Snail Mail with Megan McDaniels

For Snail Mail this month we talked with Megan McDaniels. How does she use AI in her job? What do you think it means to be a biologist?

Hi Megan, introduce yourself!

Hi there! I am a wildlife biologist and nature-lover who is passionate about using technology and partnerships with communities to accelerate the conservation of endangered and threatened animals while also helping the people who live around them. I have studied many species on land and in water, from African elephants to oysters. I enjoy volunteering with youth education programs to inspire others to use their unique skills and interests to help protect our planet. I currently work for a conservation technology nonprofit called Wild Me.

You have a really interesting job, can you share what you do with our Snail Mail readers?

As a biologist, I work to understand how animals interact with each other and their environments, especially when dealing with climate change and habitat loss. To do this, I study animals in the field and also use many tools like statistical analysis programs, GIS mapping, app development, camera traps, GPS collars, genetic sampling, and artificial intelligence. Another important part of my job is communicating what I learn with others. I do this by writing articles and papers about research discoveries and how they can be used to help wildlife and people. I also use social media to share videos, photographs, and illustrations that make learning about conservation fun!

Wow! How closely do you work with computers and Artificial Intelligence on a daily basis?

When I’m not in the field studying wildlife, I spend several hours a day using my computer to process and analyze the data that myself and other scientists have collected. This means turning the pictures and notes we’ve taken in the field, as well as observations collected by citizen scientists, into numbers on the computer that will eventually tell the stories of how animals are behaving and how healthy their populations are.  Artificial intelligence has been immensely helpful in speeding up this process.

What does your AI do, exactly?

Photographs of animals hold lots of valuable information about what they do, where they move, and how many of them there are. Just like people, every individual animal is unique. Some animals, like zebras and whale sharks, have obvious patterns that set each individual apart. Other animals, such as lions or porpoises, have less obvious differences. Our artificial intelligence platform called Wildbook uses algorithms to tell us what types of animals are in a photo and which unique individual they are. The algorithms use an animal’s markings, like its stripes or spots, scars, the shape of its tail or ears, and size, to determine who they are -kind of like how some phones are able to unlock by recognizing your face. Wildbook can also track individual animals by using their unique genetic markings and the sounds that they make.

How difficult would it be for a person to do this AI’s job?

It’s possible for a person to do this work, but it would take a very long time and there could be many mistakes. Thousands of species of wild animals are declining and face extinction, and there is no time to waste when it comes to saving them. Technology like artificial intelligence is helping us make faster and smarter conservation decisions.

Does the AI name the animals it keeps track of? Do you?

Each animal’s name depends on its species and the names used by the scientists who study them. For example, Grevy’s zebra from Kenya may receive a numeric ID, like the male labelled 10059, while some marine biologists studying humpback whales in Iceland prefer to get creative with names like “Fluke Skywalker” and “Whaliam Shakespeare”. Other researchers will use a combination of alpha-numeric IDs and fun nicknames. The AI is able to remember and store all of these names.

Do you have a favourite animal?

This changes with every new animal I study or see while exploring outside! Right now, I’m fascinated with the urban wildlife that I have been seeing during COVID; I recently spotted a barred owl and a belted kingfisher in my neighborhood in Washington, D.C., and it’s fascinating to see how quickly some animals have adapted to cities with more people working remotely now.  My dog Riley will always be my favorite animal, though.

Do you think a similar AI could be made for other things, like an AI for plants? AI for beetles? AI for famous YouTube cats?

The possibilities for AI are endless! As long as you have enough data to train algorithms how to recognize different individuals or objects, and plenty of creativity and determination, you can use AI for almost anything.

Should everyone have an AI in their home that can identify plants or animals?

I think that the more that people know about the plants and animals that surround them, the more connected they will feel to their community and the more they will want to conserve their environment. There are already apps that harness AI, like iNaturalist, and are easily accessible for anyone to learn about the nature that they see in their house and neighborhood. We can also use AI to contribute to research by volunteering with citizen science projects. Conservation – especially the work that I do with AI – depends on involvement and enthusiasm from people like you!

Thanks, Megan, for giving us such thoughtful answers about the role of AI in wildlife conservation!