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Hot monkey, cold reality: surveying rainforest canopy mammals using drone-mounted thermal infrared sensors

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Animals of the rainforest canopies are often endangered by deforestation or hunting but are difficult to survey and study because of the inaccessibility of the treetops, combined with the visual camouflage of many species. Drone-based thermal sensors have the potential to overcome these hurdles by rapidly scanning large forested areas from above, detecting and mapping wildlife based on the contrast between their warm body temperatures and the cool tree canopies. We tested this concept by flying a drone-mounted thermal infrared radiometric sensor over the wildlife-rich rainforests of Barro Colorado Island, Panama. Arboreal mammals had body temperatures around 27°C and were conspicuous in the thermal infrared imagery at night and early morning when the forest canopy was cool (23–25°C), but were difficult to detect by mid-morning, by which time the direct sunshine had heated up canopy vegetation to over 30°C. Species were difficult to identify from thermal infrared imagery alone, but could be recognized from synchronized visual images taken during the daytime. Simultaneous drone and ground-based surveys of the same area proved that the aerial thermal camera did detect high-canopy species missed by the terrestrial observer, but that substantially more animals were detected by the human than by the drone. Because animal detection was so much better at night, when species ID was difficult, we suggest that future work could combine automated detection of animals from thermal infrared imagery with flash photography or IR illumination to enable species ID during nocturnal surveys. We conclude by discussing various logistical challenges that limit the utility of drone-based thermal infrared today, but that could be overcome by continued improvement of technology and collaboration with permitting agencies.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Biodiversity Lab, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Raleigh, NC, USA 2: San Diego Zoo Global, San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, Escondido, CA, USA 3: Department of Anthropology, University of California Davis, Davis, CA, USA 4: Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Balboa, Republic of Panama

Publication date: January 17, 2019

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