Nav: Home

Drone photos offer faster, cheaper data on key Antarctic species

November 29, 2017

Scientists in Antarctica have demonstrated a cheaper, faster and simpler way to gauge the condition of leopard seals, which can weigh more than a half ton and reflect the health of the Antarctic ecosystem that they and a variety of commercial fisheries rely on.

Instead of spending hours to pursue, catch, immobilize, and weigh the seals amid hazardous conditions on the Antarctic Peninsula, researchers can now gain the same information from a single photograph taken by a small unmanned aerial system, popularly known as a drone. Scientists from NOAA Fisheries' Southwest Fisheries Science Center and Aerial Imaging Solutions described the approach today in the online journal PLOS ONE.

"We continue to develop technologies to gather the data we need to manage fish and wildlife in a safer, less expensive way," said Douglas Krause, a research scientist in the Southwest Fisheries Science Center's Antarctic Ecosystem Research Division (AERD), and lead author of the paper demonstrating the new research method. "We're certainly excited because we can get that much more work done, in less time, and at lower costs than ever before."

Scientists tested the accuracy of aerial measurements by catching and measuring the same seals the drone photographed. They found the length measurements accurate to within about 2 percent, and the weight measurements within about 4 percent. The biggest difference was the time and effort involved: While a crew of five people took more than four hours to capture each of 15 leopard seals for the study, a crew of two people using the drone needed only about 20 minutes to gather the same data.

The seals showed no reaction to the drone as long as it stayed above 23 meters, about 75 feet.

"We can get measurements that are just as good, or better, without ever bothering the animals," Krause said in an email from Antarctica. "Catching a single seal can take hours, but the drone can photograph every seal on a beach in a few minutes."

Leopard seals prey upon penguins and Antarctic fur seals. In turn, these species rely heavily on populations of Antarctic krill - small, shrimp-like crustaceans. Krill are harvested commercially and are a key ingredient of nutritional supplements, aquaculture feed, and other products. As such, leopard seals, penguins and fur seals not only are important components of Antarctic coastal ecosystems, but they serve as "indicators" of the health of Antarctic fisheries.

"When we think about indicator species in Antarctica, we often think about highly abundant species such as penguins," said Jefferson Hinke, a coauthor and research scientist in the AERD. "But top predators, such as leopard seals, are also sensitive to their environment and monitoring them provides additional information on the status of the Antarctic ecosystem."

Examining the body condition of the seals, for example, helps scientists understand the health and abundance of krill, which in turn helps fishery managers assess how much the fishing fleet can catch each season.

"We're always looking for more efficient ways to collect data that informs decisions on how to manage these important resources," said George Watters, director of the AERD. "The better we understand the ecosystem, the better we can ensure it's protected for the long term."

Scientists can use drones to track the change in the weight of leopard seals over the course of the summer, revealing how much they are eating, and can break the population down by age to better understand the overall health of the population. Use of aerial photographs could actually improve the accuracy and depth of data over the longer term because scientists can survey far more leopard seals in the same amount of time, Krause said.

Combining a single photograph of each animal with a computer model that calculates their weight minimizes errors that might be introduced by multiple photos from different angles, the scientists found."It's a matter of keeping it simple, and focusing on the data we really need," Krause said. "This is a more effective and safer way to gather more of that data than w

NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region

Related Antarctica Articles:

Predicting non-native invasions in Antarctica
A new study identifies the non-native species most likely to invade the Antarctic Peninsula region over the next decade.
Persistent drizzle at sub-zero temps in Antarctica
When the temperature drops below freezing, snow and ice are expected to follow.
Antarctica: the final frontier for marine biological invasions?
A new study looking at the implications of increased shipping activity and the impact on Antarctic marine biodiversity is published this week in the journal Global Change Biology.
Human 'footprint' on Antarctica measured for first time
The full extent of the human 'footprint' on Antarctica has been revealed for the first time by new IMAS-led research which used satellite images to measure stations, huts, runways, waste sites and tourist camps at 158 locations.
Iguana-sized dinosaur cousin discovered in Antarctica
Scientists have discovered the fossils of an iguana-sized reptile, which they named 'Antarctic king,' that lived at the South Pole 250 million years ago (it used to be warmer).
Scientists drill to record depths in West Antarctica
A team of scientists and engineers has for the first time successfully drilled over two kilometres through the ice sheet in West Antarctica using hot water.
Is Antarctica becoming more like Greenland?
Antarctica is high and dry and mostly bitterly cold, and it's easy to think of its ice and snow as locked away in a freezer, protected from melt except around its low-lying coasts and floating ice shelves.
Retracing Antarctica's glacial past
More than 26,000 years ago, sea level was much lower than it is today partly because the ice sheets that jut out from the continent of Antarctica were enormous and covered by grounded ice -- ice that was fully attached to the seafloor.
New study reveals how foreign kelp surfed to Antarctica
A research team led by the Australian National University (ANU) has found the first proof that Antarctica is not isolated from the rest of the Earth, with the discovery that foreign kelp had drifted 20,000 kilometers before surfing to the continent's icy shores.
New study explains Antarctica's coldest temperatures
Tiny valleys near the top of Antarctica's ice sheet reach temperatures of nearly -100 degrees Celsius, according to a new study published this week in the AGU journal Geophysical Research Letters.
More Antarctica News and Antarctica Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Our Relationship With Water
We need water to live. But with rising seas and so many lacking clean water – water is in crisis and so are we. This hour, TED speakers explore ideas around restoring our relationship with water. Guests on the show include legal scholar Kelsey Leonard, artist LaToya Ruby Frazier, and community organizer Colette Pichon Battle.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#568 Poker Face Psychology
Anyone who's seen pop culture depictions of poker might think statistics and math is the only way to get ahead. But no, there's psychology too. Author Maria Konnikova took her Ph.D. in psychology to the poker table, and turned out to be good. So good, she went pro in poker, and learned all about her own biases on the way. We're talking about her new book "The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win".
Now Playing: Radiolab

Uncounted
First things first: our very own Latif Nasser has an exciting new show on Netflix. He talks to Jad about the hidden forces of the world that connect us all. Then, with an eye on the upcoming election, we take a look back: at two pieces from More Perfect Season 3 about Constitutional amendments that determine who gets to vote. Former Radiolab producer Julia Longoria takes us to Washington, D.C. The capital is at the heart of our democracy, but it's not a state, and it wasn't until the 23rd Amendment that its people got the right to vote for president. But that still left DC without full representation in Congress; D.C. sends a "non-voting delegate" to the House. Julia profiles that delegate, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, and her unique approach to fighting for power in a virtually powerless role. Second, Radiolab producer Sarah Qari looks at a current fight to lower the US voting age to 16 that harkens back to the fight for the 26th Amendment in the 1960s. Eighteen-year-olds at the time argued that if they were old enough to be drafted to fight in the War, they were old enough to have a voice in our democracy. But what about today, when even younger Americans are finding themselves at the center of national political debates? Does it mean we should lower the voting age even further? This episode was reported and produced by Julia Longoria and Sarah Qari. Check out Latif Nasser's new Netflix show Connected here. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.