Credit: Anthropocene Magazine

Job Profile

Astro-ecologist

Astro-ecologists apply technology and methods from astrophysics, engineering, and computer science to help with biodiversity problems on earth. For decades, astrophysicists have used software to look at the night sky, so why shouldn’t we use the same technology to help monitor the climate and wildlife on earth?


What would you be doing?

Due to the decline of biodiversity and poaching of animals, new conservation methods, have been sought out. Essentially, scientists are combining the fields of conservation and astrophysics to tackle issues that may not traditionally seem like an astrophysics related role. Astrophysics technology such as machine learning algorithms and astronomical detection tools are currently being developed for specific projects. As as astro-ecologist, you may be completing work in areas such as:

  • Endangered animal conservation by using machine learning software
  • Reef and marine conservation
  • Monitoring environmental pollution
  • Using satellite and drone technology to survey wildfires
  • Researching vegetation composition in desert and jungles

The future is exciting for the field of astro-ecology, as researchers seek to track, distinguish and identify large groups of animals in real time, since drones can access difficult terrain without disturbing animals.

Currently, astro-ecologists are working with major organisations such as WWF, National Geographic, and Endangered Wildlife Trust, further demonstrating the importance of the work astro-ecologists do.

Some technology used in astro-ecology, other than drones, include thermal cameras, high frame rate machine vision cameras, and spectrographs. They are also currently trying to harness the power of AI and machine learning, hence the blend of astrophysics in an ecology setting. In fact, thermal cameras can be used for humans and animals, since they emit heat that can be detected on camera, similar to the way a galaxy glows in space images. Technologies such as these can eventually help stop practices such as illegal poaching. 

There are also many other avenues that astro-ecologists are exploring, including helping with other challenges that humans face, such as with people lost at sea. With the amount of space technology becoming increasingly available, maybe some new astro-ecology practices will emerge in the next few decades!

What does a typical day involve? 

Seeing as astro-ecology is a research sector, this means that they will generally be based out of a laboratory. This might mean that on some days, astro-ecologists will mainly be analysing data in their lab. However, since they are completing research most of the time, they may also be outside conducting experiments. Most of the work happening today has to do with conservation efforts using drones, so they generally will be outside figuring out how to adjust technology to their needs.

The astro-ecology sector is quite a niche topic, so astro-ecologists are trying to find revolutionary ways to use technology in other areas. This may include areas such as combining astrophysics source detection with machine learning, helping detect lost people at sea or in the jungle using heat detection methods, or using machine learning techniques to improve the detection of species on camera.

What type of skills are needed?  

An important skill in research is analytical ability, as astro-ecologists must be able to collect and then analyse large sets of data. Many solutions being investigated are brand new with technology being adapted to suit the needs of astro-ecologists, so they must have a good understanding of scientific principles to attempt their research.

Scientific interest is also essential in the field as astro-ecologists dedicated many years of their lives to researching a certain area. Having various scientific interests strengthens their skills as a researcher, and may result in opportunities in projects that they may not have considered before. An astro-ecologist’s project may continue for many years, so they must have a passion for the subject!

Communication skills are also very important for astro-ecologists, as they need to be able to share their findings with other researchers and the general public. Therefore, they must be able to summarise their findings in a way that others can understand. Astro-ecologists may also present their findings at conferences, making communication a vital skill to have.

What type of qualifications are needed?

Astro-ecology does not have a defined path into it, as it is a very new field, on top of being a blend of two subjects. Many astro-ecology roles are research based, meaning candidates are required to have some form of undergraduate degree. These projects would primarily be suited for students from (astro)physics, engineering, computer science, physical science, and applied mathematics backgrounds.

Where can I get some more information?

Smithsonian article about monitoring endangered orangutans

Liverpool John Moores University Astro-ecology Research page

Astro-ecology astrophysics meets conservation biology lecture

Author

Christina MacLeod

Christina is an undergraduate student studying towards an MEng in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Edinburgh.

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