RESEARCH NEWS

Microsoft monitors species’ response to changing environments

26 February 2008



Scientists at Microsoft Research Cambridge have developed a technology to study individual and populations of animals and their sensitivity and response to changes in their environment. 

Better understanding, and early identification of changes in the natural behaviour of animal species is urgently needed as it can afford a vital early warning system for understanding responses of species and ecosystems to environmental changes such as climate, pollution and human activity - essential for effective conservation strategies.

The technology unveiled by Microsoft enables scientists to obtain and analyse such vital information in real-time. The technology is being successfully deployed in a project to better understand the behaviour of the British seabird, the Manx Shearwater, and to highlight the sensitivity of their breeding and feeding grounds.

Monitoring changes in species behaviour presents significant challenges. In this case, the Manx Shearwater is a nocturnal species that travels long distances for food, traditionally making field observation and study difficult.

The technology, which combines intelligent wireless sensor networks deployed in the birds’ nests, GPS tracking and sophisticated integrated software, allows scientists to remotely access data from the field, providing a broader and richer range of  information in real-time than has been possible to date.

‘Seabirds are particularly sensitive to environmental change and they are important indicators of the health of the oceanic systems on which they depend. However, their behaviour is notoriously difficult to monitor,’ said Robin Freeman, one of the scientists leading the project at Microsoft Research Cambridge, UK.

He added: ‘The importance of this system is its ability to monitor animals autonomously over greater distances and more frequently and consistently than previously possible. Gathering this kind of data about the Manx Shearwater will provide insights into seabirds’ changing behaviour in light of climate change.’

In the project, tiny radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags are being attached to 50 breeding pairs of Manx Shearwaters and sophisticated wireless sensors are being embedded in their burrows. The RFID tags and sensors monitor the birds’ activities, as well as temperature, pressure, movement and weight in real-time, while tiny GPS trackers developed at Oxford University map the birds’ long foraging trips.

By combining the sensor network with GPS tracking to monitor the birds’ foraging behaviour, scientists working on the project from the University of Oxford – which is also collaborating within the project - also hope to discover how the birds’ feeding behaviour varies and to determine locations that are important to their survival. This is important in light of the EU Birds Directive which requires member states to set up marine special protection areas to provide safe nesting sites and safe, food-rich feeding areas. 

‘We recently succeeded in tracking this remarkable small seabird as it wanders the oceans in search of food,’ said Tim Guilford, professor at the Animal Behaviour research group in Oxford. ‘The prospect of tying the Shearwaters' movements at sea to measurements of individual activity across the colony using the Microsoft technology is truly exciting.’

The team are now investigating how the technology can be used in a range of different sensitive ecosystems around the world, such as rainforests and cloud forests, to provide scientists with a much better understanding and an early warning system of how vulnerable species are responding to environmental change.

Related internet links

Autonomous Monitoring of Vulnerable Habitats