Monday, February 20, 2006

Ecology goes open source

Last week I spent some time in Brazil, near the astonishing Iguacu Falls--easily one of the great natural wonders of the world and far more impressive than Niagara.

A group of scientists know as TEAM, which stands for the Tropical Ecology, Assessment & Monitoring Initiative, met near the town of Foz do IguaƧu, from February 10-14, 2006, to discuss biodiversity monitoring. The group has a sizeable chunk of money from the foundation backed by Intel founder Gordon Moore, and TEAM's job is to find long-term ways of monitoring biodiversity across the planet.

Its harder than it sounds. Ecologists tend to work on their own, in their own particular ways and on their own favourite sites. Now, to accomplish a planetary-scale task, they have to become more "open source", by agreeing on common protocols for studying everything from vegetation to mammals, and (gasp!) sharing data. It seems that a lot of progress was made at the meeting. Even slightly cynical scientists seemed to think that TEAM had found a good recipe for sucess, even though the meeting, according to one, had had "all the hallmarks of disaster" before it started.

One of the stars at the meeting was a gentleman called Scott Brandes, who works for TEAM, and who has come up with a portable and easy way of doing acoustic monitoring--that is, listening to and identifying insects by the sound that they make. It has so thrilled some of the other scientists there that the technique looks likely to be taken up by the primatologists--who want to use it for monitoring nocturnal mammals. To hear more about this, listen to a report for Science in Action on the BBC's World Service this Friday (and repeats), or via the listen again on the programme's web page.