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Natural Resources

Digital cameras track changes

Written by Saige

Rangeland ecologists at the USDA are now utilizing high-resolution digital cameras and taking panorama pictures to track changes in landscapes.

According to hydraulic engineer at Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Southwest Watershed Research Center in Tucson, Ariz. Mary Nichols, there are approximately 770 million acres of rangeland in the U.S.

The high-resolution digital photographs should be able to accurately help ecologists assess the condition of rangeland and riparian areas.

Nichols has used the technology since October of 2008 when she took photos of an Arizona rangeland to evaluate whether digital panoramas could be used to monitor riparian areas, plants or wildlife.

“The resulting panoramas were so detailed that she could count the number of elk in a distant herd, and even evaluate the condition of each animal,” says ScienceDaily.

Nichols was also capable of documenting the numbers of invasive buffelgrass stands through the photos and will be able to track the extent to which the species is spreading through nearby mountain ranges.

The ability to not only identify animals, but plants as well, will allow researchers to monitor rangelands in the lab, rather than in the field, as well as keep more detailed records of monitoring.

An additional benefit of the photographs will be the ability to collaborate by posting the panoramas online.

In her paper Very-High-Resolution Panoramic Photography to Improve Conventional Rangeland Monitoring, Nichols says, “Advances in image sensors, storage media and image- processing software allow enormous amounts of information to be collected efficiently and inexpensively, so multiple pictures taken at full zoom can be combined into a single high-resolution panoramic image.”

Previous use of photography only allowed researchers to take single images that were low resolution to capture entire landscapes. However, with the advent of easy-to-use computer programs, single, zoomed images can be “stitched” together digitally and automatically to reveal a highly detailed photo of an entire landscape.

In collecting these photographs, Nichols says, “The system consists of three technological developments: a robotic camera mount for automating camera positions and shutter release with a standard digital camera, custom software for constructing very-high-resolution gigapixel panoramas and alignment and image extent parameters are stored in the robot’s memory.”

The value of this technology for rangeland ecologists is monumental.

“Riparian areas are often difficult to monitor because they are often extensive and can exhibit a high degree of variability longitudinally through the channel corridor,” writes Nichols. “Transect measurements channel cross-section measurements, and inventories of bed and bank condition are often insufficient to characterize an entire riparian reach.”

Nichols continues that the photographs show enough detail to make observations for rangeland monitoring.

Finally, Nichols classifies the use of digital panoramas as a “significant opportunity to improve current photographic techniques.”

Nichols writes, “Integration with well-established monitoring programs will improve our ability to manage watersheds and riparian area, restoration efforts and livestock grazing.”

Nichols’s paper can be read at ars.usda.gov/pandp/people/people.htm?personid=4101. Saige Albert is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..