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Big Brother is watching: Forest surveillance systems could reveal new terrestrial animals

Local communities may see for the first some the species that are living in their forests.
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A chimpanzee curiously examines one of the cameras. The Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation, the Uganda Wildlife Authority and the Wildlife Conservation Society.

A chimpanzee curiously examines one of the cameras. The Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation, the Uganda Wildlife Authority and the Wildlife Conservation Society.

BOGOR, Indonesia (27 February, 2012)_A global network of remote cameras placed in the tropical forests of seven countries has the potential to discover unexpected land-dwelling mammals and species that are thought to be extinct, according to the results of a study by a consortium of researchers.

“There has never been this kind of monitoring across the globe,” said Douglas Sheil, Senior Associate with the Center for International Forestry Research and director of the Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation.

“In the long term, this network has the potential to surprise us – in our forest, there are a couple of species which we haven’t seen for some time, such as forest hogs and otters – and who knows, we may see a couple of species that are thought to be locally extinct,”

Using a network of cameras in 17 different sites in tropical forests across seven countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, the Tropical Ecology Assessment & Monitoring Network captured almost 52,000 images of 105 mammal species between 2008 and 2010, including giant anteaters, buffalo, tapirs, jaguars, mountain gorillas, southern pig-tailed macaques, chimpanzees, elephants, and opossum.

While there have been various small scale studies in the past there are often difficult to compare as different researchers use different methods. Key to having a more objective global overview is the adoption of standard methods that produce standard data. Developing and implementing such standard approaches is no simple task but it has been achieved.  This paper, Community structure and diversity of tropical forest mammals: data from a global camera trap network, is the first major output.

Apart from being able to use the images to generate fancy statistics, we can show people actual pictures – I can show local people photographs of animals they never see, and say ‘this is in your forest’.

Published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, the study was primarily organised and sponsored by Conservation International, with contributions from the Center for International Forestry Research, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Smithsonian and other institutes worldwide — a truly global effort. Projects of this scale and connectivity are now crucial for ecological research in order to address issues of a global magnitude, such as climate change, which is expected to put 60 per cent of tropical forests worldwide at risk over the next decade.

Just as astronomers collaborate in analysing information gathered with instruments such as the Hubble, ecologists need to collectively gather and share data in order to understand how factors such as over-exploitation, hunting, climate change and water scarcity affect different regions worldwide, and thus identify priority areas for conservation.

“In the future, a study structure like this will allow us to see changes in the populations of animals over time, and determine which patterns are local and which are global,” says Sheil, a co-author of the study who, like his colleagues, describes the Tropical Ecology Assessment & Monitoring Network as an “early warning system for biodiversity”.

The presence of large mammal species in a forest is a valuable indicator of ecosystem health: large areas of productive forest with a rich diversity of plant and other animal species are necessary to support larger animals, from buffalo to elephant. Predators such as the jaguar are sensitive to declines in their prey species.

Moreover, larger animals not only rely on large areas of forest for their existence, they also provide key ecosystem services; herbivores and omnivores spread the seeds of trees and plants throughout the forest in their droppings. Predators regulate herbivore numbers preventing vegetation from being overly consumed and thus increasing plant biodiversity. It has even been suggested that the presence of large animals in a forest can help increase the capacity of the forest to store carbon.

Sheil concedes that this study did not throw up any surprising findings – countless papers have demonstrated the reliably consistent pattern that fragmented forests have lower levels of biodiversity than single continuous forest blocks of equivalent size.

“The real value of this paper was to show the validity of the approach and its potential for the future” says Dr Sheil.

The team now wishes to expand the network to more than 20 sites, which would lead to costs of around a million dollars a year, he says.

“It’s expensive, so the value needs to be demonstrated.”

One of the most beneficial outcomes of the network is the psychological impact it is having on people worldwide,

“Apart from being able to use the images to generate fancy statistics, we can show people actual pictures – I can show local people photographs of animals they never see, and say ‘this is in your forest’,” says Sheil.

When Conservation International first posted the images with a press release in August 2011, the story was picked up by more than 100 websites and blogs, including National Geographic, Wired and the International Business Times.

“These images allow us to actually engage with people by creating those conservation stories – for a general audience pictures are so much more attractive than statistics,” Sheil said.

Among the many challenges the study had to withstand: a chimpanzee in Uganda was especially curious — despite teeth marks the camera survived with a complete set of pictures of the assault.

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