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Using Drones For Manatee Research And Conservation

There are over 300 manatees in this drone image! USFWS permit number of image: MA66527c and LOA PER0079137. Photo courtesy of Jamison Smith, Blue World Research Institute.
There are over 300 manatees in this drone image! USFWS permit number of image: MA66527c and LOA PER0079137. Photo courtesy of Jamison Smith, Blue World Research Institute.

By Dr. Beth Brady, Senior Conservation Associate

Drones have a wide range of applications, including aerial photography, security, mapping and surveying, and inspecting infrastructure. Additionally, they are now being used to study marine mammals, offering a low-cost alternative to traditional methods like airplanes. We’ve utilized drones for several purposes with manatees, including rescue operations, assessing the number of animals in an area, observing behavior, and evaluating body condition.

First and foremost, to be able to operate a drone to observe marine mammals, we have to obtain Federal Aviation Administration Part 107 licensure. Second, we work under a U.S. Fish and Wildlife permit, which specifically allows us to fly over manatees. Third, we fly at a height that will not disturb the manatee. The minimum altitude we fly at is about 100 feet. Finally, we avoid making frequent up-and-down, vertical movements with the drone, as these motions can disturb manatees.

One of the great things about drones is they give us a perspective that would be difficult to obtain from standing on land or on a boat. Drones aid us in locating manatees requiring rescue, enabling us to detect them quicker and allow for continuous monitoring while our colleagues work to rescue them. Images captured by drones can also aid us in counting the number of manatees. How many manatees can you count in the image below?

Drones facilitated our observation of manatee behavior during a research trip to Sian Ka’an, Mexico, where we examined the effects of wildlife tourism on Antillean manatees. By using drones, we could assess how manatees responded to the presence of small tour boats viewing them. One of our current projects involves utilizing drones to evaluate the physical condition of manatees. Along the east coast of Florida, a substantial decline in seagrass has led to a significant increase in manatee mortality and numerous instances of emaciated manatees. Drones can take pictures, and scientists can then extract measurements of animals from these images to estimate their body condition. This application will be particularly important along the East Coast, where it will help determine if manatees experience any changes in body condition due to seagrass restoration efforts. Moreover, this tool will allow us to assess the body condition of a greater portion of the population, especially when gathered in large groups at warm-water sites. While further refinement is needed to fully establish drones as a dependable means of estimating manatee health, their versatility is promising. We can also use drones to investigate seagrass coverage. Drones can effectively map small sections of seagrass and discern any changes in overall coverage within those areas. Drones are increasingly recognized as an indispensable conservation tool, offering solutions to numerous challenges confronting manatees.

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