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How researchers are using AI to save rainforest species in Puerto Rico: Exclusive

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(NEW YORK) — Declining species in rainforests around the world may have a second chance of survival due to artificial intelligence technology, experts told ABC News.

Researchers from environment nonprofit Rainforest Connection and Google.org, the tech company’s philanthropy branch, said they have found a way to use AI to monitor and conserve species in threatened ecosystems as rainforests bear the brunt of impacts from hazards like global warming, deforestation and development.

“Now, with the use of AI, we’re able to analyze hundreds of thousands of recordings,” Bourhan Yassin, CEO of Rainforest Connection, told ABC News.. “A process that used to take four and a half months for a single scientist to analyze one species, we can do that in seconds.”

The conservationists chose rainforests in Puerto Rico as the first case study for using the open-source AI platform Arbimom, which is designed for biodiversity monitoring through acoustics. It collected more than 7.7 million recordings from over 900 sites to improve the knowledge of the locations of at-risk species such as the Elfin-woods warbler and Mountain Colqui, a tree frog, Yassin said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service enlisted Rainforest Connection to help find the most suitable areas to release Puerto Rican parrots, an endangered species with less than 700 individuals left, which have been under rehabilitation for the past decade, Yassin said.

Last year, the USFW released dozens of rehabilitated Puerto Rican parrots into the Maricao State Forest and El Yunque National Forest. The program was established after Hurricane Maria in 2017 left the forests, the parrots’ main habitat, decimated.

The project, the result of an AI for innovation grant Google bestowed on the nonprofit, utilizes a type of science called bioacoustics by placing recorders created by the researchers called “guardians” on top of tree canopies. The recorders, which are equipped with long-range capture technology, capture the soundscape of the forest 24 hours a day and connect to a satellite network and Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) network that allows for the broadcast of the sounds in real-time, Yassin said.

Another set of inexpensive, basic recorders is strategically placed beneath the tree canopy to gather “in-between data,” Yassin said. The massive amount of data is then plugged into Arbimom, which analyzes it to determine insights about the behavior of the species.

In addition to endemic species, the recorders allow the researchers to monitor for indicators and invasive species as well. The technology can also use the tools to monitor for illegal activity, such as unauthorized logging, Yassin said.

“Puerto Rico is becoming drier under the current climate change conditions,” Yassin said. “We’re seeing how the distribution of species is directly correlated to like rainfall and forest cover.”

Although bioacoustics is not a new methodology, this scale of research would not have been possible without the emergence of AI, Brigitte Hoyer Gosselink, director of product impact for Google.org, told ABC News.

Prior to modern technology, biologists would essentially go into the field and make themselves scarce — hiding behind bushes with large, sharp mics to record — and painstakingly spend 10 to 15 minutes to analyze just 30 seconds of recording, Yassin said.

The study found that climate change is causing many species in Puerto Rico’s rainforests to migrate to higher elevations and that Puerto Rico will become drier under current climate conditions.

In addition, current protected areas and remaining suitable bird habitats are not large enough to support birds due to climate change, demonstrating the need for larger, more connected protected areas and buffer zones, Rainforest Connection said.

“Being able to look at that and adapt to that, I think, is one of the most important findings that we were able to bring down to the ground and let the right people know about it,” Yassin said.

The results and recommendations from Google.org and Rainforest Connection’s findings are being used by local NGOs, like Para la Naturaleza, to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Departamento de Recursos Naturales y Ambientales de Puerto Rico to create new protection zones focused on species requiring protection, the organizations said.

Rainforests across the world offer a wealth of benefits to the environment, including holding more than half of the world’s vertebrate species and the ability of its trees and plants to absorb carbon dioxide from the air. But rainforests are declining at alarming rates — losing an area the size of Israel in just 2020, according to a report by nonprofit Amazon Conservation. In 2022, the world lost 10% more tropical forests than in the previous year, an analysis by the World Resource Institute found.

“We’re losing species that are very vital to the health of the forest,” Yassin said.

Climate scientists are increasingly finding more evidence that protecting biodiversity is one of the most essential tools to mitigating climate change.

The expanding availability of AI is also allowing scientists to embark in more efficient ways to respond to the impacts of climate change, such as detecting melting permafrost in the Arctic, ensuring the world’s food supplies and preserving the health of the oceans.

Conservationists will be able to scale up this methodology across multiple soundscapes across multiple places in the world, Yassin said.

“It’s just such a great example of what we can do to unlock the potential of AI in a bold and responsible way,” Gosselink said.

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