Scientists are mapping Earth’s endangered monkey populations

Researchers are informing satellite mapping models with on-the-ground biodiversity data to track the distribution of vulnerable plant and animal species. Photo by University of Leicester

June 22 (UPI) — With the help of satellite data, researchers are mapping endangered monkey populations across the globe.

Scientists at the Universities of Leicester and East Anglia are using a combination of ground data and satellite imagery to identify where vulnerable monkey populations are declining as a result of hunting.

“There are ten times as many satellites in operation now as there were in the 1970s,” researcher Heiko Balzter, a professor at the National Center for Earth Observation at Leicester, said in a news release. “However, satellites cannot observe small animals directly. Most biodiversity is invisible to a satellite.”

On-the-ground indicator data informs the satellite mapping process. Land cover type, for instance, can clue researchers into the types of plants and animals that should occupy a place.

Large-scale genetic fingerprinting called high-throughput DNA sequencing can reveal the signatures of specific species in traces of saliva, urine, feces and blood. Scientists can also collect and analyze mosquito blood to find out what kinds of animals the insects have been feeding on.

When combined with satellite data, the biodiversity observations can reveal vital insights into the distribution of biodiversity across large swaths of land.

“It may sound like a strange idea — satellites that can see the genetic make-up of the blood sucked by mosquitoes. Of course, they cannot directly see that,” Balzter said.

“But big data from genetic fingerprinting of animal DNA in a landscape combined with fine-resolution satellite data and sophisticated ecological models can. We need to work across subjects to make this happen. These are very exciting times. If our research can help to save a species that gives me a very strong sense of purpose to my job as a university professor.”

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