E&E PhD Exit Seminar: Integrating LiDAR and satellite imagery into animal ecology research: Insights from a long-term study of superb fairy-wrens Malurus cyaneus in southeastern Australia

A fundamental challenge in animal ecology research lies in the ability to understand the factors that shape the evolution and plasticity of behaviours, life histories, and population dynamics of organisms. The effective management and conservation of imperilled species increasingly depends on this information. However, one issue that hampers progress in this field is the insufficient collection of suitable environmental data at appropriate spatial and temporal scales by researchers. This limitation is, in part, attributable to the high cost and labour-intensive nature of traditional, field-based methods.

A potential solution to this problem has emerged with the increasing accessibility of remotely sensed data for characterising the biophysical properties of the environment. Among the most common remote sensing methods used in animal ecology research thus far are light detection and ranging (LiDAR) and satellite-based multispectral imagery. However, as yet, the coverage of these studies is geographically and taxonomically limited, and their focus has been driven towards species abundance, richness, and distribution modelling.

Here, I combine LiDAR and satellite imagery with three decades of individual-level monitoring of a wild population of superb fairy-wrens Malurus cyaneus in southeastern Australia, to investigate the effects of spatiotemporal variation in environmental characteristics on the life histories of individual fairy-wrens. First, I present an analysis using airborne LiDAR to explore how variation in vegetation structure affects nest-site selection and breeding performance in relation to predation risk of fairy-wren offspring, both as eggs and nestlings in the nest and once they have fledged. Second, I present an analysis using Landsat satellite imagery to investigate associations between variation in vegetation productivity, as a proxy for food abundance, and the mortality and breeding success of adult fairy-wrens. Throughout, I highlight the potential (and limitations) of using remote sensing applications to further our understanding of wild animal populations.

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