Drones (2023)

DOI: 10.3390/drones7070422


The social structure of animal populations is a fundamental component of their biology, influencing gene flow, habitat use, competition and co-operation around resources, and communication. However, ecological and social relationships can be challenging to describe in most marine mammals, who spend the majority of their lives underwater. The finless porpoise (Neophocaena asiaeorientalis) is one such cetacean species with a largely unknown social structure. Recent advances in drone technology enable more systematic surveys, photogrammetry, and photo-identification for diverse animal species. The present study aimed to validate new survey methods and provide a preliminary description of the spatiotemporal distribution of free-ranging finless porpoises in the coastal open-sea area of Ariake Sound, Japan. A vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) drone equipped with an action camera yielded GPS location datasets through line and area surveys, covering a total sea area of 120 km2. The results suggest highly flexible and varied aggregation sizes in finless porpoises. Distance analysis across individuals and aggregations revealed a cohesive tendency among groups, compared to solitaries and in pairs. Therefore, the present VTOL drone surveys both elucidated some social aspects of the study population and confirmed the efficacy of these standardized research protocols involving automated, programmed, and repeatable flight missions.