Great (Diomedea) albatrosses face multiple threats to their long-term survival. Declines in albatross populations have been linked to incidental mortality (bycatch) in fisheries, predatory invasive species (including rats, mice and cats) and disease. More than 100,000 albatrosses are killed by longline fishing every year.
Using satellites to monitor albatrosses from space
Satellites in space are continuously capturing images of Earth. Using these very high-resolution images, we are able to count individual albatrosses and, by applying correction factors that account for failed and nonbreeding birds, estimate the number of breeding pairs in remote locations. Satellites do not disturb albatrosses and can cover vast areas at once, many of which are difficult, expensive and time-consuming to visit for ground counts or to census using aerial surveys or UAVs (drones).
Presently, our project focuses on two high priority albatross populations for conservation:
Wandering albatrosses (Diomedea exulans) on South Georgia
Tristan albatrosses (Diomedea dabbenena) on Gough Island
The wandering albatross has the greatest wingspan of any living bird. The Tristan albatross was considered to be the same species as the wandering albatross until 1998, when the taxa were split. Tristan albatrosses are slightly smaller and darker on their back than wandering albatrosses, and are very difficult to distinguish at sea.
Wandering Albatrosses on South Georgia
The wandering albatross is listed globally as Vulnerable by the IUCN. at the regional level due to their steep decline. South Georgia holds a globally important population, which breeds at 17 sites around the island group. Only three of these sites have been monitored regularly; Bird Island (which holds around 60% of the total South Georgia population), Albatross Island and Prion Island. Annenkov Island holds the second largest population of wandering albatrosses in South Georgia, but due its remote location a census has only been conducted twice, most recently in 2004. Wandering albatrosses at South Georgia have been in decline since regular censuses began at Bird Island in the 1960s, and meet the IUCN criteria for Endangered status at the regional level. Satellite imagery has great potential to provide low-cost accurate surveys of all sites at regular intervals.
Tristan Albatrosses on Gough Island
Around 1,500 pairs of Tristan albatrosses breed each year, almost exclusively on Gough Island. Bycatch of adults and subadults in fisheries, and predation of chicks by introduced house mice are key threats to this population. The species is classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN. This project will test the effectiveness of satellite-based counts for censuses of Tristan albatrosses on Gough, by comparing results with surveys on the ground. Currently, it is unknown whether Tristan Albatrosses can be detected using satellite imagery, as they are slightly smaller than wandering albatrosses and have a darker back, so may be more difficult to distinguish against surrounding vegetation.
Albatrosses from Space Citizen Science Campaign
The Wildlife from Space team have completed an online citizen science campaign to search for albatrosses using Very High-Resolution (VHR) satellite imagery. The information gathered – with the help of the public – will be used by scientists to identify whether albatross populations show signs of recovery due to implemented conservation actions, or if they are still in decline despite these efforts.
We hope to expand the project in the future to include other albatross species, and eventually, complete the world’s first worldwide censuses for albatrosses.
Compare satellite-based counts to ground counts of wandering albatrosses on Bird Island, Prion Island and Albatross Island in South Georgia.
Test variability in satellite-based counts within the same breeding season.
Assess whether 31-cm resolution satellite imagery can be used to detect and accurately count Tristan albatrosses on Gough Island.
Develop a citizen science campaign, using VHR satellite imagery to count wandering albatrosses throughout South Georgia.
In the future, the Wildlife from Space team aim to:
Test detectability of other great albatross species using VHR satellite imagery.
Survey all great (Diomedea) albatross colonies across the Southern Ocean using public crowdsourcing campaigns.
Use crowdsourcing campaign and Digital Elevation Models (DEMs) to develop Artificial Intelligence (AI) methods for automatic detection of albatrosses.
The Albatross from Space project is an international collaboration involving BAS, RSPB, GSGSSI and other stakeholders. Key collaborators on the project include:
Mark Belchier, Marine Ecologist and Science Manager for South Georgia Fisheries (CCAMLR)
Jennifer Black, Environmental Officer, The Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands (GSGSSI)
Martin Collins, South Georgia Science Manager at BAS
Trevor Glass, Conservation Officer for Tristan da Cunha, Tristan Conservation
Jonathan Hall, Head of UK Overseas Territories and RSPB & Strategy Advisor
Phil Hollyman, Fisheries Ecologist at BAS
David Kinchin-Smith, UK Overseas Territories project Officer, RSPB
Stephanie Martin, UK-based Environment and Conservation Officer, Tristan da Cunha Government
Steffen Oppel, Senior Conservation Scientist at RSPB centre for Conservation Science
Sally Poncet, South Georgia Surveys, Stanley, Falkland Islands
Andy Schofield, Senior UK Overseas Territories Officer at RSPB
Siobhan Vye, Atlantic Guardians Project Manager of RSPB Overseas Territories Team
We would like to thank the field teams on Gough Island (Roelf Daling, Vonica Perold, Kim Stevens and Steffen Oppel) and South Georgia for their efforts over the years to monitor albatrosses. The nest co-ordinates collected during fieldwork will be used to verify the accuracy of satellite-based counts for this project.
The Albatrosses From Space citizen science campaign is funded by Darwin Plus, also known as the Overseas Territories Environment and Climate Fund. Since 2012, Darwin Plus has awarded over £32 million to more than 162 environmental projects in the UK overseas Territories.