Philanthropy pays dividends listening for threatened and endangered species


Philanthropy pays dividends listening for threatened and endangered species

A large philanthropic grant is enabling Charles Sturt University researchers to use passive technology, some of it ground-breaking, to detect and monitor wildlife species, particularly wetland birds.

  • The largest research grant awarded at Charles Sturt University is enabling wetland birds research across four states to assist conservation management
  • The research builds on earlier and ongoing eco-acoustic research across Australia
  • New technology and artificial intelligence enables the 24/7 capture and analysis of massive data sets on wildlife from remote and inhospitable locations

A large philanthropic grant is enabling Charles Sturt University researchers to use passive technology, some of it ground-breaking, to detect and monitor wildlife species, particularly wetland birds.

The two-year research project ‘Eavesdropping on wetland birds’ received a $400,000 grant, the University’s largest, and is led by Professor in Ecology David Watson in the Charles Sturt School of Agricultural, Environmental and Veterinary Sciences and post-doctoral fellow Dr Elizabeth Znidersic (pictured). Both are members of the Charles Sturt Institute for Land, Water and Society (ILWS).

The research aims to better understand the distribution of wetland birds in south-east Australia with a focus on approximately 50 wetlands in Tasmania, Victoria, Queensland and NSW.

Professor Watson said the wetland birds project will inform conservation management.

“Wetland birds are sensitive indicators of wetland health, but little is known about their distribution, population status or ecology due to their secretive behaviour,” he said.

“This project builds on my previous work using sound to monitor the health of wildlife populations, including the Australian Acoustic Observatory (A2O), a continental-scale array of acoustic recording units deployed to take the pulse of the Australian environment.”

It has also evolved from Dr Znidersic’s work in the USA with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, once again trying to detect secretive wetland bird species.

Because the in-field locations are generally remote and inhospitable, and the subject fauna are elusive ─ and sometimes even thought to be extinct ─ the researchers use technological tools that include sensor-activated camera traps and automated audio recording units (‘eco-acoustics’) generating terabytes of data which will require analysis by artificial intelligence (AI).

The more recent iteration of this technological innovation arose from Dr Znidersic’s professional collaboration for her PhD research with computer scientist Dr Michael Towsey, then at Queensland University of Technology. This led to their personal partnership; they married in 2019 and continue to work together on the wetland birds project.

The interface between ecology and computer science is relatively new, difficult and challenging, and the wetland birds project is at the cutting-edge.

“The project’s target species are cryptic species, seldom seen and usually identified by their vocalisations and/or a rare camera trap image,” Dr Znidersic said.

“Many of them also occur in small numbers which adds to the difficulty detecting them.”

Notably, the researchers have also detected the Australasian Bittern in Tasmania, not by sitting in the wetland all night, but instead by passive acoustic recordings.

“These birds are a threatened species, call mostly at night and are very cryptic,” Dr Znidersic said.

“In Tasmania, we have just detected the bitterns calling in the last few weeks thus marking the start of the breeding season.”

Professor Watson and Dr Znidersic believe that passive monitoring using technological tools is here to stay and will help circumvent access problems not just due to variable location and seasonal factors, but those thrown up by future pandemics, as has been the case during the COVID-19 pandemic which has restricted movement.

“With COVID-19, ecologists have been unable to get out in the field to conduct surveys at optimal times, so it’s likely we will increasingly rely on passive monitoring technology to collect data and this offers the additional advantage that it is not as invasive as human presence,” they said.

As well as using this technology the researchers will also use traditional ecology fieldwork where practicable to ascertain features such as location vegetation to identify habitat association with species.

The researchers hope the research can be extended to 2024 and more sites can be investigated. Readers can make a donation to support this important research.

Media Note:

To arrange interviews with Professor David Watson and Dr Liz Znidersic contact Bruce Andrews at Charles Sturt Media on mobile 0418 669 362 or via

Photo: Dr Liz Znidersic positions a monitoring sensor in the Great Cumbung wetland in south-western NSW.

Read more about the ‘Eavesdropping on Wetland Birds’ project in the ILWS magazine Connections, issue 59, November 2020, p8-9.

A more detailed examination of this and other related research, ‘Fantastically elusive birds and how to find them’, is published in COSMOS magazine, issue 92, September 2021, p30-39.

Hear an interview with Professor Watson about research by the Australian Acoustic Observatory (A2O).

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