Satellite data to help map endangered monkey populations on Earth

A team of scientists led by the Universities of Leicester and East Anglia are leading research to protect wildlife by using satellite data to identify monkey populations that have declined through hunting.

In a new article, which was featured on the cover of the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, a working group chaired by Professor Heiko Balzter, from the National Centre for Earth Observation at our University, has looked at ways in which an array of technologies could be used to identify how many species are alive in an area and the risks they may be exposed to.

Using a combination of satellite and ground data, the team can map multiple indicators of monkey distribution, including human activity zones as inferred from roads and settlements, direct detections from mosquito-derived iDNA, animal sound recordings, plus detections of other species that are usually found when monkeys are present, such as other large vertebrates.

This data could be used to identify areas in which monkey populations are particularly vulnerable.

Professor Balzter explained: “There are ten times as many satellites in operation now as there were in the 1970s. Most people now use maps from Earth Observation on their mobile, such as Google Earth. The European Copernicus satellites now provide free global data every 5 days at 10m resolution. And think of small cube satellites that fit into a tote bag and weigh only 2kg. Satellite technology has undergone a massive change and has never been so accessible.

“However, satellites cannot observe small animals directly. Most biodiversity is invisible to a satellite.

“Scientists have developed indicators for biodiversity, such as land cover type, and modern ecological models that can digest satellite data and information on species occurrence are now offering near-real time monitoring of the land management impacts on biodiversity. We propose using a mix of new technology rather than a single remedy.”

The paper, titled ‘Connecting Earth Observation to High-Throughput Biodiversity Data’ is published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution and is available via DOI: 10.1038/s41559-017-0176.

You can also hear Professor Balzter talking about the project on BBC Radio Leicester here (starting at 23 minutes).