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Using unoccupied aerial vehicles to estimate availability and group size error for aerial surveys of coastal dolphins


Brown, Alexander M; Allen, Simon J; Kelly, Nat; Hodgson, Amanada J (2022), Using unoccupied aerial vehicles to estimate availability and group size error for aerial surveys of coastal dolphins, Dryad, Dataset,


Aerial surveys are frequently used to estimate the abundance of marine mammals, but their accuracy is dependent upon obtaining a measure of the availability of animals for visual detection. Existing methods for characterizing availability have limitations and do not necessarily reflect true availability. Here, we present a method of using small, vessel‐launched, multi‐rotor Unoccupied Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or drones) to collect video of dolphins to characterize availability and investigate errors surrounding group size estimates. We collected over 20 h of aerial video of dive‐surfacing behaviour across 32 encounters with the Australian humpback dolphin Sousa sahulensis off north‐western Australia. Mean surfacing and dive periods were 7.85 sec (se = 0.26) and 39.27 sec (se = 1.31) respectively. Dolphin encounters were split into 56 focal follows of consistent group composition to which example approaches to estimating availability were applied. Non‐instantaneous availability estimates, assuming a 7-sec observation window, ranged between 0.22 and 0.88, with a mean availability of 0.46 (CV = 0.34). Availability tended to increase with increasing group size. We found a downward bias in group size estimation, with true group size typically one individual more than would have been estimated by a human observer during a standard aerial survey. The variability of availability estimates between focal follows highlights the importance of sampling across a variety of group sizes, compositions, and environmental conditions. Through data re‐sampling exercises, we explored the influence of sample size on availability estimates and their precision, with results providing an indication of target sample sizes to minimize bias in future research. We show that UAVs can provide an effective and relatively inexpensive method of characterizing dolphin availability with several advantages over existing approaches. The example estimates obtained for humpback dolphins are within the range of values obtained for other shallow‐water, small cetaceans, and will directly inform a government‐run program of aerial surveys in the region.


Sea World Research and Rescue Foundation, Award: SWR/17/2017

Western Australian Department of Biodiversity Conservation and Attractions