How these high-tech tools are helping nature heal

by Jake M Robinson, Jakki Mohr, Martin Breed, Peter Harrison, and Suzanne Mavoa, The Conversation

Some drones can help extinguish wildfires. Credit: Shutterstock

Without a doubt, technology has contributed to the loss of global biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystems.

Where once there were forests, now artificial lights illuminate vast urban jungles. Where once animals roamed, there are now huge factories churning out microchips, computers, and cars. But now, we can also harness technology to help repair our precious ecosystems.

Here, we discuss our two new research papers published today. They show how drones and genomics (the same technology used to identify COVID strains) can help protect and restore nature.

A document demonstrates that drones can help safeguard biodiversity and monitor ecosystem restoration activities. They can also help us understand how impacts on one ecosystem can affect another.

Genomics can help identify populations that may be vulnerable to future climate change and monitor elusive animals such as platypuses, lynxes and newts. However, our other paper found that environmentalists with no genomics background thought the technology still needed to be tried and tested.

remote sensing with drones

Drones are an increasingly common sight, for example in urban parks and weddings. Farmers also use them to assess the health of crops, and engineers use them to detect damage to bridges and wind turbines.

Drone technology has advanced rapidly in the last decade. Advances include obstacle avoidance, improved flight times, high-definition cameras, and the ability to carry heavier payloads.

But can drones help repair damaged ecosystems? We review the scientific literature from various environmental sectors to explore existing and emerging uses of drones in restoring degraded ecosystems. We discovered that the answer is a resounding “yes”.

We found that drones can help map vegetation and collect water, soil, and grassland samples. They can also monitor plant health and wildlife population dynamics. This is essential to understand if a restoration intervention is working.

Drones and DNA tracking: Showing how these high-tech tools are helping nature heal

One study found that black bears became stressed when drones flew too close. Credit: Shutterstock

In Australia, for example, drones have helped researchers identify habitat requirements for marsupials such as the spot-tailed quoll and the eastern bettong. Thanks to the drone’s bird’s-eye view, researchers and practitioners are gaining a better understanding of what vegetation to restore, as well as new approaches to monitoring the return of critical habitat.

It is well known that drones have recently been used to plant trees by dropping “seed bombs” to help restore forests. While drone tree planting has potential, it still requires more research as the survival rate of seedlings is currently low.

Some researchers have even developed forest firefighting drones to protect sensitive ecosystems. This is where one drone detects the fire using thermal technology and another puts it out by throwing fireballs. But controlled wildfires can sometimes be vital for ecosystem restoration, so we can also use drones to launch small fireballs.

However, there are many pitfalls to consider when using drones. In the wrong hands, drones can be a nuisance and harm wildlife.

Studies have shown that flying too close to animals, such as birds and bears, can affect their physiology. For example, a 2015 study showed that drones flying too close to American black bears caused their heart rates to increase, even for a bear that was in full hibernation.

Drone pilots must acquire the appropriate licenses and follow strict protocols when flying drones in sensitive habitats.

Genomics: valuable, but misunderstood

Genomics is a toolkit packed with innovative ways to look at DNA, the blueprint for life on Earth. When scientists talk about genomics, they are usually referring to modern DNA sequencing technologies or the analysis of vast collections of DNA.

But despite the potential of genomics to enhance ecosystem restoration, our recent study showed that restoration scholars with no genomics background were concerned that genomics would be overdone.

We interviewed leading experts in different disciplines of ecology and found many requested case studies to demonstrate the benefits of genomics in restoration.


Drones y rastreo de ADN: mostramos cómo estas herramientas de alta tecnología están ayudando a la naturaleza a sanarCC BY-SA“/>

Genomics can help choose which red ironbark tree seeds can resist climate change. Credit: John Tann/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

But surprisingly, we found that the restoration genomics literature included more than 70 restoration genomics studies, many of which used environmental DNA to monitor ecosystem health. Therefore, many case studies already exist.

In ecosystem restoration, the two most common genomic applications are population genomics and environmental DNA.

Population genomics studies small differences in an organism’s genome to answer questions such as how much genetic variation exists in a population, how closely related individuals are, or how landscapes change migration patterns.

Linking changes in DNA sequences to historical climates has become central to the conservation and restoration of nature today. It allows us to understand how resilient animals, plants, and microbes are to future climates.

For example, we have used this approach to select seeds from hardy trees, such as red ironbark (eucalyptus tricarp), for forest restoration plantations in southeastern Australia. Using genomics to select the hardiest seeds gives trees the best chance of surviving in a changing climate.

Scientists can also gain insight into ecosystems and monitor elusive species using DNA that organisms leave behind in environments such as soil or water.

This environmental DNA data can help track the presence of species (invasive, endangered, or cryptic) and help measure community health and diversity. This includes pollinators like bees, other animals and plants, and our invisible friends, microbes.

For example, in the UK, ecologists are now using environmental DNA to detect the presence of vulnerable amphibians, such as great crested newts.

Where to from here?

Greater adoption of remote sensing and genomics in restoration has clear potential to help improve the monumental task of restoring our degraded ecosystems. Our papers outline ways for restoration ecologists to integrate drones and genomics into their toolboxes.

Since humans have caused substantial degradation of global ecosystems, it makes sense to use the technologies now available to restore wildlife and prevent further loss of biodiversity.

Restoration of ecosystems with DNA technology

More information:
Jake M. Robinson et al, Existing and Emerging Uses of Drones in Restoration Ecology, Methods in Ecology and Evolution (2022). DOI: 10.1111/2041-210X.13912

Jakki J. Mohr et al, Is it the ‘wagon’ of genomics before the ‘horse’ of restoration ecology? Insights from qualitative interviews and trends from the literature, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (2022). DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2021.0381

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