NASA assists search for woodpecker thought to be extinct

Unlike its more famous cartoon cousin Woody the Woodpecker, the ivory-billed woodpecker is thought to be extinct, or so most experts have believed for over half a century.

But last month scientists from NASA and the University of Maryland, College Park, Md., launched a project to identify possible areas where the woodpecker might be living. Finding these habitat areas will guide future searches for the bird and help determine if it is really extinct or has survived an elusive existence.

The question of whether the species still exists started when a kayaker reported spotting the woodpecker along Arkansas' Cache River in 2004. That sighting spawned an intensive search for the species by wildlife conservationists, bird watchers, field biologists and others.

In June a research aircraft flew over delta regions of the lower Mississippi River to track possible areas of habitat suitable for the ivory-billed woodpecker, one of the largest and most regal members of the woodpecker family. The project is supported by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Scientists from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., and the University of Maryland used NASA's Laser Vegetation Imaging Sensor (LVIS) onboard the aircraft. The instrument uses lasers that send pulses of energy to the Earth's surface. Photons of light from the lasers bounce off leaves, branches and the ground and reflect back to the instrument. By analyzing these returned signals, scientists receive a direct measurement of the height of the forest's leaf covered tree tops, the ground level below and everything in between.

"LVIS is aiding this search effort far beyond what aircraft photos or satellite images can provide in the way of just a two-dimensional rendering of what's below," said Woody Turner, Program Scientist at NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C. "The laser technology gives us the third dimension, enabling us to better

Contact: Rob Gutro
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

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