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Environmental Science

Microsoft scientists unveil new technology to give early warning of sensitive species' response to changing environments

CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom, 21 February, 2008 – Scientists at Microsoft Research Cambridge today announced that they have developed an innovative new technology to study individual and populations of animals and their sensitivity and response to changes in their environment. This project is conducted in collaboration with scientists at the University of Oxford and the Freie Universitšt, Berlin.

Better understanding, and early identification of changes in the natural behaviour of animal species is urgently needed as it can afford a vital "early warning" system for understanding responses of species and ecosystems to environmental changes such as climate, pollution and human activity—essential for effective conservation strategies.

The new technology unveiled today by Microsoft enables scientists for the first time to obtain and analyse such vital information in real-time. It was revealed today that the technology is being successfully deployed in a project to better understand the behaviour of the important British seabird, the Manx Shearwater, and to highlight the sensitivity of their breeding and feeding grounds.

Monitoring changes in species behaviour presents significant challenges. In this case, the Manx Shearwater is a nocturnal species that travels long distances for food, traditionally making field observation and study difficult.

The technology, which combines intelligent wireless sensor networks deployed in the birds' nests, GPS tracking and sophisticated integrated software, allows scientists to remotely access data from the field, providing a broader and richer range of information in real-time than has been possible to date.

"Seabirds are particularly sensitive to environmental change and they are important indicators of the health of the oceanic systems on which they depend. However, their behaviour is notoriously difficult to monitor," noted Robin Freeman, one of the scientists leading the project at Microsoft Research Cambridge, UK.

"The importance of this system is its ability to monitor animals autonomously over greater distances and more frequently and consistently than previously possible. Gathering this kind of data about the Manx Shearwater will provide insights into seabirds' changing behaviour in light of climate change."

In the project, tiny radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags are being attached to 50 breeding pairs of Manx Shearwaters and sophisticated wireless sensors are being embedded in their burrows. The RFID tags and sensors monitor the birds' activities, as well as temperature, pressure, movement and weight in real-time, while tiny GPS trackers developed at Oxford University map the birds' long foraging trips.

By combining the sensor network with GPS tracking to monitor the birds' foraging behaviour, scientists working on the project from the University of Oxford also hope to discover how the birds' feeding behaviour varies and to determine locations that are important to their survival. This is important in light of the EU Birds Directive, which requires member states to set up marine special protection areas to provide safe nesting sites and safe, food-rich feeding areas.

"We recently succeeded in tracking this remarkable small seabird as it wanders the oceans in search of food," said Tim Guilford, Professor at the Animal Behaviour research group in Oxford. "The prospect of tying the Shearwaters' movements at sea to measurements of individual activity across the colony using the Microsoft technology is truly exciting."

The team is now investigating how the technology can be used in a range of different sensitive ecosystems around the world, such as rainforests and cloud forests, to provide scientists with a much better understanding and an early warning system of how vulnerable species are responding to environmental change.

The technology is among the first to combine a number of features crucial to understanding the relationship between animal behaviour and environment including:

Real-time, remote monitoring and analysis

Remote configuration, monitoring and control, which is vital in locations where the animals and/or environment is difficult to access

Intelligent sensors able to react to changing environmental conditions in the animal's habitat and subsequently gather and combine a broad set of environmental data about this habitat and the animal's changing behaviour

The ability for scientists to remotely access and analyse all this information in real-time via computers or hand-held/mobile devices around the world

Use of solar panels and mobile/satellite phone networks to allow for completely wireless and long term deployment in truly remote locations

"This project is a glimpse into the strategic research initiative in science we are establishing," said Professor Stephen Emmott, Director of the Science Initiative at Microsoft Research. "This initiative is focused on developing a new generation of computational tools to tackle fundamental challenges in science. Our aim is to accelerate the ability of scientists worldwide to make significant advances in areas of science where crucially important scientific and societal challenges exist, such as environmental change and its impact."

In this stage of the project on Skomer Island, which will be completed this summer, the team believes that insights already gained about the use of this new technology will enable them to gain a much more detailed understanding of Manx Shearwaters' behaviour, and the effect of changes to the birds environment on the birds behaviour at an individual and population level. Also, it is expected to inform future development and uses of the technology to better monitor, understand, and predict changes occurring to sensitive ecosystems around the world, such as rainforests.

Learn more about this project

Sensitive Species


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