Scientists in Liverpool are using astronomical techniques used to study distant stars to survey endangered species.

The team at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU), led by conservationist Serge Wich and astrophysicist Dr Steve Longmore, is developing a system to automatically identify animals by the heat they give off, using a drone-mounted infrared camera. Estimating endangered species is currently an inexact, time-consuming and expensive science, based on physical counting or signs of the animal’s presence. This development may greatly improve the accuracy of monitoring endangered species and so help save endangered species, Wich says.

“Solid data on what is happening to animal populations is the foundation of all conservation efforts.”

Details of the system were presented at the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science (EWASS), the annual meeting of the European Astronomical Society (EAS). The event, comprising plenary sessions, symposia, special sessions and meetings, is being held for the first time in Liverpool, United Kingdom (3-6 April 2018), and is expected to welcome more than 1,500 astrophysicists from all over Europe and beyond. The event is being hosted by LMJU’s Astrophysics Research Institute, one of the world’s leading authorities in Astronomy and Astrophysics. The university has formal partnerships with several major international projects including LIGO / VIRGO, CTA, Euclid, DiRAC, WEAVE, and the LSST. The ARI was behind the development of the world’s largest fully robotic telescope – the Liverpool Telescope – and Institute staff were instrumental in the development of the ASTRONET Infrastructure Roadmap, a long-term plan for the future of European astronomy.

Alongside research including Star Formation and Stellar Populations, Time Domain Astrophysics, Galaxy Formation and Evolution, Computational Galaxy Formation, and Astronomical Instrumentation, its students and staff are using their knowledge for wider applications.

Following trials at Chester Zoo and Knowsley Safari Park, Wich found the system could pick up animals from the heat they gave off, but could not always identify the species.

Through his neighbour Longmore he was connected with fellow LJMU astrophysicist Dr Claire Burke. Her work in identifying galaxies in the Universe from the light they emit helped her devise software that could identify different types of animal from the heat pattern they give off. The system can also give information about the health of animals, with animals showing different heat profiles if they are injured or sick.

“When we look at animals in the thermal infrared, we’re looking at their body heat and they glow in the footage. That glow is very similar to the way that stars and galaxies in space glow. So we can apply techniques and software used in astronomy for decades to automatically detect and measure this glow,” she says.

“The real advantage this gives you is that if you know how many animals you have and where they are and what kind of health they are in, then you can you can formulate a good conservation strategy for looking after them. And if you can track them as well, then you can tell what they need to survive and thrive.”


(via BBC, EWASS 2018, LMJU)


Featured image: Elephants spotted by the heat they give off via the infrared system (picture by Chester Zoo)