Study: Giles, Anna B., et al. “Responses of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops spp.) to small drones.” Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 31.3 (2021): 677-684. https://doi.org/10.1002/aqc.3440
Drones are great! They revolutionized how we take videos and survey territories. But they also can get annoying. Imagine a drone gliding above as you walk down the street – would you try to get away from it?
Dolphins, as it turns out, do just that.
Spying from above
A team of scientists at Southern Cross University in Australia studied how dolphins respond to drones. Over three years, the researchers flew a drone over the coastal waters of New South Wales. When they saw dolphins frolicking in the waves, they descended the drone to a height between 5 and 60 meters and recorded a video.
When dolphins spotted a drone flying overhead, they often took a deep dive. This seems like a great strategy for getting away from drone paparazzi! Other drone-triggered dolphin behaviors included flopping over belly up and slapping their tails on the water.
The researchers noted that dolphins were much more likely to change their behavior if they were part of a large group. Lone dolphins did not care as much about strange flying objects invading their privacy.
On the fly
Dolphin populations dwindle around the world as victims of pollution and collateral damage of the fishing industry. Governments and protection agencies turn to drones as a means to protect dolphins and track them in the ocean. But how low can drones be flown?
The scientists had an answer. They observed that drones flying 30 meters above the water rarely triggered behavioral changes in dolphins. This distance – about the height of the Statue of Liberty head to toe – also seems to be alright with other marine animals like seals.
Along with dolphins’ behavior, drones can help track their numbers and where they live.
Drones have advantages over other methods of observation like boats. They are often cheaper to operate, and they also allow to study dolphins without disturbing them – as long as they are flown at least 30 meters above the water.
Now that our understanding of dolphins’ boundaries is more clear, it can help shape regulations on drone operation and protect dolphin populations.
I am a PhD candidate at Northeastern University in Boston. I study regeneration of the nervous system in water salamanders called axolotls. In my free time, I like to read science fiction, bake, go on walks around Boston, and dig up cool science articles.