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Small scale wildlife surveys can reveal the health of entire ecosystems

Monitoring wildlife is one of the most expensive and challenging aspects of conservation, often depending on long-term observations of individual species. However, according to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a new and effective method relying on small-scale wildlife surveys could be used to reveal the health of entire ecosystems. 

Unlike traditional approaches, this one focuses on interactions between species, such as birds feeding on plants or insects pollinating flowers. It starts with the assumption that, when environmental conditions change, interactions between species frequently change too, and can thus provide an early indicator of wider problems. 

As a result, a small snapshot of interactions can often be a reliable indicator of the status of an entire community of species, offering critical information regarding the risks some species currently face.

“All communities of plants and animals are supported by an underlying network of interactions between species,” said co-author Christopher Kaiser-Bunbury, a senior lecturer in Conservation and Ecology at the University of Exeter.

“Our study – which combines theory, statistics, and real-world data – shows that examining a few of these interactions can provide ‘big picture’ conclusions about ecosystem health. This information is essential for policymakers, scientists, and societies, as we try to tackle the global biodiversity crisis.”

This method allows scientists to identify patterns more quickly than traditional conservation monitoring – which is vital, considering the rapid changes that human activities cause in a variety of ecosystems worldwide.

“Using minimal resources, we can rapidly assess both the persistence of entire ecological networks and the expected success of restoration,” said co-author Benno Simmons, an ecologist and conservationist at Exeter. “Our method is especially effective at identifying when an ecological community is not persistent – allowing for rapid detection of extinction risk.”

More about wildlife surveys

Wildlife surveys are an important part of wildlife management, conservation efforts, and ecological research. They provide vital data about the population sizes, distribution, behaviors, and health of various species in a particular area. Here are a few key points about wildlife surveys:

Types of Wildlife Surveys

These can be broadly categorized into two types: direct and indirect surveys. Direct surveys involve directly observing animals in their habitat, often counting individuals or groups. Indirect surveys, on the other hand, rely on signs of an animal’s presence, such as tracks, nests, scat, or vocalizations.

Methods Used

There are a number of different methods used for wildlife surveys, including:

Line Transect Surveys

In this method, surveyors walk along a predetermined path, or transect, and record the number of animals seen or heard.

Point Counts

This is a method often used for bird surveys. Observers stay in one place for a set period of time and count the number of individuals of each species that they see or hear.

Camera Trapping

Cameras with motion sensors are set up in the wild to automatically take photos or videos when an animal passes by. This is a great way to study elusive, nocturnal, or rare species.

Aerial Surveys

These are often used for large or difficult-to-reach areas, such as for counting large herds of mammals in savannas or tracking marine life.

Data Analysis and Interpretation

Once the data is collected, it’s analyzed to derive useful information, such as population estimates, distribution patterns, and changes over time. This requires statistical analysis and can be quite complex, particularly because imperfect detection (i.e., the fact that not every animal present will be seen or heard during a survey) must be accounted for.


Wildlife surveys are critical for conserving biodiversity, managing wildlife resources, and making informed decisions regarding land use and policy. They provide the data needed to assess the status of a species or a habitat, which can guide conservation efforts and policy decisions.


There are many challenges involved in conducting wildlife surveys. These can include logistical difficulties, such as reaching remote areas, the potential for bias in observation or counting, and the need for significant resources and expertise. Additionally, there are always ethical considerations to ensure that surveys do not unduly disturb or harm the animals being studied.

Technological advancements, such as the use of drones, acoustic recorders, and satellite imagery, are helping to overcome some of these challenges and are providing new ways to monitor wildlife populations.


By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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