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Halifax researcher helps create software to protect animals on the move

The Williams Lake area near Halifax was recently protected by the Nature Conservancy of Canada and other conservation groups as the Shaw Wilderness Park. A new software program makes it easier to connect conservation areas to bolster protection of wildlife. - NCC photographer Mike Dembeck
The Williams Lake area near Halifax was recently protected by the Nature Conservancy of Canada and other conservation groups as the Shaw Wilderness Park. A new software program makes it easier to connect conservation areas to bolster protection of wildlife. - NCC photographer Mike Dembeck
HALIFAX, N.S. —

For an animal moving through the forest or the ocean, a conservation area looks a lot like the places that aren't protected.

“It doesn't know that it's about to get caught in a net or shot by a hunter or whatever because it's lost that protection status (and) crossed that invisible line,” said Halifax biological oceanographer Remi Daigle.

“So when we do create protected areas or marine protected areas, it's important to consider that these animals do move.”

Daigle and other members of an international research team have created a software tool that aims to address this problem.

The open-source software, called Marxan Connect, will help planners identify areas that are key for the movement of animals, said Daigle, who works with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and Dalhousie University.

The overall goal would be to create a global network that incorporates the idea of “stepping stone” corridors that connect protected areas.

“If you have two big protected areas either end of the province, maybe it's important to identify sites in between to allow movement between the two big parts,” Daigle said in an interview Wednesday.

Daigle came up with the idea for the software in 2016 when he was working on his PhD on how the larvae of invertebrates like crabs and lobster are dispersed in the ocean by drifting in the water column. He created a computer model similar to a weather simulation that tracks where the larvae might end up.

Daigle realized this kind of data on animal movement could help in the planning of protected-area connectivity and he reached out to other researchers to help him develop software that conservationists could apply to their work.


“The applicability of the software is global and quite broad.”


The team, which included Anna Metaxas, a professor in the department of oceanography at Dalhousie and Maria Beger of the University of Leeds, received funding from the Health Oceans Network II program.

“With limited resources and time for creating protected areas for biodiversity, we need to avoid designing protected areas that may be too small, too far apart or not in good locations for animals to move, find food and migrate,” Beger said in a news release on the Marxan Connect project.

A peer-reviewed article describing the software, which is available for download at marxanconnect.ca, was published Wednesday in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution.

“The software is free and open source so anyone can use it,” Daigle said, “and anyone can also improve upon it collaboratively. I think that's really important because I mean, I had a lot of good ideas building this, but I don't think that this is the final answer so it'll be good to see how it evolves in the future.”

A case study using the software is underway in the Gulf of Mexico on the movement of large migratory marine animals such as tunas and manatees.

“There's also interest in using it in Nepal and Bhutan on snow leopards and ... other large cats in Costa Rica,” Daigle said, adding that a bee pollinator network also has contacted him.

“The applicability of the software is global and quite broad.”

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