From bacteria, the smallest living species, to whales the largest marine mammals One marine biologist uses drones to connect these disparate species by focusing on the land and the sea. by Alicia Amerson
Vanessa Pirotta, PhD candidate at Macquarie University in New South Wales, Australia and her research drone.
Meet Vanessa Pirotta a marine biologist who is using drones to study bacteria found in whale snot.
Vanessa's drone pilot and engineer, Alastair Smith, from Heliguy Pty Ltd flies a drone over the whales waiting for a specific whale to come up to breath, better known as a blow. He then flies the drone into the large blow to collect the snot in a remotely operated flip lid petri dish located on the top of the drone.
Note: Modestly, Vanessa admitted that although it's fun to fly drones she did not have the particular skills for collecting whale snot. It takes a lot of flight practice to become accurate at collecting whale snot.
Last year at the Society for Marine Mammalogy Conference hosted in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada I met Pirotta, we shared an instant connection because we love drones, whales, and science communication. Through her research she is focused on sharing messages to promote marine mammal conservation by linking human's connection from land-based pollutant sources to the ocean.
Vanessa’s research is novel because she is first researcher to connect large whale migrations to local watersheds. Humpback whales in the Southern Ocean migrate from the foraging grounds in Antarctica, north to Australia during the winter. As the whales migrate past large cities along the Australian coast, Pirotta was curious if the bacteria found in watersheds next to large cities are the same bacteria found in whale snot.
In this interview she shares her experience in the field.
Vanessa's study site (indicated by black star on insert). All samples were collected in coastal waters (<3 nm) off Sydney, Australia. Blow samples were collected only from northward migrating East coast Australian humpback whales. Water samples were collected over a number of years from Port Hacking (indicated by star outside of insert).
How have drones changed the way you do research?
Drones have transformed the way many scientists undertake research. This is due to a number of factors such as drone accessibility, low cost, and safety compared with manned aircraft such as helicopters. For whale research, drones have made collecting biological health information from free swimming whales a much safer option. This eliminates the need for close boat approaches using a pole and collection device. For my research, we were able to fly our drone out to whales located over 200 metres or more away. We found whales did not respond to our drone when sampled. They either knew the drone was there and didn’t respond or didn’t even know it was there at all.
What is your favourite moment using drones in the field? The moment we caught out first sample of whale snot! I was so happy. There was a lot of cheering (and a few tears of happiness from me). This was the moment when we realised that our method works.
What challenges have you faced integrating drones into your research?
Working on the water and trying to collect samples from swimming humpback whales was a challenge.
Many off-the-shelf drones don’t like to launch and land on moving boats.
In addition, working around salt water means you need to keep all equipment clean.
Battery power was a limitation sometimes when sampling.
These challenges will likely improve as drone technology advances.
What tips do you have for other researchers who want to integrate drones for data collection?
Make sure you do your research first. Have a wide look at the current literature and see what has been done already. Think hard about how drones might be able to improve your research or do you just want to use drone because they are cool?
Previous literature will also help identify potential behavioural impacts on animals, challenges faced and overcome by other scientists in the field and also make future recommendations. This information is super important and all part of doing proper science. Also, make sure you have animal ethics and research permits if working on animals. What do you think is the future for drones in the marine mammal research field?
I think research like ours is just the start of what could potentially be done. I have already seen such a massive transformation since I started my PhD a few years back. Drones hold a lot of potential for making marine mammal research in the field almost completely non-invasive. It is up to us as scientists and drone enthusiasts to ask good research questions that will actually make a difference when we study marine wildlife.
Follow Vanessa’s drone research and marine mammal conservation projects on Twitter: @VanessaPirotta
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