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  • Writer's pictureBeth Priday

Wildlife Drones- Turtle nest monitoring, Osa Conservation

Osa Conservation work in the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica, within a highly biodiverse stretch of the Costa Rican coastline backing on to dense jungle habitat. The Osa Peninsula has been named by the National Geographic as “the most biologically intense place on earth”. Osa Conservation work to conserve and research the plethora of species found in this region, from jaguars to sea turtles; the latter species being the topic of conversion in this blog post.

Researchers and conservationist from Osa Conservation set out to test the first trial of using a drone mounted thermal infrared (TIR) sensor for nocturnal sea turtle monitoring. The team found that they could monitor:

  • Tracks of different turtle species

  • Detection of sea turtle hatchlings

  • Other wildlife

  • Potential poachers

By utilising this innovative aerial methodology, researchers found significant improvements to their data collection. The drone and observer detected 20% more sea turtles or tracks, 39 other animals/predators and 3 potential poachers that patrollers failed to detect by using this aerial method compared to their traditional ground based patrol methods.

So how does the monitoring work?

Osa conservationists mounted a TIR sensor to a drone, which was then controlled by an operator/pilot. The equipment used was a Autel Robotics EVO II Dual 8K Drone, coupled with the Autel Explorer App on a smartphone for viewing the TIR images during the flight. TIR sensors collect imagery and data, even in the absence of light. So, when sea turtles are most active in their nesting behaviours, at night, this technology can record the data the team need.

TIR works by highlighting the difference in temperature between animals and their surroundings.

FIGURE 2 Still captures from the video imagery of the TIR-drone of (A) olive ridley turtle emerging from the sea, from a drone height of 60 m, (B)olive ridley camouflaging its nest, from a height of 4 m, (C) olive ridley turtle returning to the sea after nesting (blue arrow identifying its nest and white arrow identifying the turtle), from a drone height of 15 m, (D) olive ridley sea turtle track, (E) green sea turtle track with the front flipper marks that line up in pairs (blue arrow identifying the downward track and a white arrow identifying the upward track), (F) animal walking on the beach (identified by a white arrow) after predating a turtle nest (identified by a blue arrow), (G) two sea turtle team members patrolling the beach. Photos (D–G)were zoomed in. Credit:

The use of TIR data in this research is perfect for improving their traditional ground based human patrol methods. As previously mentioned, this aerial perspective, coupled with the use of TIR led to an increase in available data collected.

This figure below highlights a few key values to show the difference between the human-based ground and drone methodologies found during this study at Piro Beach.

Interview with Osa Conservation

We spoke to Bárbara Sellés Ríos (pictured below), Sea Turtle Conservation Program Coordinator at Osa Conservation, who worked on this project. Bárbara very kindly answered a few questions for us; here is what she said...

- How have drones improved your conservation management/research at Osa? As a pilot proof of concept study and based on the scarce research that existed on the use of a drone-mounted thermal infrared sensor for sea turtle night monitoring, we firstly aimed to shed light on the potential of this novel technology. In the next year, we will implement our drone during night patrols and will also try it on other nesting beaches to keep investigating the parameters that affect detection and further uses. - Is it easy to perform these surveys? Yes, very easy once you have programmed the route and established the drone speed and camera modes (gimbal angle, height, etc). The drone battery is a limiting factor for the survey distance and this needs to be considered too to program the route. - What is your opinion on drones being used in conservation? At first I was a bit reluctant to use drones to monitor sea turtles at night because I was used to believing that traditional methods were the only ones that should be used and that technology could never replace them. I still think that drones cannot replace patrollers, but they can be their best ally to avoid long and demanding walks on the beach when there is no nesting activity or to deter poachers, among other things.

The team have published an open access paper, along with accompanying photos, on this specific study.

Photos from the field...

The team at Osa Conservation are doing fantastic and innovative work to conserve the wildlife of their biodiverse peninsula. Please take a look at their website and instagram page to check out more of their inspiring work.

Thank you for reading!


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