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Flightless Bird and Manless Flight

By Rich Press, NOAA Fisheries Science Writer | Posted: March 2, 2015
Follow Rich on Twitter: @Rich_NOAAFish

Flightless bird and manless flights: NOAA Fisheries scientists use an unmanned aerial vehicle to study penguins and other predators in Antarctica. Photo credit: Michelle Goh (used with permission)

Penguin Colony #29

“That was the last flight of the year,” said Doug Krause, who along with his colleague Jefferson Hinke was using an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, to photograph Penguin Colony #29. Both Krause and Hinke are NOAA Fisheries scientists and experts on Antarctic ecology.

This photo was taken during the Antarctic summer of 2013. A similar scene will play out in a few weeks as NOAA Fisheries scientists wrap up the current field season at their research station on Livingston Island, near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.

NOAA Fisheries scientists have been going to this research site every year since 1997 to study chinstrap penguins, Gentoo penguins, and Antarctic fur seals, among other things. Those species prey on krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures near the bottom of the food web.

They’re not the only ones preying on krill in Antarctica. Humans do as well. Krill are used in nutritional supplements like Omega-3 fatty acid pills and in feeds for poultry, pets, and aquaculture.

With so many species relying on krill, it’s important to make sure there’s enough to go around. That’s where the UAV comes in.

“We use penguins and fur seals as indicator species, to gauge the effect that krill fishing has on predator populations and on the larger ecosystem,” said Krause.

Using the UAV, scientists can accurately count the animals. They can also monitor reproductive rates and, in the case of seals, analyze body condition—basically, whether the animals are fat or thin—to see if they’re getting enough to eat.

The Antarctic krill fishery takes place in international waters and is managed by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, of which the United States is a member. That’s why our scientists are down there.

Safer for Everyone Involved

A traditional survey involves a pair of biologists walking among the animals to get visual counts. “We’re trained professionals and do this with great care,” Krause said, “but it’s impossible to do without disturbing the animals at least a little bit.”

The UAV, on the other hand, hovers quietly above the animals without disturbing them.

Aerial counts are also easier on the scientists, said Mike Goebel, who leads pinniped studies for NOAA Fisheries’ Antarctic Ecosystem Research Division.

“For years I rode a zodiac to land on islands and count animals,” Goebel said. “But a lot of the islands have no beaches, just cliffs with waves crashing against them. It can be dangerous work.” So dangerous, in fact, that many islands—and the tens of thousands of animals on them—could not be included in the census.

So far, scientists have been conducting both UAV and traditional ground-based surveys at the same time, to ensure that the new technique produces accurate numbers.

“We’ve found that aerial counts are as good as ground counts or better,” Krause said. “And they’re a lot safer for everyone involved. For us and for the animals, too.”

More Information

Recently published in the journal Polar Biology:
"A Small, Unmanned Aerial System for Estimating Abundance and Size of Antarctic Predators"

NOAA’s Antarctic Marine Living Resources Program

License To Krill: A Story About Ecosystem-Based Management

UAVs give NOAA Scientists a New Perspective