By Robert Hickson 05/03/2017

My first job after completing my Bachelor’s was tracking and trapping rats on Stewart Island. Decades later, the tools and approaches for mammalian pest control have progressed; better lures, traps and poisons. But not so much. Particularly if you compare how the field of genetics has changed over the same time; from laborious manual DNA sequencing to high-speed automation.

The objectives of Predator Free 2050 seem to want to continue the traditional approach to refining trapping and poisoning. Although reproductive disrupters and genetic approaches may be involved eventually (see Helen’s Sciblog post too).

Why not really bring pest control into the 21st Century? Lets go big on data and analytics, not just building better (mouse)traps.

Rentokill is already moving in this direction for protecting premises from pests. Conservation efforts too are starting to dip its digits into “big data” approaches.

Studies of human social mobility and behaviour have been revolutionized by data from mobile phones. So can pest management.

The predators social network

Animal pest control relies on understanding the animal’s behaviour and mobility. Typically that’s been done by observations in the lab and field. Tracking tunnels, faecal sampling, radio tracking, and hidden cameras can capture brief snapshots in the field. But in today’s parlance it is pretty data poor.

Knocking off 80% of a pest population can be relatively easy if you have the person power and the right tools. It’s getting that last 20%, and stopping re-invasion, that’s the hard part. Wouldn’t having better data help that? Particularly if you are trying to dramatically scale up your control efforts.

Studying hundreds or thousands of people’s movements in a city helps identify both large scale patterns and sub-group behaviours. A similar approach to pests is likely to be as fruitful, and valuable.

It’s not about giving every rat, stoat and possum a mobile phone. Other options are already available.

Tracking tools

GPS tracking is now common for monitoring a range of species. Possums have been tracked using GPS. GPS trackers for smaller species, such as rats are also available, and at least one rat has been tracked this way in Scotland.

Tracking cats with body cameras is already possible  (but you have to catch your cat and camera again).

Otago University’s Electronics Research Group already develops small tracking tags for wildlife.

Satellites and Low Power Wide Area Networks  are helping gather that information from remote locations more easily. NZ’s KotahiNet  is already building a low power long range network that lets you set up a wireless sensor network in less accessible places.

So, we have many of the fundamental components already available – world class pest management capabilities, companies and research teams developing sophisticated tracking technologies, low power long range wireless network systems, good computational and “big data” research capabilities.

Gathering not just location, but also metabolic, behavioural and environmental information around the clock greatly increases improves the understanding of where and what an animal is doing, as well as helping you understand why. And if many individuals in the population are tagged you can uncover more fine-grained spatial interactions between individuals.

We need to bring the components together, and raise our ambition for how we apply them. With enough information you enter the heavy-duty data analytics, modelling and machine learning world. An ecological Skynet could actually help create better terminators

Will it be worth it?

Is the effort and expense going to be worth it? We already do very well at pest control, so why not just put the limited money into the tried and trusted?

I see two reasons why it is worth considering:

  • Improving what we already do, and
  • Creating more economic, as well as environmental, benefits.

Better for the environment

Getting the last few little buggers is the greatest challenge. Better quality data helps, particularly if it leads to less wide-scale poison drops, and you achieve your objectives more quickly. We are already seeing “big data” approaches being used to address health, social, and other environmental problems. So why should pest management be different?

With more sophisticated methods of control can also come greater uncertainties and potential risks. With a range of new control techniques becoming possible better data can help reduce uncertainties and better understand and manage the risks.

Better for the economy

Predator Free 2050 focuses on environmental, agricultural and tourism benefits from removing predators. That’s good, but it won’t give a step change in New Zealand’s bigger issue of needing to improve our economic prosperity . It’s also not addressing Paul Callaghan’s concern that we just make NZ a theme park.

What I see is that building on NZ’s existing pest control capabilities through taking a “big data” approach is likely to lead to the development of new sensors and analytical software packages that create economic opportunities we can export. The pest control market is a multi-billion dollar one, and is growing. New Zealand can become the Rentokil for natural environments.

It also has spin-off benefits in that the cross-disciplinarity collaborations that it will require will stimulate not only research programmes, but also applications into related fields. Urban, agricultural and marine sensor systems, for example. Lets develop a technology ecosystem for better ecosystem management and prosperity.

Where to start?

I’ve no doubt that it is difficult. Establishing a complex network of sensors in rugged natural environments will be challenging. Just starting to capture, tag and release more and more pests back into our forests isn’t where to start. We need more controlled conditions, but bigger than the traditional research lab.

We are good at creating mainland island refuges to keep predators out. What we need to develop an internet of predatory things is New Zealand’s own “hunger games” approach. Keeping the hunters in and monitoring everything they do.

Lets create an experimental “refuge” that is filled with sensors and monitoring systems so that we can start developing in a more systematic way the tools and techniques that we’ll need. Enclosed experimental ecosystems are rare, but needed in an increasingly data defined world.

It would need to be big, and suitable for the range of pest species. That means expensive just for the start up costs. Not something that the government’s budget for Predator Free would cover. But something that philanthropists and companies like Google may be interested in partnering with, particularly if it helps their ambitions around data, the internet of things and machine learning.

Being enclosed would enable you to get real experimental. Such as studying what happens during invasions, or the introduction of new predators, or prey.

I expect that many New Zealanders wouldn’t want to see money spent on walling off land to introduce predators rather than to exclude them, so I’m not overlooking that there will be a significant social and political challenges too. But thousands log on to track tagged sharks and birds, so why not engage communities in looking at how predators move through New Zealand environments.

Given the increasing challenges in managing environments and the need to help the country do better than well in a digital economy isn’t it something worth further consideration?

I loved being on Stewart Island and developing an understanding of the rodents and their habitat. But there was so much we didn’t know about their lives, and still don’t. Methods change, so our approaches need to as well.

Header image: possum and rat photo copyright from Nga Manu images. Digital overlay: Ariadne

0 Responses to “The internet of predatory things”

  • My interest in the “Will it be worth it?” question, which is much more complex that it seems on the surface. I believe that the primary objective of “Predator Free 2050” has little to do with the environment, and equally little to do with the economic benefits from removing predators. What is left, you may well ask? What is left are the economic benefits of a large funded bureaucracy, i.e. “Predator Free 2050”. It will employ people and push money through the system in a manner that is in some sense good for the N.Z. economy. However, this has little to do with science or the environment or predators …