Newswise — A team of Harrisburg University professors and students have embarked on a unique research journey that involves the use of drones and imaging technology to help save an endangered iguana species found more than 1,500 miles away from Pennsylvania.

The Blue Iguana, who calls the Cayman Islands home, is a rock iguana that has suffered a drastic population decline due to invasive species of common green iguanas, domestic feral cats, and two types of rats introduced to the popular Caribbean resort destination. The threats posed by these invasive species have led to the Blue Iguana being named the most endangered lizard species in the world.

To help buck the trend, officials with the Cayman Islands Department of Environment’s Terrestrial Resources Unit and the National Trust Blue Iguana Recovery Program approached HU for help. They connected with  Biology and Ecology Professor Dr. Christine Proctor and Geospatial Technology Professor Albert Sarvis after the two attended a STEM conference in the Cayman Islands and showcased their work to help detect a threatened rattlesnake species found in Pennsylvania and several neighboring states.

A partnership was formed and the first project involved the use of drones to locate green iguanas through the use of thermal imaging cameras as part of an eradication effort.

Following the location work, the Department of Environment was able to successfully reduce the green iguana population. And, after the HU team was awarded a Harrisburg University Presidential Research Grant to help the effort, they now are using remote camera traps to track the current population sizes of released Blue Iguanas as well as the populations of the two remaining threats, feral domestic cats and rats. This time, drones are being used to map the habitat area and remote cameras use motion and thermal heat to capture images of the blue iguanas.

An initial trip was made to the Cayman Islands to set up camera traps to capture images of blue iguanas.  And another trip followed last month to shift the camera locations and carry out drone mapping flights of the study area. A Geospatial Technology student helped develop a methodology and associated manual for processing the imagery.

Two students joined Sarvis and Proctor on last month’s trip to the Cayman Islands to set up remote camera grids and collect high-resolution habitat imagery using two different drones. Harrisburg University students also will be involved in post-collection data processing. Camera image analysis, population modeling, and habitat mapping will take place in March through June 2020.

Both camera trap population analysis and drone habitat mapping fit squarely in the Environmental Science and Geospatial Technology program goals, Sarvis and Proctor said.

“This project has provided Harrisburg University students many opportunities such as research experience, travel abroad opportunities, and industry skill building,” Proctor said. “Using technology, statistical modeling, and on-the-ground fieldwork, students are developing skills that will serve them well in their future careers.”

The research has also led to other opportunities for HU, Sarvis added.

“This research has been gaining international recognition resulting in invitations for HU faculty to present and provide workshops at several conferences,” Sarvis said. “This work has also resulted in the award of one external grant and will serve as a pilot study for additional grant applications. And as one of the most endangered lizards in the world, this work will help us monitor the success of the Blue Iguana reintroduction effort.”