Saturday, August 22, 2015

Drones and Conservation

Civil Drone FOX-C8-HD AltiGator- Wikipedia
Love them or hate them, drones are a hot topic throughout the world.  There is even a website devoted to the topic, conservationdrones.org.  As with many new drugs, first "it's a miracle cure" but a short time later "it will kill you!"  Now we are finding concerns about the use of drones in wildlife studies.

Drones are now used to monitor seabird populations, monitor elephant habitat, study marine habitat in Belize, and monitor wetlands in Scotland.  The greatest cause of mortality among the US Fish and Wildlife employees is small plane crashes during aral observation missions.  Retired military drones are now sparing their biologists hazardous plane flights while monitoring volcanoes, studying flood zones and tracking endangered wildlife.  In the tropical forests drones patrol to detect illegal logging.

The use of drones to monitor African wildlife and catch poachers has taken off but has attracted controversy.  Engineering and Technology Magazine has a major discussion of the issues including bans by many African governments.

With familiarity comes contempt as we start to recognize the downsides of this new technology.  Airline pilots are not the only mammals frightened by the proliferation of drones, they also bug the bears.

A report in  Discovery.com describes the results of a project which monitors bears.  They were studying bears in northern Minnesota, equipping them with GPS collars and cardiac biologgers capable of reporting their location and heart rate.  They logged 18 flights of five minutes each and noted that the bears did not seem bothered by the drones.  However their monitors showed a different story.
""Some of the spikes in the heart rate of the bears were far beyond what we expected," co-author Mark Ditmer of the University of Minnesota, St. Paul, said in a press release. "We had one bear increase her heart rate by approximately 400 percent -- from 41 beats per minute to 162 beats per minute. Keep in mind this was the strongest response we saw, but it was shocking nonetheless."
Another thing that bugs bears are ticks.  We have seen ticks on bears which have been trapped for collaring but now MDC is studying the tick burden in different seasons.  The initial summertime counts have gone from 200 to 1000!  That gives a whole new meaning to "ticked off."

Count the small white dots of engorged ticks
Some years back we had the opportunity to drift over elephants in a hot air balloon over the Serengeti.  These gentle giants were able to walk within a few feet of a Range Rover full of camera laden tourists but our balloon 100 feet overhead caused them to panic, trumpeting and breaking into a run.  Although they were the largest animals, seemingly oblivious to a wide variety of predators, a new threat from above spooked them.  We assume that wildlife ignores our aerial surveillance by planes and drones.  It seems that we have a lot to learn about wildlife.

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