Preliminary study on nesting Adélie penguins disturbance by unmanned aerial vehicles
The importance of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in remote sensing is rapidly growing. However, knowledge about their potential impact on wildlife is scant, especially in Antarctica, where they are a new tool used in ecological research and monitoring.
In this preliminary study potential effects of wildlife disturbance by fixed-wing UAVs are investigated. In austral summer 2014/15, UAV overflights were conducted in the Adelié penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae) breeding colony at Point. Thomas (Western Shore of Admiralty Bay, King George Island, Antarctica, Subarea 48.1). The impacts of electric and piston engine UAVs flying at 350 m altitude above ground level (AGL) over the colony were compared to the undisturbed colony (control group), and to natural disturbance (skua – Stercorarius sp. flying over nesting penguins). Penguin behaviour was divided into: resting behaviour, comfort behaviour, vigilance/anxiety and aggression. Percentages of birds exhibiting different types of behaviour, time spent on each type of behaviour and number of different types of behaviour displayed by one bird during the observation periods were compared. No differences were found between the control group and overflights by electric UAVs. During the overflight by a UAV powered by piston engine, symptoms of vigilance were observed with penguins looking up and around for a few seconds when the UAV was overhead. Similar symptoms of vigilance were observed when skuas flew (approximately 5 m AGL) over penguin colony without trying to attack nesting birds. No increase in aggressive behaviour was observed during the overflights by either electric or piston engine UAVs. Plans for a systematic monitoring of UAV impact on wildlife, as well as preliminary guidelines for the next field season, were formulated.