A new research paper, published in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution, examines the benefits of using drones to count wildlife instead of traditional methods. CNN detailed the research in a report yesterday.

The study included researchers from the University of Adelaide, the Australian Antarctic Division, the University of Tasmania and Monash University.

Counting individuals in a species or population is a fundamental part of wildlife conservation. Jarrod Hodgson, the paper’s lead author and a Ph.D candidate at the University of Adelaide’s School of Biological Sciences, explains:

“With so many animals across the world facing extinction, our need for accurate wildlife data has never been greater. Accurate monitoring can detect small changes in animal numbers. That is important because if we had to wait for a big shift in those numbers to notice the decline, it might be too late to conserve a threatened species.”

While drones have already been used to monitor some species, scientists have been unsure how accurately drones could count individuals. Hodgson’s team set up fake bird colonies using 2,000 decoy ducks, modeled after Crested Tern seabirds.

One group of experts counted the birds in a traditional manner, on the ground with binoculars and telescopes, while another counted the birds using photos taken by the drone.

Speaking to CNN, Hodgson explained:

“In a wild population, the true number of individuals is not known. This makes it very difficult to test the accuracy of a counting approach. We needed to test the technology where we knew the correct answer.”

The results from counts using drone photos were found to be more accurate than the traditional method. And since counts using the photos are so time consuming, the researchers also tested a computer algorithm to take counts from the photos, which they found to be nearly as precise as the results from the manual counts.

According to Hodgson, more research is needed to determine the effect of the presence of drones on wildlife.

“The results will help to refine and improve drone monitoring protocols so that drones have minimal to non-existent impact on wildlife. This is particularly important for species that are prone to disturbance and where traditional methods involving close proximity to species are not possible or desirable.”

The team also plans to use drones to monitor seal populations, and to track other elusive species.

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