Newest Wonders in Wildlife Conservation


Mathias Appel

The unmistakable bright orange eyes of a lemur, sitting in its natural habitat. Courtesy of Mathias Appel

Ten years ago, the thought of facial recognition, drones, and artificial intelligence may have been viewed as nothing more than a fantasy. However, in today’s world, these advancements in technology have not only taken over people’s daily lives, but have been implemented in the world of wildlife conservation. Modern technology has deeply impacted conservationists’ efforts to understand environments and animal behavior in order to better preserve the world’s species. Whether it is the idea of taking the DNA of an environment or using facial recognition in the animal world, developments in technology have served wonders in wildlife conservation—a field that is more advanced than ever before. 

Environmental DNA, eDNA, has been a scientific breakthrough in the conservation world. This new form of organism identification has better allowed researchers and scientists to understand the genetic diversity of species in a particular environment. Collecting eDNA involves the conservationists picking up any organic matter that may contain a species’ leftover DNA. This includes their soil, feces, mucus, shedded hair, dead skin, and carcasses. After collecting samples, the scientists use a process called metabarcoding, that sequences DNA, and identifies the organism it belongs to. Conservationists can use this method as a surveillance tool to detect the presence of certain animals in an area, whether rare or invasive. The use of environmental DNA has allowed scientists to better understand population density and further monitor certain species’ range and distribution. 

Why is this important? Well, eDNA is, simply put, DNA that no longer resides within the animal’s body. This means that scientists don’t need to capture and swab animals in order to study them, making it a much less invasive and harmful process for the animals. Because eDNA can be harvested from water as well, this advancement can allow scientists to investigate all habitats and ecosystems while also being a cost-effective, harmless, and convenient process. 

On the topic of identification opportunities, scientists and experts in biotechnology have been working together to implement the newest and most exciting development of all; facial recognition for animals. Much like the method people use to unlock their phones, pictures of each individual animal are embedded in the scanner’s data, which is then used to match animals with the pictures in the data. 

It’s a common assumption that most animals of the same species look the exact same. Well, not really. To begin their research, scientists at Michigan State University started off with animals that are easily distinguishable from their fellow species; lemurs. They went on to build “a facial recognition system that, with a little training, correctly identified individuals in a set of red-bellied lemur photos with 98 percent accuracy.” According to Anil Jain, a MSU biometrics expert, facial recognition systems use fur patterns, eye spacing, face blemishes, and nose-to-mouth ratios in order to build an identity. This new development is called LemurFaceID and not only makes animal tracking and identification more convenient, but it also makes it less invasive and stressful for the animals. As more and more conservationists switch to facial recognition in order to track animals, there will no longer be a need for previous methods such as tranquilizer darts, microchips, or funny-looking tracking collars. 

Whether it is new concepts of taking the DNA of an environment or using a method previously only used to unlock iPhones, the world of conservation has faced wonders in recent years. Because of these developments in technology, scientists are better able to understand the wildlife they work with and help preserve them for generations to come. As new animals continue to enter the endangered species list and are in need of critical help, one thing is for sure—there is hope for wildlife in these newest developments in wildlife conservation.