Southern Cross University scientist turns to drones to assess humpback whales

Grace Russell hopes to examine if there is a relationship between whales' body condition and migration.
Written by Aimee Chanthadavong, Contributor

A Southern Cross University PhD candidate Grace Russell is turning to drones to help measure the size and assess the body conditions of humpback whales along Australia's east and west coast.

The drones will be used to capture vertical images of the whales from above. The images would be used to take measurements of the different classes of whales, such as juveniles, adults, pregnant whales, lactating whales, and calves.

"I'll use photogrammetry techniques to get morphometric (size and shape) measurements and individual body condition," Russell said.

The photographs would then be used to make a number of comparisons, she explained, including examining the relationship between the whales' body condition and the migration time between the west and east coast whale populations, and how the different classes of whales differ between northward and southward migrations.

"I'm hypothesising that there will be a different relationship between body condition and migration timing between the west and east coast populations," she said.

"This is because there are significant feeding opportunities where humpbacks have been observed feeding in Eden, Tasmania, and New Zealand. What these feeding opportunities mean for body condition and migration timing we are not too sure, but it will be interesting to see the results."

Image: Supplied/Southern Cross University

Assessing a whale's body condition would also be another way to monitor the health of each whale and the population level, which could potentially provide an understanding of a whale's foraging success and the relationship between reproduction and migration, she added.

"Improving our understanding of body condition in free-living whales can lead to improved knowledge on reproductive capacity, population health and viability, and understanding responses to environmental and anthropogenic changes. Despite its importance, little information is available on the relationship between humpback migration and body condition," Russell said.

Russell plans to start the first phase of her research on the east coast in early June.

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