Scientists are using satellites to spot stranded whales from SPACE


Satellites could help locate stranded whales more efficiently and in real-time.

Scientists have begun harnessing the power of the technology’s high-resolution imagery to detect and monitor whales stranded on the shore from space.

The team noted that the use of satellites will help find stranded whales in remote locations, as well as spot potentially deteriorating ocean conditions.

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Satellites could help locate stranded whales more efficiently and in real-time. Scientists have begun harnessing the power of the technology's high-resolution imagery to detect and monitor whales stranded on the shore from space

Satellites could help locate stranded whales more efficiently and in real-time. Scientists have begun harnessing the power of the technology's high-resolution imagery to detect and monitor whales stranded on the shore from space

Satellites could help locate stranded whales more efficiently and in real-time. Scientists have begun harnessing the power of the technology’s high-resolution imagery to detect and monitor whales stranded on the shore from space

Chile witnessed one of the largest mass mortality of baleen whales in 2015 on the remote beaches of Patagonia – at least 343 died. However, because of the remote location, the stranded whales were not discovered for weeks

Chile witnessed one of the largest mass mortality of baleen whales in 2015 on the remote beaches of Patagonia – at least 343 died. However, because of the remote location, the stranded whales were not discovered for weeks

Chile witnessed one of the largest mass mortality of baleen whales in 2015 on the remote beaches of Patagonia – at least 343 died.

However, because of the remote location, the stranded whales were not discovered for weeks.

Now experts with the British Antarctic Survey and four Chilean research institutes are hoping satellites could spot an event like this sooner.

They believe a new technique for analyzing satellite images could revolutionize how stranded whales are detected in remote places.

The red triangles are whales found by satellites and the yellow triangles highlight those spotted by a flight survey

The team noted that the use of satellites will help find stranded whales in remote locations, as well as spot potentially deteriorating ocean conditions.

The red triangles are whales found by satellites and the yellow triangles highlight those spotted by a flight survey. The team noted that the use of satellites will help find stranded whales in remote locations, as well as spot potentially deteriorating ocean conditions.

This method could spot stranded whales, but it could also be used to spot potentially deteriorating ocean conditions as well.

Dr Carlos Olavarría from the Center for Advanced Studies in Arid Zones (CEAZA), La Serena, Chile, told BBC News, ‘The technology is getting better all the time.’

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‘In this study, we were using 50cm resolution images, but the satellites now can see 30cm.’

‘In the future, we’d like also to be able to analyse the pictures automatically, rather than manually; and I’m sure as more minds are applied to the problem, this will become possible.’

The 2015 stranding was discovered during a survey flight over the location, which is home to many sei whales.

These whales can grow to be more than 50 feet long and weight around 20 tons.

HOW DO WHALES COMMUNICATE AND COULD THEY ONE DAY TALK TO HUMANS?

How do whales communicate?  

Whales are known for using complex clicks and singing to communicate with each other – even if they are hundreds of miles apart.

Whales that are closely related or live together produce similar pulsed calls that carry vocal characteristics distinct to the group, known as a dialect. 

Clicks are believed to be primarily used for navigation and identifying objects such as prey in the environment but they are also used for social interactions.

Members of a pod have similar calls known as a dialect, which is composed of types of discrete, repetitive calls.

Newborns copy the call of their mother.

It’s thought that individuals learn their dialect though contact with their mothers and other pod members.

Norwegian and Icelandic herring-eating orcas are believed to have different vocalisations for activities such as hunting and travelling. 

Could they talk to humans? 

Previously researchers thought mimicking human speech was limited to some primates, birds, elephants, dolphins and seals.

The fact the whale produces these sounds shows they are able to learn sounds by copying and helps us understand their lives in the wild. 

However, when Wikie says ‘hello’ it means absolutely nothing to her. 

She does not attach any meaning to this sound and is not ‘talking’ to humans.

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The word is completely out of the normal sound repertoire of whales and was chosen as a nonsense sound.

When Wikie says 'hello' it means absolutely nothing to her. She does not attach any meaning to this sound and is not 'talking' to humans

When Wikie says ‘hello’ it means absolutely nothing to her. She does not attach any meaning to this sound and is not ‘talking’ to humans

Although the researchers did not set out to test Wikie’s communication skills, the scientist who led the study believes basic ‘conversations’ with her may one day be possible.

Dr Jose Abramson, from Complutense de Madrid University in Spain, said: ‘Yes, it’s conceivable … if you have labels, descriptions of what things are. 

‘It has been done before with a famous grey parrot and dolphins using American sign language – sentences like ‘bring me this object’ or ‘put this object above or below the other’.’ 

The experiment proves there is a lot of complex communication happening among whales and dolphins. 

The researchers, led by Preter Fretwell at the British Antarctic Survey, collected archival satellite imagery from before the aerial survey, which could get down to a half-meter resolution in black and white and 2-meter resolution in 8 color bands, Gizmodo reported.

After processing the images, they manually analyzed the images for whale shapes, sorted the shapes into classes based on how confident they were that it was really a whale, and analyzed the wavelengths of light that appeared in the images.

They further ran an automated analysis to find these whale-like shapes.

The team found a larger number of whales in the satellite images, compared to those in the flight survey.

The discrepancy was based in part on the time elapsed between the different survey methods as the whales could have shifted in the water.

According to the paper published by the researchers in PLOS One, the aerial images could have been undercounting the number of whales.

And using the red and near-infrared wavelengths, the technology is capable of determining the difference between whale and not whale, as sei whales’ color changes to a lightish sandy color when they start decomposing – making them difficult to spot.

And the researchers believe satellites will also help located stranded whales sooner.

Carlos Olavarría, Executive Director of the Center for Advanced Studies of Arid Zones in Chile and one of the study’s authors, told Gizmodo,’It’s very unusual that we have so many whales dying in one particular spot.’

‘It tells us that there’s something happening in the whole environment.

‘We need to be closer to the time when these animals die so we can know what’s happening in the whole surrounding environment.’

The 2015 stranding was discovered during a survey flight over the location, which is home to many sei whales. These whales can grow to be more than 50 feet long and weight around 20 tons

The 2015 stranding was discovered during a survey flight over the location, which is home to many sei whales. These whales can grow to be more than 50 feet long and weight around 20 tons

The new study represents a first step in using satellites for tracking whale strandings and although the team has deemed it promising, there are still kinks that need to be addressed. 

Experts noted that scanning the images manually is time consuming and they hope to harness the power of machine learning techniques to pick whale corpses out of the images.

Additionally, this method probably can’t save whales’ lives, particularly since the satellites can only take images when they’re directly over the area of interest and there’s no cloud cover. 

 



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