Wireless Rainforest Network Will Track the Sights and Sounds of Amazon Wildlife

A planned monitoring system aims to capture the true state of biodiversity in South America.

Scientists will soon get a sustained, close-up assessment of the state of biodiversity beneath the forest canopy in the South American Amazon, thanks to a sweeping, wireless-sensor network in the planning stages from a team of Spanish, Brazilian and Australian researchers.

The team has received a grant to start work on a system – dubbed The Providence Project – that will employ several different technologies to detect and identify animals in the dense Amazon forest. The goal is to overcome deficiencies hard-wired into current biodiversity assessment efforts, according to the researchers.

"Remote sensing satellites and science aircraft provide a wealth of data about broad changes in forest cover, deforestation and land use, but these methods reveal almost nothing about the true story of biodiversity beneath the forest canopy," said Emiliano Esterci Ramalho, a researcher with Brazil's Mamirauá Institute and coordinator of the project, in a statement.

Project co-coordinator Alberto Elfes added that assessments of wildlife made by people on the ground necessitate often dangerous jungle treks just in hopes of seeing or hearing animals to document. "The result is not highly reliable nor comprehensive, and quite limited in terms of the information collected," he said.

That's where the new system comes in. Acoustic sensors will track underwater animals as well as critters on land. Visual imagers, environmental sensors, and thermal imagers will complete a system wirelessly linked and running autonomously.

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The rollout of the system will come in three phases, with the first phase a field test of 10 network sensors. That test will focus largely on various species of monkeys, bats, jaguars, river dolphins, birds, reptiles and fish.

Following that initial trial will be phase two, which will being to 100 the sensor count. Ultimately, the team hopes to have in place a 1,000-node network that will hear and see as much wildlife as possible.

And what to do with a constant livestream of data – the burst and bustle of the sights and sounds of a largely hidden ecosystem captured by a thousand devices? The plan is to stream the data live to a site accessible by both scientists and the general public.

If the systems works as planned, the researchers suggest there's a wealth of new information to be learned.

"The magnitude of Providence implications to adapt to and manage future changes in the Amazon is simply comparable to the discovery of a hidden planet to humanity," said the project's leader out of Spain, Michel André.

Four research partners will manage the effort: the Mamirauá Institute in Brazil; Federal University of Amazonas (UFAM), Brazil; the Polytechnic University of Catalonia, Spain; and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia.

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation staked the project with US$1.4 million.

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