AI environmental impact and sustainability data

Florida has become known as ground zero when it comes to invasive species, so it makes sense that a one-of-a-kind live trapping system that uses AI to identify the intended catch, would be put to the test in the state.

The invasive Argentine black and white Tegu lizard has been in Miami-Dade County for over 20 years, and has taken a liking to Charlotte, Hillsborough, and St. Lucie Counties, and even two counties in Georgia. Everywhere it goes, it disrupts the local ecosystem.

“They have a very broad diet, they consume lots of plant matter, fruits, seeds, insects, small vertebrates, and they are very prolific nest raiders, of ground nesting birds and reptiles,” said Dr. Melissa Miller, who led a recent pilot study in Fort Pierce, Florida that evaluated the effectiveness of the AI traps. She is a research assistant scientist specializing in invasion ecology at the University of Florida, Fort Lauderdale Research & Education Center (UF/IFAS).

The Tegu has been videotaped stealing alligator eggs, and is likely also devouring eggs from the threatened American Crocodile, and the protected Gopher Tortoise. Tegus are also carriers of a parasite that was originally brought to Florida by the Burmese Python, by way of Southeast Asia. About half of South Florida’s native snake species are infected with the parasite.

Ten traps were put out around Fort Pierce last May. By the end of October, the traps captured 15 Tegu, and there was only one case of a “By Catch,” when a turtle was misidentified and trapped. The study was done in comparison to the same number of traditional traps in the same locations, at the same time. Those traditional traps only caught one Tegu. Also, traditional traps are labor intensive; they often are filled with by catch and need to be manually reset.

The AI trap, on the other hand, doesn’t require resetting. It is rectangular-shaped, with a trap door at one end and the bait, an egg, at the other end. The egg is enclosed in a small cage, to prevent animals from actually eating it. The egg can last for up to a month. The Tegu loves eggs and can smell them from long distances. The trap has a motor, to shut and open the door, and a camera to identify the Tegu. The camera takes three photos, in order to create a probability score that the animal is a Tegu. It compares features of the encroaching critter to an existing database. A high-probability score triggers the trap door to shut. The photo is then automatically sent to the smartphone of the individual monitoring the trap. If there is a misidentification, the trap door can be remotely lifted.

The AI trap used in the pilot study was developed by two men who have been friends since high school, Derek Yorks and Ben Stookey, co-founders of Wild Vision Systems. Mr. Yorks, a wildlife biologist, has over 20 years of experience in the conservation, study and monitoring of wild reptile and amphibian populations. Mr. Stookey has over 20 years of experience as a software engineer, supporting companies and organizations with missions to protect ecosystems.

Eight years ago, Mr. York started thinking about using AI to trap invasive species. “Actually, it was the pythons that inspired me,” he said. “But at that time, AI was being used to identify large mammals, such as leopards and tigers, and I thought, well why couldn’t it be used to identify pythons versus any other snake.”  Mr. Yorks said he pursued that path, but quickly realized that he lacked the skills to build something, and that’s when he reached out to his old high school buddy. “I had been doing it as a side project, but when we teamed up, we just started plugging away and have been gaining momentum ever since,” Mr. Yorks said.

In 2022, Mr. Yorks and Mr. Stookey won a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Theodore Roosevelt Genius Prize, for their invention. The awards committee stated, “This innovation presents a live-trapping system and data platform that uses artificial intelligence to identify and capture invasive snakes and lizards in a stationary robotic trap. The design could enable scalable, cost-effective and sustained deployment of smart-trap networks for effective control and monitoring of invasive species.”

News of the award and the new device caught the attention of Dr. Miller, who contacted them to ask about the possibility of working together for a pilot study.

“We certainly want to continue this work, and to collaborate with Wild Vision Systems,” Dr Miller said. “Now we know that this works with Tegus, we learned a lot from the first field deployment, and there are some minor adjustments to the hardware and software that will make the traps even more effective, to get the traps ready for a much larger scale deployment,” she said.

Mr. Yorks said improvements are on the way, to weatherproof the traps and improve the identification capability. “The idea basically is, we want to make something that can be available for purchase, that natural reserve managers, state agencies, federal agencies, can buy and use on scale. We’re in an R and D (Research & Development) phase, and what we want to do is be able to offer something that is a really valuable new tool that will enable people to do things that were prohibitive because of labor costs before, and the amount of work it takes. So if you only need to get out there and check your traps when you actually have your target species captured, and that once a month maintenance of going out and changing the bait, you can cover a lot more ground, and operate a lot more traps with the same amount of staff.”

While the Tegus that are caught meet an unfortunate end- they are euthanized – AI is also being applied to help save the lives of other wildlife, particularly birds. Hundreds of thousands of birds are killed every year when they fly into wind farms and other wind turbines. But a new 360-degree camera, mounted to a pole, serves as an early warning system that is capable of shutting down the turbines when flocks or endangered species are approaching. The cameras work the same way as the ones used in the traps in identifying various species of birds.