Google Street View could serve a higher purpose than simply allowing pranksters their 15 minutes of Internet fame. Scientists in France are using Google’s panoramic views to track an invasive species of caterpillar in Europe.
"At the beginning of the work, I had the feeling that we were exploring a very unusual way of working -- at least one I had never even imagined," researcher Jean-Pierre Rossi, an ecologist at France's National Institute for Agronomic Research, told LiveScience. "The data collected by using Google Street View may be useful in monitoring diseases or invasive organism expansion.”
Rossi and his team used Google Street View to search for caterpillar nests belonging to an invasive species of moth in a region about 18,000 square-miles large, where the caterpillar had invaded.
When they compared the incidence of nests spotted with Google Street View to data collected through direct observation, researchers found that using Google to locate nests was 96 percent as accurate as field studies, according to their report published online in PLOS One.
Pine processionary moth caterpillars are an invasive species of caterpillar that feed on the needles of pine trees and other conifer tree types. Not only do the caterpillars wreak havoc on vegetation, but they also pose a public health hazard. The thousands of hairs on each caterpillar’s back contain a protein called thaumetopoea which causes painful skin irritations and rashes.
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The caterpillar is native to the Mediterranean region, and is found in North Africa and some areas of the Middles East and southern Europe.
Fortunately, the caterpillar is no master of disguise. Its white, tent-like nests are easy to spot in trees.
“The aim of the present study was to explore how the [Google Street View, or GSV] technology could be helpful to ecological research in documenting the geographical distribution of species,” the researchers wrote in their report. “Recent studies have shown that the GSV imagery could be used to depict and audit neighborhood environments in the framework of social science and preventive medicine but to our knowledge, no ecological application has been published so far.”
Discovery News noted that in January, scientists used Google Street View to locate potential nesting sites in northern Spain for the Egyptian vulture -- an endangered species found in Europe, Africa and India.