PeerJ Award Winners: 7th Bio-Logging Symposium

PeerJ recently sponsored three awards at the 7th International Biologging Symposium, held virtually in October 2021. We caught up with the winners to discuss their research and academic careers so far.

PeerJ Awards focus on supporting students and Early Career Researchers, offering a prize of a free PeerJ publication (subject to peer review) to each winner. If you are organising a conference and would like to offer a PeerJ Award, please email communities@peerj.com 

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The 7th International Biologging Symposium (BLS7) was a virtual event hosted in Hawaii and proved to be the largest in the history of the symposium with over 550 attendees from 41 countries and eight continents. There were approximately 350 presentations in various formats of which 125 were made by students. Despite the difficulties in trying to juggle international time zones, live Q&A sessions with presenters were well attended and extensive – a nice change from the limited question times often associated with traditional in person conferences. Pre-recorded videos of every talk allowed many authors to present informative animations of their data or to share videos of their animals and experimental techniques.

The sponsoring group and location for BLS8 are yet to be decided but the Organising Committee of BLS7 would be happy to answer questions from any group who might be considering hosting the event.

Kim Holland, organiser.

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Varalika Jain MSc graduate. Research assistant at Konrad Lorenz Research Centre, University of Vienna. 

 

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your research interests?

I am a conservationist and outdoor enthusiast who grew up in Hong Kong and India. I started my work with GPS-tracked ravens as a master’s student, and currently I am a research assistant on the project. My day-to-day work on the project is dynamic, ranging from attaching GPS-loggers to ravens, to conducting detailed analyses of the movement data. While I love the challenge of making sense of the large datasets, I also enjoy the balance with field-work – the natural world is just amazing to observe! I am incredibly passionate about applied conservation research and since joining the raven bio-logging team, I have become fascinated with how animal-tracking technologies and tools can be used to address conservation problems. I’m working towards a PhD that will combine the two!

What first interested you in this field of research?

My involvement with the raven bio-logging project came about serendipitously. Due to the covid-19 pandemic, pursuing a project dependent on fieldwork was not feasible for me. When my supervisors proposed the project idea, I was nervous as well as excited. At the time, I knew little about bio-logging or how to grapple with movement data. But as I progressed in writing my thesis, I felt immensely inspired by all the knowledge discoveries and research possibilities available through bio-logging data. And from all the work showcased at the BLS7 conference, I know that this field has boundless potential and opportunities – it’s really exciting!

You won the Best Student Short Transmission award at BLS7, can you briefly explain the research you presented?

At BLS7, I presented the work I undertook for my MSc dissertation: ‘How common ravens (Corvus corax) exploit anthropogenic food sources through space and time in a semi-transformed alpine environment’.

Raven populations that exploit wide-spread, rich and abundant human-provided food sources are growing in number. But growing numbers raise ecological and conservation concerns as ravens increasingly predate on threatened and ground-nesting species, young or sick cattle, and planted crops. So, to manage their increasing numbers, we need to understand resource exploitation.

I used GPS-tracking data collected from 85 ravens in the Northern Austrian Alps to investigate movement patterns and resource-use at 44 extensively exploited human-provided food sources. Our results revealed that foraging strategies varied based on individual experience- and dominance-related characteristics, and with seasonal changes in environmental conditions. However, we also observed that individuals themselves varied greatly in their movement patterns and resource-use. Current non-lethal management recommendations to reduce conflict include limiting human-provided food sources to suppress raven population growth. But given our results, this would need to be a large-scale, coordinated, and multi-stakeholder effort to be effective. Our work highlights the challenge faced in managing raven populations.

How did you find the virtual conference experience?

I have to admit, attending virtual conferences has been slightly nerve-wrecking as a recent graduate – particularly when it comes to achieving another important purpose – networking and one-on-one exchanges. But with the BLS7 conference I had a great time once I got past the initial jitters! I attended almost every session I could in real-time, the spatial chat feature was really creative, and the ‘game’ element to the conference was great! There was so much diversity in the work being presented and it’s really nice to be able to go back and re-watch or catch up on missed talks and posters. The conference has made me even more certain on my research plans in the field of bio-logging and conservation.

 

Lorène Jeantet PhD student, Institut Pluridisciplinaire Hubert Curien, University of Strasbourg. 

Image Credit: Jodie Amiet- GreenPeace France

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your research interests?

I am a data scientist with a broad interest in remote monitoring of wildlife (acoustic, imaging, accelerometer). I developed a method to automatically identify the behavior of sea turtles from bio-loggers based on deep learning. I am convinced that mathematics and new technologies are valuable tools to improve our knowledge on biodiversity and thus better protect it.

My first interest is to better understand threatened species in order to implement adaptive conservation measures. I am convinced that scientists have a major role to play in the biodiversity decline by informing, monitoring and improving knowledge on wildlife. Deep learning is at the heart of the new challenges in ecology as automated processing and big data become more common. I try to be an actor of conservation by putting powerful mathematical tools like deep learning at the service of ecology.

You won the Best Student Oral Presentation award at BLS7, can you briefly explain the research you presented?

Sea turtle populations are declining and there is a huge need to improve our knowledge of these endangered species to better protect them. Bio-loggers are powerful tools that allow the collection of much information remotely and continuously in time. This results in a large amount of data, which can be difficult to process and interpret. During my PhD, with the collaboration of Vincent Vigon, I have adapted a fully convolutional neural network  – the V-net – to automatically identify sea turtle behaviours from bio-loggers. We tested it on a labelled dataset collected from animal-borne video recorders combined with multi-sensors (accelerometers, gyroscopes and depth recorders) deployed on free-ranging immature green turtles (Chelonia mydas) in Martinique. The proposed model was able to predict six behavioural categories for green turtles with an AUC score of 88%. It showed a high ability to detect rare behaviours such as Feeding and Scratching. An application of the V-net on multi-day deployments of bio-loggers on green turtles (n=21) allowed us to obtain full time budgets for these individuals to understand the threats they face. This is the first time that the 24-hour activity has been measured with such precision for this species. Ultimately it is hoped that, in cooperation with all local stakeholders (NGOs, governmental institutions, fishermen), this identification of behaviours will allow the establishment of marine protected areas that can be adjusted spatially and temporally in order to limit interactions with human activities.

What are your next steps? How will you continue to build on this research?

The next step is to enable a broad community that deploys accelerometers on sea turtles to use the V-net. We are working, with Sebastien Geiger, on the development of a web interface where users would be able to use the V-net and automatically process the records of their bio-loggers.

Another future step would be to implement the V-net in satellite-relay data tags. The latter are already able to remotely transmit a summary of the tri-axial acceleration and environmental data. The V-net is a light model and there is a huge potential to directly implement a trained V-net in an animal-attached multi-sensor tag in order to predict the expressed behaviour almost instantly. As it would not require recapturing the animal, this breakthrough would open up new horizons in the study of migratory animals that are difficult to track during several consecutive months or years.

How did you find the virtual conference experience?

It’s difficult to answer because I was in the writing phase of my PhD manuscript and so I wasn’t able to take full advantage of this online conference. However, what I can say is that the virtual
format allowed me to participate in this conference and present my work to the bio-logging community. Otherwise I would not do the travel to Hawaii for 1 week conference. So, I think the virtual conference is a good thing to allow more researchers to participate in these events while reducing the carbon footprint of travel (even if digital has a carbon footprint too). That said, direct social connections are important for making contact with researchers, creating new collaborations, getting involved in collective decisions, seeing colleagues again, and allowing valuable parallel discussions for research. The organizers did a great job in facilitating interactions and communications and it was very much appreciated.

 

Freya Womersley PhD researcher at the University of Southampton and Marine Biological Association, UK. 

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your research interests?

I am a PhD researcher at the University of Southampton based full time at the Marine Biological Association. My research focuses on global movement ecology of pelagic predators and exploring the complex relationships between space use and external environment conditions, both in the present day and under future scenarios. I am analysing animal movement data submitted into the Global Shark Movement Protect (GSMP), which brings together more than 40 research institutions worldwide. Primarily, my interests lie in addressing key ecological and conservation focussed questions using big datasets and novel analytical techniques, with a view to better understand threatened species and determine exposure to human threats. Tracking data provide a window into the lives of wide-ranging marine predators and present us with an unprecedented opportunity to explore previously cryptic issues through collaboration and advanced modelling/ risk assessment techniques. Although I presently work on shark movement ecology and threat quantification, I spent the majority of my early career working in more field-based conservation roles, including developing coral restoration projects. In future, hope to apply the skills and experience gained during my PhD and field-based positions to issues/ topics I feel passionate about if opportunities allow.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your research interests?

For me, it all began with whale sharks. I remember first discovering that there was a huge majestic, spotty fish that frequented tropical waters and feeling a strong desire to see them myself and experience being in the ocean alongside such creatures. So I took a position as a whale shark monitoring research assistant after my BSc and I quickly became fascinated in their hidden lives. At the time, there was still a plethora of unanswered questions related to the species; where do they go after aggreging in coastal waters? Where are all the females? What about the pupping areas? Although initially intrigued by these ecologically focussed questions, after encountering many individuals in countries like Seychelles, Djibouti and Qatar, it was actually the threats they faced that drew me towards a career path studying them. I started to notice that many individuals appeared with scars on their body, which in some cases were huge, seemingly debilitating injuries. Many of these had characteristics of interactions with humans, so my love for the species turned into a more ardent desire to protect them. I then pursued research areas and positions that allowed me to follow this path which ultimately led me to the PhD I am currently undertaking.

You won the Audience Favorite award at BLS7, can you briefly explain the research you presented?

At BLS7 I presented my work on the first data chapter of my PhD. For this study, a global community of researchers came together to address a pressing conservation concern related to the endangered whale shark. Over 60 collaborators submitted tracking data into the GSMP where we were able to compile the largest movement dataset of whale sharks published to date. We explored the species collective movements in relation to global shipping activity sourced from Automatic Identification Systems satellite network to identify if and where they are at risk of collision with large vessels. Whale sharks spend a substantial amount of their time feeding in shallow surface waters where they are susceptible to collisions, and they can also aggerate in large numbers in coastal areas where vessels regularly traverse. Because research suggests that whale sharks show limited avoidance to vessels, we postulate that when they occupy these heavily trafficked areas, collisions may be occurring but going unreported or unobserved by scientists and conservationists. Whales sharks are listed as endangered with a declining population, which cannot be explained by fishing activities due to protective regulations, so it may indeed be the case that vessel collisions represent a hidden source of mortality. We hope this work will bring this issue into the foreground and make the scientific community more aware of the threats posed to this endangered species.

 

Image Credit: Jan Wegner

What are your next steps? 

The next step will be to determine suitable habitats for whale sharks at the global scale, in the present day and also in future, so that we can predict collision risk and other threats across their entire range. This will involve modelling their habitat associations through analysis of movement tracks and concurrent environmental conditions with an aim to extrapolate into areas where we did not track individuals. We will then be able to make better informed predictions about how whale sharks may be impacted by humans across their range, both in the oceans of today and tomorrow (2050-2100). These areas will make up the next few chapters of my PhD where we aim to develop methods for whale sharks before then exploring relationships for other vulnerable species within the GSMP where fishing and overexploitation are key concerns.

How did you find the virtual conference experience?

I found the conference to be an engaging and stimulating experience, and a real reminder of how diverse the biologging community is. There were so many fantastic talks on projects ranging from monitoring sleeping seals with novel, bespoke biologging devices to tracking the changing habitat suitability of African elephants. Despite being a virtual conference, the organising committee were able to retain a sense of networking and collaboration throughout. The conference interface was easy to use and involved a good balance between live sessions, Hawaiian based content, educational resources and on demand presentations. It exceeded my expectations and could only have been matched had it been in person in Hawaii itself! Following the conference, I feel excited and honoured to be a part of this inspiring community of researchers from all over the world, and more than ever I feel motivated to contribute my own research to our collective goals and forge a future career in the field.