Thursday, May 22, 2008

Elephants in Space

Actually that's a NASA headline, not mine. It turns out they aren't currently planning to put any elephants in space. In fact elephants are waaaay back in the queue - just ahead of whales, poison ivy, ferrets and killer bees.

The article and the NASA project concerns the viewing of elephants from space. The Wildlife Conservation Society (the people who run the fabulous, conservation oriented, Bronx Zoo amongst other things) have been collaborating with NASA to see if wildlife counts from space would be feasible. High definition photographs were taken of the Bronx Zoo itself by the Quickbird satellite, 450km vertically overhead. The advantage of taking photos of the Zoo for testing is that these could be ground truthed by taking photographs at ground level at the same time (see images above and below with 3 items: a clearing, a tree and a fence labeled in each).

The advantages are obviously many, from less disturbance of the animals to cheaper research.

Imagine being able to monitor a herd of elephants in the Serengeti, or a flock of endangered flamingos in Bolivia, from a lab in New York. This technology may allow us to do just that.
Dr. Eric Sanderson, WCS landscape ecologist

Satellite imagery resolutions are continuously improving. Typical resolutions today are about 1m (i.e. each pixel represents a square 1m on a side) and 0.5m resolution is probably close. Military satellites almost certainly have better resolution - perhaps as good as 5 or 10cm. With this sort of resolution you could spot, but not definitively identify, some of the world's biggest insects! (But not if they were hiding under a leaf of course). I think ecologists will need to be out there in the field for a long time to come......

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