Written by Alan Barker, Freelance Writer, British Science Festival 

Biodiversity is under threat around the planet. Dr Claire Burke from LJMU is pioneering a new field to help prevent poaching and possible future extinctions – and it’s called astroecology. Claire is delivering the Daphne Oram Award Lecture at this year’s British Science Festival. Alan Barker learnt more.

What have stars got to do with the extinction of animals?

Stars and galaxies glow against a dark background – especially in the infrared part of the spectrum. So do animals.  Astronomers use software to analyse images of the sky, to detect galaxies. We can use essentially the same software to detect animals. With an ordinary RGB camera – the kind of camera you have in your smartphone – everything has the same brightness.  So it can be hard to spot something, even if you know what you’re looking for. Animals in particular tend to camouflage themselves to prevent detection – it’s how they get by. With a thermal camera, you can pick them out much more easily – especially from above.

Stars & animals, what's the relation? Well, it's called astroecology...

So you fly these cameras?

Yes, on drones. With drones, 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. Another key advantage of thermal cameras is that you can see day and night. That’s especially helpful if you’re looking for poachers.

So you’re looking for people as well as animals?

Absolutely. Poachers tend to operate under cover of darkness, so we need to track them down and stop them before the animals get poached.

But won’t they hear the drones coming?

Well, at 400 feet a drone is pretty quiet. And our experience is beginning to suggest that the drones act as a deterrent. Which is just as good news as catching the poachers red-handed.

So you’re in the business of saving species.

Yes. By the end of today, five species on Earth will have gone extinct. Gone forever. It happens every day. This high rate to biological annihilation puts us right in the middle of the sixth mass extinction in the planet’s history; the fifth was the one that wiped out the dinosaurs.  This isn’t just bad news for an animal that’s in a vulnerable ecosystem; it’s also bad news for us, because we depend on ecosystems for food, shelter, clothing, all sorts of other resources. We urgently need to save more species. And to do that, we have to do two things: we have to monitor ecosystems so that we know how best to protect them, and we need to stop poaching. Neither is easy to do. This technology will help us to do both.

It is hoped the technology can help look at Lemurs in Madagascar

How do you know what animals you’re looking at?

Different animals have different thermal profiles – they’re warmer and colder in different parts of their bodies. They have unique thermal fingerprints. So we’ve been capturing thermal profiles from animals in zoos and safari parks, and writing algorithms that we can apply to the images we get from the cameras on the drones. That’s also a technique from astrophysics, where it’s used to classify galaxies by shape. So we can identify species, and individuals, in real time, while the drones are flying: we can draw up much more accurate pictures of animal populations and develop more effective conservation strategies.

What animals are you working on?

We're trying to apply this technology to as many different animals, in as many different environments as possible. So far, we’ve been invited by the WWF to look at orangutans, which is pretty important; and the people in Mexico asked us to look at spider monkeys, which are also endangered.  We’re hoping to go and look at lemurs in Madagascar.

Are there any other applications for this technology?

There are search-and-rescue applications for people lost at sea; and a member of the team has just found that we can detect underground peat fires, which is a big problem in Indonesia. We've got plans to make the technology widely available to conservationists in the next five years.

Can astronomy save the Earth’s species? takes place on Friday 14 September, at 15.00, Middleton Hall, University of Hull. Book your tickets here