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Wildlife on candid camera

Udzungwa Mountains, Tanzania. Genetta servalina lowei (Lowe's Servaline Genet) -a small african carnivore. Image courtesy of Museo delle Scienze (Trento Museum of Science), a member of the TEAM network - http://www.teamnetwork.org

Vast global networks monitor the Earth for earthquakes and gather data from our oceans for scientific study. The Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring Network, or TEAM, aims to do the same for the Earth’s tropical regions.

The TEAM Network, which launched in 2002, today gathers data from 18 sites across three continents. Using a variety of methods, they gather data on the local species population, biosphere, and climate, and make that data available to the researchers and public.

In order to make the network possible, TEAM created a variety of software tools researchers can download or access through the TEAM web portal. The various TEAM tools help with setting up and managing new TEAM sites, designing and planning sampling schedules, distributing and accessing spatial data, visualizing and monitoring network status, searching, visualizing, and downloading data, and collaborating.

One software system, called DeskTEAM, was recently used for the first global camera trap study of mammals. Led by Conservation International’s Jorge Ahumada, an ecologist and TEAM technical director, the study documented 105 species in nearly 52,000 images from seven protected areas across the Americas, Africa, and Asia. The images reveal a wide variety of animals in their most candid moments – from a minute mouse to the enormous African elephant as well as gorillas, cougars, giant anteaters and, surprisingly, even tourists and poachers. A gallery of images from the study can be found online.

To make sense of so many images, the TEAM researchers turned to computing experts at the San Diego Supercomputer Center.

“Our goal was to come up with a software system to address the fact that despite advances in digital image capture, field biologists still lack adequate software solutions to process and manage the increasing amount of digital information in a cost-efficient manner,” said SDSC researcher Kai Lin, who led the software project.

The result of their efforts, called DeskTEAM, incorporates numerous software features and functions specifically designed for the broader camera trapping community. These include the ability to run the application locally on a laptop or desktop computer without requiring an Internet connection, as well as the ability to run on multiple operating systems.

The software also has an intuitive navigational user interface which allows users to easily manage hundreds or even thousands of images; the ability to automatically extract customized metadata information from digital images to increase standardization; the availability of embedded taxonomic lists so images can be easily tagged with species identities; and the ability to export data packages consisting of data, metadata, and images in standardized formats so that they can be transferred to online data warehouses for easy archiving and dissemination.

“We have been partners with Conservation International on the TEAM project since the early days of the project, beginning in September 2007,” said Chaitan Baru, a scientist at SDSC and lead of the TEAM computing effort. “A talented and dedicated group of research and development staff at SDSC helped design the comprehensive cyberinfrastructure that runs the entire global TEAM network. We developed the various cyberinfrastructure components, and the services are now hosted and run out of SDSC.”

With the help of the software tools developed at SDSC, researchers were able to move forward with their study, which was not only the first global camera trap mammal study but also the largest camera trap study of any class of animals. The results were published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

Among the findings they reported, analysis of collected data has helped scientists confirm a key conclusion that previously was only understood through uncoordinated local study: that habitat loss and smaller wilderness reserves have a direct and detrimental impact on the diversity and survival of mammal populations.

“What makes this study scientifically groundbreaking is that we created for the first time consistent, comparable information for mammals on a global scale setting an effective baseline to monitor change. By using this single, standardized methodology in the years to come and comparing the data we receive, we will be able to see trends in mammal communities and take specific, targeted action to save them,” said Ahumada. “We hope that these data contribute to a better management of protected areas and conservation of mammals worldwide, and a more widespread use of standardized camera trapping studies to monitor these critically important animals.”

You can view a selection of the images captured in the camera trap study here.

A version of this article originally appeared on the SDSC website.

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