Jaguar Research: Using Mathematics to Save the Big Cat

The fact that the Jaguar is not an animal found in his native country hasn’t stopped a dedicated Australian academic from making a very valuable contribution to the world of Jaguar research.

Deep in the Peruvian Amazonian jungle, Professor Kevin Burrage and his team are working on a project to track the big cat, gathering data using innovative virtual reality technology and analysing it with mathmatical principles. Their experience has evolved into, in the professor’s words, “the most exciting trip, scientific or otherwise, that I have ever been on”.

A Scientist’s Journey of Discovery

Where Professor Burrage has ended up couldn’t be more different from his past professional life. A dedicated academic, he spent many years at QUT (Queensland Institute of Technology, in Australia), and Oxford University in the UK researching the intricacies of the human heart, creating a revolutionary new understanding using mathematics.

From Academia to the Jungle

In an unusual move, the acclaimed scientist and mathematician transitioned to Jaguar research in the Amazon with an invitation to work on a project initiated by partners QUT, the Lupunaluz Foundation (a wildlife conservation group) and renowned big cat organisation, Panthera. The project’s aim is to create a definitive map of the population of the big cat in Peru, using local knowledge, virtual reality technology and mathematical modelling. Professor Burrage proved to be the ideal fit.

Mathematics and Wildlife

In short, the goals of the program are to capture imagery of the big cat habitat in three-dimensional recordings; interview and gather data from local communities; and use mathematical modelling to create and set reference points and benchmarks for conservation.

The incredible virtual reality digital footage of the Amazon landscape, showing the swamps, rivers and dense jungles traversed by Burrage and his team, will be distributed to Jaguar research experts from around the globe. It will give them unprecedented access to the big cat’s habitat: in effect, taking the jungle to them, rather than vice-versa. The research from these international experts can then be collated in order to improve conservation models.

Spatial ecologists from QUT have also highlighted the importance of making use of the vast “reservoir of indigenous knowledge” of the local communities who interact with the big cats in their everyday lives.

Mapping the Big Cat in South and Central America

As well as mapping on a local level in Peru, the information collected by Professor Burrage and his team is to be used by international Jaguar research programmes in order to identify a corridor from Argentina up through Central America to Mexico, to map the species’ current distribution.

While Professor Burrage is the man on the ground, QUT’s power behind the project comes from another Professor, Kerrie Mengersen. Deputy Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Mathematical and Statistical Frontiers, Professor Mengersen’s aims are twofold. As well as providing tangible evidence of how modern technology can benefit Jaguar research (and therefore the conservation of the species), the project is revealing how science, statistics and mathematics can be applied in “real life” situations.

While this particular Jaguar research initiative comes from a somewhat unexpected angle, its success will ensure that these kind of tracking and mapping methods become mainstream tools in the fight for wildlife conservation.

Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in Jaguar research. As a passionate lover of big cats Marissa chooses the expert-led itineraries organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of wildlife in some of the most spectacular regions on Earth.
 

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Author: Desiree Michels