Researchers learn drones cause major stress to bears

bear cub research
A group of researchers in Minnesota have found that the use of aerial drones in research can cause a significant biological response, if not an obvious one.

The study, published in the journal Current Biology, explained that the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have the “potential to revolutionize the way research is conducted. UAVs can access remote or difficult terrain, collect large amounts of data for lower cost than traditional aerial methods, and facilitate observations of species that are wary of human presence.“

But the scientists rightly decided it was important to understand what kind of stress the animals could be enduring with the presence of the UAVs – and the results surprised them.

The CBC spoke with lead researcher Mark Ditmer, who said the drones hovered 20 metres above bears that were GPS collared with heartrate monitors. What was shocking is that there was a physiological response – but not a behavioural one.

“For them to mostly stay in one spot, and have this racing heart rate, was a little bit of a surprise for us," Ditmer told the CBC. “It became strikingly obvious that we were seeing a pretty acute stress response that was pretty severe, at least in some cases."

The most significant change was a mother bear whose two cubs were nearby. Her heart rate jumped an uncanny 400 per cent when the drone hovered above her.

The original cause for many park managers to disallow the use of drones was the physical danger they represent to wildlife, as well as sensitive ecosystems. But it is now clear that these drones, also often used by hobbyists and photographers, could have much more significant consequences for wildlife. We hope that researchers and policymakers take note of this study – not just for its specific results, but for the lesson it leaves us with.

"Just because we're not noticing an animal changing behaviour, that doesn't mean there's not some sort of negative response happening," Ditmer said.

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