Drones Used to Monitor Killer Whales for First Time, Offering Researchers New Insights

Researchers with the University of British Columbia have, for the first time, used drones to monitor the behavior of killer whales in an attempt to better understand their feeding patterns.

It is hoped that the footage will help researchers determine if endangered southern killer whales are getting enough of their preferred prey, the Chinook salmon.

“In order to help these whales, we need to know more about them – how they hunt, how they forage and where their food is,” said Andrew Trites, the research team’s lead and the director of the Marine Mammal Research Unit (MMRU) at the University of British Columbia. “This is the first time drones have been used to study killer whale behavior and their prey. It’s allowing us to be a fly on the wall and observe these animals undisturbed in their natural settings.”

Researchers monitored northern and southern resident killer whales off the coast of British Columbia. Southern resident killer whales are endangered, whereas the northern population has increased steadily since the 1970s.

“Observing both populations of killer whales means we’ll be able to compare the foraging conditions and hunting behaviors of the two groups and see whether it is more difficult for southern residents to capture prey,” said Sarah Fortune, a postdoctoral fellow at MMRU. Credit: UBC/Hakai Institute via Storyful