Artificial egg spies on endangered vulture nests

white-backed vulture
CC BY 2.0 foxypar4

Recently a nest camera spying on a pair of bald eagles in Washington, D.C. has let the public and the scientific community witness the hatching of two eggs and the lengths the adult birds have gone to feed and protect them, all in real time. Nest cams can provide a wealth of information to scientists and help them come up with ways to protect endangered species, like the bald eagle, but the camera can only tell us what we can see.

What about temperature, humidity and air pressure? These weather readings can all affect the health of the nest and how eggs hatch.

Researchers from the International Centre for Birds of Prey (ICBP) in the UK wanted to be able to gather more data about the nests of critically endangered vulture species, so they contacted Microduino, a company that makes Arduino-compatible microcontrollers and modules, and asked them to create an electronic egg that could remotely monitor the nests.

There were challenges. Not only did the egg have to resemble a real vulture egg, but it had to contain enough sensor components to monitor both the nest's internal temperature and the temperature gradient across its surface, the barometric pressure, humidity, carbon dioxide levels, light intensity, and the egg’s rotation and movement, and a way to transmit all of this information. Also, it had to be able to operate without any human intervention for 70 straight days as to not disturb the nesting vultures.

What Microduino delivered is the EggDuino, a 3D-printed, life-like egg shell wrapped around a laser-cut wood egg. The egg is filled with all of the necessary sensors and modules and powered by a lithium-ion battery. The modules relay data to a terminal that consists of a Wi-Fi enabled Raspberry Pi, a Bluetooth module, and clock and weather station modules.

That terminal is placed outside of the nest to not disturb the vultures, but close enough to collect data over Bluetooth and to measure weather information surrounding the nest. The Raspberry Pi stores the data from the egg and its connected modules and also uploads it all to a cloud server.

Each egg has its own ID. As the eggs are collecting readings in the nests, the data is used to construct 3-D models of the temperature gradients of each egg in real time.

Vultures are critical to the health of ecosystems around the world because by eating dead carcasses they can stop the spread of diseases and more. In Southeast Asia their numbers are dropping dramatically and some species are close to extinction because a drug used to treat cattle is killing them in huge numbers.

The eggs will be used in field studies this month in Africa or India with three critically-endangered vulture species: the Oriental White-backed Vulture, the Long-billed Vulture and the Slender Billed Vulture. This technology could give scientists new information on the mating and breeding conditions of the vultures and what can be done to help them.

Below you can see a video of a vulture with an EggDuino in its nest. It rolls the egg and treats it just like a real egg.

Artificial egg spies on endangered vulture nests
The Raspberry Pi-connected egg is giving scientists information on how to better protect three critically endangered vulture species.

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