During traditional boat-based surveys of marine megafauna, behavioral observations are typically limited to records of animal surfacings obtained from a horizontal perspective. Achieving an aerial perspective has been restricted to brief helicopter or airplane based observations that are costly, noisy, and risky. The emergence of commercial small-unmanned aerial systems (UAS) has significantly reduced these constraints to provide a stable, relatively quiet, and inexpensive platform that enables replicate observations for prolonged periods with minimal disturbance. The potential of UAS for behavioral observation appears immense, yet quantitative proof of utility as an observational tool is required.
Researchers use UAS footage of gray whales foraging in the coastal waters of Oregon, United States to develop video behavior analysis methods, determine the change in observation time enabled by UAS, and describe unique behaviors observed via UAS. Boat-based behavioral observations from 53 gray whale sightings between May and October 2016 were compared to behavioral data extracted from video analysis of UAS flights during those sightings. Researchers used a DJI Phantom 3 Pro or 4 Advanced, recorded video from an altitude _25 m, and detected no behavioral response by whales to the UAS. Two experienced whale ethologists conducted UAS video behavioral analysis, including tabulation of whale behavior states and events, and whale surface time and whale visible time (total time the whale was visible including underwater). UAS provided three times more observational capacity than boat-based observations alone (300 vs. 103 min). When observation time is accounted for, UAS data provided more and longer observations of all primary behavior states (travel, forage, social, and rest) relative to boat-based data, especially foraging. Furthermore, UAS enable documentation of multiple novel gray whale foraging tactics (e.g., headstands: n = 58; side swimming: n = 17; jaw snapping and flexing: n = 10) and 33 social events (nursing and pair coordinated surfacings) not identified from boat-based observation.
This study demonstrates the significant added value of UAS to marine megafauna behavior and ecological studies. With technological advances, robust study designs, and effective analytical tools, researchers foresee increased UAS applications to marine megafauna studies to elucidate foraging strategies, habitat associations, social patterns, and response to human disturbance.
Authors: Torres, Leigh G.; Nieukirk, Sharon L.; Lemos, Leila; Chandler, Todd E.