8 May 2019


Chris Johnson

Senior Manager, WWF Antarctic program

WWF works with innovative science teams around the world to conserve and protect Antarctica. Some of these young, up-and-coming scientists are developing and using innovative technology and techniques to study a range of priority species, including whales and penguins. Here are some of the teams I worked with throughout the past year. Their enthusiasm is a reason to give hope for Antarctica’s future.

KC Bierlich – Polar drone pilot

KC Bierlich, Polar drone pilot
© Chris Johnson / WWF-Australia

My name is KC Bierlich, and I’m a PhD student at the Duke University Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Lab. I grew up in California, where I became fascinated with the ocean at an early age. I’m currently using drones to study growth, development, and body condition in humpback and Antarctic minke whales along the Western Antarctic Peninsula.

Operating drones in Antarctica

As a drone pilot studying baleen whales in Antarctica, I’m fortunate to have the unique experience of viewing these amazing animals from the sky. Drone technology can reveal a lot about whales. For instance, while from a boat it may appear that only two minke whales are at the surface, from a bird’s-eye view I can see there’s actually a group of five whales swimming playfully together. From this perspective, I can observe an extra level of detail and behaviour that can’t be seen from a boat. This might include a minke whale showing its athleticism with a barrel role, a humpback whale calf receiving milk from its mother, or a group of feeding humpbacks working together to form a bubble net.

Images of each animal are collected with sub-centimetre pixel resolution (that’s incredibly high resolution), enabling our research group to identify individual whales and understand their health. Images allow us to measure the type and number of scars on their backs and to determine how much volume each whale gains over the feeding season. This means we can estimate the amount of fat stores needed to support migration and reproduction.

Flying drones isn’t always easy as I’m often flying from a moving boat, following a moving whale! It takes a lot of practice, training, and preparation to be able to collect this valuable data.

Clara Bird – Using AI to study penguins

Clara Bird, Antarctic Researcher
© WWF-Australia

My name is Clara Bird, and I’m Research Assistant at Duke University Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Lab. I recently graduated with a B.S. in Biology and Environmental Science at Duke. My work focuses on developing tools to study penguins and whales off the Western Antarctic Peninsula.

Creating algorithms to count penguins using drones.

Adelie penguins are an important indicator species for the Western Antarctic Peninsula. It’s important to closely monitor this species because we gain valuable insight into their environment and how their populations have changed. This usually takes the form of population surveys, with the most common method involving scientists counting by hand while walking across the rocky terrain of the breeding colonies.

By incorporating the use of fixed-wing drones, we can help increase the efficiency and accuracy of population surveys. A drone can cover an entire island of breeding colonies in under half an hour. This alone reduces the effort needed and opens the door for more frequent surveys. That being said, some of these islands have over 60,000 penguins, so it can take an analyst weeks to count penguins manually from drone imagery. By developing algorithms and using multispectral and thermal imagery to automatically count penguins, we further reduce the time it takes to manually conduct population surveys as well as the amount of human error. This is particularly important for improving data quality consistency over a long time series.

By improving population surveys using drones and semi-automated algorithms, we can help contribute to our understanding of changes in this important and iconic Antarctic species.

Scroll to the bottom of this article for the science behind how Clara’s research.

Logan Pallin – Developing a pregnancy test for whales

Logan Pallin, Antarctic researcher
© Chris Johnson / WWF-Australia

My name is Logan Pallin, and I’m PhD student in the Friedlaender Lab at University of California, Santa Cruz. My work involves studying populations of southern hemisphere humpback whales and exploring how changing environmental conditions affect populations.

Determining pregnancy rates in Antarctic humpback whales.

Populations of humpback whales in the southern hemisphere are recovering after intense commercial whaling during the last century. Along the Western Antarctic Peninsula, this recovery is occurring in an environment that’s experiencing the fastest warming of any other region on the planet. This situation provides a valuable backdrop against which we can assess the interplay between population recovery and environmental change.

Over the last three years, I’ve worked with teams around the world to develop biochemical techniques to detect and monitor pregnancy in free-swimming humpback whales in the Southern Ocean. Want more science? 

To date, I’ve assessed pregnancy in over 400 female Antarctic humpback whales, much of which would not have been made possible without the continued support of my lab mates, mentors and other collaborators around the world who’ve contributed samples, data, and intellect to this ongoing investigation.

Scroll to the bottom of this article for more detail on how Logan assesses pregnancy in whales. 

Michelle Modest - Visualising scientific data

Michelle Modest, Antarctic Researcher
© WWF-Australia

My name is Michelle Modest, and I’m a PhD student in the Friedlaender Lab at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I’m a bit of an oddball in the world of science. I was born to an artist and an engineer and was a Film Studies major at Yale – clearly not the stereotypical path to a PhD in Biology. However, this unconventional background has allowed me to have a unique perspective and provide my own contributions to the field.

Digital tag data can help tell a story through infographics for policymakers

Scientists primarily communicate through the language of scientific journals. However, when it comes to communicating with the general public, it’s important that this research is easy to digest. One way to do this is through the use of clear imagery.

Currently, in the Friedlaender lab, we’re researching areas in the Western Antarctic Peninsula that are particularly critical for humpback whale foraging. We’re trying to find effective ways to communicate this information to policymakers who oversee krill fishery legislation. Through the use of satellite tag data-derived animal movement models and programs such as Photoshop, it’s possible to create visually appealing and clear maps of animal tracks that can communicate years' worth of research in just a single snapshot.

Together with Chris Johnson of WWF, I visualised 10 years of satellite tag data from the lab to produce infographics in the recent WWF-UCSC report Whales of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Presenting information in this way is a powerful communication tool that can be used to influence policy and safeguard the Antarctic Peninsula.

Want more science?

  • A hexacopter is a six-propeller drone with two more motors and propellers than a quadcopter. They’re also more powerful, which means that they’re generally able to carry heavier payloads and are more stable in the air.
  • GIS stands for geographic information system – it’s a framework for gathering, managing, and analysing data.
  • Clara’s penguin population survey has focused on developing a semi-automated GIS algorithm to count individual penguins using multispectral and thermal imagery. The algorithm uses multispectral imagery to isolate individual colonies and thermal imagery to count the number of penguins within each colony. I then created a series of GIS tools from this algorithm so that it can be shared with other scientists and used on other drone-based surveys.
  • In order to determine pregnancy in female humpback whales, Logan collects skin and blubber biopsy samples from individual whales. Using a series of biochemical techniques, progesterone, also known as the “hormone of pregnancy,” is isolated from the blubber layer of the biopsy sample. Once the concentration of progesterone in each sample has been determined, these concentrations can be related to animals of known pregnancy status.

To learn more about our work in Antarctica visit wwf.org.au/what-we-do/oceans/antarctica.

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