. Citizen science at its best.

Finally, ‘traditional’ technologies can still offer amazing insights when used in new ways. The Penguin Lifelines project – a collaboration between the Zoological Society of London and Oxford University led by Tom Hart – is examining threats to Antarctic penguins, and using a network of time-lapse cameras to monitor colonies that it wouldn’t otherwise be possible to study. It also makes it possible to record exactly when nest building, egg laying, moulting etc occur. Here’s a year in the life of two penguin colonies:

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