The Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning/McGill University

Global real-time hyperspectral identification of endangered animal and plant species

Lead Organization

The Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning/McGill University

Montréal, Québec, Canada

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Project Summary

The Earth has entered the sixth wave of mass extinction of living species in its history, yet we cannot even answer the question “how many species are there?” While hundreds of new species of plants and animals continue to be scientifically described each year, humans are responsible for an extinction rate thousands of times higher than the natural extinction rate. Destructive and unsustainable mining of living diversity is a multi-billion-dollar industry. Work to map living species is not enough for actual conservation. We propose a real-time identification system using multiple scales of hyperspectral technologies from hand-held devices, to UAV/ROVs and airborne sensors, to offer a simple and effective way to identify plants, wildlife, and their habitats and derivatives. Indigenous people and populations of developing countries often share impacted ecosystems with species targeted by traffickers. We will empower these communities to protect their natural heritage, and that of the entire planet.

Problem Statement

The planet is rapidly losing biodiversity, even before it is identified or scientifically described. Primary drivers of this loss accounting for two-thirds of all threats are habitat destruction and overexploitation driven by illicit wildlife trafficking - a crime that involves the illegal trade, smuggling, poaching, capture or collection of endangered species, protected wildlife (animals/plants) or their derivatives. Biodiversity, and pristine natural spaces are key to our own survival as a species. Biodiversity loss threatens the integrity of entire ecosystems. The services they provide can collapse as living species, and their functional resilience disappear forever. Global demand drives the illicit trade. In addition to flagship species at high risk of extinction, rare species sought after by collectors are also in danger. The internet has exacerbated the pace at which specimens can be sold providing a true globalized market. and allows large-scale operations to run without impunity; the most dangerous aspects are contracted out to local and marginalized populations. Traffickers rely on the overall confusion regarding the identity of many species and the ease with which identities can be concealed. Many countries do not have the resources to rapidly verify and track exports and imports accurately. Even food and fresh products are purposely mislabeled. We offer a rapid, non-destructive solution. At relatively low cost, countries and agencies can enforce wildlife, food, and customs laws and international treaties like CITES. It would also increase the speed of movement of fresh/live goods and reduce waste due to delays for species/products traded legally.

Solution Overview

Novel methods are required to rapidly assess and identify how wildlife and plants (or their derivatives) are illegally traded and their habitats destroyed, because current global approaches are failing to combat this crisis. DNA barcoding requires time, highly trained personnel, and sophisticated laboratories. Protocols and results lack traceability in many countries. We propose a more effective way to assess species ID on the spot in the field on living organisms or their derivatives. Identification can be readily achieved with a specialized kind of Earth observation technology called hyperspectral imaging (HSI) - a form of spectroscopy. As a taxonomic screening tool, HSI interrogates the chemical and physical composition of an organism nondestructively producing a unique “light-print-signature” (LPS). For plants, airborne and satellite-based HSI has been transformative as a way of identifying species. The LPS approach is also effective for other organisms. We propose to implement artificial intelligence informed LPS analysis to determine the ID of species via handheld devices and conduct large scale surveys from airborne/UAV/ROV platforms to monitor large and/or mobile species and locate refugia for cryptic species. Through digital innovation, we will also implement models to measure, monitor, and map habitat degradation at a planetary scale to predict where species may become at high risk of trafficking. Our real-time identification will assist in combating poaching and trafficking, which are at the core of the extinction crisis.

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