Monday, 06 April 2020 10:22

Researcher uses drones to measure size of whales

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Grace Russell and Aisleen Dilks on board the Whale Song vessel, with the Centre for Whale Research, Western Australia. Grace Russell and Aisleen Dilks on board the Whale Song vessel, with the Centre for Whale Research, Western Australia. Courtesy: Southern Cross University

A doctoral candidate from Southern Cross University is using drones to measure the size of whales as she studies various aspects of the lifecycles of these denizens of the ocean.

Grace Russell use the drones to photograph whales from above and then takes their measurements from the pictures.

“I’ll use photogrammetry techniques to get morphometric (size and shape) measurements and individual body condition,” she said in a statement.

Russell will use the data to compare the whales’ body condition within different reproductive classes such as juveniles, adults, pregnant whales, lactating whales and calves. It will enable her to make comparisons between their northward and southbound migrations.

Funding for the study is provided by the Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment/Ecological Society of Australia. The study has been delayed by the COVID-19 outbreak but she hopes to start the field season on the east coast by early June.

grace russell

Grace Russell familiarises herself with a drone before using it to measure the size of whales. Courtesy Southern Cross University

Assessing the condition of a whale's body is one way to monitor health at both the individual and population levels.

“I am also aiming to compare the west and east coast populations of humpback whales, and how this may differ between the two putative (considered to be) distinct breeding populations,” Russell said.

Her research is being carried out in order to study how species respond to stressors in the environment so that scientists can help mitigate the negative impacts on population recovery, health and growth. Stressors are chemical or biological agents, environmental conditions, external stimuli or events that causes stress to an organism.

"Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) rely on endogenous (originating from within) energy to sustain reproduction and migration during a period of fasting," the statement said. "During this time, individual whales expend large amounts of energy for one of the most important life stages: breeding and calving. Body condition is a key descriptor of individual energy stores and can serve as a link to ecological fitness."

Prior to this, Russell has also studied heat dissipation behaviours in Australian desert birds, done an internship in China with giant pandas, volunteered in Africa with the Born Free Foundation, and processed data for an NGO in the Congo on western low land gorillas.


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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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