Scientists use Avatar-inspired techniques to help endangered species

By @iamkarlatecson on
Rock wallaby
A baby Yellow-footed Rock Wallaby moves in for a close-up with a photographer during a photocall at Sydney's Taronga Zoo. Petra, a baby Yellow-footed Rock Wallaby, moves in for a close-up with a photographer during a photocall at Sydney's Taronga Zoo September 1, 2005. A baby boom coupled with warm weather prompted the zoo to show off a selection of baby animals, some who are being hand reared and requiring round-the-clock care. Reuters

With the use of panoramic cameras, Queensland scientists are creating a virtual reality world as part of conservation efforts for endangered species in Australia and other countries.

According to Professor Kerrie Mengersen from the Queensland University of Technology School of Mathematical Sciences, physically obtaining data on threatened species is expensive, time consuming and sometimes dangerous. “Habitat suitability maps are very sketchy and the potential conservation areas are huge. Our project aims to fill the gap in the evidence for deciding which areas to preserve,” she said.
 
Instead of sending the experts out into the large tracts of inaccessible territory, they can bring that territory to the experts, Mengersen noted. Using information gathered from field trips, she and her team are creating virtual platforms for experts to visit without leaving the laboratory. 

A 3D display with panoramic views allows experts to assess any part of a species' habitat that needs to be preserved without having to walk through it. Mengersen said they wore goggles and traversed the terrain in virtual reality, similar to what characters in Avatar movie did. “We are building virtual worlds using new film technology, 360-degree cameras, and creating an immersive virtual environment,” she said. 

To test the effectivity of this method, Mengersen and her team conducted a trial on the endangered brush-tailed rock wallaby in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria. These wallabies live in inaccessible places and are rare, she said. However, working with ecologists' data, they built a predictive model into a virtual reality environment and used it to locate where the habitat exists across a broad landscape.

Professor Mengersen warned that rock wallabies are going extinct very quickly. While there were hundreds of thousands of these animals a century ago, the total population had dropped below 30,000 in recent years.

In addition to wallabies, the researchers are trying to save Sumatran orangutans and sun bears. The team will also be going to South America to help create a jaguar corridor through the Peruvian jungle.

“We are marrying maths with statistics and building predictive models, much like weather prediction models to help saves species all around the world,” Mengeren said. 

This approach is among the latest efforts to help slow down the decline of endangered species. A US-based company called Conservation Drones, is currently working to provide affordable technology for worldwide conservation initiatives. Using drones, the company hopes to locate orangutan nests in Sumatra and Borneo and monitor seabird nesting on a remote island off the West Australian coast. 

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