Assessing global biodiversity with ears on the ground, NASA’s eyes on the sky

WEST LAFAYETTE, Indiana – Purdue University professor Bryan Pijanowski’s research team will be working in some wild and remote locations around the globe over the coming year.

Pijanowski’s sound source surveyors are equipped with microphones, headphones and parabolic reflectors to efficiently collect sound waves from the natural world. Their tools also include low-flying drones and sensors mounted on orbiting satellites and the International Space Station.

The Purdue team uses these resources to develop a global model of animal and plant diversity and how it changes. You will also access Purdue’s two crown jewels of global biodiversity databases. One is the Global Forest Biodiversity Initiative, a database containing tree species inventories from more than one million land parcels. The other database at the Center for Global Soundscapes contains more than 4 million audio recordings from most of the world’s ecosystems.

“We use acoustic remote sensing to develop the animal biodiversity model,” said Pijanowski, director of the center and professor in the College of Agriculture’s Department of Forestry and Natural Resources. For example, he has maintained an acoustic sensor in the wetlands of the Purdue Wildlife Area since 2007. And from the Southeast Asian island of Borneo alone, he has more than 25,000 recordings with sounds from 3,000 animal species.

The highly transdisciplinary work requires expertise in ecology, social sciences, engineering, statistics and humanities. The project’s co-leaders include Kristen Bellisario of Purdue, clinical assistant professor at the John Martinson Honors College; Jinha Jung, assistant professor at Lyles School of Civil Engineering; and Jingjing Liang, Associate Professor of Forestry and Natural Resources.

The NASA project is specifically focused on developing plant-animal diversity models for four different types of forested ecosystems. Work begins in the hardwood forests of nearby Tippecanoe County, Indiana. Pijanowski’s team uses the area as a “sandbox” where to go for research training and protocol development. The other three sites are located in the Miombo forests of Tanzania, the savannah and forest-steppe ecosystems of Mongolia, and the mangroves of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Sundarbans in Bangladesh.

“The Miombo Woodlands are one of the largest forest ecosystems in the world,” said Pijanowski. “The Sundarbans is home to one of the most pristine mangrove sites in the world. Mangroves and estuaries are severely threatened by climate change due to rising sea levels. And Mongolia represents a mix of coniferous forests and grasslands that are also threatened by climate change.”

The project will extend the biodiversity models of all four ecosystems to other long-term studies in Borneo, Southeast Asia; Costa Rica, Caribbean; Finland, Northern Europe; and Patagonia, South America.

Among the Purdue team’s multiple data collection platforms are three experimental sensors on board the International Space Station.

“These are experimental sensors for mapping and creating plant habitat models, which we then calibrate with all the measurements we take on the ground and with unmanned aerial vehicles,” Pijanowski said.

The space station’s Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation (GEDI) uses Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR). The DLS (German Aerospace Center) Earth Sensing Imaging Spectrometer (DESIS) is a hyperspectral sensor that captures species composition and diversity across electromagnetic frequencies from visible light to infrared. and ECOSTRESS, a heat sensor, detects the drought stress condition of plants.

Two satellite systems complement the space station’s sensors. These are the Moderate-Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) and landat, Identify the fires in Tanzania that are affecting the habitats of chimpanzees, bush babies, monkeys and baboons.

Using these three space station sensors, the team collects data on a habitat’s structural complexity, biodiversity and stress, which meshes with the global tree dataset.

Drones flying 80 meters above the ground provide high-resolution data (1-centimeter pixels) that researchers can use to calibrate with data from the space station. The team also conducts factory tours at each location.

Jinha Jung and his Geospatial Data Science group handle calibrations and links between ground-based, airborne, and space-based data.

“We need to be able to link the images we get to specific places Bryan visits and record sound to quantify biodiversity,” Jung said. “We can create very high-resolution 3D models of these places.”

One of Jung’s group’s tasks is to fill in the gaps in the space station’s LiDAR coverage. Orbiting at an average altitude of about 400 kilometers (nearly 250 miles) and moving at a speed of 17,500 miles per hour, the space station ricochets the GEDI laser beam off the Earth’s surface at intervals of about 70 meters.

Jung’s group will also create 3D models of all of NASA’s biodiversity fields and make the 3D models available on the project website. The models allow users to point and click on a website, zoom in, and rotate the view in three dimensions.

“We will embed recordings so visitors can visualize the site in 3D, but they can also hear the audio and almost feel like they’re actually there,” Jung said.

NASA’s Biodiversity Project is part of Pijanowski’s mission to map the Earth. His website,, connects to his entire database of global biomes, the various natural habitats that plants and animals call home.

“People can look at all of our locations in the maps of places where we conduct studies,” he said. “We describe all the biomes, all the different studies, the threats to the biomes. We have a photo catalog of all the sites and videos that talk about the sites and what we are doing there as scientists in action. Ultimately, we seek to use the very best technology to solve some of the grand societal challenges of biodiversity loss and climate change. NASA support makes this a special part of being a Boilermaker; Purdue is the cradle of astronauts. Perhaps, with NASA’s help, we will be the cradle for solving global biodiversity challenges.”

Writer: Steve Koppes
Source: Bryan Pijanowski, [email protected]
Media contact: Maureen Manier, [email protected]

Agricultural communication: 765-494-8415;

Maureen Manier, Division Manager, [email protected]

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