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Coding in Conservation

by Ashleigh Kitchiner, STEM Ambassador and Senior Marine Mammal Consultant at MRes Wildlife and Conservation

Conservation is defined as the ‘careful preservation and protection of something’. Broadly speaking that is what it is, but there are so many fields within conservation from focal species and habitats to evolution and genetics. An emerging field within conservation is coding as this can be so beneficial and informative when we are dealing with mobile or elusive species. Coding is simply the instructions for a computer (as within a piece of software). Within conservation there are many ways to utilise coding to enable conservation and protection of flora and fauna.

I am a marine biologist, to be more specific I’m a whale nut! Whales, dolphins, and porpoises are my thing, and I can’t get enough of them. One aspect about these majestic creatures is that we only get to see ca. 10% of their lives, as they surface to breath. They are air breathers like us, so we do get chance to see them; however, this is not often enough. To fill in the gaps we utilise clever computing to tell us more about their lives.

An example of coding marine mammal data that is found often in the literature is calculating animal distribution (where they range) and abundance (how many animals there are). Methods for this type of analysis can be used for land and marine animals but I will show you marine mammal example (obviously!).

Let’s focus on distribution modelling, this is call Species Distribution Modelling (SDM) and is often analysed in software call R Studio and GIS (QGIS/ArcGIS). After inputting correct code, a scientist is able to determine the range of an animal without having to collect every single sightings, making it a lot less costly for scientists and the need for resources a lot less.

As technology advances, we are getting better and better at collecting large quantities of data. This produces HUGE data sets, which are very useful. Whether it’s looking at distribution patterns, tracking whales with satellite tags, collecting environmental data such as., sea level, weather patterns or analysing photo identification catalogues to monitor populations, these data sets all require computer programs to collate and analyse. It is vital to have a basic understanding of computer programs in science, and it is considered necessary to have some experience of coding environmental data.


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