Red squirrels get conservation boost with AI acoustic monitoring
Image credit: Mammal Society
The future of endangered red squirrels in the UK could be looking more secure with the launch of a new conservation project from the Mammal Society.
In partnership with the University of Bristol, Huawei Technologies and international NGO Rainforest Connection (RFCx), the Mammal Society project will deploy innovative technologies for the first time in the UK to help protect red squirrels by generating unprecedented insights into the lives and activities of their declining populations across the UK.
The project will see advanced bio-acoustic, cloud and artificial-intelligence (AI) technologies deployed to help experts assess and monitor squirrel populations. It will use custom-built 'Guardian' and 'Audiomoth' monitoring devices and Huawei software to analyse the natural noise of the environment – the first time Huawei’s world-leading technology has been applied in this way in the UK.
One of the UK’s most-loved native species, the endangered red squirrel has lost 60 per cent of its range in England and Wales over the last 13 years and it is estimated that there are fewer than 290,000 animals left across the country.
The red squirrels have been driven to near extinction by a combination of disease and competition with the European grey squirrel. Research by the Mammal Society has found that as many as a quarter of all mammals native to the UK are at risk of extinction, with the red squirrel counted as one of those creatures in most danger.
Monitoring is a critical part of conservation efforts as this allows conservationists the opportunity to better understand habitats, behaviours and the role of other species.
The project will focus on UK woodlands with red squirrel populations, grey squirrel populations, and areas where both live side by side. It will see Huawei AI capabilities used to generate vital information on these squirrel populations. Data generated through this collaboration will then be used by the Mammal Society to support further efforts to protect the species.
Dr Stephanie Wray, chair of the Mammal Society, said: “We face an urgent crisis in protecting some of the UK’s best-loved native species and there is no creature more iconic than the red squirrel. This technology allows us to see what’s happening in real time and the AI approach allows one researcher to cover a much wider area than we would traditionally. This means we can scale the project up faster and start to make a difference for endangered species sooner.”
Professor Marc Holderied at the University of Bristol said: “We are excited to be taking part in this innovative project that will improve our understanding of these remarkable forest-dwellers and their habitat and, importantly, will help us identify where conservation efforts can be best deployed to boost their declining numbers.”
This programme is the latest step in Huawei’s global partnership with Rainforest Connection and its efforts to promote biodiversity worldwide. So far, remote audio-monitoring stations have been deployed in 18 countries across five continents. These acoustic monitoring stations are now tracking populations of a variety of endangered species, from the elusive Darwin fox in Chile, to spider monkeys in Costa Rica, and chamois in Greece.
Victor Zhang, Huawei UK vice-president, said: “Climate change is one of the top global challenges. This project demonstrates the power of technology to protect our natural environment and Huawei is keen to leverage the technologies to support it.
“We believe that these technologies work best when the parties involved work together. Collaboration between technology companies, conservation organisations and academic researchers is key to helping solve some of the planet’s greatest challenges.”
Chrissy Durkin, RFCx director of International Expansions, said: “With Huawei’s support, RFCx technology is advancing through comprehensive biodiversity-monitoring programs using our system of eco-acoustic devices and our Arbimon platform in projects around the world. Our system enables partners to effectively and more efficiently derive actionable insights from these soundscapes, while also measuring the progress of wildlife restoration and recovery through principles of adaptive management.
“We are thrilled to be launching our first-ever UK-based project in collaboration with these partners in order to help monitor the red squirrel population and drive impactful conservation efforts.”
RFCx – a non-profit technology startup – created the world’s first scalable, open-source monitoring system to harness the power of sound for protecting and studying remote ecosystems. Its acoustic sensors monitor and collect ecosystem soundscapes at selected locations and its platform then uses deep-learning artificial intelligence to pick out and analyse specific sounds, such as the buzz of a chainsaw or the song of a rare bird.
In amassing the world’s largest collection of ecosystem soundscapes, RFCx's system is able to derive insights from the captured data and help inform other organisations seeking to halt nefarious forest activity, such as illegal logging and deforestation, as well as tracking biodiversity both historically and in real time.
Research by the Mammal Society has found that as many as one in four of all mammals native to the UK are at risk of extinction – with the red squirrel counted as one of those creatures at most risk – and many others are suffering significant decline in numbers. With Britain now recognised as one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, urgent action is clearly needed to preserve the island's biodiversity.
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