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.
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.