Algorithm tracks elephants from space, synchrotron sheds light on heat-damaged hair


Hiding in heterogeneity: an African elephant in Kruger National Park in South Africa (Courtesy: Bernard DUPONT/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Back when I was a lad, “so big it can be seen from space” was a superlative reserved for truly massive features that can be seen with the naked eye from an orbiting space capsule. These days, imaging satellites can routinely achieve sub-metre resolution or better – and researchers in the UK and the Netherlands have used high-resolution images taken by the Worldview 3 and 4 satellites to track African elephants as they move through forests and grasslands.

The algorithm for tracking the pachyderms was created by computer scientist Olga Isupova at the University of Bath, who explains that it is the first system to track animals through a heterogenous landscape – that is countryside that varies between open grassland and woodland. Previous systems have been used to track animals in homogenous environments such as snow-covered landscapes or blue oceans.

According to Isupova, the technique can scan vast areas of land in minutes, which eliminates double counting – something that can occur when elephants are counted by humans in low-flying aircraft. Satellites do not disturb the animals and are not limited by national borders; which elephants can cross.

The team now plans to train its algorithm to track  animals smaller than elephants. The research is described in an open access paper in Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation.

Repairing damaged hair

Curling wands and hair straighteners can damage hair by overheating the keratin proteins that make up about 85% of our luscious locks – turning hair dry and brittle over time. Scientists know that this degradation involves the keratin hardening much like an egg as it is cooked – but observing the process as it occurs had been difficult because the keratin becomes opaque to light as it hardens.

Now, researchers in Japan have studied the process using vacuum-ultraviolet synchrotron radiation, which provided enough illumination to determine the structure of hardened keratin proteins. The scientists from the Milbon Company and Hiroshima University’s Hiroshima Synchrotron Radiation Center are now using the technique to develop haircare products that reverse or prevent heat damage to hair.

“By monitoring protein’s structural changes, we could rapidly and accurately judge which ingredients can effectively inhibit the structural change of keratin proteins from various candidates of compounds,” explains Hiroshima’s Koichi Matsuo.

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