Hawaii is Using Drones to Help Find Endangered Plants in Steep Cliffs

According to a global report, the devastation of the natural world is putting two out of every five plant species in the world at risk of going extinct. Plants and fungi are vital to sustaining life on Earth, and scientists are currently finding ways to track and catalog these species before they are extinct.

However, finding these species is not an easy feat since they could be located in areas that humans do not easily reach due to safety risks, such as in the case of cliffs where endangered plants could grow abundant.

To solve this problem, scientists in Hawaii are now tracking rare plant species remotely with the help of a surveying drone.

(Photo : mrsolow/ Pixabay)

Locating Rare Plants

As reported first by Reuters, Ben Nyberg, the GSIS and drone program coordinator at the National Botanical Garden, was able to locate the nearly extinct Wilkesia hobdyi on a steep cliff with the help of a drone.

Nyberg’s drone flew around the cliff and captured the plant in great detail to confirm his findings in the lab. 

The W. hobdyi is a member of the sunflower family. The plant was once believed to flourish in abundance on the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i. However, the presence of goats grazing them has put them to near-extinction status.

The W. hobdyi is estimated to be less than 600 individuals sprouting at the Na Pali Coast. Reuters report that most endangered plants grow on dangerous cliffs, but drones are helping scientists to locate them quickly. 

Nyberg participated in the 2016 launch of an airborne drone search program for endangered plant species.

Together with the Division of Forestry and Wildlife of the State of Hawaii, Nyberg, and the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG), they rediscovered three species that were previously believed to be extinct or locally extinct from Kauai.

They have also discovered a plethora of other endangered plants with less than 100 individuals. 

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900% Increase in Plant Population

The team’s drone searching would yield 5,500 new individuals within a few months, representing a more than 900% surge in the plant’s current population.

Kauai is a highly attractive place to find endangered plants since it brims with 250 plant species that are unique to the island.

However, these species face threats of complete extinction from factors such as heavy rains, habitat degradation, landslides, and even the presence of feral pigs.  

According to a 2020 report for the Red List of Threatened Species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, approximately 10% of Kauai’s plant species are now extinct or extinct in the wild, and an additional 87% are endangered.

A sophisticated robotic arm called Mamba (Multi-Use Aerial Manipulator Bidirectionally Actuated), which Nyberg and Canadian researchers from Outreach Robotics started constructing in 2020, would allow them to snip off pieces of endangered plants growing in dangerous areas. 

Mamba has so far gathered twenty-nine cuttings or seeds from 12 endangered species. These contain specimens of the rare violet wahine noho kula, just recently recovered by the surveying drone. 

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