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Courtesy of Michael P. Hamilton

November 4, 2019

Cornell Alum ’83 Has Developed Eco-technologies That Transformed Conservation Research

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On Oct. 29, in a guest lecture hosted by the Natural Resources Department, Michael P. Hamilton Ph.D.’83, reflected on his career as the former field station director of James San Jacinto Mountains Reserve and Blue Oak Ranch Reserve, in California, during which he combined his knowledge of computer science and ecology to develop technologies that can track animal populations, manage wildfires, and help conserve nature areas.

Hamilton attributes his knowledge of field stations that contributed to his success at the reserves to BIOEE 6602: Graduate Field Course in Ecology at Cornell. The course takes place during spring break at the Archbold Biological Station in South Central Florida.

“The Archbold is a 10,000 acre protected natural area, and you have the opportunity to learn the biota and design an ecological project and carry it out in seven days with final results and presentation. It was a great effort to learn how to think quickly and come up with great questions,” Hamilton said.

In the beginning of his career at the reserves, Hamilton built a laserdisc, which he called a “data management system before the internet.” The device, which employed interactive touch screen technology, stores and plays video, audio, and data. The laserdisc had over 50,000 images of natural areas that he and his college professors had been researching.

His project inspired professors in the University of California system to bring their biology and computer science students together to brainstorm ways to create digital models of life forms, which was called “artificial life.”

“These artificial life workshops happened a couple of times a year and we ultimately created a robot challenge. [Students competed and built] small field robots that could go around and collect data around the buildings. This started a trend in the James Reserve in attracting technology savvy students and faculty,” Hamilton said.

During his time at the reserve, Hamilton also utilized one of the earliest versions of geographic information systems. Today, GIS is still used at the various reserves in California to characterize the fire-related aspects of the mountain range. After applying simulation models to the data, simulations of wildfires that burn up the mountain under different weather conditions can be created for researchers to learn more about the phenomenon.

In 1989, Hamilton also implemented the use of webcams placed in nest boxes to survey wildlife at the James San Jacinto Mountains Reserve.

“We learned about predation of blue birds in the nest boxes by gopher snakes, these were nests up on trees and gopher snakes would climb into the nests and eat the eggs,” Hamilton said.

This technology also helped researchers detect birds’ presence, whether they were in the box and the process of egg-hatching. The technology screened from millions of raw images to highlight a few thousand that were important for researchers to look at.

“We were able to detect cold environmental events that caused nest abandonment, we were able to determine that when Violet-green swallows couldn’t find food they just stop feeding their young and abandon them,” Hamilton said.

Cameras were also used as spectrograms where researchers can look at spectrum that correlate to physiological states of species. Researchers utilize, “hyper-spectral monitoring to estimate net carbon dioxide updates,” Hamilton said.

According to Hamilton, other eco-devices were tested at the reserve including Treebots. Treebots automatically record phenological data, which is plant growth over time. By measuring surface area and calculating biomass per unit area, these devices can determine how much light can reach leaves in complex canopies.

To measure moisture that plants can utilize such as fog, Hamilton and researchers built leaf wetness sensors. According to Hamilton these sensors can detect condensation on artificial leaf surfaces.

“We built dew collectors that can collect enough fog to turn it into measurable moisture, and used a camera system to document the beginning and end of fog events as they rolled in and out.” Hamilton said.

The reserve also utilized drones to see how plants respond to microclimate variability in certain locations. According to Hamilton, “drones are very useful for creating high resolution, usable vegetation maps on a regular basis.

“Looking at these microsites have led us to some really interesting insights on refugia and landscapes, what the resilience of certain species and lack of others are. We can model how plants are going to adapt or not adapt to future climate models and climate conditions which would drastically change the biodiversity of these protected areas,” Hamilton said.