AI Play Matchmaker for Protected Plant, the Last of Its Species

protected plant, ai, plant, endangered

Researchers in South Africa are using drones and AI to find a forever mate for a protected plant, the last of its species.

  • Humans are the root cause of hundreds of endangered species of plants, trees, and animals going extinct.
  • A species is not extinct until either the last one dies, or it loses the ability to reproduce.
  • The AI is trained to recognize the plant under different circumstances.

A research project from the University of Southampton is looking to matchmake the oldest and loneliest protected plant on Earth using AI.

In the grand scheme of the universe, life on planet Earth is quite fragile. Everything has to die eventually. But what happens when the last of something dies? It’s devastatingly simple, the whole species goes extinct. Lost to the sands of time. Dinosaurs are extinct. We only know of them because people who like playing with dirt dug in the right place and birthed archeology.

Currently, at least 15,000 species are threatened with extinction, according to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Humans alone have caused hundreds of extinctions over the past few centuries. The Dodo bird, for example, is long gone because pigs and cats that we introduced preyed on them. Species that are dying out are endangered, like pandas, and governments have gone out of their way to offer animal and plant protection. Even states like Florida, California, and Oregon have endangered and protected species.

Save the Protected Plants

In certain cases, the last member of a species does not need to die for the species to be functionally dead. All it takes is for the last living ones to lose their reproductive abilities. And that’s exactly what happened with the endangered and protected plant, Encephalartos woodii (E. woodii). Every tree counts, as plants protect the fauna underneath it.

That species predates dinosaurs and can only be found in the dense forests of South Africa. They’ve only ever found this one male plant in the Ngoye Forest in 1895. And they did the only thing they thought of doing—they cloned it. But if they don’t find a female counterpart, all their efforts to bring it back from the brink of extinction will go to waste.

If It Existed, Wouldn’t They Have Found It by Now?

The Ngoye forest in South Africa covers an area of almost 4,000 hectares (around 9,884 acres). Looking for one tree in a forest on foot would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Or worse, considering at some point all the green will start looking the same.

That is why Dr Laura Cinti, a research fellow at the University of Southampton, and her team are using drones and AI to search for a female E. woodii. “I’m hopeful there is a female out there somewhere, after all, there must have been at one time. It would be amazing to bring this plant so close to extinction back through natural reproduction,” she said.

The drone takes images of the forest from various angles and distances. The imaging is then analyzed by the AI software. It uses something akin to facial recognition software to identify the plant but instead of eyes, it looks at leaves and other identifying markers of plants. So far, they’ve only managed to cover a little less than 2% of the forest, looking for the protected plant. That’s an achievement in and of itself.

Dr. Ciniti explained how they trained the system, “We generated images of plants and put them in different ecological settings, to train the model to recognize them.”

A Happy Ending to a Sad Story?

This is another example of how we can ethically and responsibly use AI. Like Mastercard, the researchers amplified their capabilities using AI. Instead of giving up or taking decades, they are using AI’s biggest flex, quick data processing.

This time, however, we are trying to remedy at least some of the damage that we inflicted on Mother Nature. Through our senseless and unplanned development and expansion, we managed to either completely push or bring so many species to the verge of permanent death.

In an effort to save endangered species, we’ve declared animals and plants protected. But that did little to deter poachers. Perhaps, if this project proves successful, they can try to save other endangered and protected species of plants, trees, and flowers.

There’s nothing we can do for the poor dodo, but there’s still hope for the E. woodie.

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