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Are drones redeifining marine mammal research in the UK?

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Drones are an emerging technology within marine mammal research and are helping researchers to ID and assess the fitness of individuals in the field at a low cost. Quiet and highflying, the drones avoid scaring, or ‘flushing’ the seals away, allowing for quick and easy detailed analysis.

A few days ago I met up with Dr Line Cordes and Dr Jan Hiddink from the School of Ocean Sciences at Bangor University to talk more about the subject. The harbor seal population in the UK has declined by up to 85% in recent years and no one seems to know why: “we’re still unsure of what’s going on, so it’d be neat to look at fitness of animals, and potentially changes in fitness of animals near offshore developments like wind farms” explains Cordes. This is of particular relevance as a growing call for sustainable energy implementation will increasingly impact an already quickly declining species.

Seals are identified by unique spot arrangements in their fur, or pelage patterns. This has traditionally been achieved by looking through a pair of binoculars or sneaking up and catching seals on an often-cold October beach, during the breeding season; drones with mounted cameras are now offering a quick and easy alternative, especially in hard-to-reach areas such as offshore wind farms and sandbanks.
Increasing the amount of data is a clear benefit of drone usage in research, but also improving the accuracy, by producing high-quality photos of individuals. At a mere £3,000 (one GPS tag costs £4,000) and with little training required to use, they are already readily available to the average marine mammal researcher in the UK.

Nationwide research collaboration is required to better understand the harbor seal decline, Chordes explains. “Scotland is one of the only places in the world were individual-based studies of harbor seals are being carried out because their sandbanks are so inaccessible or seals are easily flushed. With the use of drones it would open up the possibilities of individual-based studies all around the UK, and from that over [3–4] years you can look at changes in survival rates or differences in survival rates between populations as well as reproductive rate.”

Collecting this data will help scientists better understand the dramatic decline in our seal populations and also the new role technology is playing in marine mammal research in the 21st century. You can listen to the full interview with myself, Dr Line Cordes and Dr Jan Hiddink on the Seren website.

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Jack Greenhalgh

Science Editor 2015/16

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