The O’Reilly Animals

A lot of smart people are working against time, using new technologies to save endangered animals and their habitats. This is where we share their stories, highlight opportunities for developers and makers to lend a hand, and, as we’re able, connect people to the resources and expertise they need.

Click on an animal to learn more

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“Save the Whales”


Whalers and their catch, ca. 1913.

Back in the 1970s, a lot of cars sported “Save the Whales” bumper stickers. More than 2 million whales were caught by commercial whalers in the 20th century, and by the middle of the century, many populations were severely depleted. The “Save the Whales” campaign brought millions of people together, resulting in a near-worldwide ban on commercial whaling in 1986. Today, many fewer whales are being taken, but there are still many threats to their survival, including commercial marine traffic.

Big ships run into whales. Inadvertently, of course, but because today’s shipping lanes overlap with whale feeding and migration areas, whales (many of them endangered species) are at great risk of being injured or killed. Obviously, the best way to save the whales is to avoid running into them—and commercial ships now have some free tools that make that possible.

There’s an app for that.

For the past two years, mariners along the U.S. East Coast have been able to download a free iPad and iPhone app that warns them when they enter areas with a high risk of collision with critically endangered North Atlantic right whales. Whale Alert  provides a central source for information about how to navigate around right whales in specific areas, along with the latest data about their whereabouts, all overlaid on NOAA digital charts. Read more…

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One fish, two fish, right fish, wrong fish

A WWF International Smart Gear Competition to reduce bycatch

Pollock Catch

Alaskan pollock caught by trawler.
by David Csepp, NOAA/NMFS/AKFSC/Auke Bay Lab. – NOAA Photo Library: fish0192.

By some estimates, fishing bycatch—which includes unwanted dolphins, turtles, whales, and birds—snared by gillnets, longlines, and trawlers makes up 40% of the catch today.

The 2014 International Smart Gear Competition seeks innovative, environmentally friendly ways to reduce the amount of fisheries bycatch. The recurring contest is sponsored by the WWF, and has resulted in some really clever solutions (such as LED-equipped nets tuned to various wavelengths that repel specific species) that greatly reduce bycatch, conserving populations of marine mammals, turtles, fish, and other sea creatures.

Open to all, over the last few years the competition has attracted entries from all kinds of people who care about fishing— from gear technologists and fishermen to engineers and chemists. The judges panel includes fisheries experts, gear technologists, fishermen, scientists, researchers, and conservationists.

Deadline for entries for 2014 is August 31, but don’t let that stop you from coming up with new ideas. The contest is a recurring event—and this year’s prizes total $65,000.

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Nerds Without Borders Hit the Beach

Newly hatched sea turtles

Newly hatched sea turtles make their way to the ocean.

An item from O’Reilly’s IoT+ Newsletter that caught my eye:

Two million human visitors share the Cape Hatteras National Seashore with endangered turtles. To protect the turtle nests and hatchlings during the hatching period the beaches must be closed—but because it’s difficult to gauge when exactly the baby turtles will hatch, the beach is closed for 6 weeks from the discovery of the nest.

Nerds Without Borders has created nest monitor devices with a microcontroller, accelerometer, thermometer, and communications system inside a ping-pong ball (which, conveniently, looks a lot like a turtle egg).

These sensors more accurately determine when hatching will take place—allowing the beaches to be closed for much shorter periods and giving researchers a heads up when hatching will happen. Duane Benson explains.

(And if you’re wondering where the baby turtles go after they hatch and head out to sea…)

About Nerds Without Borders

Nerds Without Borders is a network of thoughtful people working collaboratively to solve many of the world’s most pressing problems. They are looking for all sorts of people to help: Engineers, Scientists, Writers, Artists, Dreamers, Activists, Organizers, Fundraisers, Financiers, among others. You define the type of work you want to do, and how much time you can commit to a project. Learn more at

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Where the Boys (and Girls) Are

Solving the mystery of the “lost years”

Tagged loggerhead turtle

Tagged loggerhead turtle
Photo by Jim Abernethy

Ever tried to track a baby sea turtle? It’s not easy. They hatch on the beach and immediately head out to sea to go—where?

For years, scientists have put forth various theories about where the baby turtles go on their maiden voyage, but there’s been no hard data. Until scientists came up with a lightweight tracking device, there was no way to follow the turtles’ movements from the time they hatched until they returned to the same beach years later to mate.

Now we have some data and new insights, thanks to Kate Mansfield, a marine biologist at the University of Central Florida, and a team of scientists from the UCF, Florida Atlantic University, University of Miami (UM) Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, and University of Wisconsin. The team tracked 17 loggerhead turtles for 27 to 220 days in the open ocean, using small, solar-powered satellite tags. Read more…

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Summer Reading: The Sixth Extinction

The Sixth ExtinctionA few months ago, just as the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a major report on climate change, I was in the middle of reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent book, The Sixth Extinction. The UN report scarily aligns with Kolbert’s location-specific observations about the apparently unstoppable environmental changes we homo sapiens are bringing about.

For many years, I’ve despaired as I read and watch reports about what we’re doing to the planet and to the other creatures that inhabit it with us. At times I’ve even fantasized that a good old-fashioned-yet-new-fangled plague might be the best thing that could happen. The good news (for me, anyway) is that Kolbert’s book has led me to think differently about the future of the Earth and its 7.2 billion people.

Read more…

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On a photo safari in Africa? Turn off geotagging.

Tracking technologies can do so much good for endangered species. And a lot that’s not so good.

According to a story on Quartz, tech-savvy poachers are using geotagging data from tourist photos posted on social media sites to locate endangered rhinos and other animals. As a result, some African wildlife reserves have posted signs asking visitors to turn off the geotagging function on their smartphones and digital cameras. They also ask that visitors, when posting their photos, not reveal the location where the photos were taken.

geotag_sign Read more…

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Instant Wild: Smart People, Awesome Technology

ZSL’s Alasdair Davies tells us how it’s done.

Instant Wild Images

Images captured by Instant Wild cameras in Africa are instantly transmitted to the Web for identification by the public.

Alasdair Davies

Alasdair Davies

Alasdair Davies is a Technical Advisor for the Zoological Society of London’s Conservation Technology program and a web developer for the EDGE of Existence program. His current focus is the delivery of ZSL’s Instant Wild project, the advancement of camera trapping technology, and the future development of the EDGE website. Alasdair is also a founder and director of the primate conservation organization The Great Primate Handshake. We conducted this interview via email. 

When and where was the idea for Instant Wild hatched?
ZSL’s Instant Wild programme started life on a staircase within Conservation Programmes at Regent’s Park, London—better known as the location of ZSL London Zoo. It was one of those “Have you seen the new GSM-enabled camera traps? Aren’t they great…” conversations whilst holding the morning’s first mug of coffee and checking in on the day’s schedule.

Is there a story behind it?
Instant Wild logo
Although the conversation on the staircase was brief, our Director of Conservation Programmes, Jonathan Baillie, was luckily the other person on the stairs that morning. Later that afternoon, he called me into his office. It was evident that he had been pondering the morning’s conversation and I could sense that there was an exciting idea on the table. Within in an hour, the name Instant Wild was decided upon and the concept of sending the very photos the cameras take to the general public for instant analysis was founded. We’d have hundreds of thousands of eyes scanning thousands of photos from across the globe every single day. It could answer so many questions, and there wasn’t a second to lose. Read more…