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Crowdsourcing meets science with new animal tracking technology

May 25, 2017

Researchers have developed a way to track endangered species using smartphones and drones, and you can help them with that work.

Stuart Pimm is the Doris Duke Chair of Conservation at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. He says an app called iNaturalist is bringing crowdsourcing techniques to scientific research.

“And ‘iNaturalist’ is a wonderful program where you can upload an image of a bird or a butterfly or a flower, and even if you don’t know what it is, there are people out there who will help you identify it,” he says.

Pimm says a new footprint identification technology called ConservationFIT is helping scientists track animals by reading digital images of footprints from cameras, smartphones and drones taken by researchers - and ordinary people.

“A lot of people don’t realize there’s a lot of information in our hands and our feet that show individual differences,” says Pimm. “And it’s the same for other species, too.”

Tracking rare species can be difficult; Pimm says this kind of technology makes it easier to monitor population sizes and follow individual animals.

“A good example of where this could be really powerful would be giant pandas. Nobody has a really good idea of how many giant pandas there are,” says Pimm. “They’re identifying them from, as my Chinese student puts it, panda poop. And if you have a big poop and a little poop, they’re probably from different pandas. And that’s not a very accurate way, but it turns out that panda footprints are individually distinctive, and if you get a good photograph of them, you can identify the individual.”

Pimm says it's pretty easy to get involved.

“I’m not sure I’m going to recommend the public go wandering around tiger habitats on foot, but there are other species - cheetahs in Africa, for example. And with a fairly simple routine, you put a ruler down, you get a good footprint, and from that footprint we can digitize the key features of the footprint and begin to understand how many different individuals we have,” he says.

Pimm says there are challenges with relying on citizen science - like making sure the photos are authentic. But he says people tend to fact check each other.

“This is an extraordinary social network that involves hundreds of thousands of people from around the world who have become fascinated with different groups of animals and plants. So there’s a lot of social networking that helps young naturalists learn their craft," he says.