AI to guard manatees. Revolution in the protection of marine giants

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Manatees, once a common sight in waters around the globe, have become rare animals. Only four species of these herbivores have survived to this day, inhabiting mainly the warm waters of the tropics and subtropics. Their presence is noticeable in regions such as Florida, the Caribbean, the Amazon and the African coast. Natural conditions and the physical appearance of manatees make it difficult to monitor their populations. This is a challenge that researchers at Florida Atlantic University have taken on. They have developed a groundbreaking AI model that, using machine learning methods, is capable of identifying and counting individuals based on images obtained from CCTV cameras. This innovation offers new opportunities to protect these marine mammals through faster and more accurate population monitoring.

A few words about manatees

Manatees, also known as sea cows or, more jokingly, floating potatoes, are true masters of relaxation. These peaceful giants, floating lazily through warm tropical waters, attract attention with their unique appearance and gentle behavior. They can reach impressive sizes – the length of adult individuals often exceeds 3 meters, and the weight reaches up to 600 kg. This makes them one of the largest aquatic mammals.

Their diet consists mainly of aquatic plants, which makes them play a key role in maintaining the health of marine and river ecosystems. These aquatic mammals with impressive appetites feed mainly on seagrasses and can spend up to eight hours a day foraging for them. As natural reapers, they help control the growth of algae and other aquatic plants, ensuring the balance and health of the environments in which they live. Their presence helps keep the waters clean and clear.

Many dangers lurk for manatees. Collisions with boats, loss of natural habitat due to the development of human settlements and water pollution are the main reasons for the decline of these very important animals for ecosystems. Progressive climate change is increasing water temperatures, which could negatively affect the environments that are home to these gentle giants. As a result, manatees have been placed on the IUCN Red List as vulnerable. Their protection has become a priority for many organizations that seek to preserve their natural habitats and promote awareness of the threats that await them.

Wodne Sprawy 5 2024 19
pic. David Gross/Ocean Image Bank

Is counting necessary?

Counting manatees is essential to protect these marine mammals and the ecosystems in which they live. With data on their numbers, scientists can monitor the status of populations and implement effective conservation measures. To be able to accurately estimate the number of manatees, a team of researchers from the College of Engineering and Computer Science at Florida Atlantic University used innovative counting techniques. In the early stages of the project, the researchers tried to use images available on the Internet to train their model, but quickly realized that they needed more diverse data for greater effectiveness.

The ideal solution turned out to be the use of video footage from U.S. state parks, which provided images of manatees in a variety of situations – at different times of the year and from different perspectives. This allowed the model to be effectively trained to recognize dugongs in many environments and accurately count their populations, even from low-quality images.

This method also takes into account distortions due to the difference in perspective between the water environment and the image plane. Given that the shape of the manatee is more elliptical than circular, a method based on an anisotropic Gaussian kernel (AGK) was used to best represent the contour of the animal and estimate the population density in a given area. By approaching the counting of individuals as a machine learning task for density estimation using deep neural networks, it is possible to balance the data labeling effort with the efficiency of the process. In summary, this method offers a simple and effective solution for counting manatees that requires minimal data preparation effort.

The future of manatee conservation with AI

Despite the promising results, the model still faces some limitations. The difficulty in distinguishing adults from juveniles or males from females is a challenge that the team plans to tackle in the next stages of the project. This gives the model a chance to become an even more effective tool.

An AI model for identifying manatees has the potential to make a significant contribution to the conservation of these endangered mammals. By enabling rapid and accurate estimates of manatee populations, it can support the planning of conservation efforts, the prevention of habitat loss, and the preparation of rules for boaters and divers. This minimizes the impact of our activities on these sensitive creatures, which is essential for their survival.

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