Technologies for Conserving Biodiversity in the Anthropocene

Conservation biologists have endeavored to preserve biodiversity from the most extreme excesses of human environmental destruction. Most of these efforts to reverse, halt, and even slow biodiversity decline have proven ineffective, with the downward trends in most biotic groups showing no signs of abating. Human pressure on remaining tracts of natural habitat has not eased and will likely intensify because of climate change. Although the quest for ever-increasing standards of living by an ever-growing human population is the cause of the biodiversity crisis, it can also be the source of its mitigation by harnessing the technological innovation that is driving economic development to stem biodiversity loss. Such an effort will require much greater invasive mediation in biological processes, thereby further blurring the line between nature and humans that conservation biologists have long sought to preserve. But perhaps it is time to embark on a more explicitly symbiotic relationship with our environment and the biota that it harbors. As a species, humans are distinguished by their ambition and capacity to control natural phenomena through technological innovation. This innovativeness is now needed by conservation biologists to combat the threats to biodiversity that technology itself has helped to create.

Competition for space remains an almost insurmountable challenge for biological conservation, and future efforts to provide habitat to secure species and biological processes will focus on maintaining and managing (rather than consolidating) protected areas. Globally, the protected status of established terrestrial and marine parks may be eroded if it becomes clear that their boundaries no longer preserve intact habitats or trophic webs due to mismanagement or other threats such as climate change and pollution, or even if their location is seen to impede economic development. For example, the plans for development along the northeast Australian coast are threatening the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization World Heritage Status of the Great Barrier Reef.

Our global complement of national parks and marine reserves will best assure their value by having real-time data on the health of the habitats, biota, and biological processes that they harbor, allowing us to better mitigate the threats they face. Hyperspectral imagery of landscapes can provide detailed information on a host of chemical and geological parameters and biological processes in both terrestrial and aquatic systems, and huge strides have been made in recent years in terms of imaging techniques, data analysis, and modes of deployment. Aerial and aquatic drones are increasingly being used to routinely monitor tracts of habitat and even individual animals. These types of remote sensing can help ensure that habitats remain healthy and protect the biota they are refuges for, while offering the possibility of rapid alert systems for failing food webs or trophic systems or excessive human interference.

Restoration ecology can play a significant role in augmenting the conservation value of marginal and degraded lands. Indeed, the growing land bank of damaged habitats around the world due to over-exploitation presents an opportunity for conservationists. Bioremediation techniques—for example, the use of plants and microbes to extract metal contaminants—have advanced to the point that we can use natural processes to help “re-wild” damaged habitats. But habitat recovery can also occur naturally in the most surprising locations if humans can be excluded. For example, the area surrounding Chernobyl, Ukraine, has recovered remarkably following the nuclear disaster in 1986, with native fauna taking advantage of the dearth of human activities to re-wild the exclusion zone, suggesting that even the most damaged landscapes are not beyond hope of recovery if technology can be employed to limit human incursions.

Advances in brain mapping may eventually be applied to technologies that can determine how species perceive their environment. Such information could help identify and ameliorate stressors that could be impediments to reproduction or survival.

Such technologies are now within reach. Robots or perhaps even cyborg animals (remotely-controlled by humans using microchips linked to the animal’s brain) could be used to enter areas that either cannot or should not be accessed by humans, and to limit unwanted contact between humans and a species targeted for protection, although there are ethical issues to be considered with this latter approach. With increasing affordability and improving technology, camera-trapping (the deployment of motion-detection cameras that trigger when an animal passes by) is rapidly gaining popularity. This technique can be used to non-invasively detect or monitor both vulnerable species and human presence in largely inaccessible areas. Advances in bioacoustics can greatly facilitate our ability to track enigmatic species such as marine mammals, but it could also provide a simple means to detect human encroachment on protected areas. Monitoring reproductive status and other physiological parameters in the wild can be facilitated by broader deployment of biotelemetry devices and the use of mobile communication networks. Advances in brain mapping may eventually be applied to technologies that can determine how species perceive their environment. Such information could help identify and ameliorate stressors that could be impediments to reproduction or survival and considerably improve animal welfare, although the resources and effort needed to develop these capabilities probably means they will be applied to charismatic keystone species, at least initially.

From climate engineering to cloning

Climate change may adversely affect habitats and species in many ways, but perhaps the greatest threat is altered weather patterns. The rapidly evolving science of weather modification may provide an option for counteracting its local effects. For example, reduced rainfall in certain areas could cause extended droughts, drastically affecting the local water cycle and vegetation structure of protected habitats. Considerable progress has been made in precipitation-inducing technologies, and cloud-seeding may need to be employed in particularly high risk or vulnerable habitats. In other areas, park managers may be able to pump groundwater to supply existing surface water bodies to preserve vegetation and fauna, although, of course, these groundwater reserves may themselves be depleted. Advances in solar-powered and flow electrode technologies for large-scale desalination of seawater may also provide a crucial solution to water shortages, at least in coastal areas. With better predictive models of climate behavior, other geoengineering interventions, from mitigating extreme weather to protecting against excessive ultraviolet (UV) exposure, may eventually become feasible; for now they remain controversial and highly uncertain.

Although climate change mitigation technologies will largely involve broad-scale interventions in habitats and biological processes, a complementary and more targeted approach will be necessary to support species and populations that have been exterminated or so diminished in size as to be unviable without human support. We must look to rescuing, reinforcing, restoring, and recovering threatened and extinct populations.

The techniques that have been developed for captive populations in zoos, aquaria, and botanic gardens will increasingly be employed in the wild, where fragmented and isolated populations will mirror the scenario of ex situ conservation. Cloning technology has the potential to remedy the ignominious extinction of the bucardo, or Pyrenean ibex, the last specimen of which was killed by a falling tree in January 2000. Indeed, proof-of-concept has already been achieved with the birth of a bucardo in 2009. Plant and animal germplasm can be preserved through the current biodiversity crisis by cryogenics, thereby providing a safety net for species by securing material for future cloning work if needed. Once competence with this technology has been achieved, future efforts should focus on recently-extinct keystone species rather than species such as mammoths and other long-extinct fauna and flora. Resurrecting an extinct species is pointless if the habitat in which it lived has disappeared and the factors that caused its demise have not been resolved; otherwise such efforts are nothing more than a conveyer belt for scientific curiosities.

Cloning could also be used to reintroduce genetic diversity back into genetically-depauperate populations using DNA taken from museum or other preserved specimens, as has already been attempted for the mouflon, a species of wild sheep. Plant propagation technology has developed rapidly for endangered plant species and with notable successes in preventing probable extinction, for example the large-flowered fiddleneck. Assisted migration is likely to become increasingly employed for threatened plants under climate change scenarios. Similarly, it is clear that current gene flow between isolated populations, such as those of the giant panda, is insufficient, and the number of individuals in some habitat fragments is inadequate for long-term persistence. Thus, humans may have to mediate the necessary gene flow either by relocating individuals or, more logically, transplanting their gametes or embryos by means of artificial reproductive techniques (ART). Although huge strides have been made in ART for humans and domestic animals, and some success has been achieved for captive animals, including the panda, applicability to wildlife management has received less attention. The San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research (United States) and Kew Royal Botanic Gardens (United Kingdom) are pioneering efforts to make ART a more feasible option for the conservation of the most seriously threatened species in the wild.

A significant barrier to advancement of ART in wildlife is our limited knowledge of the mechanisms of mate choice in animals, particularly vertebrates. Greater deployment of biometric devices in targeted species will allow us to remotely monitor the physiology of both plants and animals, thereby facilitating real-time and targeted human interventions. For example, biometric monitoring of estrus in an endangered mammal would tell park managers when to deploy ART. And although nowadays biometric devices most often need to be implanted in individuals, the development of bioinks could one day allow biometric circuits to be printed directly onto the skin of animals or the leaves of plants to relay real-time warning signals of stress or other relevant data.

Repelling invaders

Conservation biologists widely regard invasive species as the second-most significant threat to biodiversity after habitat destruction. The ubiquity of the most successful invasive species could lead to a reduction and homogenization of biodiversity across broad ecotones, with only those species adapted to or tolerant of human disturbance persevering. Perhaps this process will ultimately be deemed an evolution of the global biosphere in response to human activities in the Anthropocene, and efforts to preserve faunal assemblages according to some historical census will be viewed as unattainable idealism or romanticism. However, invasive species cannot be allowed unfettered access to new territories as they clearly perturb food webs by competing with indigenous species for resources, modifying habitats, and altering the localized predator-prey balance, amongst other impacts. As trade barriers across the globe continue to fall, opportunities for invasive species will increase and this needs to be counteracted by improved monitoring and targeted interceptions. For example, ships discharging ballast water are historically major routes for aquatic invasive species. Rapid advances in technology, such as pre-discharge UV and chemical treatment, should allow implementation of routine control procedures.

Significant advances can be made in our use of bioindicators to signal environmental threats and to assess damage from invasives. Environmental DNA (eDNA; the residual DNA left in the ambient environment by plants and animals) could be used to quickly identify invasive species. Automated sequencing stations could routinely sample eDNA data from air, soil, or water to continuously monitor for biological invasions in critical habitats. Remote sensing from satellites and drones can be used to detect biological invasions and to track the progress of biological control agents, for example by mapping the resulting changes to vegetation.

Although biological controls can cause more harm than good (such as the introduction of cane toads into Australia to control beetle infestations), improving awareness of ecological interactions and demographics should allow us to develop more successful eradication programs for invasive plants and animals. One potential novel approach is to use the individualized volatile organic chemical signatures of invasive plants to attract targeted biocontrols. But given that we may never be able to prevent all human-derived biological invasions, new technological approaches can help manage those that do occur. The potential for hybridization with native fauna or for zoonotic disease transmission from invasive species can be monitored by using technology for recording animal movements and interactions. Genetic sequencing of a species of bee (Apis mellifera syriaca) has revealed genes that endow resistance to the mite Varroa sp. that causes colony collapse, highlighting the practical applicability of genetic profiling and the potential for technology to help reverse some of the damage caused by biological invasions.

Promoting peaceful cohabitation

As human activities increasingly pervade all ecosystems and habitats, human-wildlife conflict grows. The recent public and media furor over the illegal killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe refocused attention on the continued problem of poaching and unlicensed trophy hunting. Strong international policy tools have been unable to counter consumer demand in some markets, ignorance of conservation issues in others, and weak enforcement in certain jurisdictions. Wildlife forensics is now a legitimate scientific field in its own right, facilitated by the rapid adoption of genetic and stable isotopic analyses to determine the source of illegally obtained biotic material. Furthermore, an array of tracking devices and drones are already being deployed to protect the most vulnerable animals, such as rhinos and elephants. Real-time data on animal movements can help with policing of the wildlife-human interface. A combination of global navigation satellite system (GNSS) technology (such as GPS) and rapidly diminishing transponder sizes will greatly assist in these efforts. In fact, GNSS transponders that transmit to multiple satellites are about to be routinely used by some military regimes to track soldiers and their equipment to millimeter accuracy—these transponders will be so small that they can be sown into soldiers’ uniforms, raising the future prospect of implantable tracking devices for many species of threatened wildlife.

Technology has the potential to mediate wildlife-human conflict in other ways. For example, crop-raiding animals can threaten the livelihoods of subsistence farmers and, in the case of some animals like elephants, also kill people. GNSS-tagging of herds or rogue individuals could allow park managers to intervene or to alert farmers when threatening animals are nearby, and allow the farmers to take preventative action. Enhanced knowledge of animal behavior through advanced monitoring technologies can further improve management techniques. Elephants, for example, dislike the sound of bees. Wildlife managers could use proximity loggers to trigger playback of recorded bee swarm sounds when elephants approach human settlements. Brain-mapping projects on wildlife could identify other interventions for mediating human-wildlife conflicts by clarifying the driving forces behind encroachment, which is only likely to increase in the future.

Technological advances in animal husbandry and plant propagation for highly marketable biological products could reduce the incentives for illegal trade (for example, crocodile farming has reduced poaching of wild populations for skins). It is even possible that future technology may bring about synthetic substitutes for some of the most sought after animal products, for example by 3D printing rhino horn tissue.

Rapid advances in monitoring wildlife movements and behavior must be matched by advances in the statistical and analytical methods necessary for making sense of the vast quantities of data that will be generated. Yet the field of conservation biology has not typically attracted the types of technical experts necessary to take advantage of emerging opportunities in “big data.” This problem is partly being addressed through the multi-disciplinary training that most biologists receive today and through the ever-expanding communication network between scientists in different fields. Conservation biologists must increasingly look beyond their typical network of biological specialists to experts in engineering, food science, information technology, agriculture, medicine, robotics, mathematics, architecture, and other fields to find technological solutions to aid them in their efforts to curb the threats to biodiversity and ecosystem health.

Though perhaps not in itself a technology, the emerging arena of citizen science can become an enormous asset in a variety of efforts aimed at conserving biodiversity in the Anthropocene. Amateur nature-lovers have a long history of contributing valuable observations and data to conservation efforts, for example with birdwatchers documenting rare species occurrences and long-term migration patterns. Social media and the phenomenal growth and ease of access to communications technology worldwide, combined with the growth in cloud computing, can facilitate collection, analysis, and dissemination of vast quantities of complex data by interested citizens. Horizon scanning, hackathons, and other such participatory techniques that are widely used in economic and communication sciences could easily be practiced by conservation biologists, and could realize rapid benefits in terms of identifying emerging issues and testing potential solutions.

The continued pursuit of higher standards of living and the material benefits of technological innovation by all societies will ensure a constant, if not increasing, pressure on the Earth’s habitats and biodiversity. And with most national economic policies founded on the notion of continuous economic growth it will take a remarkable change in economic ideology and social organization for the current trend in resource exploitation to be arrested. However, if we accept this inexorable trajectory based on current political, cultural, and economic realities—that is, if we accept the reality of the Anthropocene—it can pave the way for more widespread adoption of direct technological interventions aimed at reversing the most negative impacts of biodiversity decline, and greatly enhance the tools and strategies available to support and conserve existing biological processes. Indeed, the willing and even aggressive adoption by conservation biologists of novel tools to tackle the multiple threats faced by habitats and the biota they harbor will be crucial to counteract widespread species extinction and ecosystem collapse.

John O’Brien is a zoologist with a Ph.D. in conservation genetics from University College Dublin, Ireland, and now works at the Institute of Molecular Biology in Taiwan.

Cite this Article

O'Brien, John. “Technologies for Conserving Biodiversity in the Anthropocene.” Issues in Science and Technology 32, no. 1 (Fall 2015).

Vol. XXXII, No. 1, Fall 2015