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Beast mode: How technology can help preserve biodiversity

In the latest episode of the podcast Solve for X, we explore the latest innovations that are transforming conservation efforts — everything from eavesdropping on whale songs using robot boats to monitoring walruses from space.

We’re facing a global ecosystem crisis. Within the last 50 years alone, wildlife populations across the world have declined by a shocking 69 percent. But technology, with help from citizen science, is emerging as one of wildlife’s greatest allies. In this episode of Solve for X, we explore how remote sensing, robot boats and DNA analysis could revolutionize wildlife preservation, offering hope for everything from insects to whales.

Featured in this episode

James Snider is the vice president of science, knowledge and innovation at World Wildlife Fund Canada.

Elizabeth Clare is an associate professor of biology at York University in Canada. Her research studies biodiversity at all levels, developing novel genetic methods that address some of the biggest challenges in biodiversity science.

Peter Fretwell is a scientist at the British Antarctic Survey. He’s the principal investigator of the Wildlife From Space Program, studying wildlife using satellite imagery.

Madeleine Bouvier-Brown is a marine project scientist at Open Ocean Robotics. She handles the deployment of robot boats, retrieving data and analyzing it to deepen our understanding of the oceans.

Ellen Payne Smith: I would say no walrus present. I don’t see a walrus here.

Manjula Selvarajah: But we don’t know for sure…

Narration: What you’re hearing is me and my producer, Ellie, attempting to spot walruses in satellite images of the Arctic. We’re trying our hand at an online tool called Walrus from Space.

Manjula Selvarajah: So it’s got a register here — let me register.

Narration: It aims to turn members of the public into walrus detectives who can help track these creatures as they move around their polar habitats.

Manjula Selvarajah: And before I sharpen anything, I’m actually going to zoom in.

Narration: But though an adult walrus can weigh around 1,500 kilos and be more than 3 metres long — it turns out they’re not that easy to spot from space.

Ellen Payne Smith: I think there could be walrus here — I don’t know what that is though.

Manjula Selvarajah: Oh my gosh, we may be actually really bad at this.

Ellen Payne Smith: Terrible.

Manjula Selvarajah: You know what’s going to happen now? The tool is going to fail on us. They’re going to decide: We don’t really want you guys!

Narration: OK, so Walrus from Space is a lot of fun. But its purpose is serious. It’s an attempt to use citizen science to help conserve a species whose prospects look ever more bleak. And it’s a similar story all around the world. As we convert more and more land for our use, we’re disrupting ecosystems on an epic scale. And with climate change, this is creating an increasingly dire situation.

James Snider: The thing that I think is so striking is the pace of which that’s occurring. This is happening very, very fast. It’s happening over decades.

Narration: Many biologists believe we’re now living through a mass extinction event. The last one wiped out the dinosaurs; where this one will lead remains to be seen. But conservationists are fighting back, and they’re turning to cutting-edge technology to help. I’m Manjula Selvarajah and this is Solve for X: Innovations to Change the World. On today’s episode, we’ll meet the scientists who are using drones, data and DNA to protect wildlife.

James Snider: I’m always mindful of using that term — extinction event — because for some it might sound like hyperbole. But you know, I think the science is becoming abundantly clear.

Narration: That’s James Snider. He’s a vice president at the World Wildlife Fund Canada.

James Snider: You know if we look back over geological timescales, there’s only a certain number of these events where we’ve seen that many species being lost.

Narration: Wildlife populations across the globe have declined by a startling 69 percent — that’s just within my lifetime. And equally disturbing is that nearly one million plants and animals now face extinction.

James Snider: Biodiversity loss is not something that simply is happening in the far-flung reaches of the globe. Those trends that we’re seeing in terms of half of wildlife populations declining or more, they’re happening here in Canada as well.

Manjula Selvarajah: What are some of the species that are at the risk of loss here in Canada?

James Snider: Species like woodland caribou, migratory tundra caribou is also declining. And southern Ontario, for instance, has the highest number of species at risk in the country. And that really is driven by the loss of habitat, the deterioration and fragmentation of the habitats that these species rely upon.

Narration: But protecting endangered species is complicated by the fact that we don’t have a complete picture of what’s out there.

Elizabeth Clare: Our best estimates are that something like 90 percent of the species that are currently alive on the earth, have never been identified by science. So we don’t even know the scope of the problem.

Narration: That’s Elizabeth Clare, professor at York University in the Department of Biology, and an expert on biodiversity.

Elizabeth Clare: If you’re a physicist or an astronomer, there are huge infrastructures of equipment and monitoring methods around the world and in space that allow you to take those kinds of measurements. But as biodiversity scientists, it’s usually still a person in the field, trying to count things in their environment.

Narration: And while Elizabeth studies species of all kinds and their interactions, her first love was for bats. She goes by Dr. Bat Girl on social media.

Elizabeth Clare: I’m part of an annual survey of bat biodiversity, and a team of us go down once a year, and we set nets on a very small plot of land, and we count every single species and every individual that we capture.

Narration: Usually between 20 to 60 people travel down to Belize to count the bat population, but the group can only cover a tiny portion of the forest.

Elizabeth Clare: And even there we don’t catch high-flying animals, we don’t catch some of the more elusive ones that can evade our nets, and we can only do it once a year because of the amount of time and the money it takes to do that. So it’s very difficult to scale that — we know we’re missing species, we know that the number of people that’s required is very large, and we know that we couldn’t even do the whole forest, only a few square kilometres of it. So we take that data and we try to track it over time and then extrapolate what might be happening in the broader community.

Narration: Detecting new species is incredibly difficult. And having ecologists enter a habitat can be disturbing for the organisms living there, no matter how careful they might be. So conservationists are now turning to technology to find ways to scale up surveillance of the natural world. I wanted to get James’s take on this.

Manjula Selvarajah: What is the role that you think technology can play in conservation?

James Snider: So you know, things like remote sensing — or drones and beyond — allow us to measure the environment in a way that perhaps we haven’t been able to in the past. And that’s especially important in a country as large as Canada, is that there are many areas that are remote that are very difficult for us to get to, and at times where it can be risky to do so. And so new technologies in terms of aerial-based LIDAR, or drone technology, or remote sensing technology allow us to measure the environment.

Narration: Remote sensing is changing how we study and track even the most hard to reach wildlife. For instance, scientists — and now even podcast hosts — can spy on animals from space.

Manjula Selvarajah: You gotta look at the next image because I think there’s other wildlife in the water.

Ellen Payne Smith: Ohhh! Wow, wow.

Manjula Selvarajah: Just for coolness. So I think there’s something on the beach.

Narration: To see how animals are coping with climate change and the loss of sea ice, scientists are now recruiting the help of citizens and satellites.

Manjula Selvarajah: But do you see the portion in the water? Yeah, it’s a pod of belugas.

Ellen Payne Smith: Nice!

Narration: We got in touch with the head of the Walrus from Space project to learn more.

Peter Fretwell: Dr. Peter Fretwell, I’m the head of the Wildlife from Space Centre here at British Antarctic Survey where we study wildlife using satellite imagery.

Narration: Peter is based in Cambridge in the U.K., where he studies penguins, walrus, seals — anything near the poles really.

Peter Fretwell: For some things that we’re doing with Emperor Penguins now, we’re looking at them almost on a daily basis and seeing how the ice is changing from under them. So it gives us more information but also that real-time knowledge of: this is happening now, we can see it’s happening now, we can report on it almost as it’s happening.

Narration: Satellite imagery has gotten better and better. Objects smaller than a metre can be seen in many images, and that makes animals like walrus visible from space.

Peter Fretwell: We’re actually collaborating with scientists across the Arctic, and we’re trying to establish the population and the population movements of Atlantic walrus across about five different countries.

Narration: This work is also helping to raise awareness.

Peter Fretwell: One of the great things about citizen science is that not only do you get the scientific data at the end, but you also get the engagement from the public. We’ve had tens of thousands, I think something like 60,000 people, went on the app in the first year.

Narration: Walrus from Space has only been running for a few years, so it’s too early to say anything definitive about how the walrus populations are doing and coping with climate change. But combing through all those images has already led to other discoveries.

Peter Fretwell: When I was looking through the app about a year ago, we spotted some beluga whales in the Russian Arctic in the Kara Sea, which weren’t known about. We realized that there was a whole population of belugas that had never been studied before, which we thought had been wiped out due to whaling in the 1980s — but it actually recovered — it just wasn’t ever recorded because it had never been surveyed.

Narration: Bringing people to the front lines of science is vital. It can help make the issue that much more palpable.

Peter Fretwell: The worst-case scenario is that we drive these creatures toward extinction without ever knowing. At least if we know, we have a choice. We can make that choice about changing attitudes and investing in the things that we need to invest in to stop our carbon emissions. By seeing this and by reporting it, we give people the opportunity to make that choice.

Narration: The thing about walrus, penguins and belugas — apart from the fact that they’re adorable — is that they’re all relatively big. But big things make up only a small fraction of the life on Earth. Tracking the bulk of the planet’s life forms presents more challenges. Back to Elizabeth Clare.

Elizabeth Clare: So it’s very easy to count elephants; they’re big, you can see them. And because they’re all so big and we can see them, people are familiar with them and if you tell them that we need to go count elephants, they understand inherently why we have to do that. If I told you that nematodes really needed an assessment, most people wouldn’t even know what they are.

Narration: Nematodes? Yep, I had to Google them. Turns out they’re worm-like creatures.

Elizabeth Clare: And so that presents a challenge with trying to get people interested in having to do those assessments. And so the stuff that’s cute and fuzzy and big and easy, society understands, people understand, they’re easy to count, and they tend to get more attention than small things that are equally important — or in many cases more important — to actually maintaining the functions that we rely on every day and aren’t even aware are happening.

Narration: Those functions are things like breaking down waste and creating fertile soils. It’s not glamorous work, but without it, entire ecosystems would fall apart. And while we may barely notice the small animals, plants and fungi performing these kinds of tasks, it turns out they always leave a trace.

Elizabeth Clare: All of us, all the time, are shedding tiny little bits of ourselves into the environment. Tiny bits of skin cells that are dead, and fragments of hair, bits of saliva — all of that also contains DNA. And so I can come into an environment and collect that material that has left behind.

Narration: Scientists call this loose genetic material, environmental DNA or eDNA.

Elizabeth Clare: You can swab a leaf in the forest and find DNA from animals that have passed by, that the DNA has settled onto the leaf surfaces. The world is very much a soup of material everywhere. And it contains DNA from everybody and everything that has moved through the environment.

Narration: This is a relatively new way of surveying. This method could help researchers spot species that might otherwise fly under the radar. And while it’s currently used in aquatic habitats, until recently, sampling land ecosystems in this way has been tricky.

Elizabeth Clare: About three years ago, I was asked to write a report — actually for a government agency in the U.K. — about how genetic tools could be used to survey biodiversity on land. And so my collaborators and I proposed this project, where we would try and see if we could filter environmental DNA out of an air sample. We use, what is basically, a very tiny vacuum. It’s a filter that we have created ourselves that attaches to one of various kinds of fans that create a small suction. The air goes through it and any particulate in the air — dust, biological material like cells and DNA — gets trapped on that filter. And then — we can’t see it — it’s not something that’s visible, but we take it back to our lab and in the lab we can actually extract that DNA off the filter.

Narration: Elizabeth and her colleagues first tested their device in an animal care facility that had a colony of naked mole rats.

Elizabeth Clare: We were shocked how much we found. The naked mole rat DNA was definitely in the burrows — it was also in the room. There was DNA from people, there was DNA from dogs — because one of the people who took care of the animals, he walked his mother’s dog on the weekend and he was tracking the dog’s DNA into the room.

Narration: After that success, the next step was to see how their device would perform outdoors, where things can get more complicated. So they found a zoo in England that let them set up their equipment.

Elizabeth Clare: And we walked around the zoo for a couple of months, taking air samples and filtering them, and we found all kinds of signatures of the zoo animals. Because it was an open area, animals from the wild could walk through, and so we found squirrels and hedgehogs and ducks, and things that were known to live there that were having their DNA drift into our sampling areas of the zoo.

Narration: The zoo experiment proved that this could work. Elizabeth and her team have since used airborne DNA to detect elusive bat species in Belize.

Elizabeth Clare: When we were working on the zoo experiments, and it was published, there was a lot of media interest. And an article that was actually published by a museum about the idea was seen by, of all people, a physicist named James Allerton. And he’s not a biologist, he knows nothing about genetics, but he read that we were trying to filter things out of the air.

Narration: As luck would have it, filtering things out of the air is his specialty. James works for the National Physical Laboratory. They monitor air quality in Britain. And so he sent over a few specimens to Elizabeth’s team to get analyzed.

Elizabeth Clare: And we found an absolutely astonishing array of biodiversity being trapped on these filters. In only a handful of samples they sent us, we found 35 species of bird, 26 different mammals, 80 different types of plants.

Narration: The really exciting part though, is that these pollution monitoring networks exist in countries all over the world. Many of them have been operating since the 1970s, with samples that have been archived and could potentially be analyzed to track changes over time.

Elizabeth Clare: Even if nothing ever collected before is still usable, but we just started today with the systems that are collecting samples while we talk, there’s a huge number of samples being collected we could use now. And what we see there is really just proof that this could happen. But when you start thinking about the fact that there are literally tens of thousands of these machines operating every day, all over the world, taking exactly the same kind of sample — the potential is that we’ve just discovered, accidentally, the infrastructure for measuring planetary biodiversity on a scale we have never contemplated before.

Narration: Taking images from space and sucking DNA out of the air can teach us lots about the world around us. But two-thirds of the world is covered in ocean. And our understanding of what happens below the surface is less clear. But here, too, technology is helping shine a light.

Madeleine Bouvier-Brown: My name is Madeline Bouvier-Brown. You can go ahead and call me Madie. And I work as a marine project scientist for a company called Open Ocean Robotics.

Narration: Madie is based in Victoria, B.C. where she monitors marine animals with robot boats. I reached her over zoom to learn about a special project she worked on with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Madeleine Bouvier-Brown: The southern area of Vancouver Island is teeming with marine life. You’ll see everything from humpbacks to grays; you’ll see dolphins, you’ll see killer whales. And so it was really the idea of like: Can we hear these animals? Can we detect these animals? And then also: Can we monitor the soundscape that they’re living in?

Narration: To do this, Madie and her colleagues deployed a pair of solar-powered ocean drones. They’re about 12 feet long and they look like no other boat I’ve seen before. The top is almost completely covered in solar panels; at the back is a hydrophone, or a water microphone. The idea is to use these to listen out for endangered species, like southern resident killer whales.

Madeleine Bouvier-Brown: Southern resident killer whales are a population of marine mammals here off our coast that are considered endangered. There’s only about mid-to-low seventies in their population numbers nowadays, and that has been steadily declining since the ’60. And so part of that project is really to monitor what kinds of stuff they’re facing out there, specifically from an acoustic perspective. They really, really rely on sound in their habitat to kind of, you know, communicate and forage and find their way. And so with all these new vessels coming into the area, we really want to better understand the kind of noise that they’re up against.

Narration: So what did the drone find out at sea? I asked Madie to talk us through some clips.

Manjula Selvarajah: So I hear this squeaking underneath the vessel noise.

Madeleine Bouvier-Brown: That’s — so those are killer whales. Right there. This high-pitched, squeaky balloon sound can be anywhere from like 8 kilohertz or higher.

Manjula Selvarajah: What does that squeaking mean?

Madeleine Bouvier-Brown: I wish we had a Rosetta Stone for killer whales, and that’s kind of where we’re trying to go, but there’s all these calls that they make, and they do have a language like us, but we just don’t understand it, we haven’t cracked it yet.

Narration: Madie explained that killer whales make lots of high-pitched whistles and echo-locating clicks. You can easily tell them apart from humpbacks and baleen whales, which make low haunting moans that many of us associate with whale song. But not all of the sounds the drone picks up are so welcome.

Madeleine Bouvier-Brown: So that “da da da da da da da da da” — like that constant — that’s coming from the vessel.

Manjula Selvarajah: That’s unbearable. My gosh.

Madeleine Bouvier-Brown: I really think of a dryer that’s been like — that has too much happening in it, and it’s just being thrown around.

Manjula Selvarajah: This is, I mean, you can’t — I’ve got to take my headphones off.

Madeleine Bouvier-Brown: Yeah. And so —

Manjula Selvarajah: How close is this?

Madeleine Bouvier-Brown: We can talk about this. We’ll talk about it, but there’s no way you can have a conversation over this right?

Narration: Although it sounds right on top of the microphone, the boat was probably several hundred metres away.

Madeleine Bouvier-Brown: Sound travels so much differently underwater. It’s more intense, it can travel faster, it can travel farther. And so sound is really what a lot of these animals rely on to function day to day.

Narration: With increased shipping and resource exploration, the ocean is becoming a very loud place to be. And to make matters worse, studies are showing that climate change is making it even noisier. But the Juan de Fuca Strait, where Madie studies whales, is already a busy shipping route.

Madeleine Bouvier-Brown: When you start to actually hear it, then you know, it really starts to think to yourself, like, could I live all this time with all this noise that’s constantly you know, in my bedroom, in my kitchen, in my office space. And the answer is no, because it’s just such a negative impact.

Narration: Open Ocean’s project was mainly aimed at proving the technology works and can be used to study whale populations. That could go some ways to help us protect these animals.

Madeleine Bouvier-Brown: So that could be in things like seasonal slowdown areas, where vessels can’t go faster than 7 knots during these months, when we see these animals in this area, you know, year after year. Or we have things like ecological reserves where we’ll actually section off areas where we ask vessels to never go in. So when we start to actually make these restrictions, either seasonally or year round, then we can actually provide an environment that animals can go into safely.

Manjula Selvarajah: It’s interesting that I look at your role as an ocean scientist and you know, at one point, these were people that would be by the beach, by the rocks and the pebbles, and be heading out on a boat. And you talk of days where you can actually work remotely. Talk to me about how science, or advancements in technology of this kind, has changed your job.

Madeleine Bouvier-Brown: When I started as a marine biologist, I really thought like: maybe I’ll get a job where I scuba dive — or you know — I’ll do these three-month excursions to Alaska where we can do all this work. And I am so happy with where I am now, because the less that we’re actually in the ocean, like as people and inputting sound and inputting pollution and gases, the better off these other animals are. I think it’s really beneficial to be able to learn about these animals, but I also think it’s so amazing that we don’t actually have to go be in their space. And it’s almost like, if I could just set up a webcam, so it all just makes it so much easier to monitor without actually impacting these animals or like even having them know that we’re around.

Narration: If I think about robot boats and the other tech I’ve covered in this episode, it’s not only transforming how we study and protect species, but it’s also helping us gain a better understanding of the world around us, while minimizing our impact.

Ellen Payne Smith: If you turn the brightness up, what you think is water, it might actually be black sand. And then there’s ice on the side … I think it’s walrus?

Manjula Selvarajah: What I’m seeing is dark — the dark colour — you think is black sand?

Ellen Payne Smith: Yeah.

Manjula Selvarajah: Oh, yes, yes, there is something here. You’re right. Is that brown thing a massive population?

Ellen Payne Smith: That’s what I’m thinking. Yeah, that’s walrus.

Manjula Selvarajah: Oh yeah, I’m going to say walrus present. There is a haul out of Walrus on sandy beach at the centre of the image. Ta da!

Ellen Payne Smith: You win!

Manjula Selvarajah: Wow that is a huge — kind of — these are kind of cool.

Ellen Payne Smith: These are fun.

Manjula Selvarajah: Isn’t that cool? That’s a massive population. Look at that population.

Narration: I really got into spotting walruses from space. I kind of felt a connection to these chubby creatures whose lives I was peering into from above. And I couldn’t help but wonder what the future holds for them on our warming planet. The technology behind this initiative is a modern marvel and could be game-changing for conservation efforts. But there’s another section of the Walrus from Space website that really gives me hope. It’s the leaderboard that celebrates people who reviewed the most images.

Manjula Selvarajah: 84 people have looked at 10,000 or more images.

Ellen Payne Smith: That’s incredible.

Manjula Selvarajah: That is some serious dedication.

Ellen Payne Smith: Yeah!

Narration: I think it’s incredible that thousands of people are spending countless hours helping to save a creature they’ll probably never see in their lives. If new technologies can help us harness that energy, we may yet save some of our planet’s most endangered species.

Manjula Selvarajah: And I have to say that I am on the leaderboard. I’m in like … 2,824th place.

Ellen Payne Smith: [laughing]

Manjula Selvarajah: But out of curiosity, out of how many? My slightly competitive part of me — because they’ve slightly gamified this — has to know what’s at the bottom of this list.

Ellen Payne Smith: That is very funny.

Solve for X is brought to you by MaRS. This episode was produced by Ellen Payne Smith. Lara Torvi and Heather O’Brien are the associate producers. David Paterson is the senior editor. Mack Swain composed the theme song and all the music in this episode. Gab Harpelle is our mix engineer. Kathryn Hayward is the executive producer. I’m your host Manjula Selvarajah, and we want to hear from you. You can email us [email protected].

This episode is sponsored by Novarium. Based in Rimouski, Que., Novarium is on a mission to grow Canada’s blue economy. This sustainable ocean and freshwater industry is expected to become a $3-trillion market by 2030. By working with startups and maritime stakeholders across the country and around the world, Novarium is helping Canada play a leading role in marine science and technology. How do they do this? Novarium offers targeted infrastructure and acceleration programs to help sustainable ocean and freshwater projects scale into economic success stories. If you are an investor, partner or entrepreneur inspired by the potential of the blue economy, please get in touch at novarium.co.

Illustration by Workhouse

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