Why Military-Style Drones Are Searching for Prime Idaho Sagebrush

Jun 17, 2013

Pygmy Rabbit
Credit Carrie Quinney / Boise State University

The Associated Press reports that scientists in Idaho will fly military-style drone aircraft over the sagebrush, "not in a bid to find terrorists but to locate the best habitat for one of West's smallest mammals, the pygmy rabbit."

According to the AP, the flights will be overseen by University of Idaho, Boise State University and University of Florida scientists. The flights are meant to help determine whether aerial shots from small, unmanned planes can effectively locate the best areas to reintroduce captive-bred pygmy rabbits into the wild.

"So far, a pygmy rabbit population in Washington state has been declared endangered under federal law, though groups have sought broader protections elsewhere through lawsuits.

With these flights, scientists from the universities will be taking high-resolution digital shots, in color and infrared, over Bureau of Land Management property in Idaho's Lemhi County from June 27-29." - Associated Press

Boise State Public Radio reported the prologue to this story two years ago. Here's a look back at the beginnings of the drone program and the research being done on pygmy rabbits:

From Boise State Public Radio's archives, July 1, 2011

Sagebrush is underrated in Jennifer Forbey's eyes.  “It’s really an amazing plant.”

Forbey is an assistant professor of Biological Sciences at Boise State University.  She studies how plants and animals interact.  Right now she’s looking at why pygmy rabbits eat one sagebrush plant, while they leave the one next to it alone. 

Turns out some sagebrush plants don't taste great at least to a pygmy rabbit.  It’s the plant’s defense against a hungry herbivore. “You’ll have a plant that looks like a little bonsai tree that the rabbits have just completely foraged and consumed and one right next to it that is this big shrub that they don’t touch," explains Forbey. "What we found is that the ones that they consume have fewer chemicals in them, more nutrients in them and the ones they’re leaving alone have lots of chemical defenses in them…and it looks like, to the human eye, the same plant.

Some sagebrush is delicious, some is icky, at least to a pygmy rabbit.
Credit Samantha Wright / Boise State Public Radio

They look the same, but they taste different.  Pygmy rabbits think about taste, just like people do.  “Think about when you go to the grocery store and the decisions that you make of what you buy," said Forbey.

"You get to pick up the box of cereal and decide what things are in it. Do you want more fiber? Do you want less sugar? And so these herbivores have these similar decision but the problem is most of the plants they consume are loaded with toxins because plants don’t want to be eaten, and so they have to make decisions on which ones are tastier and which ones are toxic.”

Knowing where those tasty plants are and how to help them will help the pygmy rabbit survive.  Plants that don’t taste good have their uses too.  The toxins in those icky plants could be turned into drugs for people.  “Some of our populations of sagebrush had a much higher ability, more activity in order to kill off cancer cells and so not only is it important for rabbits, it’s potentially important to humans, I mean the chemically diversity that’s there could really be useful in developing new therapeutics,” says Forbey.

But figuring out which plants taste good isn't easy.  The smell of the sagebrush leaf is one place to start.  “You could actually grab them, grind them up in your fingers and you’ll be able to smell a difference between them, and so those volatiles that sagebrush release those are the chemicals that deter herbivores from wanting to feed on them.”

But usually Forbey has to pick those leaves, take them back to the lab and study the chemical signature.  That takes time and people.  She’d rather do it in one fell swoop, by tying the chemical signature to a camera.  “It’s called near-infra-red-spectrometry," Forbey explains. "And it’s sort of like a chemical fingerprint and you link those components to that spectrum and now you can use that spectrum to detect different nutrients different chemicals across larger scales with cameras that fly over the top of sagebrush.”

Forbey and her research team took the first step in that direction when they did a test flight with a Raven.  It’s a tiny drone fitted with cameras.  She hopes to partner with the U-S Geological Survey to use the plane to map pygmy rabbit habitat in Idaho. “We will eventually I’d say in a couple of years, be able to fly over and say that’s a tasty plant, that’s not so tasty, that’s a tasty plant, so it will be really exciting to do it on a much larger scale.”

The plane can also fly over rough terrain going where people can’t.  It could be a breakthrough for scientists trying to study, and preserve, pygmy rabbits and their sagebrush. 

Copyright 2013 Boise State Public Radio