Hundreds of drone videos used to record marine life off the Australian coast have been used by biological researchers to better understand the marine life.
The DroneSharkApp, described as an “amateur enthusiast platform” created by Jason Iggleden, films marine life in waters off Sydney year-round. Over 487,000 TikTok followers and 144,000 Instagram followers regularly watch videos of sharks, whales, rays, fur seals, dolphins and fish.
According to the app’s website, users can get real-time updates on beach conditions, sunrises, sharks getting too close to beachgoers, nearby local sea creatures, water clarity for divers and swimmers, schools of fish for fishermen, and waves for swimming or surfing.
Three researchers – Vanessa Pirotta, David Hocking and Robert Harcourt – recently used 678 wildlife videos posted to Instagram and analyzed from 432 observation days, all collected by Iggleden. The results were used to publish an article entitled “Drone Observations of Marine Life and Human-Wildlife Interactions off Sydney, Australia” on March 11 in the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute.
“Given the extensive effort and numerous records of the presence, behavior, and interactions of various species with humans provided by DroneSharkApp, we evaluated its usefulness in providing biologically meaningful observations of marine animals,” the researchers said.
Pirotta, a wildlife scientist at Macquarie University in Australia, wrote news week She said she first spoke to Iggleden about whales a few years ago. It was then that she and her co-authors saw the potential of drone footage in terms of scientific data.
“Our intention was to take the available information that is already being made available to the general public, ie via Instagram, and see what information this can provide to the scientific world,” Pirotta said. “In other words, we rated DroneSharkApp’s Instagram content [videos]to see if we could provide biologically meaningful observations of marine life. As we report, it worked.”
Data also helped counteract any perceptions in society, she added, such as the reputation sharks have had around the world since the film jaw was first published in 1975.
Drone video footage of a total of 94 feeding behaviors or events included 58 with fur seals, 33 with dolphins, two with great white sharks and one with a humpback whale. The app has documented 101 interactions between humans and sharks, “demonstrating the frequent, mostly benign, human-shark overlap on some of Australia’s busiest beaches”.
The app also provided researchers with multiple observations of humpback and minke whales with calves migrating north, which experts say suggested calving occurred “far south” of traditional breeding waters in northern Queensland.
Gray nurse sharks have been observed most frequently in close proximity to humans, according to the study, although they are not generally considered a threat to humans. Great white sharks, which are more dangerous, have only been observed three times over a three-year period, and only one of those observations involved a shark-human encounter within the same video frame.
“This confirms that the likelihood of encountering larger, typically offshore species, e.g. Great White Shark encounters are relatively low and consistent with the locally low number of shark bites and few animals caught under the shark meshing program fishing in the area,” the study notes.
Iggleden’s TikTok video updating followers about the research has been viewed 5.3 million times. It includes various clips highlighting various sea creatures, including a shark he named Norman, who is identified by a female swimmer frantically waving her arms to exit the scene.
“I’m so proud that all my hard work has been recognized in the world of science,” Iggleden said in the video’s caption.
the Sydney Morning Herald reported that he has been shooting with his drone seven days a week for four years “with hardly a day off”. He said he’s probably spotted hundreds of gray nurse sharks over thousands of hours of footage and given them names like Norman and others.
But he told the publication there was a greater meaning behind his intention.
“The big picture was that I wanted to help people,” he said. “I wanted to do something like a good show … but then talk about emotions and all these things, like helping people through life.”
His videos are not lost to any of his viewers.
“It really puts into perspective how big the ocean/this world is and we’re just a small part of it,” one TikToker commented on his video.
“The Australian comment makes it even better,” said another user.
As noted in the article, drones have offered both researchers and viewers a unique accessibility that is leading to a new sense of consciousness. It also concedes that the app’s endeavor “was never intended for science” and that without the contribution of the scientists, several limitations exist. Without formal guidance from scientists, this work faces several limitations.
Pirotta said drone technology allows scientists to learn more about marine life in the ocean.
“Citizen Science and scientists can work together to interpret observations of marine life to improve our biological understanding of marine animal data,” she said. “Sharks are part of natural marine ecosystems and, like other animals, they perform important ecological functions.”
Harcourt, a member of the Society for Conservation Biology’s Conservation Technology Committee at Macquarie University, wrote to Newsweek that drones are changing the way conservation research is done because they offer a new perspective.
“Due to the immense reach of social media, big data harvesting can provide observations of rare but important behaviors, such as B. interspecific interactions or changes in distribution distribution that are unlikely to be detected in other ways,” said Harcourt.
It’s important as it relates to conservation planning, he said, such as finding unusual species in areas where they’ve never been seen before. Or watch sharks and dolphins feeding together.
“This paper is literally a showcase of some of the diversity of interactions between marine animals in a large coastal city, and the paper suggests ways we can systematize and standardize future collaborations,” he said.
Future scientific collaborations may include animal ethics approval and scientific licenses, in addition to training and further involving citizen scientists for the publication protocol.
“Furthermore, exploring social attitudes towards marine life via social media platforms like Instagram can improve our understanding of followers’ interactions with different species and contribute to the growing field of ‘marine citizen science,'” the study states. “This may further increase beach safety awareness and our understanding of marine life off the Sydney coast.”
news week asked Iggleden for comment.