Conservation news

Conservation tech prize with invasive species focus announces finalists

  • The Con X Tech Prize announced its second round will fund 20 finalists, selected from 150 applications, each with $3,500 to create their first prototypes of designs that use technology to address a conservation challenge.
  • Seven of the 20 teams focused their designs on reducing impacts from invasive species, while the others addressed a range of conservation issues, from wildlife trafficking to acoustic monitoring to capturing freshwater plastic waste in locally-built bamboo traps.
  • Conservation X Labs (CXL), which offers the prize, says the process provides winners with very early-stage funding, a rare commodity, and recognition of external approval, each of which has potential to motivate finalists and translate into further funding.
  • Finalists can also compete for a grand prize of $20,000 and product support from CXL.

The Con X Tech Prize just announced its second round will be funding 20 finalists each with $3,500 to create their first prototypes. Some 150 teams submitted ideas that use technology to address a conservation challenge. The 20 winners of this first stage of the competition will also compete for a grand prize of $20,000, plus support from CXL on product development and attracting investment.

The prize accepts ideas for any conservation problem, with a particular focus on addressing threats from a specific theme. This second round of the prize focused on reducing impacts from invasive species to native species and ecosystems. The first round, sponsored in 2018, focused on ocean conservation.

Biotech Steve Orwig removes an invasive Mexican weeping pine (Pinus patula) from the crater of Hawai’i’s Haleakalā National Park. Pines like these grow rapidly, are spread by wind from nearby forest plantings, and disrupt native ecosystems by shading out native shrubs and taking up water and nutrients. Image courtesy of U.S. National Park Service.

“We have a range of hardware and software solutions we are funding, including tools in aquatic invasive species, camera traps, ag-tech, human-wildlife conflict, marine acoustics, and many more,” said Tom Quigley, who manages the digital makerspace community at Conservation X Labs, which offers the prize. “It’s a really exciting cohort.”

Seven of the 20 finalists focused specifically on designs to address invasive species, while the remaining 13 teams sought to address a range of conservation issues, from wildlife trafficking to acoustic monitoring to capturing freshwater plastic waste in locally-built bamboo traps.

The projects specifically addressing invasive species proposed a wide range of ideas to address an equally wide range of associated problems. They include:

1. Pig-finding drone-based thermal cameras to conserve critically endangered giant tortoises on Santa Cruz island in the Galápagos by finding feral pigs that dig up tortoise nests and eat their eggs, which has prevented hatching of new generations of tortoises. The camera, equipped with machine learning algorithms, would also detect tortoise nests to help Galápagos National Park rangers find and protect them on the ground.

Santa Cruz giant tortoise (Chelonoidis porteri) in Santa Cruz Island, Galápagos National Park, Ecuador. Invasive pigs and dogs destroy nests of giant tortoises, hindering recovery of tortoise populations from prior hunting and habitat loss. Image by Bernard Gagnon via Wikimedia Commons, CC 4.0.

2. A mobile machine unit to remove invasive plants that have taken over grasslands in India’s protected areas, facilitated by local wood harvest, leaving elephants in parks without food and thus more likely to approach adjacent human crop fields, causing conflict. The repurposed commercially available charcoal producer would pick invasive plants, crush them into sawdust, and form usable charcoal briquettes from the dust to reduce the demand for fuelwood.

3. Helping reduce the lionfish population off the Florida coast by connecting divers with fish processors through an online platform to facilitate processing of the small volumes of this highly invasive predatory fish caught by divers. Demand for the fish beyond Florida exceeds production, so the platform would also encourage more local processors.

4. Remote amphibian refuges in Guatemala to attract frogs, using call playbacks, to a small tube-shaped container with a tiny pool and an Arduino computing unit inside. The unit has sensors that notify nearby researchers they’ve caught a frog, so they can identify it and determine if it carries invasive chytrid fungus.

A Guatemalan spikethumb frog (Plectrohyla guatemalensis). Finding frogs at night when they are active is difficult, so researchers are seeking to attract them to tiny refuges where they can be identified and checked for invasive chytrid fungus. Image by Josiah H. Townsend, http://calphotos.berkeley.edu, CC 3.0.

5. Find that plant, a machine-learning algorithm to detect individual invasive plants from drone-based images and produce geographic coordinates of the locations of plants identified as invasives to inform management decisions.

6. Early insect pest detection system integrates low-cost sensors that record images, sounds, and environmental conditions, pheromone and light lures, and species identification algorithms to monitor invasive insect pests of agriculture and forests.

7. Floating robots detect invasive marine algae species using image classification algorithms that identify the species and record its location while navigating. The automated identification from images would facilitate monitoring and help researchers detect and eradicate invasive plants before they become well-established.

Why focus on invasive species?

Humans transport non-native plants and animals from their homes on one continent to new places that often lack the predators or other mechanisms keeping populations of the species under control. Some of these non-native species become invasive, meaning they spread and outcompete or harm native plants and animals or destroy native habitat.

The caterpillar of the fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda), which has invaded Africa and Asia from the Americas, destroying maize, sorghum, millet, rice, and other crops. Image by Frank Peairs, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org, CC 3.0.

The accelerated spread of invasive species over the past few decades has led to severe reductions, and even extinctions, of some native species, especially on islands.

“Over 30 percent of the IUCN Red List species extinctions were caused or impacted by invasives,” Quigley said. “As the world’s population grows and globalization increases, the risk of invasive species introductions increases dramatically. Innovation and new technology solutions are needed to prevent the spread of invasive species and novel emerging pathogens.”

Role of tech prizes in conservation

Quigley told Mongabay that the early funding and recognition that they have received a prize have been “transformative” for some first-round finalists.

“The process provides winners with very early-stage funding, a rare commodity, and recognition of external approval,” Quigley said, “each of which has potential to motivate finalists and translate into further funding.”

He added that the opportunity to compete for the prize with a submission deadline can motivate groups who’ve perhaps been considering an idea or design to address a conservation problem to actually develop it into a prototype.

A common lionfish (Pterois miles) from the Red Sea. These carnivorous fish native to the western Indo-Pacific region and the related P. volitans invaded the western Atlantic in the 1980s. There, their populations have exploded as they reproduce rapidly, consume more than 50 native fish species, and have no predators in their new home. Image by Magnus Kjaergaard via Wikimedia Commons, CC 3.0.

Quigley identified three features that he thought help teams advance their prototype development most effectively:  keeping a strong focus on a discrete problem; partnering with a group that actually faces the problem; and including team members from different disciplines, such as an oceanographer partnering with a camera tech expert and a fundraiser or an engineer with a web developer and a project manager.

The Con X Prize strives to bring people from a variety of disciplines to apply their skills to solving conservation challenges and broadening the conservation community.

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