Koalas wearing Fitbits in the Adelaide Hills as researchers develop facial recognition software – ABC

By October 3, 2021 February 15th, 2022 Archive

ABC Radio Adelaide         By Malcolm Sutton        Posted 3 Oct 21

The trial has so far only involved koalas in captivity at Cleland Wildlife Park.

(Supplied: Diane Colombelli-Négrel)


The tendency for some humans to measure their steps, heart rate, and running distance through wrist-worn sensory gadgets — before posting such data on social media — is well known.

Key points:

  • Researchers are seeking non-invasive techniques to monitor koala populations
  • Heart rate monitoring through wrist devices is underway to measure the response of koalas to drones
  • Facial recognition technology is also being developed that draws from the unique characteristics of koala nostrils

But who knew a group of about 40 koalas at Cleland Wildlife Park in the Adelaide Hills were also wearing such tech-savvy devices — black ones, because it was the only colour they would tolerate?

Flinders University lecturer in animal behaviour Diane Colombelli-Négrel said Fitbits were supplying her team of researchers with data as a non-invasive way to measure the marsupials’ psychological response to human monitoring.

“We had to remove the wristband and use veterinary gauze bands instead,” Dr Colombelli-Négrel said.

She said the Cleland vet, Ian Hough, trialled red and other colours but the koalas would chew them.

“The koalas seemed to be playing a bit more with the bands, but by using black, which is more neutral, they didn’t seem to care,” Dr Colombelli-Négrel said.

Dr Diane Colombelli-Negrel says heart rate monitoring is also used for birds.

(Supplied: Diane Colombelli-Négrel)

Monitoring heart rates

Dr Colombelli-Négrel’s team, partnering with environmental charity Koala Life and the SA government, has been developing non-invasive koala monitoring techniques so that koalas can be identified, and re-identified, more accurately and without distressing them.

In Queensland, for example, drones with infrared cameras are used to count the marsupials in trees but there are concerns about what impact the flying devices have on their wellbeing.

The team flew drones overhead while measuring the koalas’ heart rates.

(Supplied: Diane Colombelli-Négrel)

Dr Colombelli-Négrel said it was not always readily apparent if an animal was stressed because, while they might appear unperturbed, their heart rate could be “going through the roof”.

“We wanted to have a physiological measure above behavioural responses and heart rate is the standard we use in birds,” she said.

The team considered attaching a heart rate harness but that “defeated the purpose” because it was too invasive.

“We thought maybe we could try a Fitbit,” Dr Colombelli-Négrel said.

“It works on a child so could it work on koalas?

“We put it on their wrist and it picked up the koalas’ heartbeats straight away. We didn’t even have to shave them.”

Drones drawing attention

The team observed the reaction of koalas at Cleland Wildlife Park in the Adelaide Hills as a drone flew overhead by recording Fitbit data.

In a different experiment, they also recorded the koalas’ response to the sound of a drone by replicating one through a small speaker.

Dr Colombelli-Négrel said it resulted in hours and hours of recorded data for her team to study before any analysis was finalised but, so far, the koalas in captivity did not seem too perturbed by the drones.

In fact, the heart rate for two koalas actually slowed when a drone was hovering above them but this did not necessarily mean they were being calmed, Dr Colombelli-Négrel said, but rather the drone had grabbed their attention.

Elastic vet bands are used instead of the Fitbit’s regular wrist band.

(Supplied: Diane Colombelli-Négrel)

“It’s a bit like us humans, when we’re paying attention to something we’re a bit more static and our heart rate slows,” she said.

But she pointed out that any irregular disturbance for a koala, which can sleep for up to 22 hours a day, could be bad news.

“Yes, they’re calm and they don’t seem to move much, but that’s actually a big detriment to them,” Dr Colombelli-Négrel said.

“If there’s a disturbance and it suddenly interrupts their sleep, and they spend more time in vigilance, then they have to get that energy back at another time, which could have long-term impacts.”

Individual nostrils

Drones are currently being used in Australia to count koalas in trees with infrared cameras but this does not identify individuals and there is a risk that koalas that are moving about could be counted twice.

Alternatively, traditional techniques that have involved capturing and marking individuals is considered invasive and psychologically distressing for the animal.

The facial recognition technology draws from the unique characteristics of a koala’s nose.

(Supplied: Diane Colombelli-Négrel)

To counter this, Dr Colombelli-Négrel’s team is also developing facial recognition technology to identify individual koalas.

She said techniques developed in the past required species with markings and thousands of images to train the facial recognition system, and koalas had no such markings.

“But each koala has a pattern on their nostril and that stays throughout their life and so what we’re using at the moment is a technique that compares images,” she said.

Dr Colombelli-Négrel said their technique, which used an algorithm, did not need to be trained.

“We’ve tested it on geese, and it’s actually worked quite well and they don’t have unique markings,” she said.

“We’re trying to create something that can be used across species, whether they’ve got markings or not.”

She hoped that facial recognition footage could one day be combined with infrared footage to assist effective non-invasive monitoring.

“Koalas are declining in parts of Australia and while in SA numbers are pretty good the recent fires have reduced the numbers dramatically,” Dr Colombelli-Négrel said.

“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.”