ZSL London Zoo trials world’s first plant selfie

A plant called Pete growing at ZSL London Zoo could revolutionise field conservation – by powering a camera to take selfies as he grows.

Pete the plant at ZSL London Zoo

ZSL scientists have laid the groundwork for the world’s first plant selfie at ZSL London Zoo, in a technological feat that could transform animal conservation – with a little help from the Zoo’s visitors. 

Work has begun on a pioneering scientific trial in ZSL London Zoo’s Rainforest Life exhibit that will see microbial fuel cells power a plant to take its own picture - with the ultimate aim of using plants to power camera traps and sensors in the wild, allowing conservationists to monitor habitats remotely.

The Zoo is now calling on people to show their support for Pete - a maidenhair fern with delicate leaves and shiny stalks - by cheering him on as he grows in strength and prepares to snap his own selfie in the name of science.

Last year, scientists in ZSL’s Conservation Tech Unit partnered with Open Plant, Cambridge University and the Arribada Initiative to run a competition to design a fuel cell that could be powered by plants. 

The winning design came from green energy specialists Plant E in the Netherlands, and features fuel cells that harness the energy of naturally occurring bacteria in soil to generate enough electricity to power key conservation equipment. 

ZSL’s Conservation Technology Specialist Al Davies explained: “As plants grow, they naturally deposit biomatter into the soil they’re planted in, which bacteria in the soil feeds on – this creates energy that can be harnessed by fuel cells and used to power a wide range of conservation tools. 

“Plugging in to plants unlocks the potential to deploy sensors, monitoring platforms, camera traps, or other electronics that require power and must operate for extended periods of time – all remotely and without interference. 

“Traditional power sources have limits: batteries must be replaced, which takes time and comes at a cost, while solar panels only work if you have sufficient sunlight.

“But many plants survive in the shade and naturally move into position to maximise the potential of absorbing sunlight – meaning the potential for plant-powered energy is practically limitless.”

The new tech will work around the clock and has the potential to monitor inhospitable and remote rainforest locations to record key data such as temperature, humidity, plant growth – all of which are crucial to the understanding of threats such as climate change and habitat loss. 

“We’re excited about the potential for this new technology - If we could harness plants to help generate small amounts of electricity, we could quite literally plug in to nature to help protect the world’s wildlife.

“In the meantime, since it’s been suggested that talking to plants helps them grow, we’d love people to visit and help cheer on our plucky plant, Pete.”

Nestled amongst the residents of Rainforest Life, visitors can see Pete in action before celebrating National Selfie Day with the Zoo’s new selfie safari - a series of picture-perfect positions spread across the Zoo.

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