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NASA Laser Casts Its Light Searching for 'Extinct' Woodpecker
08.02.06
 
Lasers are used everywhere these days, from performing surgery to protecting banks from thieves. Now a NASA laser onboard an airplane is helping researchers find the possible habitat of the ivory-billed woodpecker, which was thought to be extinct until recently.

An artist's image of what an ivory billed woodpecker looks like. Image to right: An artist's image of what an ivory-billed woodpecker looks like. Credit: George M. Sutton/Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Last month scientists from NASA and the University of Maryland, College Park, Md., launched a project to identify areas where the woodpecker might be living. Finding these habitat areas will help determine if the bird is really extinct or has survived and just kept hidden from view.

The question of whether the species still exists started when a kayaker reported spotting the woodpecker along Arkansas' Cache River in 2004. That sighting started an intensive search by wildlife conservationists, bird watchers, biologists and others.

In June, a research aircraft carrying the NASA laser flew over delta regions of the lower Mississippi River to survey possible areas of habitat suitable for the ivory-billed woodpecker, one of the largest and most regal members of the woodpecker family. The project is supported by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey.

An image produced from the airborne LVIS instrument shows a three Image to left: An image produced from the airborne LVIS instrument shows a three-dimensional view of tree tops and vegetation in the tropical forest of La Selva, Costa Rica. The color indicates the amount of laser energy reflected from trees and leaves back to a sensor onboard the aircraft. Credit: John Weishampel, University of Central Florida.

Scientists from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., and the University of Maryland used NASA’s Laser Vegetation Imaging Sensor (LVIS). The instrument uses lasers that send pulses of energy down toward the ground. Light from the lasers bounce off leaves, branches and the ground and reflect back to the instrument. By analyzing these returned signals, scientists can measure the height of the forest's leaf covered tree tops, the ground level below and everything in between.

"LVIS is aiding this search effort far beyond what aircraft photos or satellite images can provide," said Woody Turner, Program Scientist at NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C. He said that the laser helps scientists see the trees and forests in three dimensions (3-D), which helps identify where the woodpecker could live. The flights are the latest step in an effort to find absolute evidence that a bird once thought extinct continues to survive.

The red border shows the forested area in the White River Wildlife Reserve of Arkansas where researchers flew in June and July, 2006 to identify a possible habitat for the ivory billed woodpecker. Image to right: The red border shows the forested area in the White River Wildlife Reserve of Arkansas where researchers flew in June and July, 2006 to identify a possible habitat for the ivory-billed woodpecker. Click image to enlarge. Credit: NASA

"We're trying to understand the environment where these birds live or used to live, using features like thickness of the ground vegetation and tree-leaf density, in combination with other factors such as closeness to water and age of the forest, to determine where we might find them," said Turner.

The reported sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker inspired a year-long search by more than 50 experts working together as part of the Big Woods Conservation Partnership, led by the Cornell University’s Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and the Nature Conservancy.

The NASA-University of Maryland project is designed to provide detailed habitat information that search teams will use beginning this fall for expanded efforts to find new evidence about the possible survival of the bird.

The research team previously used NASA's LVIS to study wildlife habitats in old-growth forests in the western United States and in rainforests in other countries.

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Gretchen Cook-Anderson
Goddard Space Flight Center