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Space-based tracker to give scientists a beyond-bird’s-eye-view of wildlife

The International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space, or ICARUS, will be flying closer to the sun than ever when a pair of Russian cosmonauts installs the antennae for its state-of-the-art animal tracking system on the exterior of the International Space Station on Aug. 15. The installation will be one small step for the cosmonauts and one giant leap for Yale biodiversity research.

Thanks to the recently founded Max Planck-Yale Center (MPYC) for Biodiversity Movement and Global Change, Yale and U.S.-based biodiversity researchers will be among the first to make use of the big data that this groundbreaking scientific instrument will be collecting by early 2019.

For the past 16 years, ICARUS has been simultaneously developing the tiniest transmitters (by 2025, the team hopes to scale down solar-powered backpacks enough to fit them on desert locusts) and some of the most massive antennae (the equipment that the cosmonauts will be installing). Together, these two new technologies will give biodiversity researchers an unprecedented, extraterrestrial perspective on the lives of some of Earth’s smallest and most mobile creatures, such as fruit bats, baby turtles, parrots, and songbirds.

“The system represents a quantum leap for the study of animal movements and migration, and will enable real-time biodiversity monitoring at a global scale,” said Walter Jetz, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale and co-director of the MPYC.

"I expect ICARUS to exceed what has existed to date by at least an order of magnitude and someday potentially several orders." -walter jetz

“In the past, tracking studies have been limited to, at best, a few dozen simultaneously followed individuals, and the tags were large and readouts costly,” added Jetz. “In terms of scale and cost, I expect ICARUS to exceed what has existed to date by at least an order of magnitude and someday potentially several orders. This new tracking system has the potential to transform multiple fields of study.”

Even with the limited tracking technology available, biodiversity researchers have already been able to predict volcanic eruptions by tracking the movements of goat herds and understand impacts of climate change by following migration changes in birds. This new space station-based system will allow researchers to see “not only where an animal is but also what it is doing,” explained Martin Wikelski, chief strategist for ICARUS, director of the Max Planck Center for Ornithology, and co-director with Jetz of the MPYC.

“At a global scale, we will be able to monitor individual animal behaviors as well as get a grasp of their intricate life histories and interactions with each other,” said Wikelski. In addition to positional coordinates, the transmitters are able to capture each animal’s acceleration, alignment to the magnetic field of Earth, and moment-to-moment environmental conditions, including ambient temperature, air pressure, and humidity.

The technology provides an exciting tool to monitor changing wildlife and the connectivity of landscapes for conservation and public health, explained Jetz. Researchers will be able to apply this new language of mass animal movement to everything from greater forewarning of geological disasters, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, to monitoring the next potential disease outbreak in humans. For example, Wikelski plans to use the new system to advance his own project of tracking the movement of African fruit bats as sentinels for finding the hosts of the Ebola virus. (Fruit bats have antibodies against, but do not transmit, this deadly disease.)

“Tracked animals can act as intelligent sensors and biological sentinels and in near real-time inform us about the biodiversity effects of ongoing environmental change,” explained Jetz.

By the beginning of 2019, Wikelski and colleagues will have 1,000 transmitters in the field, but eventually, they hope to grow that number to 100,000. Every time a transmitter enters the International Space Station’s beam — roughly four times daily — it may send up a data packet of 223 bytes. From there, the data will be relayed back to the ground station and subsequently distributed to research teams. All data — except sensitive conservation data such as rhino locations — will also be published on the publicly accessible database MoveBank, and will inform maps and trends in Map of Life, a web-based initiative headed by Jetz that integrates global biodiversity evidence.

As with all fields of scientific research, however, the data are only as good as their processing and analysis. MPYC will be the primary initial interpreter of the big data harvested by the ICARUS satellite. Fortunately, Jetz notes, with Yale’s investment in integrative data science as a research priority, MPYC can handle the big data sets that the ICARUS tracking system generates.

“Going back to my own Ph.D. work observing and tracking nocturnal birds in Africa with much inferior technology,” said Jetz, “I was always driven by the wish to document and understand biodiversity from the level of the individual up to the global scale.”

“The new technology will allow us to put the bigger picture together,” Jetz continued. “Thanks to the near-global scale of ICARUS and satellite-based remote sensing of the environment, we are finally able to connect individual behaviors and decisions with the use of space and environments at large scales. Our collaboration with Max Planck and ICARUS is a wonderful enabler of and complement to our work at Yale.”

View article on Yale News

Mapping Species for Half-Earth

The Significance of Biodiversity

Biodiversity is the variety of life on Earth, the building blocks of functioning ecosystems that provide the natural services on which all life depends, including people. Species, the fundamental units of biodiversity, are in the midst of an extinction crisis, losing ground globally at a rate 1,000 times greater than at any time in human history due to factors like habitat loss and climate change.

How do we stop this? Knowing where species live and the pressures threatening them is paramount in reversing the extinction crisis and maintaining the health of our planet, for ourselves and for future generations. As the impact of humans increasingly encroaches on critical habitats everywhere, determining ‘where’ to protect is just as critical as ‘how much’ to protect.

The Half-Earth Project In his book, Half-Earth, acclaimed biologist Edward O. Wilson proposed a solution commensurate with the problem: conserve half the Earth’s land and sea to protect the bulk of biodiversity from extinction. Scientists agreed that this proposal was both necessary and possible.

“In order to stave off the mass extinction of species, including our own, we must move swiftly to preserve the biodiversity of our planet.” — E.O. Wilson Born from his book and built on a solid scientific foundation, the Half-Earth Project is working to conserve half the Earth by protecting sufficient habitat to reverse the species extinction crisis and ensure the long-term health of our planet.

The next question the Half-Earth Project needed to answer was, which Half?

Mapping Half-Earth

Enter Map of Life. Map of Life is a core tool of the Half-Earth Project, which is working to identify and prioritize areas of greatest biodiversity value, and communicate this information in new, dynamic, and engaging ways.

Based out of Yale University and the University of Florida, Map of Life assembles, integrates, and analyzes data on global species distributions. It brings together a wealth of information, assessing information on nearly 100,000 species from hundreds of data sources with multiple data types.

Building on several years of close collaboration with Google, Map of Life leverages Google Cloud Platform services to support biodiversity research, monitoring, education, and decision-making. By leveraging an enormous biodiversity database and a suite of spatial modeling tools, Map of Life is able to capture detailed patterns of species distributions at planetary scale.

Today, the Half-Earth Project Map is using new and existing data and applying cutting-edge capabilities of Google Cloud Platform with the goal of mapping terrestrial, marine, and freshwater species at up to 1 kilometer resolution.

Science-Driven Conservation: A big data problem using Google Cloud Platform solutions Data Warehousing For an initial set of analyses we leveraged the PostGIS suite of spatial functions to measure expected species presence by overlaying species range map polygons with a global grid composed of approximately 110 km x 110 km cells.

Outputs from these intersections are stored on Google Cloud Storage and imported to the BigQuery data warehousing service. The speed at which BigQuery can aggregate across large tables and compute metrics has been vital for analyzing large volumes of biodiversity data. This is increasingly important as the Half-Earth Project continues to add new species groups and generates higher resolution predictions of where species occur. Tables currently in the hundreds of millions of rows may scale to billions or trillions of rows as our taxonomic and spatial resolution increases. The low storage cost and transaction-based pricing BigQuery offers allows us to query and aggregate tables of such size without the maintenance and overhead required by a traditional data warehouse solution.

Measuring Biodiversity One aspect of our work measured biodiversity data in two ways: richness and range rarity.

Richness is the number of species occurring, or expected to occur, within a given area. Richness is the simplest way to measure biodiversity.

Range rarity is a continuous metric of range-restrictedness and crucial for considering species with very small ranges that are often of greatest conservation concern. Range rarity is a close proxy for the irreplaceability of a location when the goal is to conserve as many species as possible.

Determining Goals for Species Protection Another aspect of our analysis included estimating the amount of land already protected within any given ca. 100km cells grid cell (mentioned above). To map the protected area network, we filtered the World Database of Protected Areas, which became available as an Earth Engine public table asset in 2017, to remove redundant reserves and so called “paper-parks” that lack on-the-ground biodiversity protection. For areas that lack a geometry and only include a point location and reserve area, we generated a polygon by buffering the point provided to the size of the park. We then computed the area protected within each grid cell, and exported the results to Cloud Storage.

While no habitat loss is ideal, species with larger range sizes can generally afford to lose more habitat than those with smaller ranges. Accordingly, we determined individual species “protected” status based on range size and the proportion of their range that is protected. As the amount of protected area increases, the number of species protected also increases.

But what is good for one species group is not necessarily ideal for another, and what is good for the whole of biodiversity may leave small groups vulnerable.

To address this, we leveraged BigQuery’s support for user defined functions (UDF) and computed adequate protection levels with a simple javascript function. Given the ability to apply this test to each species, we ranked grid cells for each species group and tested to see how many species’ global protections met the criteria via a BigQuery window function run across the ranked grid.

Progress toward Half-Earth will be measured as a running total of conservation protections, with the ultimate goal being half the Earth’s land and sea. BigQuery window functions allow this to be computed quickly for each cell in the grid. As we selected breakpoints up to 50% of the Earth’s area, we tested each species with our function to see whether it met its minimum protected area, then counted the number of species that met the criteria for each step in the scenario.

Putting It Together To ensure rapid map tile delivery to the globe, we generated and exported static tilesets to Cloud Storage using Earth Engine’s Export.map.toCloudStorage() feature. This meant exporting compiled data as CSV from BigQuery, which can be re-joined to the grid Shapefile using OGR command line tools and ingested to Earth Engine as a table asset. From there we were able to visualize and explore the data in the Earth Engine code editor and export tiles once we were satisfied with the appearance.

Finally, with our Cloud Storage bucket populated with map tiles and data to drive charts and infographics, the front-end wizards at Vizzuality plugged in to our API to bring it all to life on the Half-Earth Map.

The Half-Earth Map pieces together species distribution data, the protected areas map, and a mask of human activities into a single map useful to scientists, conservationists, communities, decision-makers and anyone interested in biodiversity and the health of our planet.

View article on Medium

Mapping Earth’s Species to Identify Conservation Priorities

THE HALF-EARTH PROJECT IS ‘UNLOCKING A NEW ERA IN DATA-DRIVEN CONSERVATION.’ The Half-Earth Project has launched online the first phase of their cutting-edge global biodiversity map. This unique, interactive asset uses the latest science and technology to map thousands of species around the world and illuminate where future conservation efforts should be located to best care for our planet and ourselves.

“The extinction of species by human activity continues to accelerate, fast enough to eliminate more than half of all species by the end of this century,” said E.O. Wilson in the New York Times Sunday Review on March 3. “We have to enlarge the area of Earth devoted to the natural world enough to save the variety of life within it. The formula widely agreed upon by conservation scientists is to keep half the land and half the sea of the planet as wild and protected from human intervention or activity as possible.”

Born from Wilson’s book Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, the Half-Earth Project is providing the urgently needed research, leadership and knowledge necessary to conserve half the planet’s surface. The new map sits at the center of this effort. By mapping the biodiversity of our planet, we can identify the best places to conserve to safeguard the maximum number of species.

“The Half-Earth Project is mapping the fine distribution of species across the globe to identify the places where we canprotect the highest number of species,” Wilson said. “By determining which blocks of land and sea we can string together for maximum effect, we have the opportunity to support the most biodiverse places in the world as well as the people who call these paradises home.”

The Half-Earth Project is targeting completion of the fine-scale species distribution map for most known terrestrial, marine, and freshwater plant and animal species within 5 years.

“This mapping tool is unlocking a new era in data-driven conservation,” said Paula Ehrlich, President and CEO of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation and head of the Half-Earth Project. “It will provide the scientific foundation upon which communities, scientists, conservationists and decision-makers can achieve the goal of Half-Earth.”

A $5 million leadership gift from E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation board member Jeff Ubben and his wife Laurie will seed the second phase of the Half-Earth Project’s mapping effort.

“Half-Earth can’t wait. We have to work quickly and we need to be smart about how we do the work,” said Jeff Ubben. “This map will give us the information we need to make strong conservation investments.”

“Ed Wilson framed Half-Earth as a moonshot necessary to preserve the future health of our planet,” Ehrlich said. “The investment in our work from Jeff and Laurie Ubben attaches rocket boosters to this moonshot.”

View article on Half-Earth Project

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Latest Blog Posts

Map of Life supports the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation as science partner for the Half-Earth Project

Tuesday, October 24, 2017
The Half-Earth Project “The Half-Earth Project is founded on science, but at its heart is our transcendent moral obligation to all life.” - E.O. Wilson We are currently in a biodiversity crisis, with species going extinct at a rate 1000 times higher than the natural rate. Rather than passively documenting the decline of species, the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation founded their ground-breaking initiative: The Half-Earth Project. Edward O. Wilson’s book, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (2016), proposes this monumental idea to save half the earth for the rest of life. Through the establishments of partnerships and supporting research, leadership, and engagement, the project’s mission is to help prioritize the preservation of biodiversity on half of the earth’s land and sea. Mapping Core The key question is: What are the places to prioritize for this Half-Earth network? This is what the Half-Earth Project’s Mapping Core has set out to answer. Its mission is to assess the current state of global ... read more »

Updates to Map of Life infrastructure

Friday, September 22, 2017
Over the past year, we have been overhauling our database so that we can improve the performance of mol.org and thus providing you -our users- with a better experience. It is a real challenge to manage and visualize large volumes of data, and this change is part of our on-going effort to improve the efficiency of our website and spatial analyses. We have also developed some new features for the Global Biodiversity Mountain Assessment Mountain Portal 2.0. Here are some new features you can enjoy: Additional data, including more range maps, updated point occurrences, local inventories, and more. Faster map loading speeds, particularly on the species page. Descriptions and metrics for mountain regions. Language support for an additional 4 languages (Spanish, French, German, and Chinese) in the species and regions pages. Portuguese will be coming soon! The Datasets page is now live. New Map of Life Datasets page! In order to increase the loading speed of the species maps, some features are temporarily ... read more »

Global Mountain Biodiversity Assessment Mountain Portal: a powerful new online tool developed by Map of Life for exploring mountain biodiversity

Sunday, December 11, 2016
The Global Mountain Biodiversity Assessment (GMBA) teamed up with Map of Life (MOL) to launch a new web-portal for the visualization and exploration of biodiversity data for over 1000 mountain ranges defined worldwide. Global mountain inventory Mountains are hotspots of biodiversity and areas of high endemism that support one third of terrestrial species and numerous ecosystem services. Mountain ecosystems are therefore of prime importance not only for biodiversity, but for human well-being in general. Because of their geodiversity, mountain ecosystems have served as refuge for organisms during past climatic changes and are predicted to fulfill this role also under forthcoming changes. Yet, mountains are responding to increasing land use pressure and changes in climatic conditions, and collecting, consolidating, and standardizing biodiversity data in mountain regions is therefore important for improving our current understanding of biodiversity patterns and predicting future trends. In order to accurately ... read more »
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