How Technology Brings Us Closer Than Ever to Wildlife

© William Burrard-Lucas

The advancement of technology seems to have come at the expense of nature, at least in large part. The more we are able to travel farther faster, pump more electricity into more gadgets, grow more food faster in less hospitable areas, manufacture more stuff and so on, the less natural space and wildlife are left to provide materials to do so; let alone to connect with when our own mental and emotional fuel tanks run low and we need to connect with something, well, real. Yet despite the drawbacks, there are ways in which technology can and does bring us closer to nature, especially to those of us who have lived in areas where the connection to healthy wild spaces and wild things is fragile at best.

Here is a celebration of the ways in which technology keeps us in touch with the natural world.

cogdogblog/CC BY 2.0

Learning About Wildlife

I've noticed that when I go somewhere, it is far too easy to fly through the experience if I don't know what it is I'm looking at or am supposed to be appreciating. Learning about where you are or what you're seeing undeniably gives one a better appreciation for that space or thing. That's why apps can be so cool and helpful.

Apps for Walking Nature Trails

iPhone App Field Guide for National Parks When hiking at national parks -- a past time we fully encourage! -- don't be embarrassed to pause whip out your smart phone to find out more about what you're looking at. This Park Guides app from the National Parks Conservation Association will help you identify flora and fauna, learn about wildlife calls, and become educated about historical sites within the park. You select the park you're in, and a field guide tells you everything you need to know about the area, from endangered and poisonous species to range maps, from wildlife profiles to call recordings.

A favorite of mine for walking in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park is the Golden Gate Park Field Guide. It tells me where various wildlife, such as coyotes or hawks, had been spotted and provides a guide for what wildlife lives in the park so that if I spot something I can't identify, I can quickly look it up. If you have a large park near you, check to see if there is a similar app that can help you appreciate the wildlife that calls it home.

I have mixed feelings about being able to find bears In Yellowstone with your smart phone. The app is essentially a sighting reporter, on which you can report your own sightings as well as track where animals were last seen. The developers state, "Because the sheer enormity of Yellowstone can be as overwhelming as its beauty, visitors commonly miss out on some of the park's essential attractions, such as its abundant wildlife. Where's A Bear has been created by seasoned Yellowstone enthusiasts who have learned through experience that your mobile phone needs the right kind of app to make your Yellowstone experience that much more unforgettable."

It's great that Wheres A Bear helps you track where wildlife was last seen, but when it comes to bears, moose and other dangerous wildlife, we prefer you keep your distance.

Apps for Identifying Species

LeafSnap is an app to identify trees. A collaboration between Columbia University, the University of Maryland and the Smithsonian Institution, the researchers used the technological advancements that have given us face recognition and applied it to leaves. Every photo of a leaf that is uploaded is matched against an image library to see which species it belongs to. A pretty amazing use of technology to help us quickly identify species!

If you'd like to identify endangered species no matter where you are, this is one of those cool-yet-terribly-sad-it-exists apps you'll want to have on your smart phone. The Center for Biological Diversity created Species Finder which uses GPS location technology to "see" where you are and list the endangered species that live in the area. It's amazing to know at any point in time which species are living in the area you're walking though, and especially interesting to know which endangered species are struggling to survive. It could be a way to stay aware of local ecology and how you can help with conservation efforts.

Apps for Citizen Scientists

Not all apps are about being a student of wildlife, however. Some are actually about citizen science. For instance, are you interested in partaking in neighborhood adventure hunt? The SciSpy app will have you crawling around the backyard with your iPhone hunting for strange bugs and odd flowers, and claiming the title of citizen scientist. With this app, you can participate in a whole community of people interested in the flora and fauna growing around us, and help scientists (the professional kind) discover more within their research projects. Your photo is automatically date stamped, geo-mapped, and classified so the work on your end for contributing is incredibly minimal. Also, you're helping fill the database of information that is used by "real" scientists studying nature.

A similar app that lets you document and explore local wildlife is NOAH, or the Networked Organisms and Habitats app. With this app you can photograph an interesting plant, bug or animal that you want to learn about, send in the photo along with a little info about where you found it, and store it in the species database. You can sort through the database to find out more about the flora and fauna around you, and your uploaded data will be added upon by local experts.

How cool is it to think that you're camera phone image could help identify a new trend in spring flower blooms or the spread (or decline) of a species?

Apps for um... Talking With Animals

Okay so I actually have one for this category. Check this out: Google Launches "Translate for Animals" Android App, Endangered Animals Can Now Talk to Us.

Mmmkay so it's not real but it'd be cool if it were and, I'm pretty sure it'd bring us closer to wildlife.

Even though we don't have a way to directly speak with species other than our own, in a verbal language as fluid as we're used to, it doesn't mean scientists aren't working on the technology. Indeed, just recently we reported on a wave-powered speaker that can emit sounds at frequencies dolphins can pick up. It is "an extremely broadband speaker that can project all the various communication sounds, whistles, burst-pulse sounds, and echo-location clicks that dolphins make and at frequencies from 7 kHz to 170 kHz." If that's not a technology helping to bond us more closely with wildlife, I don't know what is!

Watching Wildlife

Okay, let's just admit it. Televisions, cell phones and computers bring us closer to wildlife even if we're just using them to passively watch what's going on.

Nature Documentaries

Over the years, we've witnessed how nature documentaries bring awareness and appreciation for wild things. As a child, nature documentaries were must-watch material and anyone coming between me and the TV when Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom was on had better look out.

Since then, technology for both recording equipment and play-back equipment has vastly improved. We now have incredible high-definition cameras recording wildlife in amazing detail, and televisions and movie screens that can do justice to what was recorded. Examples of more recent nature documentaries that have astounded audiences and, with luck, inspired a new generation of conservationists, include Frozen Planet, Life, and Planet Earth.

Our fascination with nature documentaries has moved right alongside reality TV with shows like Man Vs Wild and Out of the Wild. These shows illustrate just how dear we still hold a connection to aspects of Mother Nature we cannot control, but want to witness.

Decorah Bald Eagles Livestream/Video screen capture

Livestreams and Camera Traps

A TreeHugger post that got a surprising amount of attention two years in a row is that of a livecam showing a bald eagle nest. The cameras were able to capture the nesting, egg-sitting, hatching, and raising of bald eagle chicks and it seems that it is something readers were deeply interested in watching.

Most of us don't have wildlife right outside our windows, and many of us can't often get away to witness amazing things happening such as the hatching and rearing of such an iconic bird. So live cams are a technology we greatly appreciate, and clearly want to utilize. The technology of the camera and online streaming of content has made it possible to watch nature from wherever we are.

More examples include a livecam at California Academy of Sciences aimed at the resident population of endangered South African Penguins. If you love penguins, then can watch the penguins all day on your phone with Pocket Penguins, even from an underwater vantage point which I'm sure is amazing during feeding time.

Another technology for watching wildlife from afar is through camera traps -- a camera that takes a picture when it is triggered, usually via motion sensors. This is how many scientists have been able to document elusive wildlife such as snow leopards. Of course, there is an app for watching rare wildlife caught on camera. It is called Instant WILD, and not only can you see the animals, but you can help identify them as well.

Seeing Our Impact

One of the most important things technology can do to connect us to wildlife is to show us what damage we're doing to the planet. It helps us gain much needed perspective, and inspire innovation and solutions to protecting habitats and species.

Of course one of the biggest technological advancements to do this is satellite imagery. It shows us on both a large and small scale what effect we're having, whether that is deforestation, pollution, development, or even rehabilitation of habitats. And of course on of the most useful implementations of satellite imagery is Google Earth. This incredible database of satellite images has become a tool for both scientists and the average person alike. It has been an important resource for conservation efforts and a vital tool in reconnecting us with nature across the planet.

Satellite imagery is also used in a savvy way with the Fragile Earth app, which shows dramatic before and after photos of human influence on our planet. We've changed it in ways that make it unrecognizable in many ways, and seeing those changes and our planet's former glory juxtaposed is sure to raise some eyebrows.

Google Earth/Screen capture

We have cameras in space, but equally important are cameras in the hand. Camera technology, as we mentioned earlier, has advanced enormously since its creation. We now have essentially image-capturing computers in our hands, and in the hands of the right people, they can connect us back to nature in unexpected ways. Conservation photographers, for instance, take images as the first step in a much larger process of generating awareness about environmental issues. The image is the door, but there is much more waiting beyond it. Wildlife and landscape photographers remind us of the beauty and wonder of the world around us, and many of the world's best photographers are busily documenting in disturbing beauty the impacts we have on our planet.

Photographers also have their own fun with technology. For instance, Will Burrard-Lucas created the BeetleCam, an extremely hardy remote-controlled vehicle which can take a camera into some situations a photographer would be wise to keep clear of, such as a pride of lions. Check out: Incredible Lion Photos Taken With High-Tech Remote Control Camera.

Tags: Conservation | longreads | Technology

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