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Study examines the relation between agriculture and the declining marmot population in Kazakhstan

30 May 2020 - Daniel Müller and Catalina Munteanu published a study in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, which uses historical spy satellite images to demonstrate a long-term decline in the marmot population in response to the expansion of croplands.

In the 1960s, some of the first satellites that made it into Earth’s orbit were designed for espionage purposes. They collected Google Earth-like images from across the world in search of nuclear missiles. The long forgotten historical data is now being used by scientists to tackle contemporary environmental challenges. In her project called EcoSpy, the researcher Catalina Munteanu, who previously worked at IAMO, studies how Corona images can be used to inform nature conservation. Together with a team of international scientist, Munteanu tracked down changes in steppe marmot populations, by counting their burrows in images from the 1960s and comparing them to more recent Google Earth photographs. Their work revealed two surprising findings.

The steppe marmot (Marmota bobak), a keystone species in the Eurasian steppes is still in decline following agricultural expansion that happened more than 50 years ago. The number of burrows scientists tracked over time declined most strongly in areas that were persistently used for producing wheat since 1960s, while it remained mostly stable in steppe areas, which are the marmot’s natural habitat. This may well be the longest recorded response of a mammal species to historical agricultural expansion.

The second surprising finding is that in many cases, the exact same burrows were persistently used by marmots for over 50 years. In other words, as much as eight generations of marmots used the exact same burrow system, despite major land conversions. These fascinating results highlight that land use and conservation decisions need to be farsighted, because what we do today will affect biodiversity decades into the future.

The story of the marmots in Kazakhstan is likely not unique – many other species are affected by human activities over long time periods. The Corona data provides a great opportunity to address questions related to how human actions from the past still affect the environment today. Corona data has so far been vastly underused despite the high-detail information it provides and its global coverage. The EcoSpy team hopes that their work will catalyze vast growth in the use of Corona for long-term ecological studies, which are essential to addressing current biodiversity challenges.

Scientific manuscript: Munteanu C, Kamp J, Nita MD, Klein N, Kraemer BM, Müller D, Koshkina A, Prishchepov AV, Kuemmerle T. 2020 Cold War spy satellite images reveal long-term declines of a philopatric keystone species in response to cropland expansion. Proc. R. Soc. B 20192897.