Professor Kerrie Mengersen (centre) and Dr Erin Peterson (left) gather evidence on jaguars from Peruvian villagers.
Professor Kerrie Mengersen (centre) and Dr Erin Peterson (left) gather evidence on jaguars from Peruvian villagers.

New age conservation

QUT scientists are using technology to advance wildlife conservation.

The survival of one of the world’s most elusive animals, the jaguar, is being safeguarded by the work of QUT scientists in Peru’s deepest jungles.

The jaguar is a near-threatened species and its numbers are declining. Threats include loss and fragmentation of habitat.

To advance their conservation, Professor of Mathematics Kerrie Mengersen is using virtual reality and Bayesian statistics in a pioneering project to help create a ‘jaguar corridor’ so the animals can safely roam, feed and breed.

On the amazon
On the Amazon: QUT researchers and Peruvian conservationists capture the jungle.

She recently led an expedition to South America where her team combined technology with predictive and statistical modelling, to fill a gap in the evidence used to decide which jungle areas to preserve.

Jaguar

“Jaguars are elusive, rarely seen and difficult to track on foot so the technology helps fill that missing data,” Professor Mengersen said.

“We went into the belly of the jungle to find out as much as we could from local people and gather evidence about jaguars in this remote part of Peru.

“The team captured countless photos and videos using 360-degree and 3D cameras to bring back the jungle for others to see in the form of immersive virtual reality.

“Ecologists use head-mounted display goggles which place them into the environment, enabling them to visualise jaguars’ hunting grounds.”

QUT is also leading a number of projects which use technology to support Australian flora and fauna conservation.

Sophisticated software aboard small unmanned aircraft has led to significant improvements in counting native wildlife and detecting invasive species.

QUT researchers from the Australian Research Centre for Aerospace Automation have conducted flights to count koalas in bushland at the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.

Lead researcher Dr Felipe Gonzalez said thermal imaging from an airborne vantage point better assists in determining how many koalas are in any given space.

Another two-year study is also using unmanned aircraft to determine the impact of the fungus Myrtle Rust on Australian native animals.

Myrtle Rust infects plants in the Myrtaceae family, such as eucalyptus, bottlebrush, paperbark, tea tree and lilly pilly, destroying their blossoms and seeds and thus reducing the food supply of native animals.

QUT ecologist Dr Grant Hamilton said acoustic sensors and unmanned aircraft assess the presence and activity of animals within affected areas.

“We don’t know whether birds and bats will reduce in number because of the impact of Myrtle Rust,” he said.

“Our research will help answer this question.”

Other research projects involving technology to map, monitor and manage feral pigs, dingoes and yellow rust in wheat are underway.

QUT’s technology-rich research to aid conservation will benefit governments, biosecurity agencies and wildlife organisations globally.

Photos, including front cover, Vanessa Hunter