Wildlife from Space

Wildlife from Space

Many populations of wildlife are remote, inaccessible or difficult to monitor. The advent of sub-metre, Very-High-Resolution (VHR) satellite imagery may enable us study these animals in a much more efficient way.

Over the past decade, BAS scientists have led investigations using satellite technology to identify, count and monitor different species in Antarctica and elsewhere. We have tested the capability of new satellites, applied bespoke methods to different species and developed automated counting techniques using Artificial Intelligence. These innovative developments have led to breakthroughs in the understanding of distribution and population trends, and increased uptake of the new technology by many other institutions and academics.

The main groups of animals on which we have focussed are:

Penguins

In the remote and inhospitable landscape around the Antarctic coastline, penguins can be challenging to monitor. For a decade, BAS has been locating, counting and studying colonies of emperor penguins to investigate the effects of climate change using vVHR satellite imagery. This work included the first global survey of a species from space (2012) and the discovery of many new breeding colonies. Since 2013, BAS has colaborated with WWF to monitor emperor colonies in a sector between 0° and 90°E.  This includes sixteen breeding sites.  Some of these have experienced dramatic changes in population sizes over time.

Emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) on sea ice at the Brunt ice shelf.
Satellite imagery showing the reduction in size of the Halley Bay colony in 2018 compared with 2015

We have also used satellites to locate colonies and determine population trends of the smaller Pygoscelis penguins, such as chinstrap, Adélie and gentoo penguins. We used the unique spectral signature of guano to identify the breeding sites. Interestingly, the guano changes colour over the season, so as different species breed at different times we can tell the species by the colour of the guano at the time of the imagery.

Whales

Many whale species were brought to the verge of extinction in the age of commercial whaling, but since then some populations have started to recover. These species still face many threats, including ship strikes, pollution, entanglement and disease. Populations are difficult to assess by traditional means so BAS has led the study of baleen whales by satellite, a technology that could revolutionize how we monitor these animals.

A pod of southern right whales

We have tested the applicability of VHR satellites to identify and count several species (including humpback, sei, blue, southern right, grey and fin whales), analysed their reflectance (how easy they are to detect), developed automated counting techniques and examined how to convert satellite counts to abundance estimates. We have also investigated the use of satellites to identify and count stranded whales. Our research has led to the International Whaling Commission recommending a number of locations around the globe where use of the technology should be prioritized.

Seals

The sea ice that surrounds Antarctica is home to several species of seal that depend on it throughout their lives for resting, breeding, protection against predators and access to food.  The vast size and dynamic nature of  this frozen sea makes counting these seals incredibly challenging so that at present know little about how many there are and how their populations are coping with challenges such as climate change. We need to understand more about these seals as they are very important to the Antarctic Ecosystem. For example, crabeater seals are the most numerous seal in the world but at present we can only estimate their abundance as somewhere between 7 and 75 million individuals. Given they eat around 20kg of krill a day they have a large impact on the foodweb. Weddell seals, the second most abundant seal, like to live deep within the sea ice close to the Antarctic Continent making them very difficult and expensive to access and count.

Crabeater seals on an iceberg, taken on a boat trip from Rothera Research Station.

As part of the international Censusing Animal Populations from Space project, BAS is using VHR satellite images to study these ice seals. We are developing new methods to automatically detect and count seals, and classify the different environments they live in, including automated counting using machine learning and Artificial Intelligence combined with thermal imaging and spectral analysis.

Albatross

The great (Diomedea) albatrosses are the largest flying birds on Earth and they live on remote, inaccessible islands around the Southern Ocean. These charismatic birds face a number of threats including incidental mortality (bycatch) from longline fishing, invasive species, disease and habitat destruction.

A pair of Wandering albatrosses displaying during a courtship ritual at a study site on Bird Island, South Georgia. British Antarctic Survey scientists have confirmed a steady decline in the albatross population on Bird Island, probably as a result of drowning when their beaks catch on baited fish hooks.

All of the great albatross species are threatened with extinction (https://www.iucn.org/) so monitoring their populations is critical. Survey of their remote breeding sites is difficult, so we are developing methods to automatically count and census albatrosses using VHR satellite imagery. In 2014, we conducted the first census of a whole population by satellite, when we counted all colonies of northern royal albatrosses in a single breeding season.

 

 

  • Combine the expertise remote sensing expertise of the Mapping and Geographic Information Centre (MAGIC) with the BAS Ecosystems team to deliver innovative, impactful and world-leading science outputs
  • To provide innovative world-leading solutions to provide answers and advice to key conservation questions for policy-makers, government and international stakeholders on wildlife populations using remote sensing methods
  • To develop techniques and methods that facilitate the finding, monitoring and understanding of polar wildlife and, where appropriate, to transfer this knowledge to other similar challenges globally

Information gained from these remote approaches help inform international initiatives such as the IUCN Red List assessments of threat status for polar wildlife.

 

Jaume Forcada

Marine Mammal Leader

Ecosystems team

Peter Fretwell

Geographic Information Officer

Mapping and GIS team

Jennifer Jackson

Molecular Phylogeneticist

Ecosystems team

Richard Phillips

Seabird Ecologist Foodweb

Ecosystems team

Iain Staniland

Marine Mammal Ecologist

Ecosystems team

Phil Trathan

Predators in Ecosystems/WPM

Ecosystems team

Hannah Cubaynes

PhD Student

Premdeep Gill

PhD Student

Connor Bamford

PhD Student


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