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AI is now at the forefront of saving endangered manatees, the cows of the sea

Manatees, often known for their immense appetites and extended feeding times, face a constant struggle for survival as an endangered species.

These gentle marine mammals, spending up to eight hours a day foraging in shallow waters, are highly susceptible to environmental changes and other threats.

Counting endangered manatees isn’t easy

Given their vulnerability, accurately assessing manatee populations is crucial, particularly for formulating protective measures for these creatures against boating and diving activities. However, counting manatees presents significant challenges.

One of the primary difficulties in manatee counting stems from their social nature. Manatees typically congregate in groups, making it hard to count them accurately from the water’s surface.

Smaller manatees are often obscured by larger ones, and reflections on the water further complicate the task, sometimes rendering them invisible or leading to their misidentification as inanimate objects like rocks or branches.

Traditionally, aerial surveys have been employed in some regions to monitor manatee populations. This method, while useful, is both time-consuming and expensive.

Moreover, its accuracy heavily depends on external factors like weather conditions and the time of day. In light of these limitations, researchers have been seeking more efficient and cost-effective alternatives.

AI meets marine biology

In a pioneering technological development, researchers supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation at Florida Atlantic University have introduced an innovative approach.

Utilizing a deep learning-based crowd counting technique, they have successfully automated the process of counting manatees.

This method leverages images captured from CCTV cameras, offering a real-time population count and alerting ecologists to potential threats.

This new AI technique represents a significant advancement in addressing the technical challenges of counting animals in complex environments.

Collaborative conservation with shared data

By analyzing surveillance video footage captured at the water’s surface, researchers can now identify manatee densities and calculate their numbers more accurately.

They achieve this by using a special design that matches the unique shape of manatees, transforming these images into customized density maps specifically tailored for manatee counting through AI machine learning.

Furthermore, in an effort to validate their method and foster further research, the team has developed a comprehensive manatee counting dataset.

This dataset, which is published on GitHub, is accessible to the public, paving the way for wider application and collaboration in the field of marine conservation.

In summary, this research offers potential new ways to aid endangered species like manatees, and also signify a pivotal moment in wildlife conservation technology.

Through such innovative approaches, the protection and preservation of vulnerable species become more effective, ensuring a brighter future for these majestic creatures of the sea.

AI offers new hope for endangered manatees

As discussed above, manatees, often referred to as sea cows, capture the hearts of marine enthusiasts and conservationists alike.

These serene mammals, gliding gracefully through coastal waters and rivers, play a crucial role in their ecosystems.

Manatees belong to the Sirenia order, sharing this group with the less-known dugongs. They have a distinct appearance: large, gray, and often bearing algae on their thick skin.

Their paddle-like tails and flippers exemplify their adaptation to aquatic life.

Diet and habitat

Primarily herbivores, manatees spend much of their time feeding on a variety of water plants. This feeding habit is vital for maintaining healthy aquatic ecosystems, as it helps control the growth of vegetation.

They inhabit warm waters, primarily found in shallow, slow-moving rivers, estuaries, saltwater bays, and coastal areas.

Threats and conservation

Despite their size, manatees face numerous threats. Collisions with boats, loss of habitat, and climate change pose significant risks to their survival.

As a result, conservation efforts have become increasingly important. Organizations worldwide are working to protect their habitats, enforce boat speed regulations, and raise public awareness about these gentle creatures.

Endangered manatees, humans and the future

Humans have a unique relationship with manatees, often drawn to their peaceful demeanor. In some regions, they have become a significant tourist attraction, bringing people closer to nature and fostering a sense of stewardship for the environment.

The future of manatees hinges on effective conservation strategies and public awareness. By understanding these gentle giants and the challenges they face, we can work towards a future where manatees thrive in their natural habitats, continuing to enchant and remind us of the delicate balance within our marine ecosystems.

The full study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.


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