Aosta Valley, Italy

Alice Brambilla, University of Zurich
Laurens Bohlen, University of Zurich
Alberto Peracino, Parco Nazionale Gran Paradiso

200 years ago, the Alpine ibex (Capra ibex) almost became extinct due to overhunting. Only in the Gran Paradiso massif in northern Italy did a small group survive, thanks to which the animals are now once again widespread throughout the Alpine region. Today, the Alpine ibex is a flagship species because its reintroduction across the Alps is one of the most successful examples of species conservation in Europe.

More than 20 years ago, Gran Paradiso National Park established a long-term research project to study and monitor its ibex population. Park rangers, in cooperation with researchers from several universities, are contributing to the conservation and protection of the animals. Alice Brambilla from the University of Zurich is involved in the project since 2008.

The region of the Valle d’Aosta, where Alice installed the camera trap for Triggered by Motion with the help of park ranger Alberto Peracino, is characterized by an alpine climate. Spring begins when the snow melts in the valley bottoms and the first vegetation sprouts. As it gets warmer, successive flowering plants colour the slopes over and over again; migratory birds arrive and start building their nests; marmots awake from hibernation and fill the air with their alarm calls.

Soon, however, the intense green of the vegetation fades to a golden yellow. The autumn air is less noisy, everything seems quieter. The days become shorter, the temperatures drop, the migratory birds depart, and the local animals lay down fat reserves for the winter. The marmots disappear into their burrows and the first snow announces the arrival of the long winter.

The camera trap of Triggered by Motion captured only a fraction of this abundant fauna: Mainly chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra), ibex (Capra ibex) and red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) appear in the footage, rarely a wolf (Canis lupus). The marmots, birds, reptiles and insects remain invisible. Some of these animals – like the insects – are too small to activate the motion detector; others – for example the marmots – always stay close to their burrow and thus out of reach of the camera. Camera traps are therefore particularly suitable for mammals that have a large action area.

Alice Brambilla’s research at the Alpine ibex Project focuses on behavioural ecology, population dynamics, ecology, life history and genetics of the ibex population at Valle d’Aosta. In the framework of the project, individuals are captured and tagged with ear tags or GPS collars. This allows ecologists like Alice to monitor their health and their behaviour throughout their lives and to investigate the effects of environmental changes on population dynamics and the development of life history traits.

Alice knows all the animals that she studies by name. However, when she became involved in Triggered by Motion, she started thinking about developing an AI that can automatically recognize ibex without the need of marking them. Through Triggered by Motion, she met Laurens Bohlen, who with her help developed a machine learning network at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Sciences at the University of Zurich.

The application can now identify ibex individuals. One day, it should be possible to extend it to other ungulates, enabling wide-ranging, comprehensive conservation projects in the Alpine region.