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A Wilder View: Satellite imagery helping in study of wildlife

Posted at 10:11 AM, Mar 31, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-01 15:52:19-04

MISSOULA — Scientists have found a way to study the patterns of predator and prey interactions all from the comfort of their chairs.

Satellite imagery of the entire Earth's surface is freely available through Google Earth.

While it can be fun to zoom in on a recent satellite image of your house or street, the technology also allows for the research of landscape features in even the most remote areas -- including difficult-to-access habitats within them.

The use of this tool has largely focused on terrestrial habitats, with amazing results ranging from exposing looting of historical sites to secret prison camps. But by connecting ecology with this technology, it is possible to remotely observe the landscape-scale footprint of behavioral interactions between predators and prey.

In the first of its kind study, scientists visually scanned satellite images for evidence of grazing. Through these observations, they can see the indirect effects of behavioral interactions between predators and prey. Additionally, by looking at plants that are grazed or not scientists can see prey behavioral patterns based on predator avoidance. All the distributions of grazed and ungrazed plants can all be visible from space.

The role of predation is of major importance to conservationists as the ranges of large carnivores continue to collapse around the world. For example, in the US, gray wolves and grizzly bears have lost 53% and 42% of their historic range, with nearly complete extirpation in the contiguous 48 states.

This isn’t just seen by predators but also due to the impacts humans have on the ecosystems that surround us. The research is of significant importance because it could potentially lead to the development of a conservation tool that is quick and easy and inexpensive.

The first study to see predator and prey relationships from space was studying fish in the great barrier reef off of Australia.