What Drones Have to Learn from Ancient Animal Flight Patterns

In an interesting case of art (or in this case, robotics) imitating life, scientists have revealed the role of real-life animal flight adaptations in helping teams develop and hone drones. On December 15, journal Interface Focus published 18 studies about airborne drones and the animals used as inspiration in shaping their flight patterns. David Lentink, the issue’s editor, also a Stanford University mechanical engineering assistant professor, says the goal of the publications is “to inspire development of new aerial robots and to show the current status of animal flight studies.”

The new studies reveal that, despite mankind’s long and complex history of crafting flying machines, we still have much to learn from examining the elegant techniques and mechanisms that have enabled birds, bats, and insects to safely and successfully take flight, stay aloft, and land for millions of years. Through careful study of naturally-occurring adaptations and processes, humans have found solutions for a vast array of problems, a process known as biomimetics or biomimicry, which has spawned inventions both well-known (Velcro, inspired by plant burrs stuck on a dog’s fur) and obscure but still practical (Mirasol, a full-color e-reader display based on how light gleams off butterfly wings).

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Though drones already seem to be fully functioning and ubiquitous, Lentink says that there is still much room to improve how easily and gracefully they fly, and that the 10,000 bird, 4000 bat, and 1 million bug species currently in existence can provide researchers with invaluable resources and insights into all sorts of flying techniques, from navigating turbulent skies to flying without a sound. Says Lentink: “Most people think that since we know how to design airplanes, we know all there is to know about flight,” but he argues that after successfully creating planes and rockets, we stopped studying flying animals as closely as we had, losing out on many potentially inspiring and innovative discoveries. However, he notes the current high demand for easily maneuverable and multi-talented flying robots, from corporations, individuals, and governments alike, has ignited a scientific “renaissance” and has opened new investigations into the many mysteries of animal aerodynamics.

One scientific research team focused on the owl’s ability to glide through the air in complete silence. The team explored wing adaptations that would potentially suppress noise, and concluded that owls’ large wing size, as well as the specific shape, texture, and feather-fringed edges of their wings, work together to muffle sound as owls swoop and soar through the sky. A second group studied how frigate birds, seabirds which fly for days without stopping, sleep “on the wing,”  capturing the birds’ in-flight brain activity for the first time ever and finding that they are able to take “micro naps” to rest both brain hemispheres concurrently. Other scientists discovered that fruit flies with broken wings can continue to fly by intuitively adjusting their wing and body motions to compensate for up to half a missing wing.

Several of the other newly-released studies detailed the techniques by which new robots can plunge into deep water from mid-air, stay aloft through strong winds, or bend their wings to better control their flight, all of which were designed with the help of research into animal flights patterns.

Lentink concludes that drones still have a way to go, but that biomimicry will continue to play an important role in shaping their design and skill. “They need to become more silent,” he notes. “They need to be more efficient, and they need to fly longer. There’s a lot of engineering that still needs to happen. The fact that the first steps are being made right now is really exciting and shows that there is a great future in this.”
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Post by Shannon Cuthbert

Sources: Lewis, Tanya. “Biomimicry: 7 Clever Technologies Inspired by Nature.” Live Science. 22 APril 2013.

Weisberger, Mindy. “New Flying Robots Take Cues From Airborne Animals.” Live Science. 16 December 2016.

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A Year in Review: Seven Stories that Highlight Hope for Conservation in 2016

Channel Islands fox rebound

The Channel Islands, eight islands off the coast of Southern California, house more of their adorable cat-size foxes (found nowhere else on earth) than ever in recent history. Thanks to conservation efforts including captive breeding of the foxes and relocation of predatory eagles, the population was recently removed from the endangered species list.

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Photo source: Don DeBold

Chernobyl wildlife boom

Though Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded over 30 years ago, it has left behind a wasteland that most scientists thought would remain barren for years to come. However, in 2014 University of Georgia researchers left dozens of cameras in a heavily forested area of Chernobyl’s 1600-square-mile Exclusion Zone and saw that boars, wolves, foxes, raccoon dogs and many more species had reclaimed the land as their own. “It’s basically an incredibly large sanctuary” for animals, said one researcher of the follow-up study and accompanying photos which were published this year.

Robotic animals used to trick poachers

US authorities have come up with an unexpected but highly successful method to catch poachers: placing remote-controlled robotic animals like deer, bear, and moose in illegal hunting hubs and apprehending those foolhardy enough to shoot at them.

Peanut butter and drones provide a creative way to help adorable ferrets

Native to the US, beautiful black-footed ferrets currently hold the spot of North America’s most endangered species, due in large part to a plague killing prairie dogs, their main source of food. This year the federal government began testing a unique and tasty solution that could drive the ferrets’ population to healthy numbers: using drones to drop peanut butter-flavored pellets laced with plague vaccine on unsuspecting prairie dogs (about 60-90% of prairie dogs fell for the trick in recent tests), helping their populations recover enough to restore a balanced ecosystem to the American grasslands where the dogs and ferrets reside.

Full-time Hedgehog Officer for British Town

Officials in Ipswich, a village on the eastern coast of the UK, have recently noted declines in typically high hedgehog populations, so a local wildlife organization created the post of “Hedgehog Officer”, tasking the British woman who beat around 150 applicants with conserving this adorable local creature.

Jaguars settling in Arizona

Jaguars claimed much of the western US as their own before being completely hunted to death, but 2016 gave two positive signs that some of the creatures may have migrated from northern Mexico into the Arizona desert. A few months following the appearance of a gorgeous male, caught on camera and nicknamed El Jefe, a second male cat was photographed prowling around an Arizona army installation. Though Arizona wildlife officials dampened some excitement with the revelation that the closest breeding population is 130 miles south, the presence of these cats brings hope that more may eventually find their way to their old stomping grounds in the US.

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Strong protections for some of world’s most endangered animals

The 2016 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) concluded by creating tough new regulations against killing and trading endangered animals currently vulnerable to poachers, including African gray parrots, pangolins, and manta rays.

Post by Shannon Cuthbert

Source: Brulliard, Karin. “Nine great news stories about animals in 2016.” The Washington Post. 30 December 2016.

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Both Caribou and Monarch Butterflies in Canada Threatened

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On December 4, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (Cosewic), a group of scientific experts, classified both Canada’s caribou and its monarch butterfly populations as endangered. “Caribou are, sadly, very sensitive to human disturbances, and we are disturbing caribou more and more,” said committee member Justina Ray. “These stressors seem to be interacting in complicated ways with rapid warming in the North.”

The committee’s report notes that: “Many of the great northern caribou herds have now fallen to all-time lows, and there is cause for concern that they will not rebound in the same way they have before.” The group is responsible for classifying wildlife species at risk of extinction, and recommending potential protective actions to the Canadian government.

In order to determine whether caribou herds were at risk, Cosewic examined two different caribou populations: the tundra herd, deemed to be “threatened,” as well as the smaller population of Torngat Mountain caribou which dwell in northeastern Canada, and which were found to be at an even greater risk of extinction. This group was thus labelled “endangered,” and was noted to be facing “imminent” extinction. The report also highlights both habitat encroachment, due to increased forestry and mining, and Arctic global warming as grave threats to Canadian caribous’ continued existence. This October the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) rang alarm bells over Canadian caribou herds’ rapid decline over the past thirty years, and the committee’s findings sadly lend support to this conclusion.

In the same report, Cosewic classified monarch butterflies as endangered, noting that the “remarkably tiny wintering grounds where monarchs congregate continue to be chipped away by habitat loss.”

These migratory creatures regularly fly 4000km south from Canada to Mexico to remain warm as winter approaches. The committee strongly recommends that the butterfly’s habitat in Canada, the United States, and Mexico, all be proctected to ensure the insects have a place to rest each step of their migration.”Otherwise, monarch migration may disappear, and Canada may lose this iconic species,” it concluded.

Lending support to this call, this June, 200 American, Mexican, and Canadian scientists, artists, and academics appealed to the leaders of the three nations to ban illegal logging and mining in the Mexican reserve where monarchs outlast the winter. They also called for a ban on pesticides used to diminish milkweed, which serves as the only food source for monarch caterpillars. For its part, Cosewic called out the use of an herbicide used on genetically modified corn and soybean, which has been detrimental to monarchs as well.

Actions such as those recommended by the committee will go a long way in helping preserve two Canada-dwelling species that rely heavily on diminishing habitats.

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Source: “Canada caribou and monarch butterfly ‘endangered’”. Phys.org. 6 December 2016.

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The Epic Battle Against Invasive Lionfish

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First reported near Florida in the 1980s, lionfish have since spread throughout southeastern U.S. waters, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean Sea, taking over coasts from New York to Brazil. These brightly-striped ornamental fish, native to the Indo-Pacific, were believed to have been let loose in U.S. waters by the aquarium trade.The problem: with insatiable appetites (they’ve been found to eat over 70 fish/invertebrate species) these invasive creatures have since wreaked havoc on coral reefs and fisheries, eating both other species’ prey and grazers that clean algae from reefs. Plus, no predators have stepped in to gobble up the strange species, allowing the fish to reproduce relatively unchecked.

Still, scientists and environmentally-minded entrepreneurs alike have been taking action against ballooning lionfish populations, creating and testing everything from underwater robots to fish traps loaded with special recognition software, all designed to drastically lower the lionfish headcount. “It’s the inverse of every fisheries management plan you’ve ever heard of,” says marine biologist Corey Eddy, who focuses on lionfish near Bermuda. “Usually we’re trying to minimize the pressure on fish populations so they can rebound. Now we’re saying, let’s start wiping them out.”

Though strategies like hosting spearfishing tournaments and giving out special lionfish culling permits can help individuals nab hundreds of lionfish in a day, this is nothing compared with the two million eggs a female lionfish could spawn every year. Add that to the fact that they can lurk below 130 feet, too deep for average divers, and scientists have speculated that robots may be better than humans at controlling lionfish populations.

Colin Angle, cofounder of iRobot, had this same thought while diving in Bermuda, only natural since his company has created robots from the Roomba to radioactive nuclear waste cleaners. Inspired by the idea to employ robots in lionsih control, Angle and his wife, biochemist Erika Ebbel, began nonprofit Robots in Service of the Environment (RISE), with the goal of creating an affordable autonomous underwater robot that lethally shocks lionfish by early next year. RISE members feel that lionfish could ultimately become the next popular delicacy, a demand that would vastly help limit lionfish populations. “Ultimately the way this becomes a success is by creating a market and the interest of consumers in eating lionfish,” says John Rizzi, executive director of RISE. “The best way to challenge the sustainability of a species is for humans to eat it. Whether that’s good or bad, in this case that will benefit the environment.”

Similarly, recreational divers Bryan and Anna Clark were inspired to start a nonprofit environmental group called Coast Watch Alliance, which works to simultaneously protect reefs and battle lionfish. Bryan Clark is working on a prototype to suck up the fish with a vacuum-like gulp. He’s also developing a “hunting ROV” (remote-operated vehicle) with a camera to seek out the fish before diving down. He feels that both technology and financial motives will help decimate the lionfish. “Some people are going to harvest lionfish because it’s great for the environment, others will do it because it’s fun to do while they’re diving. But a lot of people are going to do it because they’re going to make some money taking lionfish to the market,” he says.

It just so happens that lionfish have already unwittingly stepped into the spiny lobster fishery commercial market, as 20 percent of lobster traps end up catching lionfish as well. “lf the lionfish are showing up in those traps, uninvited and unintended, then why not get them to show up intentionally?” notes diver Bob Hickerson, who’s putting his contractor skills to good use by designing a better lionfish trap. The “Frapper Trap” (from the French word meaning “to strike down”) will implement a pattern recognition program to seize lionfish, and let other species free. Along with his wife, Maria, his father-in-law, and volunteers from Team Frapper, he hopes to have a trap ready to test in the next six months. “We can’t stand back and watch our reefs being taken over by lionfish,” he says.

Nevertheless, even with such a broad range of arsenals being developed, experts believe that total destruction of lionfish is impossible, though creating a strong commercial market for selling the species to diners could prevent them from devastating entire ecosystems.

“I think commercial incentive will be a big part of the solution, supplemented by spearfishing in shallow water and some of these other things,” says Stephen Gittings, science coordinator at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. “Some of these might sound like crazy ideas, but you never know until you try.”

Source: Gaworecki, Mike. “The lionfish invasion: a call to arms?” Mongabay. 14 December 2016.

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Giraffes Are Added to Endangered Species List

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On December 8, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which creates and tracks the official global endangered species list, re-classified giraffes from a species of Least Concern to a Vulnerable species, as reported in its Red List of Threatened Species. Vulnerable species face extinction in the relatively-near future if no actions are taken to protect it and its habitat from external threats. Following a Vulnerable status, the next steps are endangered, critically endangered, extinct in the wild, and finally extinct.

Though poaching and illegal trade of other megafauna, from elephants and rhinos to pangolins, has been at the forefront of news the past for years, giraffes have been perceived as relatively safe in the last decade. However, as reported by Damian Carrington at The Guardian, giraffes have dropped significantly in the last 31 years, from 157,000 in 1985 to 97,500 when counted last.

“Whilst giraffes are commonly seen on safari, in the media and in zoos, people—including conservationists—are unaware that these majestic animals are undergoing a silent extinction,” says Julian Fennessy, co-chair of the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission’s Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group. “With a decline of almost 40 percent in the last three decades alone, the world’s tallest animal is under severe pressure in some of its core ranges across East, Central and West Africa. As one of the world’s most iconic animals, it is timely that we stick our neck out for the giraffe before it is too late.”

The giraffes are faced with both habitat destruction, as cities and towns increasingly take over, and poaching, which has been especially problematic of late. While food insecure villagers sometimes kill the animals to eat, Jani Actman at National Geographic notes that many are killed for their tails, which are seen as a status symbol and are often used as a dowry in local cultures.

The New York Times reporter Patrick Healy explains that the red list divides the giraffe into nine subspecies, and that five of those subspecies are rapidly declining, while just two are increasing and one has held stable. Happily, West African giraffes, the smallest group, have grown from 50 in the 1990s to 400 today, but that victory required solid and vast activism and efforts from both the government of Niger and conservation groups.

Derek Lee, founder of the Wild Nature Institute, told Healy that both threats must end in order to save giraffes. “These are problems everywhere for giraffes,” he says. “You need to stop both threats.” Lee believes that funding for anti-poaching efforts will be helpful, but that preventing habitat destruction is much trickier, requiring intervention into land development, mining, and local livelihoods.

The most concerning aspect for some is that so few were aware how perilous the situation had become for giraffes. “I am absolutely amazed that no one has a clue,” Julian Fennessy, executive director of Giraffe Conservation Foundation told Sarah Knapton at The Telegraph. “This silent extinction. Some populations less than 400. That is more endangered than any gorilla, or almost any large mammal in the world.”

“There’s a strong tendency to think that familiar species (such as giraffes, chimps, etc.) must be OK because they are familiar and we see them in zoos,” Duke University conservation biologist Stuart Pimm said in the Associated Press. However, giraffes have disappeared across much of Africa for a century, and is already extinct in Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Guinea, Malawi, Mauritania, Nigeria and Senegal. Their plight is a sad insight into how easily we can overlook the silent destruction of a beautiful and beloved species.

Source: Daley, Jason. “Giraffes Silently Slip Onto the Endangered Species List.” The Smithsonian. 9 December 2016.

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Photo Source: Jon Mountjoy

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Largest Dog Meat Market in South Korea Shut Down

On the morning of December 13, Seongnam, South Korea’s Moran Livestock Association, which kills around 80,000 dogs every year for their meat, announced they are entirely stopping the practice of confining, killing, and selling dogs. The shut-down was due in great part to the actions of Defense of Animals, an animal activist group who had heavily campaigned against MLA’s brutal slaughter of dogs and had petitioned the city of Seongnam to take action. Marilyn Kroplick, the President of IDA, made this statement following the group’s victory: “The closure of Korea’s most infamous dog meat market at Moran deals a significant blow to the heart of the dog meat trade. Moran market has run with the blood of hundreds of thousands of dogs for many years, so this is a step in the right direction in our fight to end the horrific dog meat trade.” Nevertheless, despite this step in the right direction for the dog meat trade, Kroplick noted that dog meat selling operations would likely just relocate, necessitating further activism by IDA until all such meat markets are eliminated.

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Photo: Emilian Robert Vicol

Source:  Starostinetskaya, Anna. “South Korea’s Biggest Dog Meat Market Shuts Down.” VegNews. 14 December 2016.

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Obama announces Atlantic Ocean’s first national monument

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Water in the designated region is projected to warm three times faster than the global average, according to National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) research, changes which will threaten species like salmon, lobster, and scallops. Recreational fishermen will still be permitted in the region, but red crab and lobster fisheries will have to end fishing in the monument area within seven years, and commercial fishermen will have two months to make the switch.

“We’re helping make oceans more resilient to climate change,” President Obama said. “And this will help fishermen better understand the changes that are taking place that will affect their livelihood, and we’re doing it in a way that respects the fishing industry’s unique role in New England’s economy and history.”

Nevertheless, New England fishermen claim the protected region will harm the fishing industry, and they feel Obama was wrong to implement the creation of protected areas under the Antiquities Act.  In August, Obama used the authorities given by this act to create the world’s largest marine national monument off the coast of Hawaii.

Said National Coalition for Fishing Communities spokesman Bob Vanasse, “We don’t normally create laws in this country by the stroke of an imperial pen. We anticipate the offshore lobster industry will be affected to the tune of about $10 million per year. On top of that, one of the most affected industries is going to be the Atlantic red crab industry. It is going to be very significantly impacted.”

However, the White House noted that NOAA will work with Congress to help New England fishermen, using programs that provide low-interest loans for ship rehabilitation, new ship acquisitions, aquaculture, shoreside fisheries, and fishing gear repair and upgrades.

Said Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council: “We need sustainable fisheries and economically sustainable communities. This monument can help bring both forward.”

Source: Dasgupta, Shreya. “Obama creates Atlantic Ocean’s first marine national monument.” Mongabay. 19 September 19 2016.

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