Researchers Put Together the Largest Photo Database of Amazon’s Wildlife
The Amazon rainforest is documented in terms of its degradation. It is “one of the most important and threatened tropical environments in the world,” researchers note; it released 20% more carbon than it absorbed in the last decade because of human-induced climate change. The mighty rainforest, largest in the world, is on the brink of permanently being reduced to a grassland. In the face of this loss also lies a surviving and struggling facet of life, which never makes its way to social memory.
Recently, researchers photographed hundreds of species living in the rainforest to create an archive of life and loss. Think more than 57,000 images of a home and its residents; a giant anteater lazily sitting in a wallow, jaguar cabs playfully bouncing around, short-eared dogs cautiously walking around. Plus, harpy eagles, pumas, Andean bears, tapirs, and a tide of other species that are on the edge of losing their home, prowling and crawling through the corners of the largest rainforest in the world. The album harnesses the power of images to inspire both empathy and action; these are images of chaos, but also survival.
The thousands of images “will serve as critical data points to show where wildlife occurs and the staggering diversity of species found in the Amazon region,” said study co-author Robert Wallace, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Greater Madidi-Tambopata Landscape Program, in a statement. This endeavor in itself represents a diverse and vibrant collaboration: the study, published in the journal Ecology, relies on data from about 147 scientists affiliated with 122 research institutions globally. This association makes the current database the first study to compile images from across the Amazon at this scale, including wildlife spread across Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela.
The process of photographing wildlife draws on the utility of camera traps — these are motion-sensing cameras strategically placed throughout the forest. For decades now scientists have camouflaged camera traps across various Amazon regions; it is only now they have compiled it into one massive, thriving dataset of 317 species of birds, mammals, and reptiles.
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Beyond the vivacity captured, the database serves an instructive purpose. It “provides basic information about species presence and abundance in the forest and can be used to answer questions on an Amazon scale,” Ana Carolina Antunes, the lead author of the study told Mongabay. To be precise, the scale in question covers almost 3.2 million square miles (8.5 million square kilometers) across eight countries.
The crisis of the Amazon rainforest echoes a global depletion of natural ecosystems. More than 3.7 million hectares of primary tropical forest were lost globally in 2021; in India, 25.87 million hectares of forest land remain missing from the latest assessment of its green cover.
Recording the health of a forest is a crucial undertaking by way of shaping livelihood choices, conservation efforts, and even economic growth. More pointedly, the database is an opportunity to document the ecological crisis — habitat loss, climate change, forest fragmentation — in context to the wildlife it impacts.
“It will be possible to understand the patterns of species distribution in their habitats, interaction between predator and prey species, as well as make future projections about the impact of climate and land-use change for the species,” said Antunes. “There is still so much to learn and, at the same time, [realize] an increasing threat to the biodiversity and people living in the forest.”
To preserve, we must know what remains. An album of life also documents devastation, if one looks closely.