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A Wilder View: Using new technology to study animals

Posted at 11:34 AM, Mar 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-10 13:34:15-05

MISSOULA — To go undetected for wildlife means survival but being small and well camouflaged doesn't make it easy to study an animal.

Small, hidden and well camouflaged are the traits many animals strive for in order to be able to go undetected if a predator is near or to avoid detection by potential prey.

Many of these animals are of conservation concern, and conservation efforts may be hampered by the lack of basic information on their ecological needs. Being small and obscure has its advantages in the animal kingdom but these traits make it challenging to detect and study these species in their natural habitat.

Two elements can give away their position through -- body heat and scent. Innovative methods such as thermal imaging and the use of wildlife detection dogs serve as a fitting means for the detection of such species.

With thermal imaging cameras using heat instead of visible light to create an image they provide accurate vision even when camouflage or darkness renders normal eyesight useless.

Thermal techniques to study wildlife is nothing new to research. White-tailed deer were first tested with this process in the late 1960s and have been used to detect a large array of animals since.

But smaller animals have always been difficult to find on the image. Now, new research and advancements in technology have allowed scientists to pick out those tiny details of heat emission and detect small mammals.

Even with advancements in technologies, there can be some drawbacks to using thermal cameras -- and that’s where wildlife detection dogs come in. With their superior sense of smell, detection dogs serve as an alternative method to search for cryptic wildlife.

The hard-working dogs have usually been used to detect the feces of animals like grizzly bears, owls, and even koalas -- but less so to target animals themselves.

To be successful at this the dogs must find the target animal, indicate its find by showing a trained alert behavior and do all of these tasks without harming the target animal, itself, its handler, or any other human or animal.

Dense areas with lots of brush imply the needs for detection dogs while more open areas are considered suitable for thermal detection.

Applying one of these methods to field research can allow for the collection of data that just wasn’t accessible before, and ultimately improve the ecological understanding of small camouflaged species.