Working from home during the COVID19 pandemic has proven a challenge for many of us. Our students are not allowed to pursue their research, and yet most of us are working as hard from home as we would be on campus.
Anyhow, at the beginning of the lockdown, I gathered what equipment I could from the lab and set up to research at home. Hardly a serious pursuit, but I was designing some training material for an overseas student and needed the equipment at home anyway.
What kind of research can you do on yourself on lockdown you might ask? A little bit of thermal imaging!
Maybe it is because imaging is appealing to people and it is compelling that a region of the face or head close to the eye always appears warm, so naturally people assume it might represent or correlate to core measurements of body temperature. Indeed, even in animal thermal biology, this is one of more common questions people ask me: “Can eye temperature be an estimate of core temperature?”. To which I quip, “No”, with caveats.
I am not aware of systematic studies demonstrating that these warm eye/head surface temperatures are really good at estimating core temperature, but we previously measured core and surface temperatures in a previous study of ours in ducklings across different times of day and during a period of fasting:
Core temperature rises and falls quite substantially (ranging from ~39 to ~42C) across these different states and time periods:
But the correlation between core temperature and the maximum eye region temperature is not that great. Indeed, you would expect the values to fall along or at least be parallel to the dotted line of equality below, but in the case of low air temperatures, the relationship is quite poor and the surface temperatures are much cooler than core.
So, it is easy to conclude that max eye temperature is not always a reliable indicator of core temperature in these ducks. Maybe we could derive an empirical calibration curve, taking into account air temperature, but the point is that this requires accurate temperature data and stable environmental conditions rarely present in the field.
So, what about the lockdown research mentioned earlier?
Having plenty of time to myself, I set up a thermal camera to capture a thermal image of my face at various times throughout the day to capture the natural variation in body temperature (no fever, per se, but my daily oral temperature measurements range from 35.6 to 36.9C). Here is a sample image, outlining the typical regions of skin surface measured:
It got too scary the longer I was in lockdown as my hair grew too long and disheveled, so I ceased the experiment after only a short period.
But the results (next 3 graphs) below show how poorly forehead assesses normal oral temperature, and even how maximum eye temperature is ~1C cooler than oral temperature and influenced by nearby ambient conditions (my garage was cold back in April so I set up there for a few measurements).
Conclusions: Ignoring the N=1 subject (due to the pandemic this seems justified), forehead is a poor measure of oral temperature (3.85C too low), maximum eye temperature a bit better (but still 1C too low and affected by air temperature), while simply pointing the camera in your mouth and getting maximum temperature yields a temperature ~0.5C higher than an oral thermometer.
So, why if you look at any images of companies and airports doing fever scanning they point devices at people’s foreheads or relying on a single pixel value from possibly the eye region?
The simple answer is that it is easy to do, but from a target accuracy perspective, it is terrible, especially if low accuracy devices are being employed inappropriately. In the one image above, the device is pointing at someone’s hair, which shields the skin and thus produces a cooler value. Cooler values will not trigger a fever detection even if it is there!
So, wherefore is the future of fever scanning? Intuitively, it seems it should work, but are we measuring the wrong thing? Why don’t we measure inside the mouth where normal oral thermometers do? At least this is better than crappy forehead measurements. Is this a privacy issue? Is it feasible to do in rapid scanning processes? Will it be feasible if we are all wearing masks?
I am not the first to write on this. This blog project was mostly a distraction in the early days of lockdown to keep my mind off the situation. I attach a few key articles and opinion pieces on the subject below that have commented more clearly on the connection (or lack) between fever and infection and why fever screening is not a panacea.
Links to further reading:
Scientific studies demonstrating reasonable predictive power for fever scanning:
I think this situation really needs another look by the physiology community. My anecdote here is simply based on self reflection/measurement but also based on years of experience with thermal imaging.
The first rule of thermal imaging in biological systems: “Surface Temperature is not equal to Core Temperature.” We can’t forget that. If you want to use surface temperature, you have to do a lot of calibration checks or have very good control over your subject.
In case a grad student locked down at home wants a writing project, here are a few key points that I know should impact the predictive power of max surface temperature measurements in the context of rapid fever scanning in public places:
Air temperature near skin
Air flow (convective heat exchange) over skin
Blood flow relationship with the skin surface
Camera user skills and training
Quality and accuracy of the thermal scanner (some scanners I see people using have accuracies of +-2 to 4C).
Pre-symptomatic people lack fever
Masking of fever with antipyretic drugs undetected by scanning
What is the precise correspondence of eye canthus temperature with core temperature measurement?
Although not an inspiring or catchy title, our study has just been published, demonstrating that fixed-frame video capture can provide a quantitative assessment of energetics (citation below).
Summary of the study
Infrared thermal imaging is a passive imaging technique that captures the emitted radiation from an object to estimate surface temperature, often for inference of heat transfer.
Infrared thermal imaging offers the potential to detect movement without the challenges of glare, shadows, or changes in lighting associated with visual digital imaging or active infrared imaging.
In this paper, we employ a frame subtraction algorithm for extracting the pixel-by-pixel relative change in signal from a fixed focus video file, tailored for use with thermal imaging videos.
By then cumulatively summing the sd for each frame across an entire video, we are able to assign quantitative activity assessments to thermal imaging data for comparison with simultaneous recordings of metabolic rates. We tested the accuracy and limits of this approach by analyzing movement of a metronome (see above) and provide an example of the approach to a study of Darwin’s finches.
In principle, this “Difference Imaging Thermography” (DIT) would allow for activity data to be standardized to energetic measurements and could be applied to any radiometric imaging system.
Fixed frame is required. Changing the reference frame or using a camera without a tripod would not work unless you do a lot of motion correction. Also, we used infrared thermal imaging because we were collecting data for a different purpose (still writing those up!), but we think that any sort of imaging should work, provided it produces a simple, ratiometric or radiometric image. Usually monochrome cameras or near infrared cameras produce a signal that is a simple greyscale image. Reflected light might interfere with the approach, so this is why we argued this might be an addition use of thermal imaging videos.
Behind the scenes
This paper took a long time to put together, but was the beginning of my lab’s journey into R, ImageJ, and open source coding. A lot has changed since I started the data analysis. Combing through 500 Gb of video files, extracting, processing, converting them into something manageable took the better part of 2 weeks on a supercomputer, until I realised that there were more efficient routes!
We have since created routines in ImageJ that help facilitate the conversions and have placed those routines in a github repository, where we will write them up as a methods paper in the future. The principles outlined in the paper are not themselves novel. Sliding average and frame subtraction routines are common in video processing software. Assessing whether the motion captured is correlated with meaningful biological information is what we hoped to capture with the study.
In a first for the lab, we just held a completely online MSc defence. Valiantly, Nick defended his MSc with grace, precision, insight, humour, and interesting anecdotes.
His thesis is entitled: “The Physiological and Behavioural Consequences of Reduced Scalation in Captive-bred Phenotypes of the Bearded Dragon (Pogona vitticeps Ahl 1926)“.
Here he is giving his presentation (sorry for the screen cap, Nick)
speaking about one of our favourite study animals:
Many thanks to the examining committee:
External Examiner, Dr. Chris Oufiero, Towson University Chair, Dr. Cheryl McCormick Committee Member, Dr. Jeff Stuart Committee Member, Dr. Robert Carlone Supervisor, Dr. Glenn Tattersall
Virtual congratulations to Nick are insufficient expression of gratitude for his hard work and devotion to his research. When and if we can safely congregate in small groups, we will celebrate appropriately! I really owe Nick my thanks for joining my lab. He has helped educate me through his efforts. It cannot be fun wrapping up one’s MSc during a pandemic, and Nick did a brilliant job.
A few highlights from Nick’s presentation below.
Thanks as well to A&A Dragons for their support over the years.
The lab will be hosting a PhD student from Spain for the next 3 months.
Núria Playà Montmany from the University of Extremadura has just arrived (I’m a few days late, she arrived in late January!). I met Núria last summer defending her poster at the SEB meeting in Sevilla. She will be becoming a thermal imaging expert while she is here!
With overlapping interests in avian physiology and the lab’s interests in thermal biology and studying animal responses to climate change, we hope to have a productive visit. Here is a link to Núria’s blog:
Justin G. Boyles, Danielle L. Levesque, Julia Nowack, Michał S. Wojciechowski, Clare Stawski, Andrea Fuller, Ben Smit, and Glenn J. Tattersall 2019. An oversimplification of physiological principles leads to flawed macroecological analyses. https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.5721
Take home message? Few endotherms are homeothermic, so they do not conform to assumptions of the Scholander-Irving model. Taking predictions from the SI model based on a broad range of lab studies can lead to huge errors in predictions. A re-assessment of macroecological predictions using this approach is warranted.
Congratulations to Anne Yagi for her Blue Racer Award from the Canadian Herpetological Society. The Blue Racer award is presented to an individual in recognition of cumulative contributions to the conservation of amphibians and reptiles in Canada.
When he left the lab to write up his thesis, he was but the learner…now, HE is the Master.
Congratulations, Justin Bridgeman for a successful defence! Justin’s thesis earlier today was on “Behavioural thermoregulation and escape behaviour in the round goby”.
Thanks to the selfless efforts of the committee members (Dr. Gaynor Spencer, Dr. Liette Vasseur, and Dr. Patricia Wright), external examiner (Dr. Dennis Higgs, U Windsor), and committee chair (Dr. Cheryl McCormick).
Thank to all the lab mates for supporting Justin and welcoming him back for his brief visit.
All the best in the future Justin! We look forward to the manuscripts…and for a place to crash when we visit you in Halifax! 😉
Earlier this summer, I was lucky enough to visit the Isle of May, Scotland to fulfill a long-time ambition to collect thermal image data on puffins in the wild. Ever since we published our work on the toucan in 2009, I have wanted to study the puffins, examining evidence for elevated capacity to control or distribute body heat through their uniquely colourful bill. Living in a cool climate with a large radiator like their bill presents a unique opportunity to test our hypotheses. In spring of 2018 I managed to visit the Elliston, Newfoundland puffin colony to start this project, but the distance to view a little too far to obtain high quality results.
Well, the short story is that they do show an extraordinary capacity to do so! Here is just a sample image (from the 200 Gb of videos):
If I only had the time to conduct the data analysis, I could put some numbers on these values. I certainly have my work cut out for me, examining those returning from the water with food vs. those basking and resting. I have a few other thoughts about these data that I hope to extract.
Many thanks must go to the town of Elliston, Newfoundland and the Atlantic puffin colony there, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (UK), the Isle of May (Scotland) Scientists, and especially Mark Newell for hosting me at the Isle of May, and Mike Harris for introducing us. Sorry it took so long to post this.
Tattersall, GJ, Arnaout, B, and Symonds, MRE. 2017. The evolution of the avian bill as a thermoregulatory organ. Biological Reviews 92: 1630-1656. doi:10.1111/brv.12299
Greenberg, R, Cadena, V, Danner, RM, and Tattersall GJ. 2012. Heat loss may explain bill size differences between birds occupying different habitats. PLoS One, 7: e40933.
Symonds, MRE and Tattersall, GJ. 2010. Geographical variation in bill size across bird species provides evidence for Allen’s rule.American Naturalist. 176: 188-197.
Tattersall, GJ, Andrade, DV, and Abe, AS. 2009. Heat exchange from the toucan bill reveals a controllable vascular thermal radiator.Science, 325: 468-470.