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Spartans join XPRIZE Rainforest biodiversity quest

Saving the rainforest, biodiversity, and in the process, the planet, is often framed as a high-stakes race.

Now that race has a timetable, a $10 million prize, and ACTNOW Amazonas, a high-powered women-led multidisciplinary team of Michigan State University experts collaborating with innovators, indigenous rainforest protectors, and a dedicated film crew, who together are semifinalists for the XPRIZE Rainforest.

The XPRIZE Rainforest, sometimes called the Olympics of Science, is a global competition aiming to enhance the world’s understanding of the rainforest ecosystems to protect it. Michigan State University has

MSU team members with XPRIZE camera traps
XPRIZE Rainforest team members, including EEB's Eric Benbow and Phoebe Zarnetske, examine a tripod equipped with motion-detecting cameras and microphones which will be dropped into Singapore's rainforest via drone.

deployed faculty, staff, and graduate and undergraduate students who are biologists, engineers, computer scientists, geographers, information technologists, and anthropologists. They bring sweeping expertise in social justice, biodiversity, climate change, plants, animals, robotics, genomics, landscape ecology, wrangling and analyzing big data. 

The XPRIZE Rainforest will accelerate the innovation of autonomous technologies needed for biodiversity assessment and will enhance understanding of rainforest ecosystems by using rapid data integration to provide new wisdom about the forest as well as inspire new investment and exploration. The XPRIZE Rainforest intends to reveal the true potential of the standing forest, accelerating the development of new, just, and sustainable bioeconomies.

From an original 300 teams, 13 teams of semifinalists are competing in Singapore the first two 3weeks of June, each assigned to a 100-hectacre plot of dense jungle. The task: with only 24 hours to collect data and 48 hours to analyze those data, identify as many species in the plant and animal kingdom as possible. The hitch: no humans can set foot inside the forest plot.

“This is supersized science and a chance to showcase our Spartan innovation and expertise – to quickly gain an understanding of what lives in such an important ecosystem,” said Phoebe Zarnetske, associate professor in the Department of Integrative Biology in the College of Natural Science and director of the MSU Institute for Biodiversity, Ecology, Evolution, and Macrosystems (IBEEM), who is the scientific lead for the XPRIZE Rainforest ACTNOW Amazonas team. "We are proud to collaborate with an incredible core membership of indigenous community members."

Zarnetske is one of several EEB members on the XPRIZE team.

ACT NOW – Amazonas Action Alliance includes Amazonian indigenous leaders, scientists and entrepreneurs. Seventy Spartans have joined the team, 15 of which are in Singapore, including engineering students Gavin Gardner, Gryson Gardner, Ross Davis, and Ryan Atkinson. They are members of MSU’s Drone Research and Intelligence Flight Technology or DRIFT team, a NASA-funded student led research group developing novel use cases for autonomous drones.

“Indigenous communities throughout the world are central to this project,” Zarnetske said. “Their traditional ecological knowledge of nature is essential to include.”

She said MSU’s team has been working directly with the team’s indigenous leaders who will be bringing their wisdom to the Singapore rainforest competition: Hector Vargas, primate expert and Sumak Allpa, of the Kichwa in Ecuador; Puwe Puyanawa, plant biologist and Spiritual Leader of the Puyanawa; and Rosane Puyanawa, singer, environment and Puyanawa youth activist leader. The MSU team filmed their work in the Amazon last year, met weekly by Zoom to advance insights, and plans further field tests in the Amazon after the semifinals to identify what’s needed to effectively monitor and protect their lands and develop accessible techniques to do so.

“MSU’s team is the only one collaborating extensively with communities that live with the biodiversity being studied,” Zarnetske said.

The team has been supported by funding from MSU’s Office of Research and Innovation, the College of Natural Science, the College of Engineering, the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, the College of Social Science, AgBioResearch, Lyman Briggs College, International Studies and Programs, and the College of Medicine. 

“The XPrize Rainforest competition fits perfectly with the climate research initiative outlined in the MSU 2030 Strategic Plan,” said Doug Buhler, associate vice president for the MSU Office of Research and Innovation. “We’re proud to support the project and back this team of experts as they showcase the problem-solving research prowess of Michigan State University at the international level.”

Read the full story in The College of Natural Science.

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