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Pakko De La Torre // Creative Director

Microchips, 3D printers, augmented reality: the high-tech tools helping scientists save our wildlife

Microchips, 3D printers, augmented reality: the high-tech tools helping scientists save our wildlife

Shania Watson

Around the world, Earth’s natural environments are being destroyed at a truly shocking scale. It means places animals need to shelter and breed, such as tree hollows, rock crevices and reefs, are disappearing.

The only long-term way to protect these animals is to stop destroying their homes. But political resistance, financial interests and other factors often work to prevent this. So scientists must get creative to try and hold off extinction in the short term.

One way they do this is to create artificial habitat structures. Our new research, released today, examines how ingenious, high-tech innovation is making some structures more effective.

But artificial habitats are not a silver bullet. Some can harm animals, and they can be used by developers to distract from the damage their projects cause.

albatross chick in artificial nest
Technology is making some artificial habitat structures more effective.
Matthew Newton, WWF Australia

What are artificial habitat structures?

Animals rely on specific environmental features to survive, grow, reproduce and sustain healthy populations. Artificial structures seek to replicate these habitats.

Some artificial homes provide habitat for just one species, while others benefit entire ecological communities.

They’ve been built for a huge variety of animals across the world, such as:

  • boxes which mimic tree hollows, for beetles

  • nests made of coconut husks, for seabirds

  • nests made from mud brick and aerated concrete for the shy albatross

  • “hotels” based on fish traps, for seahorses

  • ceramic poles that provide a surface for spotted handfish to lay eggs

moss-covered tiles attached to sea wall
Artificial habitat, such as these tiles added to a seawall, can help a species’ short-term prospects.
Alex Goad, Reef Design Lab

How do new technologies help?

More recently, wildlife conservationists have partnered with engineers and designers to incorporate new and exciting technologies into artificial habitat design.

For example, researchers in Queensland recently installed microchip-automated doors on nest boxes for brushtail possums.

The doors opened only for microchipped possums as they came close, and most possums were trained to use them in about 11 days. Such technology may help to keep predators and other animals out of nest boxes provided for threatened species.

In New Zealand, small, native lizards hide from predatory house mice in the crevices of rock piles. Researchers used video game software to visualise these 3D spaces and create “Goldilocks” rock piles – those with crevices big enough to let lizards in, but small enough to exclude mice.

3D printing to create artificial habitats is also becoming increasingly common.

Scientists have used a combination of computer simulation, augmented reality and 3D-printing to create artificial owl nests that resemble termite mounds in trees.

And researchers and designers have created 3D-printed rock pools and reefs to provide habitat for sea life.

Read more:
Urban owls are losing their homes. So we’re 3D printing them new ones

A 3D-printed, modular artificial reef structure designed by Alex Goad.

It’s not all good news

Collaboration between scientists and engineers has enabled amazing new homes for wildlife, but there’s still lots of room for improvement.

In some instances, artificial habitats may be detrimental to an animal’s health. For example, they may get too hot or be placed in areas with little food or lots of predators.

And artificial habitats can become ineffective if not monitored and maintained.

Artificial habitat structures can also be used to greenwash environmentally destructive projects, or to distract from taking serious action on climate change and habitat loss.

Further, artificial habitat structures are often only feasible at small scales, and can be expensive to build, deploy and maintain.

If the root causes of species decline – including habitat destruction and climate change – aren’t addressed, artificial habitat structures will do little to help wildlife in the long-term.

remains of a logged forest
The root causes of species decline, such as habitat destruction, must be addressed.
Darcy Watchorn

What next?

It’s great that conservationists can create high-tech homes for wildlife – but it would be better if they didn’t have to.

Despite the dwindling numbers of countless species, environmental damage continues apace.

Native forests are cut down and rivers are dammed. Ocean shorelines are turned into marinas or seawalls and greenhouse gases are pumped into the atmosphere.

Such actions are the root cause of species decline.

We strongly encourage further collaboration between scientists and engineers to improve artificial habitat structures and help animal conservation. But as we help with one hand, we must stop destroying with the other.

Read more:
Artificial refuges are a popular stopgap for habitat destruction, but the science isn’t up to scratch

The Conversation

Darcy Watchorn receives funding from the Hermon Slade Foundation, Parks Victoria, the Conservation and Wildlife Research Trust, the Ecological Society of Australia, the Victorian Environmental Assessment Council, and the Geelong Naturalists Field Club. He is a member of the Ecological Society of Australia and the Society for Conservation Biology Oceania.

Mitchell Cowan receives funding from the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, and Consolidated Minerals. He is a member of the Ecological Society of Australia, the Australian Wildlife Society, and the Australian Mammal Society.

Tim Doherty receives funding from the Australian Research Council, Hermon Slade Foundation, NSW Environmental Trust, Australian Academy of Science and WWF Australia. He is policy committee chair for the Society for Conservation Biology Oceania and a member of the Ecological Society of Australia.

This content was originally published here.