Astronomers Are Using Their Technology To Save Orangutans

Using thermal imaging to find orangutans has advantages, but advanced astronomical techniques are still needed to distinguish them from other warmer parts of the forest. Liverpool John Moores University and WWF

Even if orangutans were familiar with the expression “thank your lucky stars”, they'd wonder what luck they have as their numbers crash and their homes are destroyed for plantations. However, the stars are giving these great apes one piece of assistance as a technology developed by astronomers is being adapted for their protection.

A vital, and often challenging, step in saving any endangered species is to know where they are. Orangutans move around a lot by daylight, and hide themselves in trees at night where they can be difficult to spot from the ground. The Kinabatangan Orang-utan Conservation Programme has been using drones to photograph their habitat. Now they are experimenting with thermal imaging cameras for better detection.

“In thermal images, animals shine in a similar way to stars and galaxies, so we used techniques from astronomy to detect and distinguish them,” said Dr Claire Burke, an astrophysicist at Liverpool John Moores University, in a statement. “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 detection is complicated because even warm-blooded species like orangutans have different body temperatures depending on their conditions. Instead of setting the cameras to look for a specific temperature, Burke seeks contrasts between animals and the surrounding environment. This works best in the morning and evening, she told the Unifying Tropical Ecology conference.

The drones also saw the heat signatures of pygmy elephants and proboscis monkeys. Although smaller than orangutans, and inclined to travel in groups, the monkeys demonstrate the cameras can produce images that require the human eye to classify.

However, Burke and her colleagues have that problem covered as well, having taken another leaf out of astronomers' book. They turned to the Zooniverse platform, which has enabled astronomers to enlist the help of volunteers to find planets around other stars and supernovas.

The Orangutan Nest Watch Project encourages members of the public to spot orangutans in drone photos taken in the Heart of Borneo region so they can identify population concentrations. Participants are also asked to look out for strangler fig trees photographed by the drones on daytime flights. Protecting this species helps to protect many animals, orangutans included, but the trees are often replaced by palm plantations.

For Burke, this is just the beginning. The conference will have a session on the use of drones in conservation. "In the future, we hope to be able to track, distinguish and monitor large numbers of different species of animals in real time, all around the globe, so that this technology can be used to make a real impact on conservation and stop poaching before it happens,” she said

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