Measurements of body size and mass are fundamental to pinniped population management and research. Manual measurements tend to be accurate but are invasive and logistically challenging to obtain. Ground-based photogrammetric techniques are less invasive, but inherent limitations make them impractical for many field applications. The recent proliferation of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) in wildlife monitoring has provided a promising new platform for the photogrammetry of free-ranging pinnipeds. Leopard seals (Hydrurga leptonyx) are an apex predator in coastal Antarctica whose body condition could be a valuable indicator of ecosystem health. We aerially surveyed leopard seals of known body size and mass to test the precision and accuracy of photogrammetry from a small UAS. Flights were conducted in January and February of 2013 and 2014 and 50 photogrammetric samples were obtained from 15 unrestrained seals. UAS-derived measurements of standard length were accurate to within 2.01 ± 1.06%, and paired comparisons with ground measurements were statistically indistinguishable. An allometric linear mixed effects model predicted leopard seal mass within 19.40 kg (4.4% error for a 440 kg seal). Photogrammetric measurements from a single, vertical image obtained using UAS provide a noninvasive approach for estimating the mass and body condition of pinnipeds that may be widely applicable.
Krause, D. J., Hinke, J. T., Perryman, W. L., Goebel, M. E., & LeRoi, D. J. (2017). An accurate and adaptable photogrammetric approach for estimating the mass and body condition of pinnipeds using an unmanned aerial system. PLoS ONE, 12(11). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0187465