When it comes to monitoring endangered species, the less invasive the method the better. Conservationists have used camera traps and drones to gain insight into wildlife populations, but flashes and buzzes can change animal behavior. Now scientists may have just developed a less obtrusive monitoring device: a 3D-printed egg equipped with sensors.
The International Centre for Birds of Prey (ICBP) came up with the idea while working on a vulture captive breeding program. Vulture populations, especially in Africa, face extinction due to poison used on livestock to eliminate predators like lions. When vultures feed on lion carcasses, they die of the poison as well. Indian vulture populations have also plummeted.
Captive breeding programs sometimes help endangered populations, but it’s tricky for scientists to mimic the precise conditions of the wild. So ICBP turned to hardware tech company Microduino to devise a solution.
Microduino created a 3D-printed egg, designed to be indistinguishable from the vulture’s other eggs, that contains three of their one-square-inch microprocessors. The microprocessors are connected to temperature and humidity sensors lining the egg to let researchers know from a distance how the things functioning, so they don’t have to disturb the vultures. If the nest can be monitored without a disruptive human presence during the hatching cycle – 70 days – the captive breeding program has a better chance of success.
The undercover eggs are now ready for field testing at ICBP, and the organization would like to share the technology with Indian and African conservation groups so they can adapt the sensors to the unique temperatures and humidity levels required for their birds.
Vultures are just the beginning. If successful, these 3D-printed eggs could be tailored to a variety of endangered species. ICBP conservationist Adam Bloch said, “It could also be used for eagles, it could be used for kites, it could be used for anything that has an egg.”