New Tools for Monitoring Arctic Wildlife

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Christopher Felege and Susan Ellis-Felege examine a UAS that rests on the ground in a grassy field.

Hudson Bay Project researchers Christopher Felege and Susan Ellis-Felege preparing to launch an unmanned aircraft system (UAS).

© Hudson Bay Project


Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are an increasingly popular tool for wildlife ecologists because they can collect high-quality data in a short amount of time. But before they are put to full use in the Arctic, where traditional ground-based field work can be especially challenging, a research team led by scientists at the American Museum of Natural History and the University of North Dakota wanted to know how wildlife react to this new method of data collection.

“At the end of the day, UAS are tools,” said Andrew Barnas, a graduate student at the University of North Dakota and lead author of two studies that have been published in Polar Biology and Ecology and Evolution. “They are simply a different way of collecting data, and as a result they allow us to ask and answer different ecological questions. However, that does not mean UAS are a perfect solution to data collection, as there are many unknowns about the quality of data collected and potential impacts of UAS on wildlife.”

 

Susan Ellis-Felege and Andrew Barnas prepare a UAS for launch.

Hudson Bay Project researchers Susan Ellis-Felege and Andrew Barnas setting up for an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) survey.

© Hudson Bay Project


To address this question, members of the Hudson Bay Project, a decades-long effort to monitor the environment in the western Hudson Bay that includes Museum biologists, conducted a series of UAS surveys of polar bears and nesting lesser snow geese in Wapusk National Park in Manitoba, Canada. The researchers randomly selected geese nests and then set up ground-based video surveillance cameras to monitor behavioral activity during UAS flyovers. During a different set of UAS flights, the scientists were able to observe three polar bears from varying heights. In both cases, the research team recorded the general vigilance displayed by the animals—behaviors such as scanning and head-cocking by the geese and “head-ups” by the bears.

 

Aerial view of a bear.

A photo of a bear taken from an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) survey.

© Hudson Bay Project


The researchers found that the animals were generally aware of the aircraft as it flew overhead, but they determined that the flights did not appear to adversely affect either bears or geese. The studies, published in Ecology and Evolution (geese) on December 25, 2017 and Polar Biology (bears) on February 22, 2018, are among the first steps in the relatively low-disturbance use of UAS for ecological research in the Arctic.

“Understanding how the populations and distributions of species change over time is pivotal to understanding the effects of climate change, which is especially pertinent in the Arctic,” said Robert Rockwell, an author on both papers and a research associate in the Museum’s Division of Vertebrate Zoology. “In contrast to other survey methods like mark-recapture, piloted aircraft, and remote sensing, UAS-based studies make more sense financially and logistically, and they also are more aligned with the cultural values of Arctic residents while cutting back on physical risks to the researchers.”