Satellites Enlisted in Search for New Species

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Turner explained that satellite imagery beamed to Earth is easy to misinterpret. Only through ground truthing can scientists be confident that the computer models' predictions are true.

Once scientists have ground-truthed the imagery, they can apply their findings to unexplored regions with confidence.

Using satellite data, scientists can analyze larger areas "in ways you couldn't with information gained on foot or by driving a car," Turner said. "It allows you to make connections across large areas."

If Raxworthy and his colleagues' Madagascar ground-truthing test bears out their computer predictions, the team will use their results to help the island nation identify areas for conservation.

Madagascar is considered a biodiversity hot spot, an area that is home to great numbers of species and that is under constant assault from human activity.

In 2003 the country committed to tripling its protected area from 4.2 million to 14.8 million acres (1.7 million to 6 million hectares) by 2008.

Evolving Tool

According to Turner, the use of satellite technology in conservation biology is becoming more and more mainstream. "A number of things have happened coincidentally to push this," he said.

For one thing, satellite imagery is now widely available from government agencies and businesses. For another, the imagery is cheaper, making it more accessible to scientists with limited budgets.

Also, scientists can now take GPS (global positioning system) receivers out into the field to record the precise locations of where they make observations.

These data collections are then presented through GIS (geographic information system) technology, which has grown exponentially in recent years.

GIS technology incorporates the satellite and GPS data into interactive maps that scientists can view different ways, depending on what data are of the most interest.

Finally, the computer power and software required to process the information is vastly improved. "All of this has come together and made remote sensing effectively another tool that a lot of conservation biologists ... can use," Turner said.

Nonetheless, challenges remain.

The current challenge, Raxworthy said, is the lack of specialists trained to handle the satellite data and incorporate it into their work. "It takes a lot of time and money to train specialists, and currently there are not enough resources to accelerate training," he said.

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