Digital Life on Earth

Duncan Irschick is working on UMass Amherst’s Digital Life Project to create visual records of critically endangered species.

The Digital Life Project at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has been revolutionary in creating visual records of critically endangered species in ways that technology has never allowed before.

The project team modeled the first-ever 3D image of a southern right whale after researchers used aerial photography and drone videos to measure the mass and volume of whales. Previously, the only way to weigh any whale was by using a dead or stranded animal. Using its innovative Beastcam array, the team has also produced the world’s first accurate 3D image of the southern white rhino.

Led by Professor of Biology Duncan Irschick, the Digital Life Project has gathered a number of global collaborators. Documenting southern right whales as they gathered at their winter breeding grounds off the coast of Argentina involved participants from the Southern Right Whale Health Monitoring Program and the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies in Denmark. To create the visual of a rare southern white rhino, Irschick and team collaborated with the Perth Zoo in Australia, which volunteered its resident rhino, Bakari, to be photographed.

The resulting images are a valuable reference for researchers and conservationists. Measurements of live whales at sea offer information about how stressors affect the weight and physical condition of whales, as well as enabling accurate sedative dosing for whales who panic while entangled in fishing gear. All five species of rhinos are under extreme pressure worldwide, particularly from poaching for their horns. “It’s very special to photo-capture an animal like a rhino because they are a persecuted species,” comments Irschick.

Irschick and his colleagues have created several Beastcam rigs, including hand-held and tripod-mounted instruments in a variety of sizes for animals large and small. The original array consists of 10 fixed arms, each mounting three cameras for a 30-camera array. A variation of this method has even been used to photo-capture free-swimming sharks underwater! Animals located at the focal point of the array are modeled in 3D with special software. For Bakari the rhino, technicians and zoologists took photos from 360 degrees, and then a CGI artist animated the results, which were released last fall on World Rhino Day.

The UMass Amherst Digital Life Project makes its data and models publicly available as “an archive for animals,” says Irschick. The unique capabilities of the project are in demand, with models having been downloaded over 20,000 times since its inception.

As many species face down extinction, the Digital Life Project provides a compelling visual resource for those who want to intervene on behalf of their survival.

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