Application of an unmanned aerial vehicle in spatial mapping of terrestrial biology and human disturbance in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, East Antarctica


The McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica are a unique yet threatened polar biome. Cyanobacterial mats form a large part of the standing biomass in the McMurdo Dry Valleys and are therefore an indicator of ecosystem productivity and health. They are, however, patchily distributed, and this has hampered spatial ecology studies due to the logistical challenges of ground-based field sampling. Here, we report the application of remote sensing using a fixed-wing unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and GIS spatial mapping to identify cyanobacterial mats, estimate their extent and discriminate between different mat types. Using the Spalding Pond area of Taylor Valley as a test site, we were able to identify mats on soil surfaces within the hyporheic zone, as well as benthic mats below the water surface. The mapping also clearly identified the footprint of campsites and walking trails on soils, and we highlight the potential of this technique in monitoring human impact in this fragile ecosystem.

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The authors are extremely grateful to Antarctica New Zealand for field logistical support, and to staff at Air Traffic Control Services (Mac Centre, McMurdo Station, US Antarctic Program) for supporting our UAV flight program. The research was funded by the Institute for Applied Ecology New Zealand.

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Correspondence to Stephen B. Pointing.

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Barbara Bollard-Breen and John D. Brooks have contributed equally to this article.

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Bollard-Breen, B., Brooks, J.D., Jones, M.R.L. et al. Application of an unmanned aerial vehicle in spatial mapping of terrestrial biology and human disturbance in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, East Antarctica. Polar Biol 38, 573–578 (2015).

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  • Antarctica
  • McMurdo Dry Valleys
  • Conservation
  • Cyanobacterial mats
  • UAV
  • Unmanned aerial vehicle