In the rivers of the Peruvian Amazon, manatees wallow in the murky water, making them very hard to spot. If you’re lucky, says British ecologist Kat Bruce, you might see their nostrils poking out above the surface.
A few years ago, she joined conservationists from green group WWF who were travelling a 1,000-km (621-mile) stretch of river to study manatees and other species.
“You basically can’t survey them apart from by going to communities and asking if they’ve seen any manatees recently,” said Bruce, who in 2014 set up a monitoring company called NatureMetrics.
But the aim of this trip was not a rare sighting. Instead, the team were taking water samples.
NatureMetrics pushes the water through a filter to collect traces of DNA, which are analysed in a lab to understand which species are active in the area - both in the water and on nearby land.
In Peru, they found 675 vertebrate species - from manatees and river dolphins to night monkeys living high in the trees.
As countries negotiate a global pact to halt and reverse nature loss at the COP15 summit in Montreal this month, researchers and companies like NatureMetrics hope their new technologies can help track progress on protecting biodiversity more accurately than ever before.
They are in a race against time, as up to one million of Earth’s estimated eight million plant, insect and animal species are at risk of extinction, many within decades, according to a 2019 international scientific report.
On Friday, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) released an update to its “Red List” of endangered species, flagging a “barrage of threats” affecting marine wildlife, including illegal fishing, pollution and climate change.
Monitoring changes to the composition of those forests helps us to inject specific actions to save what is most unique, or what is different in one forest from another.
Greg Asner, director, ASU Centre for Global Discovery and Conservation Science
While success in curbing global warming can be measured in terms of reductions in planet-heating greenhouse gas emissions, understanding what advances in biodiversity protection mean for governments and companies tends to be more complex.
“You can’t actually measure ecosystem health just by monitoring what you can see,” said NatureMetrics CEO Katie Critchlow.
Using environmental DNA, or “eDNA”, NatureMetrics says it can gather more biodiversity data far faster than traditional surveys, including the presence of IUCN Red List species.
This can be tracked by small DNA filters. Water from an ecosystem is pushed by a syringe through the small discs, which are then sent to specialist labs in Britain and Canada, much like DNA tests to find out people’s ancestry.
NatureMetrics, which has grown to more than 140 employees, serves NGOs and companies that are either looking to monitor progress in restoring a degraded ecosystem or measure whether development projects like mining are causing harm.
“All of a sudden, now you can know whether things are getting better or not - and that’s just not been possible before,” said Critchlow.
“We feel that this is quite revolutionary.”
The eDNA method is just one of a number of innovative new techniques, said Karl Burkart, co-founder and deputy director of US-based non-profit One Earth, which is working to scale up biodiversity mapping technologies.
“In the next three to five years, we’re going to have a lot of breakthroughs in direct observation measuring,” he said.
For example, tiny cameras have been trained with artificial intelligence to collect and interpret what they capture in the field, such as detecting humans and different animal species.
TrailGuard AI, created by the NGO Resolve and chipmaker Intel, is developing this technology to create an alert system against animal poachers in Africa.
Another approach is acoustic sensors, which can monitor sounds from species like birds and even insects, and is an “incredibly effective” way of determining the overall health of an ecosystem, Burkart said.
Some forests may look good from satellite images, for example - but inside, their biodiversity can be severely degraded, a phenomenon known as “zombie forests”, he explained.
“It looks good from space, and inside it’s deathly silent,” he said.
Burkart added that a “mesh” of these techniques together with remote sensing technology, deployed on planes and satellites, can provide a fuller picture of an ecosystem and how its complex parts interact.
One leader in remote sensing technologies is Arizona State University (ASU), whose scientists have created a method called “spectranomics” whereby images taken from the air can show the complexity of species.
Used across the Andes and Amazon regions, advanced sensors can detect the unique chemical signatures of tree species based on how they interact with sunlight and illustrate the results in colourful maps.
Greg Asner, director of ASU’s Centre for Global Discovery and Conservation Science, said the approach - which he co-developed - can help improve protection of tropical forests beyond broad strategic plans.
“Monitoring changes to the composition of those forests helps us to inject specific actions to save what is most unique, or what is different in one forest from another,” he said.
As these solutions begin to make their way from scientific papers to equipment used on the frontlines of the natural world, Burkart said investors are taking biodiversity more seriously - and could help expand the techniques for use by businesses.
According to a 2020 report from the World Economic Forum, more than half of the world’s total GDP is dependent on nature and its services, meaning that nature loss poses a significant risk to global economic health.
Increasingly, companies do not want to be seen to be harming nature, Burkart added, and are under pressure to disclose the risks their operations pose to - and face from - nature.
“Investors … are not going to want to hold companies that aren’t able to be scrutinised,” he said. “I think there’s a societal, public risk of brands being left out of the push to save nature.”
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