Laser scanning wildlife tracks in Bolivia

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In September I spent two weeks in Bolivia, and had an opportunity to photograph jaguars and other large cats, many species of birds like Hyacinth macaws and the Great Potoo, and many other animals.

Photograph of a Hyacinth macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus) drinking from the pond on the farm where we were staying.

This year has been the driest on record, with wild fires limiting access to the Pantanal in Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay.

Global Wildfire Information System showing the state of the wildfires in the area observed from satellite in 2022. Check out their near real-time wildfire information here.

Some giant national parks such as the Kaa Iya del Gran Chaco National Park were depleted of water, and wildlife was more difficult to find than usual.

September 2022 monthly basemap from Planet Explorer showing the dry vegetation throughout the national park.

With wildlife congregating around the small sources of available water it was a great opportunity to test the newer model iPhone’s LiDAR feature to see if the tracks of various species, found both in dry sand, or mud and clay alongside the river banks could be recreated as virtual models.

iPhone with the Scaniverse app scanning a track on the ground.

Wildlife can be elusive. Often the only indicator that a large animal has been in the area is the presence of tracks in the sand or mud. Traditionally prints are taken with a resin cast, a long and inaccurate process. To produce the models using the Scaniverse app on the iPhone, there are few considerations: one is to scan some part of the surrounding matrix, to produce a final model that is more or less rectangular. The second is to set the laser’s target range to a relatively short distance. Most tracks can be easily scanned from around 50 cm distance over the subject, requiring roughly 1 minute acquisition time with the phone, and approximately 3 minutes of on-board processing. The results are quite impressive, and have a great potential to be used as a research tool to track animals, especially where trail cameras can not be installed easily.

With the cost of this technology slowly dropping, more phones will have such sensors built in, making this type of scan more accessible in the field. Unlike cast models these prints can be immediately shared, and even 3D printed to give students or researchers a hands-on experience with the models, even if they are in different locations. They can also be viewed in virtual reality through platforms such as Sketchfab.

In our recent YouTube video we show the animals and tracks scanned with the iPhone - check it out!

I scanned tracks of jaguars, capybara, marsh deer, rhea, tapir and caiman. Here are the links to the 3D models ready to view interactively, in VR or printed:

Marsh deer
Applied Remote Sensing Lab

Department of Geography
McGill University
805 Sherbrooke West
Burnside Hall 705
Montreal, QC H3A 0B9


Coming soon!


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