Washington takes action to save endangered whales

Orca whale numbers in the Puget Sound have plummeted, and there are currently just 76 whales that can be spotted off the coast of Washington.

Even though orcas in general are not endangered, Southern Resident killer whales were listed as endangered in 2005, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries (NOAA).

It’s not uncommon to find local pods or populations of orcas, such as the ones that hunt in Puget Sound, threatened or nearing extinction.

There can be many reasons for this kind of localized endangerment. For Southern Resident killer whales, a lack of salmon, polluted waters, noise, and less space are all to blame for the whales’ low numbers.

There also haven’t been any new calves reported in the area for a few years due to infertility issues from the stress caused by salmon shortages.

Governor Jay Inslee urged state agencies to take immediate action to protect and recover the few orcas left in the area.

Inslee issued an executive order that aims to provide provide clean water, space, and an ample food supply for the whales. A new task force was assembled to come up with strategies to meet this goal.

“This is a wake-up call,” said Suquamish Tribal Chairman Leonard Forsman. “It’s going to take some pain. We’re going to have to make some sacrifices.”  

A key part of conserving the Southern Resident orcas is increasing salmon populations. Climate change has drastically impacted salmon populations, and many salmon species have faced reduced numbers. This puts an added strain on the predators like killer whales who typically feed on salmon.

In order to protect the orcas of Puget Sound, lawmakers are asking hatcheries to increase the production of salmon by five million.

“I applaud anything that helps (the orcas) through the short term, but the long-term is what we really have to look at – and that’s the restoration of wild salmon stocks throughout Washington state,” said Ken Balcomb, a senior scientist at the Center for Whale Research.

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

The hidden impacts of natural disasters on ecosystems

Major flooding from natural disasters takes a huge toll on an environment that can take years to fully recover from. Water damage can destroy buildings, homes, and infrastructure but flooding also disrupts vital ecosystems.

Researchers from the University of Oklahoma and Cameron University happened upon a unique opportunity to study the impacts of a 100-year flood on invertebrate species such as spiders, ants, and millipedes.

The researchers were set to examine invertebrates before and after a controlled burning event in 2015, but in June of that year record rainfall and subsequent flooding devastated parts of Oklahoma.

Because the researchers had already sampled insect species in the area, it was easy enough to study the after-effects of the flood on the insect community, which gave the researchers insight into how natural disasters can disrupt ecosystems and species.

The study was published in the journal Environmental Entomology and shows the hidden impacts of natural disasters.

Invertebrate species populations were calculated before and after the flood. The researchers set traps and took samples of different invertebrate species to get an accurate count of population totals in the area.

The researchers found drastic decreases in abundance, biomass, and species presence in the months after the flood. There was very little species diversity compared to the data recorded before the flood.

“I will never forget picking up the traps, and it just seemed like every trap had one cricket and one spider,” said Karl A. Roeder, the lead researcher of the study. “The area had transitioned from a diverse insect community to a large expanse of crickets and spiders. We were pretty surprised at how similar everything was.”

Many species were not even recorded or present after the flood occurred. For example, only three of the 14 ant species sampled pre-flood were found afterward.

This decline in biodiversity and populations puts an added strain on prey who would typically thrive on abundant species of invertebrates.

The study illustrates the importance of understanding the full impact that natural disasters have on the ecosystem and species as well as urban areas.

Exactly how long it will take species and communities to recover after a major event and if certain species are more able to adapt to huge changes are important questions that need to be thoroughly considered, according to the researchers.

“As these weather events can perturb natural communities in very dramatic ways, it will be important to understand which organisms are likely to persist or at least able to recolonize areas quickly,” said Karl. “If such species are unable to perform functions of the displaced individuals–such as soil cycling, decomposition, or pollination–ecosystems may have trouble returning to their previous states.

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Image Credit: Jeff Thrasher

People feeding animals are altering wider wildfire migration

Researchers at the University of Georgia have found that humans are changing animal migration patterns by altering the landscape. These modifications can also affect interactions between wildlife and parasites, which poses a threat to public health.

Study co-author Richard Hall is a faculty member in the Odum School and the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Infectious Diseases. Hall collaborated with researcher Leone Brown to investigate how feeding wildlife can influence both migration and disease using mathematical models.

“One familiar example for that would be American robins, where widespread ornamental plantings of berry-bearing bushes in city parks and backyards means there’s food for them in the winter, so an increasing fraction of them is staying north,” said Hall. “That’s a species that we know is an important host for maintaining West Nile virus in places such as New York City.”

While some people intentionally provide food for animals using tools such as bird feeders, other people may not be aware they are feeding wildlife by actions such as setting food outside in trash cans. When animals have access to food, particularly when it’s year-round access, many of them will choose not to migrate.

Animals often migrate to escape extreme weather conditions or to find better access to food, but migration also has another important advantage. Migration can reduce parasite infection in animal populations by giving animals a chance to escape infested areas and by weeding out the infected animals because they cannot survive the trip.

If animals choose not to migrate because they have human-provided food resources, there can be harmful consequences. For example, individuals who stayed behind and formed resident populations could already be taking up breeding territories and resources by the time migratory animals return, putting them at a serious disadvantage.

In addition, those animals who stayed behind are more likely to be infected by parasites.

“When you get resident populations forming, you might extend the parasite transmission season, and additionally if those residents are supported by food subsidies through the winter, the infected individuals might be more likely to make it through,” said Hall. “So now these migrants are returning to areas where there’s already a larger number of infected individuals, so those mechanisms for escaping parasitism become less effective.

Hall said that there are steps that can be taken to minimize some of the risks of feeding wildlife. For example, planting native species that have a fruiting or flowering period that co-evolved with native birds would prevent interference in migratory patterns. He also explained that people who use bird feeders should regularly sweep out seed husks and clean them regularly to prevent disease.

“Migration is considered to be a threatened phenomenon by some because of the many barriers resulting from human land use and activities,” said Hall. “Providing food and shelter for wildlife in our backyards provides us with an important connection with the natural world, with associated benefits for our well-being and engagement with conservation issues. I don’t want to say to people, ‘Stop bird feeding,’ but rather to adopt practices to ensure its benefits for people and wildlife alike.”

The study is published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

The secret ingredient that turns honeybees into queen bees

What separates a queen bee from a regular honeybee? Besides the metaphorical crown, queen bees are separated from the average worker bee when they are fed large quantities of a food known as royal jelly when they are larvae. Other than determining whether a larva becomes a queen, the royal jelly also keeps it safely anchored to the roof of the queen cell – the structure in which the bee develops. New research published in Current Biology explains the role that the pH of royal jelly plays in making the substance viscous enough to keep the future queen from falling.

Royal jelly is kind of viscous and sticky and jelly-like; that’s why it’s called ‘jelly.’ It’s like a mixture of marmalade and honey,” says Anja Buttstedt, a molecular ecologist at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, and senior author of the study.

While other larvae are fed small quantities of food jelly directly, the worker bees feed it to the queen-to-be in large amounts, accumulating a sticky mass that both feeds the larva and keeps it in place. This is important, as the queen larva are too big to fit into the cells of the hive’s honeycomb, so usually the only place on the hive with enough room for the queen cells is hanging off the bottom of it. The lack of space makes the role that royal jelly plays vitally important. When Buttstedt and her team were experimenting with the proteins that make up this substance, they found that it completely changed its consistency, changing to a more liquid viscosity.

In further analysis, they looked at the royal jelly at several different pH levels. Normally, it has a pH of 4, but they found that between a pH of 4 and 5, the viscosity of the jelly changed dramatically. At a neutral pH, it became more of a runny consistency. “And then we realized that the protein that we were purifying at pH 4 was somehow much bigger in size than what we would expect from its amino acid sequence,” explains Buttstedt. “Most purification protocols use pH 7, so other people never expected or saw the huge size of the protein.”

The researchers determined that the main protein in royal jelly, MRJP1, polymerized with another protein in more acidic conditions to form a network of fibers. The fibers increased the size of this protein and actually changed the jelly’s consistency. “That was, in the end, the missing link between the pH, the viscosity change, and the protein,” says Buttstedt.

While it’s still not known how the fibers change the viscosity of royal jelly, the researchers do have a hypothesis of why this change is necessary. Royal jelly is produced in the glands of worker bees and needs to be fluid enough to travel through their glandular ducts. The jelly is produced in two separate glands; one produces the proteins in a neutral pH and the other makes fatty acids that can reduce the pH when the two secretions combine.

“The longer I think about it, the less surprising I find it,” Buttstedt says. “There are many other proteins in royal jelly, and I would like to find out what all of them are doing. Because these proteins exist in this way just in honeybees, they most likely use them to do something very special.”

By Connor Ertz, Earth.com Staff Writer

Why female pythons make great moms

New research from the Wits School of Animal Plant and Environmental Sciences has identified a group of female pythons that nurture their offspring to a surprising degree. South African pythons not only incubate their eggs but also care for the babies after they have hatched.

“This is the first-ever report of maternal care of babies in an egg-laying snake,” said study author Graham Alexander.

For his investigation, Professor Alexander conducted intensive fieldwork for seven years at the Dinokeng Game Reserve, just north of Pretoria. He used radio transmitters to track the movement of 37 pythons.

Over the course of the study, eight of the pythons laid eggs. Professor Alexander recorded their breeding behavior using infrared video cameras which were carefully lowered into the nest chambers.

“I was amazed by the complex reproductive biology of this iconic snake,” said Professor Alexander.

He discovered that the female pythons make huge sacrifices to nurture their babies. During the six-month breeding cycle, the mothers do not eat at all, causing them to lose about 40 percent of their body mass.

The female snakes also turn black while breeding, which is an ability that has been adapted by the pythons to heat up faster while basking in the sun.

“Efficient basking is probably crucial for incubation,” explained Professor Alexander. “Unlike some other python species, southern African pythons are unable to warm their eggs by elevating their metabolism. Instead, our pythons bask near to the burrow entrance until their body temperature is almost 40 °C (within a few degrees of lethal temperatures), and they then coil around the eggs to warm them with their sun-derived body heat.”

The body temperatures of pregnant females observed in the study were at least 5 degrees Celsius warmer than non-reproductive females.

“All of this takes its toll on mother pythons: they take a long time to recover after breeding and so can only produce a clutch every second or third year, depending on how many meals they are able to catch in the months after leaving the nest. Some of them never recover.”

According to Professor Alexander, all of the pythons that were monitored during his research survived, but none of them bred the following year. This groundbreaking study sheds light on the fact that there is still so much this is unknown about the reproductive biology of snakes.

“Research is showing that snake reproductive biology is far more complex and sophisticated than we previously thought, and there is a range of behaviours that have been recorded in several species that can be classed as maternal care.”

“For example, biologists are discovering that females of many types of rattlesnakes show maternal care of babies. In some species, mothers appear to even cooperate by taking shifts to look after young. But all these species are live bearing – our python is the first egg laying species that has been shown to care for its babies.”

The research is published in the Journal of Zoology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Image Credit: Graham Alexander/Wits University

Elephant populations once thought to be rising are now in decline

After the war in Angola had ended, wildlife ecologists had noted that the African savannah elephant population appeared to be recovering. Now, new research from Elephants Without Borders (EWB) and the University of Massachusetts Amherst is reporting that this trend has now reversed.

Our study shows that ending war is not necessarily sufficient for the long-term recovery of wildlife populations,” they say in the open access journal PLOS ONE. “Active protection of wildlife is also needed. Measures such as anti-poaching and limiting human encroachment in protected areas are now essential to saving Angola’s elephants.”

Prior to the 1970s, Angola was home to as many as 70,000 elephants – one of the largest populations in southern Africa. Unfortunately, war that raged from 1975 to 2002 led to a mass slaughter of elephants, along with a great loss of human life. In 2004 and 2005, the study’s authors Chase and Griffin conducted the first systematic survey in 25 years, and found a “small but apparently healthy and growing population estimated at 1,800 elephants.” Over the next 10 years, no elephant research was possible in Angola, but in 2015, the government gave EWB permission to resume research.

For this study, the researchers use aerial surveys and satellite monitoring of eight collared elephants to determine the status of populations in Angola and determine how humans may affect the elephants’ habitat. Their surveys showed a population of 3,395 elephants – a decrease of 21 percent from a subset of the 2015 study-area that was surveyed in 2005.

The researchers observed a high number of elephant carcasses in 2015, approximately four carcasses for every 10 live elephants, whereas none were observed back in 2005. This observation may suggest that populations have increased after the 2005 survey, but were declining as of 2015. The number “suggests a much more rapid decline” than the 2 percent per year decrease indicated by the number of live elephants surveyed. The authors believe that their survey may have “substantially underestimated the current rate of decline for elephants in Angola.”

Another significant finding of this study is that human development is widespread in southeast Angola, and may be limiting elephant distributions. Satellite tracking has shown that elephants avoid areas that are within 6 kilometers of human indicators. Conservationists have proposed establishing the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA TFCA) to protect core habitats and movement corridors for elephants between Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. However, the results of this study suggest that increased poaching in these areas would threaten the integrity of the conservation areas and could harm the elephants’ ability to move around safely.

Instead, the authors believe that if the government in Angola commits to active protection, “There may be time to reverse the ongoing decline of elephants in Angola and conserve this important population.”

By Connor Ertz, Earth.com Staff Writer

Female bird songs have been underappreciated, study finds

Male birds may be better known for their singing, but female birds perform their own songs as well. Researchers are calling for more widespread documentation of the female birdsong, arguing that a better understanding of these vocalizations could lead to a better understanding of bird biology.

Karan Odom from Cornell University and Lauryn Benedict from the University of Northern Colorado have both independently studied female bird songs.

“I started studying California towhees 17 years ago, and I was fascinated by the duet vocalization given by females and males,” said Benedict.

“That led me to start looking for female song in other North American bird species, and I was surprised to learn that it was much more common than I expected. The reports of female song are buried in odd corners of the literature, but when you put them all together, you start to see some interesting patterns.”

The ancestors of modern birds most likely had many more females that sang. According to the experts, today’s female songs are not represented very well in collections of birdsong recordings and are also understudied.

The researchers believe that additional documentation of the female birdsong with more detailed descriptions of song structure and output could improve our understanding of birds on many levels, including their comparative physiology, neurobiology, behavioral ecology, evolution, and even conservation.

Endangered birds are frequently identified by their songs during surveys, but assumptions that all singing birds are male could misinform wildlife managers about the state of populations.

Odom and Benedict are asking both ornithologists and amateur bird lovers to share any resources they may have regarding the female birdsong. They have created a website where any birdwatcher can upload their observations.

“If you hear a bird singing, do not assume it’s a male,” said Odom. “If you observe a female bird singing, document it by uploading field notes, audio, or video to the collections on our website, femalebirdsong.org. Make sure to indicate how you recognized the bird was female.”

Zoology expert Katharina Riebel from Leiden University formerly collaborated with Odom.

“Odom and Benedict have written an excellent appeal to document and record more female bird song,” said Riebel.

“They rightly point out that the extent of female bird song has been starkly underestimated, as almost by default we assume that a singing bird must be the male of the species. As a consequence, we might have missed out many aspects and the dynamics of male and female vocal signaling in songbirds–clearly, there is still lots to discover! I am confident that ornithologists in the field can make substantial contributions toward these questions by sharing their observations and recordings, as I very much hope this article will encourage them to do.”

The study is published in in The Auk: Ornithological Advances.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Image Credit: K. Thomas

Half of plant and animal species in diverse places face extinction risk

Researchers at the University of East Anglia are reporting that around half of plant and animal species in the world’s most diverse regions, such as the Amazon and the Galapagos, will face extinction by the end of this century if human-induced climate change continues at the current rate.

At this point, even if global warming is limited to 2 degrees Celsius, these regions are still likely to lose around 25 percent of their species.

“Our research quantifies the benefits of limiting global warming to 2°C for species in 35 of the world’s most wildlife-rich areas,” said study lead author Rachel Warren.

“We studied 80,000 species of plants, mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians and found that 50% of species could be lost from these areas without climate policy. However, if global warming is limited to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, this could be reduced to 25%. Limiting warming to within 1.5°C was not explored, but would be expected to protect even more wildlife.”

The study was focused on 35 of the world’s most wildlife-rich areas. The researchers took into account a number of future climate scenarios that would result in a rise of global mean temperatures from 2 degrees Celsius to 4.5 degrees Celsius.

The experts identified the most vulnerable regions in the world, which include the Miombo Woodlands, southwest Australia, and the Amazon-Guianas. A global mean temperature rise of 4.5 degrees Celsius in these areas would make most habitats completely unsuitable to sustain life.

The study revealed that up to 90 percent of amphibians, 80 percent of mammals, and 86 percent of birds could become locally extinct in the Miombo Woodlands under these conditions.

In southwest Australia, 89 percent of amphibians could disappear, while 69 percent of plant species in the Amazon would likely vanish.

“Within our children’s lifetime, places like the Amazon and Galapagos Islands could become unrecognizable, with half the species that live there wiped out by human-caused climate change,” said WWF CEO Tanya Steele.

“Around the world, beautiful iconic animals like Amur tigers or Javan rhinos are at risk of disappearing, as well as tens of thousands plants and smaller creatures that are the foundation of all life on earth. That is why this Earth Hour we are asking everyone to make a promise for the planet and make the everyday changes to protect our planet.”

The study is published in the journal Climatic Change.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Image Credit: WWF

Pterosaurs were still thriving just before mass extinction event

A research team led by the Milner Centre for Evolution has discovered the fossils of seven new species of pterosaurs. An analysis of the remains revealed that there was still exceptional diversity among the ancient reptiles at the time they were driven to extinction.

Pterosaurs are the largest known creatures to ever have the ability to fly. It was previously believed that these reptiles were already in a state of decline when they became a casualty of a mass extinction event that struck at the end of the Cretaceous period 66 million years ago.

But now, hundreds of fossils found at dig sites in northern Morocco have been dated back to the end of the Cretaceous period. The researchers determined that the skeletal remains belonged to seven species of pterosaur from three different families.

The pterosaurs ranged in wingspan from 6 to 30 feet and weighed up to 440 pounds. The fossils from Morocco also contained evidence that the new species had distinguishable features from other groups, such as differences in beak shape, neck length, and wing proportions.

“To grow so large and still be able to fly, pterosaurs evolved incredibly lightweight skeletons, with the bones reduced to thin-walled, hollow tubes like the frame of a carbon-fiber racing bike,” explained lead author Dr. Nick Longrich. “But unfortunately, that means these bones are fragile, and so almost none survive as fossils.”

The newly discovered pterosaurs included Tethydraco, a family that was thought to have vanished fifteen million years earlier.

“Exciting discoveries are being made all the time, and sometimes, just the smallest of bones can radically change our perception of the history of life on Earth,” said study co-author David Martill.

Study co-author Dr. Brian Andres added: “The Moroccan fossils tell the last chapter of the pterosaurs’ story – and they tell us pterosaurs dominated the skies over the land and sea, as they had for the previous 150 million years.”

Moroccan paleontologist Professor Nour-Eddine Jalil said that the research shows the amazing diversity of pterosaurs at a time they were thought to be in a state of decline.

“The Moroccan phosphates are an open window on a key moment in the history of the Earth, one that shortly preceded the global crisis that swept away, among others, dinosaurs and marine reptiles,” said Professor Jalil.

The study is published in the journal PLOS Biology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

A raven’s call tells its age, sex, and foraging opportunities

Ravens may be able to identify the age, sex, and specific details of a nearby foraging opportunity just by listening to another raven’s call, according to a new study.

Common ravens use calls to alert other ravens of available food, but these calls serve a range of purposes.

Researchers from the University of Vienna and the University of Cambridge say these calls are used as calling cards and nearby ravens can assess the specifics of a feeding situation.

Some feeding spots are dominated by competing ravens, or there may be predators nearby which poses an unnecessary risk.

The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Zoology, is the first of its kind to examine how raven food calls are interpreted by ravens who aren’t familiar with each other.

“The majority of previous research on call characteristics in ravens focused on recognition of known individuals,” said Markus Böckle, the corresponding author. “However, to our knowledge, no experiments have tested for features in food calls that might provide ravens with information about unknown individuals.”

The researchers studied a population of free-ranging common ravens that gathered for feedings on wild boar at the Cumberland Wildpark Grünau from 2009 to 2010.

The feeding sessions were videotaped, and audio recordings of 418 calls made by 12 different ravens were also analyzed.

The results showed that each raven’s call differed depending on age and sex, which could mean that the calls are a way to inform nearby strangers of more than just the specifics of foraging opportunities.

“Our results suggest that ravens have the necessary variation in their food calls and the cognitive means to distinguish between specific classes of sex and age (class-recognition),” said Böckle. “This gives ravens the opportunity to use information about the caller in decision-making processes, such as whether to join or avoid foraging groups.”

The calls could also be used to help ravens recruit allies to help them in tricky food situations such as dominant ravens competing for the same food source.

According to the researchers, the different calls may determine age and sex because of several factors such as size differences between sexes and age groups as well and hormones that create different resonances and timbres.

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Ancient fossil reveals first wave of dinosaur flight

The Late Jurassic dinosaur bird Archaeopteryx is the oldest known flying member of the avian lineage, which also includes modern birds. While it is well known that modern-day birds extended from extinct dinosaurs, scientists still have a lot to discover about their early evolution and the development of avian flight. One of the biggest remaining questions has been whether the Archaeopteryx was a feathered ground dweller, a glider, or an active flyer. Up until now, traditional research methods have been unable to answer this question.

New research published in Nature Communications by an international team of scientists shows how cutting-edge technology was used to answer this decades-old question. The researchers used synchrotron microtomography at the European Synchrotron (ESRF) to look inside Archaeopteryx fossils, an important technological breakthrough, as these fossils are among the most valuable in the world, and this technique limits invasive probing.

“Fortunately, today it is no longer necessary to damage precious fossils,” says Dr. Paul Tafforeau, beamline scientist at the ESRF. “The exceptional sensitivity of X-ray imaging techniques for investigating large specimens that is available at the ESRF offers harmless microscopic insight into fossil bones and allows virtual 3D reconstructions of extraordinary quality.”

The scanning data showed that the wing bones of Archaeopteryx shares important adaptations with those of flying birds. These sections of bone contain necessary flight-related signals in birds, such as thinner bone walls. “Data analysis furthermore demonstrated that the bones of Archaeopteryx plot closest to those of birds like pheasants that occasionally use active flight to cross barriers or dodge predators, but not to those of gliding and soaring forms such as many birds of prey and some seabirds that are optimized for enduring flight,” explains lead author Dennis Voeten of the ESRF.

The fossils analyzed were found in the Late Jurassic sediments of southeastern Germany. “We know that the region around Solnhofen in southeastern Germany was a tropical archipelago, and such an environment appears highly suitable for island hopping or escape flight,” says Dr. Martin Röper, Archaeopteryx curator and co-author of the report.

These findings illustrate that Archaeopteryx is part of the first wave of dinosaurian flight strategies, which eventually went extinct, leaving behind the modern avian flight anatomy and physiology that we see in birds today.

“Indeed, we now know that Archaeopteryx was already actively flying around 150 million years ago, which implies that active dinosaurian flight had evolved even earlier!” exclaims Stanislav Bureš of Palacký University in Olomouc. “However, because Archaeopteryx lacked the pectoral adaptations to fly like modern birds, the way it achieved powered flight must also have been different. We will need to return to the fossils to answer the question on exactly how this Bavarian icon of evolution used its wings.”

By Connor Ertz, Earth.com Staff Writer

Image Credit: ESRF/Pascal Goetgheluck

AI machines can detect illegal wildlife trade on social media

The illegal wildlife trade, which poses a major threat to biodiversity conservation, has now become more easily accessible through the use of social media. Some scientists believe that this illegal industry can be effectively monitored on social media platforms using artificial intelligence.

Dr. Enrico Di Minin is a conservation scientist at the University of Helsinki who leads a team in the school’s Digital Geography Lab. The researchers are developing artificial intelligence methods to detect illegal wildlife trade activity on social media.

“Currently, the lack of tools for efficient monitoring of high-volume social media data limits the capability of law enforcement agencies to curb illegal wildlife trade,” said Dr. Di Minin.

“Processing such data manually is inefficient and time consuming, but methods from artificial intelligence, such as machine-learning algorithms, can be used to automatically identify relevant information.”

Dr. Di Minin pointed out that artificial intelligence methods are rarely used as tools to prevent biodiversity loss, despite their great potential to do so.

Many social media platforms have an interface that allows access to user-generated text, images, and videos. The researchers can also access information such as connections between the users and the time or date when specific content was uploaded.

The team is applying machine learning techniques to automatically identify content that relates to the illegal wildlife trade.

“Machine learning algorithms can be trained to detect which species or wildlife products, such as rhino horns, appear in an image or video contained in social media posts, while also classifying their setting, such as a natural habitat or a marketplace,” said co-author Christoph Fink.

According to study co-author Tuomo Hiippala, machine learning methods can be used to interpret the language of social media posts.

“Natural language processing can be used to infer the meaning of a sentence and to classify the sentiment of social media users towards illegal wildlife trade,” said Hiippala. “Most importantly, machine learning algorithms can process combinations of verbal, visual and audio-visual content.”

The study authors emphasized the importance of collaborating with law enforcement agencies and social media companies to further improve the effectiveness of their strategy.

The research is published in the journal Conservation Biology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Image Credit: Enrico Di Minin