Radar aeroecology: monitoring birds, bats and bugs with radar

The planet is suffering from an ongoing biodiversity decline. Contemporary methods for the monitoring of biodiversity tend to be taxon-specific, often cannot be scaled with existing resources, and are not applied in a consistent manner across studies. The use of radars (both custom insect and bird radars, as well as weather surveillance radars) has been raised as an exciting and emerging technology that could remedy some of these issues by providing a consistent yardstick for important aspects of biodiversity monitoring around the world.

Weather radar tower in sunset stock photo

Radars have been used to map migratory bird movements (Nilsson et al., 2018), quantify insect migration (Hu et al., 2016), and inform wind farm mitigation (Aschwanden et al., 2018). The BioDAR project at the University of Leeds (https://biodarproject.org/) was founded in 2017 to take advantage of these advances within the UK setting to apply cutting-edge radar science to the study of spatial and temporal biodiversity trends. We have demonstrated that weather radar measurements of nocturnal insects correlate with standardised monitoring of moth abundance using light traps (Lukach et al. 2022). We have also generated one of the most details studies of the radar cross-section of an insect (Addison et al. 2022) to understand more about how particular insects might appear in the radar data.

Having unlocked this treasure trove of biological information and generated algorithms to generate biodiversity metrics from radar data rapidly, and having purchased an advanced insect monitoring radar, we are recruiting a PhD student to address key ecological questions using radar aeroecology. The specific questions could be tailored to a student’s particular interests to form a coherent body of work, but might include:

Three photos showing a flock of birds, a swarm of insects, and a winged ant

  1. Bird migration patterns – while radar has been used for many years to monitor bird migration, the UK has been neglected due to data compatibility issues. This means that there is an exciting opportunity to work with external partners (RSPB, BTO, Natural England) to investigate bird movement in relation to particular landscape features (e.g. light pollution in cities, onshore windfarms).
  2. Quantifying insect biomass – we have developed algorithms that describe insect biomass across the UK, producing a novel dataset that can be used to ask a wide range of questions: are agri-environment schemes effective? How do extreme events influence insect biomass? What are the consequences of the reintroduction of neonicotinoid pesticides for insect populations?
  3. Cues for insect behaviour – we have several years of citizen science data relating to flying ant day (synchronised mating swarms) that could be used to test the cues for emergence from nests. Those cues could be used to forecast ant populations and phenology into the future under climate change. Other projects could look at lake and river fly emergences and biomass, or the movement of migrating species (aphids, moths, butterflies) from the European continent into the UK.

The project would suit an ecologist or environmental biologist with strong computational skills (e.g. competence in R and/or Python), an atmospheric scientist with expertise in radar/data analysis, or a computer scientist or data scientist who is interested in environmental applications of their skills. There would be the option of extensive internal and external training courses to complement the skills of whichever candidate was successful, depending on previous experience. This is an exciting and emerging field and we welcome discussion with potential applicants who want to learn more before applying.

Addison, FI, Dally TM, Duncan EJ, Rouse J, Evans WL, Hassall C, and Neely III RR. 2022. “Simulation of the Radar Cross Section of a Noctuid Moth” Remote Sensing 14, no. 6: 1494. https://doi.org/10.3390/rs14061494

Aschwanden J, Stark H, Peter D, Steuri P, Schmid B, Liechti F. (2018) Bird collisions at wind turbines in a mountainous area related to bird movement intensities measured by radar, Biological Conservation, 220, 228-236. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2018.01.005.

Hu G, Lim KS, Horvitz N, Clark SJ, Reynolds DR, Sapir N, Chapman JW. Mass seasonal bioflows of high-flying insect migrants. Science. 2016 Dec 23;354(6319):1584-1587. https://10.1126/science.aah4379

Lukach M, Dally TM, Evans W, Hassall C, Duncan EJ, Bennett L, Addison FI, Kunin WE, Chapman JW, Neely III RR (2022), The development of an unsupervised hierarchical clustering analysis of dual-polarization weather surveillance radar observations to assess nocturnal insect abundance and diversity. Remote Sens Ecol Conserv. https://doi.org/10.1002/rse2.270

Nilsson, C, Dokter, AM, Schmid, B, et al. Field validation of radar systems for monitoring bird migration. J Appl Ecol. 2018; 55: 2552– 2564. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2664.13174