The other day I was listening to a National Public Radio report about a California land trust trying to keep tabs on its population of red-legged frogs, a threatened species. It used to be that the only practical way to count them was for trained biologists to hang around the marsh listening for their calls. Now the land trust does it automatically, with a system of microphones and a computer algorithm that picks out the distinctive red-legged-frog “ribbit” (actually more like a “chuck-chuck-chuck”).
It was a promising report for underfunded land managers and conservationists everywhere. But for me, it also raised one of the great dilemmas in modern wildlife biology: Technology giveth, but technology also taketh away.
Wildlife biologists can now cover vastly more territory with the help of listening devices, camera traps, drones, satellites, remote DNA testing, and other technological shortcuts. This doesn’t just save time and money—it also clues them in to the presence of species they didn’t even suspect existed in a particular habitat. It helps them catch and convict poachers. And it provides them with the sort of big data—quantifiable, verifiable sightings—that gets respect from so-called hard sciences.
But the inevitable corollary is that biologists no longer spend as much time hanging around in marshes listening for red-legged frogs, because they are too busy monitoring data on a computer screen.
“Like probably most of you reading this journal, I do not get out in the field much anymore,” complained a writer in Conservation Biology. “It is easy to rationalize the life of armchair biology (now better called keyboard ecology)…. Computer modeling produces publishable results much quicker, anyway.” The alarming thing is that Reed F. Noss, a conservation biologist at the University of Central Florida, wrote that lament 20 years ago, in 1996, before the internet and the iPhone had taken over our lives.
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