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A pilot(less) study on the use of an unmanned aircraft system for studying polar bears (Ursus maritimus)

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Abstract

Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are increasingly popular tools for studying wildlife ecology. The non-invasive aspect of UAS and the ability to collect a large amount of high-resolution imagery should be of interest to polar bear (Ursus maritimus) researchers who face logistic challenges with field work and developing minimally invasive methods. We opportunistically observed the behavioural reactions of three adult male polar bears during UAS surveys in the summer of 2016. We recorded vigilance behaviours and compared them to previously published vigilance behaviours during wildlife-viewing activities by Dyck and Baydack (2004). The number of vigilance events was 13.4 ± 3.7 (SE) and vigilance bout lengths was 18.7  ± 2.6 s (SE), which is similar to reported results by Dyck and Baydack (2004). To estimate detection probabilities of polar bears from UAS imagery, we had two independent observers review mosaics and 80% of known bear locations were identified. Our preliminary results suggest that UAS are capable of detecting polar bears using RGB imagery in a relatively non-invasive manner. Before UAS can be integrated into large-scale polar bear studies, further research is required to formally assess behavioural impacts with unhabituated individuals in the wild, and model factors influencing detection probabilities.

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Acknowledgments

Funding was generously provided by National Science Foundation/North Dakota EPSCoR (#IIA-1355466, Project UND0019972), Arctic Goose Joint Venture, the Central and Mississippi Flyway Councils, North Dakota View Scholarship, UND College of Arts and Sciences, UND Biology Department. Permissions and in-kind assistance were provided by Parks Canada, Wapusk National Park Management Board, and the community of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. Wapusk National Park provided us with mapping files for the construction of Fig. 1. We would like to thank Trimble for in-kind assistance with the UX5 platform and auxiliary equipment. We are especially grateful for flight coordination and cooperation from Hudson Bay Helicopters and our helicopter pilot Justin Seniuk. We thank Tanner Stechmann and Samuel Hervey for their assistance in UAS imagery review. This manuscript benefited greatly from the input of the Editor-In-Chief and two anonymous reviewers.

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Correspondence to Andrew F. Barnas.

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The authors have no conflicts of interest or competing interests to declare. UAS flight operations were approved by Transport Canada in accordance with a Special Flight Operations Certificate (File: 5802-11-302, ATS: 15-16-00058646, RDIMS: 11717338), Wapusk National Park permit WAP-2015-18846, and the University of North Dakota Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee approval#A3917-01, protocol#1505-2.

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Barnas, A.F., Felege, C.J., Rockwell, R.F. et al. A pilot(less) study on the use of an unmanned aircraft system for studying polar bears (Ursus maritimus). Polar Biol 41, 1055–1062 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-018-2270-0

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-018-2270-0

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