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Satellite Images Support Research on Albatross

Technology is constantly evolving and being re-purposed for different areas of study, and conservation is no exception. Researchers recently used existing satellite technology to study a population of Northern Royal Albatross.

How do you estimate a bird population on a remote island? Normally, researchers conduct on-the-ground population surveys or use helicopter footage to estimate a population. But the methods of conservation are always changing, and most recently, researchers in New Zealand have taken a new approach: satellite images.

Researchers wanted to study the Northern Royal Albatross (Diomedea sanfordi), which is considered Endangered in part due to the presence of invasive predators such as feral cats and stoats on the islands where they breed. The Chatham Islands, New Zealand comprise one of the main breeding sites for the species, but due to the inaccessible nature of the islands, the birds had previously been poorly studied. Dr. Peter Fretwell from British Antarctic Survey commented:

Getting the people, ships or planes to these islands to count the birds is expensive, but it can be very dangerous as well.

island conservation chatham islands

The Chatham Islands have almost vertical cliffs which require climbing in order to count the birds on the ground. Credit: Paul Scofield

Traditional surveys on the island would be time-consuming and expensive, so researchers developed a more cost-effective and easier way to study the population–utilizing existing satellite technology for the benefit of conservation.

Using satellite images to calculate a species population estimate might seem far-fetched, but this technique really can be applied today. The WorldView-3 satellite can see any object larger than 30cm, making it easy to see a fully grown Albatross. Each Albatross appears only as two or three pixels in the image, but it is enough to identify the white birds from the lush green background.

island cosnervation chatham islands albatross count

Each albatross only appears as a few pixels in the satellite image, but their white plumage stands out against the earth. Credit: DigitalGlobe

In order to test this new process, researchers used the satellite to estimate a population of Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans) on South Georgia Island that has been extensively studied and surveyed. Researchers found that the new satellite method is accurate and can help establish population estimates for hard-to-reach species. Professor Paul Scofield, Canterbury Museum’s Senior Curator Natural History and a co-author of the study commented:

The ground-breaking image resolution of the newly-available satellite will provide a step change in our ability to count albatross, large birds and other wildlife directly from space without disturbance, at potentially lower cost and with minimal logistical effort.

island conservation northern royal albatross

A Northern Royal Albatross and its chick. Credit: Paul Scofield

When they tried the satellite approach on the Chatham Islands, researchers found mixed results for the populations. On one island the Northern Royal Albatross appears to be stable while on other islands the population is declining. Scofield explained:

This is a major conservation concern for this globally-endangered albatross species. This technique will be an invaluable global conservation resource that can give us near real time information about the status of endangered species.

New applications of technologies like satellite imagery allow conservationists and researchers to make informed decisions on conservation measures. Development of new technology is not always necessary to further conservation–sometimes the technology is right in front of us! Applying the tools we already have in new ways simply takes thinking outside the box.

Featured photo: Satellite image of Baja California. Credit: NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center
Sources:
BBC
Scoop New Zealand
IUCN Red List

About Emily Heber

Emily is a recent graduate from UC Santa Barbara with a BS in Zoology. As a student, she discovered that she had a passion for the conservation of endangered species and their ecosystems. Her background in informal education has allowed her the opportunity to share her passion for animals with others, something she seeks to continue doing while working with the communication team. In her spare time, Emily enjoys exploring the amazing hiking trails found in Santa Cruz and tries to SCUBA dive whenever possible. Emily is excited to join the Island Conservation team and to help share the amazing work that is being done here.

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