June 10, 2005

California Forest Cameras Snoop on Wildlife

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (AP) -- A 30-acre patch of forest near Idyllwild has been outfitted with robotic cameras and other high-tech gadgets that spy on wildlife, trees and even roots as part of a pioneering effort by scientists to take nature's pulse.

Scientists sitting hundreds of miles away can remotely operate mostly wireless devices, including a camera that swings on cables through the trees, to watch bluebird eggs hatch, measure the growth of ferns and study the impact of air pollution.

Devices in the outdoor laboratory allow nonintrusive, around-the-clock monitoring.

"This is definitely going to change the way we do science," Michael Allen, director of University of California, Riverside's Center for Conservation Biology, told the Riverside Press-Enterprise.

"This is going to fill in the gaps of our knowledge," said Michael Hamilton, director of the James San Jacinto Mountain Reserve where the high-tech devices have been installed.

"You want to know when those hot moments occur," he said. "Is the forest going to disappear in the next 50 years if the temperature changes by three degrees? Now we have a window into those variables."

The information obtained could one day save lives and Earth itself, Hamilton said.

The technology could eventually uncover ways to combat global warming, track the deadly mosquito-borne West Nile virus, detect water pollution before people drink it and predict the course of invasive plants that alter landscapes and choke off water sources.

"The technology has profound implications," said Deborah Estrin, director of the Center for Embedded Network Sensing at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The James Reserve is a partner of the center, which was established in 2002 when it won $40 million in funding from the National Science Foundation. Of that, $4 million went to the reserve, Hamilton said.

Sensors scattered throughout the reserve record temperature, humidity, wind, rain, lightning and even how cool air sweeps in at night.

"It's a subtle but important change ecologically," Hamilton said, explaining that the cool air can trigger seedlings to sprout.

Scientists at UC Riverside and UCLA can analyze the computerized data.

"That's kind of the downside - we'll be spending too much time staring at computer screens," Allen said.


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Information from: The Press-Enterprise, http://www.pe.com