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Thermal imaging for wildlife surveys

Thermal imaging and wildlife surveys

Thermal imaging has been gaining traction in recent years as a survey tool for wildlife. Dr Kayleigh Fawcett Williams (KFW Scientific & Creative) discusses some of the pros and cons of its use…

Thermal imaging is a highly effective tool for wildlife surveys, but it is not a panacea. Globally used for an array of commercial applications, it is an attractive method for ecologists surveying for animals in the field. Advances in the development of this technology, along with significant reductions in hardware costs, have made thermal imaging more user friendly and affordable than ever before. Now that thermal imaging equipment is becoming increasingly accessible, many ecologists are looking at using it for a variety of survey applications. Thermal imaging is particularly attractive to those surveying for protected species due to its non-invasiveness. Its functionality in all light levels makes it particularly useful for cryptic, nocturnal or crepuscular species. Most ecological consultancy work with thermal imaging has involved bats but it has also proven to be very effective for bird survey work, as well as for monitoring mammals in relation to infrastructure projects. There are a myriad of exciting possibilities for other survey and monitoring applications, particularly for large schemes requiring spatial activity data at the landscape scale.

© Kayleigh Fawcett Williams

I have been working with thermal imaging for wildlife applications for the past eight years. In this time I have experienced technological frustration combined with the immense excitement and awe at the astonishing results this method can achieve. Thermal imaging is highly accurate but is not without its limitations. Correct use of this technology requires appropriate knowledge and skills gained through specific training. It is essential to select the right equipment for each survey scenario to ensure accurate results.

The use of thermal imaging for wildlife surveys is currently unregulated. As such, untrained individuals surveying and analysing data incorrectly could result in animals being missed. This could lead to a number of potentially detrimental consequences. Most importantly, the implications for wildlife conservation are obvious: if we miss individuals of a protected species in our surveys we have inadequate data to facilitate the design of appropriate mitigation and monitoring. If we do not detect a protected species that is present, it could lead to significant and unnecessary issues later on. Mistakes like this cost considerable sums of money. On the other hand, if survey data is collected correctly, thermal imaging can provide a highly accurate detection method that can save money on projects in a number of different ways. For example, with the correct thermal equipment setup it is often possible to cover larger areas with greater accuracy than with surveyors alone. This means that the numbers of surveyors are reduced per survey, reducing the project costs associated with labour, travel and accommodation (where applicable). Project costs can also be safeguarded by the accuracy that thermal imaging can offer. Minimising false positives and false negatives associated with the use of visual methods, can avoid financial stings later down the line. This can include avoidance of unnecessary mitigation costs, fines, work stoppages etc.

If surveyors are using inconsistent methods, it is impossible to compare and evaluate data collected by different surveyors or survey teams. In order to resolve this issue I am preparing “Guidelines for Thermal Imaging for Wildlife Surveys” and “Guidelines for Thermal Imaging for Bat Surveys”. The first draft of the latter will be released at the BCT Conference this September to coincide with a workshop on Thermal Imaging Bat Surveys. The availability of such a document will not only allow surveyors to be consistent in their methods, but will also allow other professionals (e.g. County Ecologists, Planning Officers, Natural England Licensing staff etc.) to evaluate and interpret their results. This will allow thermal imaging wildlife surveys to be treated and evaluated consistently across the UK.

It is still early days in the adoption of thermal imaging technology by ecologists. Over the coming years I expect that this will develop and grow, with more companies using the technology for a more diverse range of survey applications. Where this technology is applied appropriately by surveyors with the required skills, knowledge and equipment, we will see the collection of exceptional quality data, which can inform strategies for the conservation of protected species.

Header Image: © Kayleigh Fawcett Williams

About the Author: Dr Kayleigh Fawcett Williams is an ecologist and thermographer, specialising in bats and thermal imaging surveys for wildlife. Kayleigh has worked both in consulting and research, gaining a wealth of skills and experience working with bats and thermography. She now runs her own business, KFW Scientific & Creative, providing training, support and analysis services for the ecology sector. You can find out more about her work on Facebook and Twitter.

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