Right in front of your nose! ‘Nostril recognition’ as the latest koala counting technique.

After the Black Summer bushfires of 2019, there are ongoing concerns regarding the welfare and decline of koala populations across Australia. Currently, the most common way of monitoring koala movement, habitat and health is using drones, however it is becoming clear that these drones may be more of a harm than a help. Whilst it does not appear that koalas are bothered by drones, any disturbance to the daily 22 hours of sleep required for the koala lifestyle can be harmful. 

How are drones utilised at the moment?

Drones are widely used across the country for animal observation, and is the current leading technique used in koalas. Using infrared cameras, drone footage is relied on for monitoring koala populations. However, this technique does not allow for individual koalas to be accurately counted – ‘double counting’ of koalas cannot be accounted for if there is movement during the counting process. More traditional methods, such as tagging or marking individual koalas are considered invasive and can cause distress for the animal.

So, how are our techniques developing from here?

Dr Colombelli-Négrel and her team from Flinders University, working with the South Australian government and Koala Life (an environmental charity) have been working on techniques which are less invasive and more accurate. These techniques generally will still involve drones, however increased accuracy and further research into both koala behaviour and ways to make drones less disruptive is being completed alongside the development of this new and exciting animal facial recognition technology. 

A little “on the nose”

Whilst most animal recognition systems require a species to have some kind of ‘special marking’, species such as koalas have no such thing. However, every koala has a unique pattern on their nostrils which stays the same throughout their lives. Unlike other facial recognition systems, this algorithm also does not require the same level of training as those for distinctive markings. 

Unfortunately, we can’t just ask animals for a name and phone number to identify them by. Whilst facial recognition software seems scary (like we’ve seen in so many spy films), it can be an incredibly useful tool for wildlife researchers – being able to individually identify animals allows for increased accuracy and reliability for any research or observation. 

The aim of Dr Colombelli-Négrel and her team is to create a system which not only works for koalas, but can be implemented across many species. They also hope that this technology, when combined with infrared footage, will be an effective way for accurate, non-invasive species monitoring and identification. As described by Dr Colombelli-Négrel, “we need to ensure that we are aware of the new numbers and how they are recovering post fires, so we can then work towards reducing impacts that affect their survival.”