Written by Alan Barker, Freelance Writer, British Science Festival 

Biodiversity is under threat around the planet. Claire Burke is helping to pioneer a new field to help prevent poaching and possible future extinctions – and it’s called astroecology. In the Daphne Oram Award Lecture at this year’s British Science Festival, Claire introduced and illustrated her work. Alan Barker was there.

By the time you go to bed tonight, five species of animal will have become extinct. As Claire Burke explained in the Daphne Oram Award Lecture at this year’s British Science Festival, we’re living through Earth’s sixth mass extinction event – the fifth being the one that wiped out the dinosaurs.

Homo Sapiens may be, as Yuval Noah Harari suggests, “the deadliest species in the annals of planet Earth”, but we also have the means to tackle the problem of species extinction. We need, Claire told us, to do two things: monitor animal populations accurately; and stop poaching. Claire, with her team at Liverpool John Moores University, is developing an innovative interdisciplinary programme to achieve both goals.

Not the least remarkable part of her story is how Claire found her way to the project. She trained as an astrophysicist, studying galactic structures. After a spell transferring that expertise to meteorology (hurricanes do look rather like galaxies), she noticed an ad inviting participation in a conservation project. And applied.

The common factor is infrared light. Just as infrared spectroscopy can show features of a distant galaxy impossible to see in the visible spectrum, so thermal cameras can detect warm living organisms in their environments. They cut through camouflage and tree cover; they can also work day or night, which is especially helpful in detecting poachers, who tend to operate under cover of darkness. What’s tough for human eyes becomes relatively easy.

Especially if you look down from above. The team mount their cameras on drones. Compared to humans with clipboards, drones have tremendous advantages of scale. African national parks are huge – some as large as Wales. “With drones,” she told us, “you can cover large areas of ground very quickly – much more quickly than someone on the ground with a pair of binoculars trying to count rhinos.”

Selous Game Reserve is 54,600 km² - larger than Wales (Picture: Flickr/Richard Mortel)

Claire wasn’t able to demonstrate a drone in the lecture theatre, but she did train her thermal camera on two of her fellow Award Lecturers. Humans, we discovered, can be divided into two great tribes: those with warm noses and those with cold ones. Indeed, every species has its own thermal ‘fingerprint’. So, with the right software, it should be possible to analyse the thermal images and pattern-match to specific animals.

But, as in all science, the problem turned out to be more complex as the team started to solve it. Animals excrete very warm poo, for example. Rocks heat up in the sun. Even the atmosphere creates noise as it warms during the day. The team turned to a machine-learning algorithm, originally developed through the open-source Astropy Project to catalogue different types of galaxy. They’ve now trained their software to identify species and count individuals – including humans – with impressive accuracy. They’ve even been able to flag up health issues by studying an animal’s varying skin temperatures.

The aim is to produce a system that’s cheap and easy to use. Conservation officers and game wardens should be able to build up accurate estimates of animal populations using data downloaded in real time from drones to a smartphone. The team has already been called on to help count Mexican spider monkeys (who apparently found the drones very intriguing), and they’ve been invited by the WWF to look at orangutans.

(Picture: Liverpool John Moores University)

The technique as potential in other areas, too. One member of the team, for example, has found recently that the cameras can detect underground peat fires, which are a big problem in Indonesia; and the RNLI is interested in using them for search-and-rescue missions.

For Claire, this project brings astrophysics down to earth. Previously, she was studying some of the most fundamental questions about the universe. Now, she’s helping to answer some of the most urgent questions about life on Earth. And that’s an exciting place to be.