The Big Picture, In Stunning Detail

January 9, 2014


How new imaging technology aids wildlife conservation

From the Defenders of Wildlife Blog

There’s a brave new world of image-capturing technologies out there, and conservationists like Defenders’ Senior Southwest Representative Craig Miller are using them to enhance the efficacy of field work, and to share it with the world.

Originally used on the Mars exploration, GigaPan is a new camera-based technology that employs a robot mounted on a tripod. The robot precisely moves a camera vertically and horizontally to take sequential photos, and then stitches them together to produce billion-pixel resolution images. These images can then be “explored” remotely from any computer.

GigaPan, the brainchild of a partnership between Carnegie-Mellon University Robotics Lab, Google Earth, NASA and the FINE Foundation, has produced what science writer Karen A. Frenkel calls “an immersive, interactive experience that can reveal surprising details – an ant on a leaf in a forest, or a hummingbird sipping nectar from a flower in a backyard.”

Armed with the new ability to, as Frenkel says, “[view] nature through a huge magnifying glass,” the organizations next gathered scientists from around the world to test GigaPan’s true colors by exploring field applications of the technology. Miller, one of the FINE fellows, has set up experimental photo-monitoring sites associated with Defenders’ jaguar, wolf and border conservation programs. At the sites, he uses GigaPan to document impediments to wildlife movement and measure ecological changes in response to various landscape treatments, such as livestock removal, erosion control and the eradication of invasive plants.

The GigaPan images are proving very useful for such conservation work because they are so detailed that land managers stationed miles away can identify individual plant and animal species, showing which species are using the area and how ecosystems are changing over time. For example, Defenders is working in partnership with Northern Jaguar Project to use GigaPan at the Northern Jaguar Reserve in Northeastern Sonora to help monitor the effectiveness of management actions aimed at improving habitat conditions for the jaguar’s native prey. Here, the extremely detailed panoramic images allow us to study “before and after” changes in vegetation and erosion patterns in an area where livestock were removed five years ago. The images tell researchers how much forage is available for the species that jaguars prey on, and what other kinds of animals are sharing the landscape.

“We’re using GigaPan to measure vegetative groundcover, terracing and erosion associated with hundreds of years of unmanaged livestock grazing, and the impacts of removing livestock,” said Miller.  “We’re seeing tremendous rebound in ground cover, grasses and native shrubs.”

Defenders trained staff and volunteers of Northern Jaguar Project how to use the GigaPan equipment and obtained an additional GigaPan unit to support ongoing monitoring at the Northern Jaguar Reserve, which means the technology can now be used more frequently to help inform management of the reserve. GigaPan images help document the presence and distribution of invasive species such as buffelgrass, as well as the effectiveness of treatments to remove invasive species and of gabions, or “mini-dams,” placed in creek beds to reduce erosion and runoff.

GigaPan is also being used to monitor wildlife corridors between the United States and Mexico, and to monitor border infrastructure that may impede wildlife movement between the two countries.

“One thing that makes GigaPan different from any other photo monitoring is that it allows you to provide large landscape images, as well as small close up plots in the same image,” Miller says. “You can put these small plots into the context of a much larger area, and have a large macro view and several micro views at the same time.”

GigaPan can help convey the importance of changes in the landscape to a wide audience, an audience that doesn’t have to be made up of trained scientists.

“You can see, very clearly, the changes occurring on the landscape over multiple years. GigaPan helps us detect, monitor and report changes, which helps guide our conservation activities,” Miller says.

There are close to 160 remote-triggered still and video cameras on the Northern Jaguar Reserve, which are capturing dozens of images of the wildlife that uses the reserve, such as jaguars, military macaws and neotropical river otters. By integrating these images with landscape-level GigaPan imagery of the same areas, Miller hopes to create images that tell a story that captures the imagination of wildlife lovers.

“A picture is worth a thousands words, and in this case, there can be a thousand pictures in one GigaPan, which can tell even more of a story,” Miller says. “It’s like an adventure; it allows you to really explore the landscape up close.”

But, it’s not all just about getting that close-up. GigaPan images will hopefully be used to build more support for habitat conservation where it is needed most – for example, the images show that contrary to popular belief, species like jaguars thrive in the northernmost portion of their range.

“Seeing real pictures of a jaguar in this northern thorn scrub habitat will help dispel the myth that jaguars are just a tropical species,” Miller says. “Within 120 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, we have nesting military macaws, breeding jaguars and ocelots, even neotropical river otters. GigaPan can potentially help educate a broader audience about the uniqueness and importance of this habitat, and hopefully motivate them to help conserve these biologically unique areas.”