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The implementation of a wireless network of high-tech sensors will have a significant impact on stopping deforestation and species extinction in the rainforest

Brazil, Spain and Australia join forces to revolutionise biodiversity monitoring in the Amazon

Scientists from Brazil, Spain and Australia have joined forces in an international team to develop the most sophisticated remote monitoring system ever used to track the diminishing biodiversity of the Amazon Jungle in South America. The Providence project, which starts this week, is carried out by the Laboratory of Applied Bioacoustics (LAB) of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya · BarcelonaTech (UPC), the Mamirauá Sustainable Development Institute and the Federal University of Amazonas (UFAM) in Brazil and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia.

 The high-tech project Providence will revolutionise the way biodiversity is monitored by creating a distributed wireless sensor network throughout the jungle that has autonomous nodes that continuously monitor wildlife under the canopy of the Amazon Rainforest.

The international team has been granted US $1.4 million by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, a philanthropic funding body established by Gordon Moore, the founder of Intel, to carry out the first stage of this biodiversity monitoring project.

The four research partners involved in Providence—the UPC’s LAB in Spain, the Mamirauá Sustainable Development Institute and the UFAM in Brazil and the CSIRO in Australia—are meeting in Australia this week to commence phase one.

First species monitoring on a large scale
Amazon species are being extinguished at a faster rate than we can catalogue them, but accurate biodiversity assessments are difficult to obtain. “Remote sensing satellites and science aircraft provide a wealth of data about broad changes in forest cover, deforestation and land use, but these methods reveal almost nothing about the true story of biodiversity beneath the forest canopy,” says Emiliano Esterci Ramalho, Providence project coordinator, researcher and monitoring coordinator at the Mamirauá Institute.

Biodiversity assessments are difficult to carry out in rugged and remote areas using traditional methods. Researchers need to physically trek into the jungle and traverse a section of jungle to count the species they see and hear, and it can be quite dangerous as tropical rainforests are very inhospitable to humans. The result is not highly reliable or comprehensive, and quite limited in terms of the information collected", explains Alberto Elfes, Providence project leader for Australia and a researcher at the CSIRO.

Our technological innovation for biodiversity monitoring in the Amazon is on a scale that hasn’t been seen before and will use multiple technologies including acoustics, visual imaging and thermal imaging to perform detection and identification of animals. In addition to the Amazon, these technologies will be highly valuable to forest biodiversity research worldwide”, adds Ramalho.

The aim is to conserve the ecosystem
Across the world, tropical forests are rapidly disappearing from our planet as a consequence of deforestation from activities such as logging, mining, expanding agriculture and urbanisation. Combined with global warming, the result is a dramatic increase in the rate of species extinction and loss of biodiversity.

amazon region where the tests of the providence project will be carried out

The Amazon River Basin itself is home to the largest rainforest on Earth. The basin, which is roughly the size of the United States, covers some 40 per cent of the South American continent. This new technology will have a tremendous impact on measuring and preserving the Amazon’s ecosystem by allowing researchers, governments and the public to understand and monitor the impact of changes in forest cover and biodiversity in the Amazon.

The initial study area for Providence is at the southern end of the Mamirauá Reserve, between the Amazon and Japurá rivers. “One of the major concerns for scientists worldwide is biodiversity and the extinction of species. Having an accurate biodiversity assessment of an area such as the Amazon is essential because it can tell us about the impact of human activities in that natural environment”, explains Ramalho.

We’ll be collecting data from acoustic sensors (for underwater creatures, as well as terrestrial animals such as birds, frogs and monkeys), visual images, environmental data (wind, temperature, humidity, air pressure), and even thermal imagers. The animals that are of key interest in the initial trial stages are a range of species including jaguars, monkeys, bats, river dolphins, birds, reptiles and fish. In phase one of Providence we will be field testing ten trial monitoring devices in the Amazon to create a wireless network of sensor nodes", Ramalho says.

Phase two will scale up to around 100 nodes installed in the Amazon Basin and phase three will see up to 1000 nodes installed.

Michel André, director of the LAB, who works at the UPC’s Vilanova i la Geltrú School of Engineering (EPSEVG) and is the Providence project leader for Spain, says, “passive underwater acoustic monitoring of wildlife has experienced spectacular improvements in recent years due to the development of new sensors as well as to the increased power of processing modules. For the first time, this technology”, which was devised to assess the effects of man-made noise on marine fauna in complex ocean ecosystems, “is being applied to a large scale environment in the Amazon for the conservation of terrestrial and aquatic creatures.”

The challenge is to handle live streams of data that contain sounds and images belonging to a tremendous number of known animals and probably also several as-yet-undiscovered species, from the smallest insects to jaguars and including acoustic signals from dolphins and fish.

This unique biodiversity of sounds will be processed and streamed online so the scientific community and the general public can follow Providence’s progress and findings in real time from home, through a specific interface. "The magnitude of Providence’s implications for adapting to and managing future changes in the Amazon is comparable to the discovery of a hidden planet for humanity”, underlines Michel André.

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