BioSCape, a Joint Project between NASA and SANSA to Explore South Africa’s Greater Cape Floristic Region 

In a press release by the University of Connecticut (UConn), BoiSCape, a joint collaborative biodiversity research project by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – South African National Space Agency (NASA-SANSA), will utilise the airborne imaging technology and field observations to survey South Africa’s Greater Cape Floristic Region (GCFR). The GCFR is home to two global biodiversity hotspots rich with flora and marine species found nowhere else on Earth. 

Furthermore, a team of ecologists from the University of Connecticut’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) is also playing a role in the NASA-funded international project aimed at helping scientists understand and mitigate the rapid loss of biodiversity due to climate change, development, and other threats associated with human activity. Other experts involved in the project include Adam Wilson ‘12 PhD, an Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Buffalo, is one of two U.S. leads on the project with Jasper Slingsby, a researcher at the University of Cape Town in South Africa and Research Professor Cory Merow and Henry Frye ’23 PhD, a post-doctoral researcher on the project.  

According to Cynthia Jones, Professor Emerita of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UConn and co-PI with EEB Professor Emeritus John Silander, on the NASA grant funding Frye’s work, “This is the first international effort of this scope for our group. South Africa has one of the most advanced conservation efforts in the world. With nine plant biomes, three of which are at the tip of South Africa, it is one of the most ecologically diverse places on the planet.”

The project will take off in September and will see Professor Cory Merow, Henry Frye and other researchers take on the airborne component of the project. This component involves utilising four airborne sensors to collect full-spectrum imaging spectroscopy and laser image detection and ranging (LIDAR) data from planes flown over land and water.  

Explaining further on the airborne sensors, Professor Cory Merow stated that they are fancy cameras that take pictures from the plane as it flies over a predetermined area in which; some are designed to detect vertical structures, while others produce high-resolution images that record all colours that are useful for examining plant traits. Furthermore,  a separate team of researchers will observe the same ground-level vegetation at 200 locations. 

“If you have an association between what’s on the ground that the aeroplane measures, you can predict everything measured from the aeroplane”. “It is the first step in automating biodiversity monitoring. We can already gauge how plants recover from fires; determining what species are there and their traits is the next step. This will add another layer to our common understanding of monitoring. This is a baseline for starting to track changes.” Professor Cory Merow commented

On the other hand, Frye specialises in interpreting data produced by the high-resolution, colour-recording imaging technique known as hyperspectral imaging. Thus, instead of designating only primary colours to each pixel, these images record and analyse a broad spectrum of light that, when broken down into many different bands, provides more data on the object being imaged.  

“It is critical to understand what is going on with the planet and make realistic decisions,” Frye cemented.

The BioSCape fieldwork is scheduled for six weeks, during which specially equipped planes will operate from a South African station, following predetermined flight paths and collecting data using advanced sensors. Extensive preparations spanning six months have preceded the field campaign, involving collaborative meetings attended by a substantial group of 60-70 researchers. The discussions during these meetings focused on flight routes for the aeroplanes and the calibration of the sensors. The project has forged partnerships between researchers from over 30 academic institutions and scientific organisations.

Furthermore, BioSCape, funded by the SANSA, NASA, the Biological Diversity and Ecological Conservation, the Department of Science and Innovation, the National Research Foundation and the South African Environmental Observation Network, represents NASA’s first-ever biodiversity field programme. In addition, the programme integrates airborne spectroscopy, LIDAR technology, and on-site observations within the Greater Cape Floristic Region (GCFR).  Moreso, NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, the Earth Science Division (ESD) leads the project,  with a primary focus on advancing our understanding of the interconnected systems on Earth through diverse data collection methods, including satellite observations, the International Space Station, aircraft, balloons, ships, and terrestrial observations.

“When we see the name NASA, we associate it with sending people to the moon,” says Frye. “But there is so much science NASA does looking at our planet and looking from above. This is where we get a lot of bang for our buck. So much knowledge can be built from this project.”