Using just a smartphone, citizen scientists can help track endangered species

Drones and smartphones are being used to monitor — and hopefully save — endangered species. Through a project called ConservationFIT, a team of wildlife conservationists from Duke University and the nonprofit WildTrack, are developing algorithms and utilizing drones to analyze footprints and monitor animal movements from the air.

“Species are disappearing at around one-thousand times background rates and if we are to avert a complete catastrophe we must do more to protect those that remain,” Zoe Jewell, told Digital Trends. “However, to do this we need data on the numbers of species — who they are and where they range.”

The FIT in ConservationFIT stands for footprint identification technique, and it enables researchers to identify individuals by their footprints, which have specific details much like a human fingerprint. From these prints, the researchers can discern things like age and sex, while non-invasively tracking and studying an individual over distances.

At launch ConservationFIT will be geared towards cheetahs in Africa, jaguars in the Americas, and snow leopards in Asia.

“These three species were chosen for their iconic status and wide geographical spread,” Jewell said. The team at WildTrack has already honed an algorithm to identify fifteen different species on five continents. “As we progress with algorithms for these species we will be extending the remit of ConservationFIT for other species.”

Though the software will be best utilized by field biologists, the WildTrack team hope to engage citizen scientists as well. “Armed with a smartphone it is possible for anyone who sees a footprint to collect an image of it and upload it to ConservationFIT,” Jewell said. They can do so at iNaturalist.

“Citizen scientists might be amateur naturalists, or tourists, or just ramblers on the weekend,” she added. “They will probably ‘stumble upon’ footprints and collect them opportunistically. This can lead to unexpected discoveries of species in places that biologists might not look. Trackers, on the other hand, are usually expert at finding and identifying footprints.”

Jewell and her team also have plans to use drones to monitor footprint trails from the air, which can offer insight into the movement and patterns of an individual animal. Although following a trail is relatively easy, it’s difficult to detect the exact species that left the print without having a high-resolution camera.

“At the moment we are using small off-the-shelf drones for local reconnaissance missions to detect trails,” she said. “Our aim is to partner with a drone company that can provide hardware capable of carrying high-resolution cameras to focus specifically on the identification of species from trails, and then individuals from footprints.”