Could drones be the future of learning more about Kaikōura’s marine wildlife?

Yes, according to recent research published in the journal Aquatic Mammals, which included KORI director, Dr. Jody Weir, and KORI member Carys Protheroe.

Along with a multinational team of scientists led by Bernd Würsig (Texas A&M University) and including Lorenzo Fiori (University of Auckland), they analysed the potential for using drones for studying dusky dolphin behaviour.

In particular, the team wanted to get a better understanding of how calves and mothers interact in nursery groups, and larger pods. They examined factors such as swimming speeds, inter-adult distances and breathing and suckling rates for the mothers and calves.

Drones were used to study dusky dolphins in Kaikōura, including mothers and calves.
The team used drones to learn more about the behaviour of Kaikōura’s dusky dolphins.

Why use drones to study dolphins?

The study found two main advantages to studying dolphins using drones, otherwise known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs):

  1. Gaining a new perspective

Boat and shore based research projects have provided important insights into dusky behaviour, but there are limitations.

For example, tracking individuals within larger groups is difficult as only 52% of this dolphins have identifiable markings on their dorsal fins. By filming from above, and analysing the footage after, however, the team was able to follow specific mothers and calves with relative ease.

  1. Little to no disturbance

When trying to learn about a species’ natural behaviour disturbance is a significant problem – animals act differently if they know they’re being observed.

The fact that drones are able to remain distant helps overcome this problem. Dolphins have no natural aerial predators, meaning that even if they’re aware of the slight noise created by the UAVs, it’s unlikely they see them as a threat.

Drones made it easy for the scientists to track dusky dolphins, even in large pods.
The study analysed dusky dolphin behaviour in nursery groups, as well as larger pods like this.

What were the results?

Bernd Würsig (who is a huge supporter of KORI!) has been researching dusky dolphins since 1972, and claimed that the two week Kaikōura study “provided the most rich return of data” he has experienced in such a short time.

By using drones the team was able to gain insights into the lives of these dolphins that had been previously impossible. More importantly, this is only the beginning.

As Jody says, “We now have hours of video data that we will use to publish on other aspects of the behaviour we saw, such as mating activity.”

While we’re very excited by what this technology can offer, it’s important that it’s used responsibly. In New Zealand, flying drones near marine mammals, or over any conservation land can only be done with concession from the Department of Conservation (DOC). More details are available on the DOC website.





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