SciSun: Speak into the Microphone, please   Leave a comment

A few days ago, Michonne intended to say a simple ‘thank you’ to everyone who’s been reading our posts, and sending messages and comments. And we DO appreciate everyone out there! But she got a little off-topic (she does that), and brought up the ‘talking box’ as she calls it, and how it listens to what she says and then tells us so we can understand. Well, that’s not exactly what happens, but there are scientists, researchers, students and wildlife-study groups all over the world that use wildlife tracking, recording, and measuring equipment that helps them learn more about wildlife and our world, and possibly one day that could let us understand the animals from their point of view!

We don’t have to tell anyone that wildlife usually live in wild places. Otherwise why would they be named wild?? And it’s their daily life to jump over rocks and climb through dense undergrowth and dig in the ground and do all sorts of other things that most humans would find difficult – particularly when the human is carrying a camera or microphone on a long pole or a computer or other gear and trying to record what the animal is doing. So a variety of different equipment has been developed that allows scientists and researchers to track and measure wildlife and wildplaces, from the comfort of their own tent. (The researchers’ tent. If wildlife lived in tents they would be much easier to study).

For years, researchers and others who study wildlife have used proximity sensors rigged to cameras and audio recorders to ‘capture’ information about wildlife and carefully hidden this equipment in the area where the animal-in-question is expected to be found – usually far in the forest or other wild place, where humans seldom travel. Then when, and if, the animal happens to stroll by the tree or rock or hiding place where the equipment has been stationed, the sensor is triggered and a photo or video or sound recording is generated and (in theory) there’s evidence of the animal the researchers were looking for. Of course, this method also results in lots of false recordings the researchers weren’t looking for, like partial photos of an animals’ leg, or a close up of an eye looking into the camera, or images of animals everyone knew were there all along, or rustling leaves caused by the wind. But no one would know if the recordings are useful or the equipment is picking up nothing but random bystanders until a few weeks later (whenever it’s estimated the film or batteries will need replacing), when researchers have to return to the recording stations, check the equipment for results, replace any exhausted or damaged parts, and start again.

As technology has improved, wildlife monitoring gear has changed to include short-range wireless transmission, digital recording and storage, and longer life batteries. But most equipment still only records single shot photos; or short video or audio of whatever animal or weather event is happening and once it’s set in the field the equipment is on it’s own with little input or change available. But today, engineers are developing remote monitors that measure and record multiple channels simultaneously; satellite control to fine-tune recording and monitor equipment status; an array of microphones dedicated to respond to the sound frequency and variation of a specific species; high-capacity RAM and easily-removable hard drives that will allow immediate review of the recordings on a laptop; and high stress and weather resistant construction, along with solar powered rechargeable batteries that will allow the system to be placed in very remote environments for extended periods. Of course a lot of this technology is experimental, and not always operates as designed – and much of it is being worked on by engineering and biology students who sometimes have more enthusiasm than experience. But it’s all moving toward a day, maybe not too far in the future, where we can observe and record even the most endangered and hard to find wildlife, and learn how to better protect them so every species can survive and thrive in the world.

A monitoring site equipped for the National Park Service. Of course for marmots, the microphone would have to be much closer to the ground, and less chew-able.

Now here at Ecovia, the story of the ‘talking box’ goes like this: A group of University graduate students working with us one year  thought they could create equipment and software that would monitor, identify and record audio, visual, and even environmental conditions of multiple types of wildlife all at once, then combine the information into both a timeline of individual wildlife instances, and snapshots of what-each-animal-was-doing-at-the-time in relation to all the other animals and the overall environment. (Trying to find an easy way to get one thing to do everything. What could go wrong?) No one knows exactly what happened, but somehow the audio gear interpreted one animals voice – the squeeking and whistling and chuck-chucking sounds of a marmot who investigated the equipment for more than just few seconds, resulting in a recording much longer than usual – into language patterns that the audio software could translate into English. And this marmot – who we discovered is Michonne Marmot – seems interested enough in the gear, and in us, and apparently has enough to say, to come back from time to time. So that’s how we can understand her today, and hear her stories and observations and comments about the plants and animals and even us people.

At least, that’s how the story goes.

Smile for the Camera! Learn more about wildlife monitoring:

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