A pilot study to estimate the population size of endangered Galápagos marine iguanas using drones

Andrea Varela-Jaramillo, Gonzalo Rivas-Torres, Juan M. Guayasamin, Sebastian Steinfartz, Amy MacLeod

Producción científica: Contribución a una revistaArtículorevisión exhaustiva

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Background: Large-scale species monitoring remains a significant conservation challenge. Given the ongoing biodiversity crisis, the need for reliable and efficient methods has never been greater. Drone-based techniques have much to offer in this regard: they allow access to otherwise unreachable areas and enable the rapid collection of non-invasive field data. Herein, we describe the development of a drone-based method for the estimation of population size in Galápagos marine iguanas, Amblyrhynchus cristatus. As a large-bodied lizard that occurs in open coastal terrain, this endemic species is an ideal candidate for drone surveys. Almost all Amblyrhynchus subspecies are Endangered or Critically Endangered according to the IUCN yet since several colonies are inaccessible by foot, ground- based methods are unable to address the critical need for better census data. In order to establish a drone-based approach to estimate population size of marine iguanas, we surveyed in January 2021 four colonies on three focal islands (San Cristobal, Santa Fe and Espanola) using three techniques: simple counts (the standard method currently used by conservation managers), capture mark-resight (CMR), and drone-based counts. The surveys were performed within a 4-day window under similar ambient conditions. We then compared the approaches in terms of feasibility, outcome and effort. Results: The highest population-size estimates were obtained using CMR, and drone-based counts were on average 14% closer to CMR estimates—and 17–35% higher—than those obtained by simple counts. In terms of field-time, drone-surveys can be faster than simple counts, but image analyses were highly time consuming. Conclusion: Though CMR likely produces superior estimates, it cannot be performed in most cases due to lack of access and knowledge regarding colonies. Drone-based surveys outperformed ground-based simple counts in terms of outcome and this approach is therefore suitable for use across the range of the species. Moreover, the aerial approach is currently the only credible solution for accessing and surveying marine iguanas at highly remote colonies. The application of citizen science and other aids such as machine learning will alleviate the issue regarding time needed to analyze the images.

Idioma originalInglés
Número de artículo4
PublicaciónFrontiers in Zoology
EstadoPublicada - 26 ene. 2023


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