Alberta wildlife reserve uses AI technology to study bear paw prints

·3 min read
Karin Snyder
Karin Snyder

An Alberta wildlife reserve says a bear's paw print is just as unique as a human's fingerprint and thus they're able to use artificial intelligence to gather information about individual bruins.

Simon L'Allier, a biology intern at the Cochrane Ecological Institute, says his role is identifying and studying the paw prints of bears.

"What we're trying to develop at the Cochrane Ecological Institute is a non-invasive method of monitoring the black bears, and, in the future, hopefully we can work with grizzly bears as well," he said.

Their method is called footprint identification technology (FIT), and originated from WildTrack, an organization that created the software analysis of animal tracks.

According to WildTrack's website, identifying animal footprints is similar to analyzing fingerprints, since each species has different foot anatomy and each individual animal has its own unique foot characteristics.

"This technique was developed by WildTrack as a translation of Indigenous tracking expertise. From digital images of footprints, FIT can identify species, individuals, age-class and sex," says WildTrack's website.

Since developing the technology, it's been used in Africa to identify a variety of wildlife such as cheetahs, rhinos and even Bengal tigers.

WildTrack says it has helped establish a species inventory for "biodiversity monitoring," so environmental impacts or poaching can be assessed.

As well, the software can identify the animal's species, age, sex, where they live as well as how many are left — all though machine programming.

Alberta reserve tries it on bears

L'Allier says this method is being tried at the Cochrane Ecological Institute. However, so far it has been tried on only one bear, which was at the facility.

"The goal here is really to be able to identify a specific individual only using a photograph of the track without having to catch the animal or trap him or handle the animal at all," he said.

The institute has high hopes for the project, and L'Allier says it will help move away from the common method of using GPS collars, which he says can hinder a bear's movements.

As well, he notes the GPS collar also requires a tranquilizer or sedation, which can stress the bear.

"The advantage of using the footprint identification technology is that really the only material you need is a phone with a camera or a DSLR and then a ruler to measure the X and Y axes of the print, and then you're good to go," he said.

'Citizen scientists'

Because of this simple process, L'Allier says it allows "citizen scientists" to help contribute data.

"For us, we'd love to collaborate, for instance, with members of the First Nations.… They're very good at tracking animals themselves and identifying footprints, so that offers a very interesting collaboration … with nonscientists," he said.

"The technology allows you to really identify a species. If you don't have the specific measurements, so you can send a picture to WildTrack and they can tell you it's a black bear or, you know, it's a fox."

L'Allier says that in order to get more bears in the system, they plan on collaborating with the Calgary Zoo and other institutes with bears.