By all accounts, the riverine rabbit of South Africa’s Karoo Desert is not doing well. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the species as critically endangered and notes that there are just 250 breeding pairs left. This long-eared rabbit, also known as the bushman hare, lives in the bands of vegetation that line the desert’s rivers. But as agriculture takes over these areas, the animals are losing habitat, being hunted for their meat, and being killed accidentally in traps set for farm pests. One more thing: You can poke them with a pillow and practically kill them.
“Riverine rabbits are incredibly delicate,” says Maisie Rashman, an astrophysicist at Liverpool John Moores University in the United Kingdom. “By touching them, you do them physical harm.”
Now, you may be wondering why an astrophysicist in the U.K. knows much of anything about a rare rabbit in the South African bush. Interestingly, Rashman is part of a team that’s trying to mesh space science with conservation by applying technologies used for searching for new galaxies to studying these rabbits and other elusive critters on our planet.
They call it astro-ecology, and the field may provide us with better tools to count up the populations of the animals we want to save. After all, you can’t conserve a species very effectively if you don’t know how many are left. “As astrophysicists, we spend a lot of time thinking about things that don’t affect humanity too much,” says Rashman. “We’re very concerned with the universe and the pursuit of knowledge, but sometimes we feel like we can give back more to science.”
Riverine rabbits and galaxies far, far away have something in common—they generate heat. This has allowed Rashman and her colleagues to locate a handful of bunnies in the bush with a few drones equipped with thermal-infrared cameras.
OK, that’s oversimplifying it a bit. The project also requires a bunch of snazzy image analysis software, programs to control the drones’ flights, and a team of astrophysicists who have gotten really good at tweaking their tech to overcome obstacles unique to Earthly habitats. For instance, in space, a researcher doesn’t typically have to worry about leaves and water blocking the view.
But the team doesn’t just want fancy rabbit-counting drones. They want to build a system that could keep an eye on animals living in all of our planet’s diverse habitats. Within the next six months, they will travel to Borneo to try counting orangutans and orangutan nests. After that, it’s on to Mexico to find spider monkeys and river dolphins. Then it’s up to Scotland to see if they can tally up the eggs of a rare duck called a common scoter (ironically, not so common anymore).
With every project, Rashman says, the degree of difficulty has risen. The team began with counting cows in an English pasture. This was relatively easy given that cattle are chunky and run relatively hot compared with the chilly British climate surrounding them. Counting South African rabbits was more challenging. Not only are they itty-bitty (at four pounds or less), but their habitat heats up quickly as the day goes on. The team also didn’t know how many rabbits might be out there, so they had to walk through the territory in a survey line to confirm with the human eye what the drones spied in the sky. The final head count was a paltry—but statistically significant—five rascally riverine rabbits.
With orangutans, the going is only going to get tougher. The humidity and the trees of the Bornean rainforest could be a problem. Humidity has an attenuation effect on their measurements, making animals appear cooler than they are. And trees have a high albedo, says Rashman, referring to their ability to reflect infrared light. This could make them difficult to see through in order to count the orangutans and spider monkeys below or within.
As for the dolphin counts, Rashman notes that, just like trees, “thermal infrared is massively reflected by water,” which means these counts will work best when the animals come up for air. “That’s a very short window of time to make a detection.”
The flip side is that if they can work out all these kinks, the possibilities are endless. Imagine, for instance, how much help these astrophysicists could be in the fight to save the critically endangered vaquita, a saltwater porpoise native to the notoriously murky Gulf of California.
Rashman and company also want to adapt the technology to spot humans—namely, poachers acting under the cover of darkness in remote areas. This application would be slightly different, since the drone would need to be able to identify the target and quickly send GPS coordinates to rangers or other law enforcement. Thankfully, the technology to make all of this happen is not far away.
“With the current accelerating loss of biodiversity, I think it’s going to be more and more important that scientists from all disciplines start coming together and putting in all their ideas, from all backgrounds, to try and help with the global problems we have,” says Rashman.
Whether rabbit or orangutan, vaquita or large-tusked elephant, members of these imperiled species won’t care that the scientists working to save them are astrophysicists, not biologists. It’s all hands on deck.
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