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New iPad game uses citizen science to track endangered species in the wild

The Wildsense iPad app, an initiative from a group of researchers at the University of Surrey, could change the way wildlife is monitored in the future.

Wildsense aims to use citizen science, the concept of allowing people to get directly involved in science, to help in the conservation of rare and endangered species.

The Wildsense project team, from Surrey’s Digital Ecosystems research group, has created a game that loads photos from the web that are analysed by the player in return for points. The data is then collected and analysed to study animal behaviour including movement and context.

For example, thousands of tourists visit India’s tiger reserves every year and load their photographs on social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. This is a valuable and under-used source of data about tiger movements and habitats, which could provide important information about the activities of poachers if tigers go missing. By using the app, citizen scientists can then examine these photos and provide further context that does not typically exist with the image alone. For example, how many tigers are in the image, what are the tigers doing and what is their environment?

Aaron Mason, a PhD student in the Department of Computing, said: “People love to share photos online and the information about wildlife through these channels is vast and potentially very useful. We decided to turn this social data into a game that consolidates information on endangered animals and lets wildlife enthusiasts have a direct impact on welfare in an interactive way.

“Our initial focus is wild tigers, which is a challenge as it is difficult to distinguish between photos of actual tigers from the vast number of images online. If you type the word ‘tiger’ in a search engine you get inundated with everything from famous golf players to baseball teams and cuddly toys. Our algorithms sort images by relevance using image metadata, which includes location, usernames and tags, successfully separating images of real tigers in the wild from other images online.”

Professor Paul Krause, Professor of Software Engineering, added: “Monitoring top predators such as tigers provides an important indication of habitat quality, as well as gaining insight into these beautiful animals themselves. The Wildsense app is an important step forward in our programme of developing methods to track wild animals without resorting to intrusive physical tags or collars.”

Mike Slee, an award-winning wildlife film maker, said: “Over 35 years of science and wildlife filmmaking I have been passionate about understanding nature and communicating through documentaries the perilous state of some of the earth’s creatures and environments. The new Wildsense app from the University of Surrey is one of the most innovative, exciting and positive ways I have seen to make this ‘knowledge share’ accessible and practical. It is a brilliant beginning for a fresh generation of citizen scientists to have a real input into active wildlife observation and conservation.”

With less than 10,000 left in the wild, cheetahs are also on a trajectory to extinction. Wildsense announced on 25 January 2016 that they had been awarded a grant to develop a Wildsense for Cheetahs app.

The $25,000 grant from the World Wide Fund for Nature will allow Wildsense to develop a system similar to their original Wildsense for Tigers app, by which users can recognise individual cheetahs from uploaded images in order to contribute to conversation efforts.

The work for this new app is being undertaken this year and a beta release of Wildsense for Cheetahs is planned for June 2016.

Download the Wildsense Tigers app for free from the Apple App Store.

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