Tracking wildlife energy dynamics with unoccupied aircraft systems and three-dimensional photogrammetry
We present a novel application using unoccupied aircraft systems (UAS; drones) for structure-from-motion three-dimensional (3-D) photogrammetry of multiple, free-living animals simultaneously. Pinnipeds reliably haul out on shore for pupping and breeding each year, accompanied by dramatic female-to-pup mass transfer over a short lactation period and males lose mass while defending mating territories. This provides a tractable study system for validating the use of UAS as a non-invasive tool for tracking energy dynamics in wild populations. UAS imagery of grey seals Halichoerus grypus was collected at Saddle Island, Nova Scotia. A multirotor UAS was piloted in 360-degree orbits around relatively dense animal aggregations and georeferenced images were used for construction of a 3-D point cloud, orthomosaic and Digital Surface Model for animal volumetric measurements. Directly following UAS survey, a subset of adult females were hand-measured (morphometrics, blubber depth, n = 21 handlings [15 were unique animals]) and female–pup pairs were weighed (adult females: n = 32 ; pups: n = 33 ) to validate that UAS 3-D photogrammetric models provided accurate animal volume and mass estimates. UAS two-dimensional body length measurements were sensitive to animal recumbency and posture. The new UAS 3-D photogrammetric method overcame these constraints, and aerial-derived body volume measurements were equivalent to those collected from the ground. UAS body volume measurements precisely predicted ‘true’ body mass (mean absolute error, adult female: 3.8 kg, 2.1% body mass; pup: 4.1 kg, 9.8%), and exhibited a stronger relationship with total body mass than with blubber volume. The method was applied to 673 free-living animals to characterize volume and mass dynamics across lactation and breeding for a much larger sample size than would be possible using traditional ground methods. Indeed, 1–46 animals (M ± SE: 9.2 ± 1.2) were modelled concurrently within the focal area of a UAS flight. Application of the method also captured significant inter-annual variation in body volume/mass dynamics, and female-to-pup energy transfer efficiencies were lower when there was low sea ice extent. The UAS 3-D photogrammetric method presented in this study is likely to be broadly applicable to other species, and the ability to measure whole groups of free-living animals at once makes strides towards ‘weighing populations’.
Shero, MR; Dale, J; Seymour, AC; Hammill, MO; Mosnier, A; Mongrain, S; Johnston, DW
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