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The Sleepless Forest Observers

Vishva Nalamalapu

In recent years, camera traps, acoustic recorders, genetic methods to identify organisms using DNA they shed into their environments (eDNA), tags on animals to log their behaviors, and aircraft or satellite remote sensing to identify environments and species have all become less expensive, and the quality of sensors and the methods to analyze their data have improved. As a result, ecologists are using remote observation more and more in their research. “The explosion is happening now,” says Taal Levi, an ecologist at OSU who studies quantitative wildlife ecology, conservation, and environmental genetics at the Andrews. A review article published in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution found that the number of scientific publications with the keyword “eDNA” tripled from 2015 to 2018, the number with the keyword “camera traps” doubled, and the number with the keyword “bioacoustics” increased by 50%.

There are good reasons for this shift. Remote sensing can help researchers learn about ecosystems. Because sensors don’t always need someone physically present, researchers can use them to collect data at larger and finer scales and in places that are difficult to observe directly. Sensors can also detect a wider range of organisms than traditional methods. Levi says these technologies are like direct observation “but instead of just you, you’ve got 5,000 versions of you that can stay awake all night long.”

Simultaneously, researchers spend less time in the field when they use remote observation. And it is in the field where they often come up with research ideas and develop a deeper intuition for an ecosystem. Remote observation can also encourage the trend of finding patterns (that an animal lives in environments with specific characteristics, for example) without learning what causes those patterns (which of those characteristics are important to the animal and why).

The Andrews is one place of many where the explosion of remote observation is happening. It was established as a site for long-term science and management studies by the Forest Service in1948 and designated one of the first of 28 National Science Foundation funded Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network sites in 1980. LTER Network sites focus on long-term and large-scale ecological processes. As a result, the Andrews has a long history of research on forests, streams, and watersheds, which makes it an especially good place to assess the transition from traditional methods to remote observation. At the Andrews, researchers are trying to get the benefits of remote observation while avoiding the risks and to find a balance between remote observation and traditional methods. That requires being intentional within the fast-paced broader culture of scientific research. Their success determines the novelty, completeness, and accuracy of their research, which in turn influences how society understands and manages its environments.

Written by
Vishva Nalamalapu
Avatar Written by Vishva Nalamalapu