Explore the incredible work of computer conservationists

For those of you cursing autocorrect right now, here’s a comforting fact. Today’s gadgets, apps, programs and the overall accessibility of the Internet are helping conservationists and animal biologists big time, allowing them to ask far more complex questions than traditional tools realistically allow, at a fraction of the price.

WWF’s chief scientist and vice president Jon Hoekstra wrote in a Foreign Affairs article that the pace of technological advancement is now finally able to let researchers keep up with the worst environmental problems, maybe even get ahead of some of them.

‘New technologies have given conservationists abilities that would have seemed like super powers just a few years ago,’ writes Hoekstra. ‘We can now monitor entire ecosystems—think of the Amazon rainforest—in nearly real time, using remote sensors to map their three-dimensional structures; satellite communications to follow elusive creatures, such as the jaguar and the puma; and smartphones to report illegal logging.’

The list of apps and software available to researchers today worldwide is truly massive—good news for animals and those who study them everywhere. From the largest life forms on earth to the smallest, technology is changing the way researchers think, work, and dream.

Aggregating the already known

Arguably the biggest restraints facing any researcher are time and money. Lab and fieldwork can be incredibly pricey. And as humans, even a fairly large research group has a limit to the amount of information they can feasibly process.

Wayne Thogmartin is a quantitative ecologist with the United States Geological Survey who says after five years of fieldwork, he realised the future of science funding looked bleak, so decided to switch up his skill-set, completing his Masters and PhD entirely using computer-based research methods.

‘It’s difficult for any individual to collect enough data to address even one specific ecological question,’ says Thogmartin. ‘I figured the best way to keep myself viable was to become more efficient and economical. Computer methods have the power to bring together and tap into data already out there, allowing us to ask bigger questions with less on the ground effort.’

Thogmartin relies on data from sources like Cornell Ornithology’s eBird, the Christmas Bird Count, and the Fish and Wildlife Service, dedicating most of his research to critters with tricky to track widespread populations and ranges like birds and bats.

His work helps direct state and federal conservation efforts. He also works with groups like Partners in Flight, helping to ensure their conservation efforts are as economical as possible by overlapping species stats with government and public land maps. With many native prairie birds and migrators in a state of continuous decline and North American bat populations suffering unprecedented losses thanks to white nose syndrome, there’s a lot of data out there. But Thogmartin says without ways to weave together this information, in many cases the whole image would be out of reach.

Researchers like Thogmartin are already thinking on a pretty large scale, but some of his peers are taking the bigger-is-better mantra even further, tackling global data to ask questions about the state of animal and plant populations worldwide.

Putting the World Wide Web to good use

Though the Internet is the new standard repository of knowledge, a lot of important data lays buried in the libraries of academic institutions, museums, and researchers’ private collections.

Plant biologist turned big data conjurer Roberto Salguero-Gómez heads up two matrix databases, COMPADRE, for plants, and COMADRE, for animals. During his PhD. work he stumbled upon a query he couldn’t answer on his own. Studying a desert plant adaption called shrinkage, which the arid land chamaephyte uses to physically decrease their size in response to drought, Salugero-Gómez found individuals capable of the feat fared better in the future.

‘I wanted to know if this adaption was a one time trick or not across the plant kingdom,’ he says. ‘I needed big data to ask that question—that’s when COMPADRE came into my life.’

Miguel Franco and Jonathan Silvertown initially created COMPADRE back in the late 1980s, aggregating a digital database in the hopes of learning more about the greener forms of life, in the end around 100 species.

‘It took real dedication but from their work came some of the most influential papers in my field,’ Saguaro-Gómez says.

In 2006 Saguaro-Gómez reached out to Franco and Silvertown, who agreed to share their database, something he says not many researchers were willing to do at the time. Others had added to COMPADRE, but by the end of Salguero-Gómez’s PhD, the database included 500 plus species and new types of data, like matrix population model studies, characterising individuals in a population by their likelihood to survive and transition between life stages. 

Using the new version of COMPADRE, Salguero-Gomez published his thesis, placing shrinkage in the context of the Tree of Life, then headed to Germany’s famous Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research for postdoctoral work. In Germany, he explains, he was the only plant biologist amongst a research team of 200 or more, so became inspired to create a COMPADRE-like database for the animal kingdom.

Begun in 2011, with the help of his colleagues COMADRE just went online this year, alongside an updated version of COMPADRE. The website hosting both databases tracks their access statistics, currently averaging about 20 visitors daily according to Salguero-Gómez, and including hits from just about every country worldwide.

And the databases are constantly growing. Salguero-Gómez says each week the team finds a handful or more of papers they want to digitise.

‘The potential of our databases are as large as the creativity of people essentially,’ says Salguero- Gómez.

Big data is helping biologists and animal researchers become more unified, but what impact are these type of international databases having on conservation? A lot of other applications and projects work around the sample principles as COMPADRE and COMADRE, coupling different types of data together to drive the decisions of nature-stakeholders like land managers, conservationists, government officials and policy makers.

Leading conservation efforts in the right direction


Founded in 1981 but only recently available to the public, The World Database on Protected Areas is a joint venture between the United Nations Environmental Program World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP- WCMC) and the IUCN, considered the most complete database of government protected areas worldwide. Of course the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, listing things like the population size, range and habitat needs of many of the word’s known species, is in itself an example worthy of mention, with origins dating way back to 1968.

NatureServe’s Biodiversity Indicators Dashboard uses data from big organizations like the IUCN and the REDD list to create a layered-mapping tool that provides insight into the current status, conservation response, ecosystem benefits, and pressures facing various habitats. The Wildlife Conservation Society’s Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool, SMART, uses GPS or a Cybertracker application to track illegal poaching in wildlife parks.

Getting marine-specific, Google’s Global Fish Watch was created to help prevent vessel strikes but is now also used to analyze human fishing patterns globally. The UNEP-WCMC also hosts Ocean Data Viewer, holding marine conservation datasets galore.

The full list of technological tools aiding the conservation movement wouldn’t fit in a readable article, but there’s no need to feel daunted. Big data tools are increasingly putting the general public to work, using citizen scientists to handle the work there simply aren’t enough trained researchers to address or assess.

Making the impossible possible in time

While a lot of the first citizen science undertakings, like Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, were fueled by people already passionate about the topics in question these days big data projects are drawing in otherwise uninterested individuals too.

Google’s Earth Engine, coupling three decades worth of satellite imagery and scientific datasets, has been around for a while but is now the technological workhorse of The World Resource Institute’s Global Forest Watch, or GWF, a citizen science tool aiming to coordinate deforestation campaigns. Platforms like Zoonverse host a slew of citizen science endeavors from all over the world, many of which ask users to sort through and label thousands of images from remote camera traps, like Penguin Watch. Other projects use live streaming footage, like channels hosted by explore.org, relying on viewers to capture important moments or document notes.

Citizen science projects are also helping monitor the health of bodies of water, travels of migrators, and species’ reproductive success. The Appalachian Mountain Club even gets visitors to record wildflower sightings to understand how the region’s flora is responding to climate changes.

The list of citizen science projects lending conservations a hand globally may be even larger than the list of technological tools for researchers. The ease of access to information has made the potential science workforce bigger than ever, but just as with traditional research, roadblocks remain. Thogmartin and Salguero-Gomez both point out that if cooperative, big data efforts aren’t supported early enough, or all invested groups aren’t on board, the power of these tools is greatly weakened.

A prime example of the problems that arise when these conditions aren’t met is playing out right now, Thogmartin says. NABat, the North American Bat Monitoring program, was first suggested nearly two decades ago when researchers recognized no generalized monitoring systems were in place to record the continent’s bat populations, but the idea floundered until 2006 with the full onset of white nose syndrome.

‘Had we begun NABat when first suggested, we’d be much better suited to handle the situation we’re in right now, scrambling to make out what’s happening with so many blanks in the past,’ says Thogmartin.

Salguero-Gomez agrees that these familiar restraints still limit big data work, but adds that he believes the more people who become connected to the Internet, the more converted citizen scientists there will be.

‘We need to understand our resources to properly protect them,’ says Salguero-Gomez. ‘I dream of a future where we’ll all have an app that snaps a shot of a passing butterfly that then connects to a global database providing instant access to everything there is to know about that butterfly,’ he says. ‘Gone are the days of closed paper studies or research being only for formal scientists. Technology has already revolutionised my field—now it’s working on the general public.’