Animal conservationists use a variety of different techniques to survey vast landscapes and gather animal population data. Many conservationists conduct their surveys on foot, but given some of the world’s more challenging terrains, surveying by foot isn’t always possible.
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As you might come to expect, animals of interest tend to inhabit these so-called challenging terrains. While the human body might not be adept enough to navigate through these terrains efficiently, other animals are better suited. Birds, for example, can effortlessly glide around, while smaller animals can easily slide through dense forests and other obstacles.
Given just how problematic it can be to survey specific landscapes, conservationists regularly harness the power of technology to help with the job. Drones, for example, can provide a birds’ eye view of the ground below; however, many criticize this technique, claiming that drones are noisy and a disturbance to surrounding wildlife.
But does the latter argument hold any water? And if so, are the trade-offs worth it if we can obtain precise animal population data in challenging terrains?
To help answer this longstanding question, a team of curious researchers implanted heart monitors in five captive black bears and gauged their heart rates as they were exposed to drone-related activities. Their findings, published just this week in the journal Conservation Physiology, suggest that some animals may habituate to repeated drone exposure over time.
In an attempt to take the bears by surprise, the researchers spaced out their drone exposure experiments as arbitrarily as they could. Some exposure sessions were virtually back-to-back, while others were spaced out by as long as 118 days; this sporadic methodology removed the element of expectation from the experiment.
Initially, the researchers observed higher heart rates in the bears during drone exposure, an indication of stress response to strange circumstances; however, they displayed increased tolerances over time, both in the short-term and in the long-term. Also, the bears allegedly maintained this tolerance even after the 118-day break from drone exposure.
"It's important to note that the individual bears in this study did show a stress response to the initial drone flights," explained Mark Ditmer, the study’s lead author. "Close-proximity drone flights near wildlife should be avoided without a valid purpose. However, our findings do show that drone use in conservation, for things such as anti-poaching patrols, can provide benefits without long-term high- stress consequences."
The findings suggest that while some animals might seem wary of drone-related activities at first, they’ll grow accustomed to it over time. On the other hand, the testing pool was limited only to black bears, which are already somewhat social animals to begin with.
Regardless, it’s a step in the right direction, and future studies should follow the same footsteps if they are to test similar responses in other animals. Perhaps after a few more experiments involving unrelated animals, we will finally begin to understand the impact drones have on the fragile ecosystem we observe with them.