Darwin Drones – monitoring the Galapagos using drones

March 2020

We are using Unmanned Aerial Aircrafts (UAVs) – also known as drones – to monitor marine iguanas from the skies and improve their conservation. Soon you may be able to help – we plan to ask volunteers to count the iguanas from our aerial images on Zooniverse.org. So watch this space or check back on Zooniverse in the next weeks to join in once the project is launched. If you want to find out more, then please keep reading below or check out our new website at : http://www.iguanasfromabove.com.

Sample image from the drones at Isla Lobos, on San Cristobal Island

The Galapagos Islands are world famous for their unusual biodiversity, and the endemic wildlife of the islands inspired Darwin’s ideas on Evolution. The unique species found here continue to delight naturalists, and the archipelago is now a world heritage site. Efforts to protect its natural treasures are strenuous. However, exponential levels of growth are forecast for numbers of both tourists and permanent residents, and the many challenges brought about by a changing climate may prove disastrous for the biodiversity of the islands. It is vital that we use all means at our disposal to monitor the wildlife here and take the necessary steps to protect it.

A male marine iguana from San Cristobal Island

The marine iguana is a famous and well loved species of the Galapagos. It is found nowhere else on earth (not even in zoos!). The species as a whole is endangered, and the 11 subspecies are even more threatened, due to invasive species, marine pollution and climate change. The single biggest challenge in marine iguana conservation lies within the lack of data on the location, size, and health of colonies. Better population estimates are urgently needed to support the management work of the local authorities. However, the marine iguana is found on all islands and a full population survey by traditional means is extremely expensive and time-consuming – this is why it has never been done. We aim to address this problem using technological advances in UAVs (drones). We can launch these UAVs from boats, collect photographs in the field and from these count the iguanas at a later time.

Catching the returning UAV from the boat

We have already undertaken a small pilot project in January 2020, where we surveyed Santa Fe and San Cristobal islands. This fieldwork was very successful and we are currently processing the images we collected to count the iguanas. We will do this in a few ways, including counts by our team of experts, counts by the volunteers at Zooniverse.org, and using machine learning. Ultimately, we are developing a safe, cost-effective and cost-efficient way to gain marine iguana population size estimates; the goal is that this method can be used to collect regular data so we can see how the populations are doing and whether some might need more protection. The project is based at the University of Leipzig in Germany. We are currently seeking funds for the next stage of the work which will involve surveying the entire archipelago. Please do get in touch if you would like to help.

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