Nonprofits using AI to battle invasive rats that threaten SoCal island's pristine ecosystem

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Saturday, April 1, 2023
AI used to battle invasive rats that threaten SoCal island's ecosystem
Santa Cruz Island is a secret SoCal getaway, but some fear rats could harm its natural beauty. Now a first of its kind project is using artificial intelligence to keep a very real problem from ever making it ashore.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- There is much debate over the role of machine learning in our future, but there are positive benefits happening now.

A first of its kind project is using artificial intelligence to keep a very real problem from ever making it ashore on Santa Cruz Island: rats.

Rats are effective invaders. That can prove costly in your home, but even worse in an environment where they have few predators.

Santa Cruz Island is 96-square-miles of outdoor adventure for tens of thousands of people every year, but a land of opportunity for rats.

"Rats have never made their way out to Santa Cruz Island before and we're hoping to keep it that way," says Nathaniel Rindlaub, a software developer for The Nature Conservancy.

Every boat that arrives on the island is an opportunity for a pair of stowaway rats to make landfall and because of their high reproductive potential, that invasive pair could become 15,000 in a year, devouring native plants, or bird and reptile eggs.

Rindlaub explains why that invasion would be so damaging.

"The animals and floral out there are not used to being exposed to mainland threats if an invasive species arrives on the island," he said. "They are somewhat defenseless and fragile in that kind of a situation."

That's why nonprofits The Nature Conservancy and Island Conservation are piloting a program on Santa Cruz that uses camera traps to monitor animals on the island and artificial intelligence to help weed through hundreds of thousands of images to identify potential invaders.

David Will, the head of innovation for Island Conservation, says that's important because it creates more efficient work.

"It allows the ecologist and the biologist on the ground to spend their time doing the management response, rather than kind of manually spending hours every day going through photos and saying what's in there and what's not," Will said.

But the machine learning and cameras are only part of the defense. Mountainous terrain, with no cell service and very little internet, provides the perfect site to test the feasibility of a wireless mesh network connected to cameras in even the most remote locations.

"The real advantage of this is actually going to enable monitoring of places that have absolutely no monitoring in place right now, and so it's going to allow us to make much more timely decisions on a scale that's basically impossible right now," explains Will.

Rindlaub adds: "It's the paring of the AI with the wireless cameras and the mesh system which provide the real-time data, but then you need to have the AI in order to process that data in real time in order to make any sense of it or for it to be useful."

Islands around the world like Santa Cruz are unique because they represent only 5% of the Earth's land mass, but have been the site of 60% of all extinctions over the course of history. This combination of high tech elements could offer a layer of defense for fragile ecosystems across the globe.

"We feel that we've essentially proven out that this a very viable, cost-effective way of doing invasive species monitoring on a large island, a remote island with no cell service and very little access to internet," Rindlaub said. "It's very possible we've only scratched the surface of possible applications."