Researchers Are Creating a Drone to Study Wild Dolphins With Help From Trained Dolphins
By Jason Bruck
Human actions have taken a steep toll on whales and dolphins. Some studies estimate that small whale abundance, which includes dolphins, has fallen 87% since 1980 and thousands of whales die from rope entanglement annually. But humans also cause less obvious harm. Researchers have found changes in the stress levels, reproductive health and respiratory health of these animals, but this valuable data is extremely hard to collect.
To better understand how people influence the overall health of dolphins, my colleagues and I at Oklahoma State University's Unmanned Systems Research Institute are developing a drone to collect samples from the spray that comes from their blowholes. Using these samples, we will learn more about these animals' health, which can aid in their conservation.
The Old Ways Vs. the New Way
Today, researchers wanting to measure wild dolphins' health primarily use remote biopsy darting – where researchers use a small dart to collect a sample of tissue – or handle the animals in order to collect samples. These methods don't physically harm the animals, but despite precautions, they can be disruptive and stressful for dolphins. Additionally, this process is challenging, time-consuming and expensive.
My current research focus is on dolphin perception – how they see, hear and sense the world. Using my experience, I am part of a team building a drone specifically designed to be an improvement over current sampling methods, both for dolphins and the researchers. Our goal is to develop a quiet drone that can fly into a dolphin's blind spot and collect samples from the mucus that is mixed with water and air sprayed out of a dolphin's blowhole when they exhale a breath. This is called the blow. Dolphins would experience less stress and teams could collect more samples at less expense.
Some researchers already use drones to sample blows from large and small whales. But those animals are not easily startled and have huge blow fields that throw droplets far into the air and linger for a long time. Dolphin blows spray seawater, air and hormone-containing mucus from their blowholes at nearly 200 mph and last for about 0.3 seconds. Additionally, dolphins may have better hearing than humans and have eyes on both sides of their head that can see in both air and water. Good luck sneaking up on a dolphin.
Other teams have attempted to collect samples from dolphins using commercial drones, but it seems the animals' movements limit the success of these attempts with these devices.
Researchers work with trained dolphins to learn more about their sensory abilities, seen here testing a dolphin's hearing. Jason Bruck / CC BY-ND
A Lot to Learn From Hormones
When sampling the blow, we are looking for hormones in mucus as these can be used to gauge psychological and physiological health. We are specifically interested in hormones like cortisol and progesterone, which indicate stress levels and reproductive ability respectively, but can also help determine overall health.
Additionally, blow samples can detect respiratory pathogens in the lungs or nasal passages - blowholes evolved from noses after all.
This health analysis is especially important in areas with oil spills as the chemicals can cause hormonal problems that harm development, metabolism and reproduction in dolphins.
Hormone samples can provide scientists with valuable data, but collecting them from intelligent and unpredictable animals is challenging.
To build a drone that can stealthily collect spray from moving dolphins, we needed more data on their eyesight and hearing, and this is data that couldn't be collected in the wild nor simulated in a lab.
We worked with dolphins at facilities like Dolphin Quest in Bermuda, which provides guests opportunities to learn about dolphins while allowing scientists access to animals for noninvasive research. Here the dolphins can swim away if they choose not to work with us, so we had to design the study like a game; the way a kindergarten teacher entertains a class. If the dolphins aren't interested, we don't get to do the science.
Over the course of hundreds of sessions, we sought to answer two questions: What can dolphins hear and what can they see around their heads?
To test dolphin hearing, we set up microphones and cameras to record dolphin behavior as we played drone noise in the air. We analyzed the responses to each noise – such as how many dolphins looked at the speaker – and used these as a proxy for their ability to hear the sounds.
To test vision, we mounted lights inside a Hobermann sphere – the expandable rainbow plastic sphere you can see in the video above – that we can turn on and off. The dolphins were trained to whistle when they saw a light around their head. By turning on one light on at a time – which you can watch in this video – we created a map of the dolphin's field of view.
Next, we needed to understand the blow and a means to practice drone flights without a dolphin. To do this, graduate students built robodolphin, which includes a mechanical dolphin lung and replica of the blowhole.
Robodolphin doesn't look like a real dolphin, but it doesn't need to in order to train our drone pilots. C.J. Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND
To build robodolphin, we worked with dolphins trained to "chuff" or sneeze on command to measure spray characteristics. We used high-speed photography to see the dolphins' breath as it moved through the air. Then we conducted high resolution CT scans of a dolphin head and 3D-printed a replica of a nasal passage.
Now, we have a complete robodolphin and are tweaking its sprays to be nearly identical to the real thing. This will allow us to determine how close we need to get to collect the samples, and therefore, how quiet our drone needs to be.
The replica dolphin blowhole was designed from a scan of a real blowhole passage, and the spray it produces closely matches the real thing. Alvin Ngo, Mitch Ford and CJ Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND
A Bit of Practice, Then Into the Wild
In the next few months, we will test flights over robodolphin with existing drones to determine the timing and strategy for collection. From there, we will fabricate a low-noise drone that can fly fast enough and with sufficient maneuverability to capture samples from wild dolphins. Like a video game, we will use the visual field data to develop approach trajectories to stay in the visual blindspots.
We plan to test our drones on a truck-mounted robodolphin moving down a runway, then using a boat to simulate realistic conditions. The next steps will involve ocean testing with dolphins trained for open ocean swimming. These tests will determine if our devices can catch and hold the hormones as the drone flies back to a researcher's boat.
Finally, we will deploy the system to collect data on wild dolphins. Our first goal is to test resident dolphins – animals that live on the coasts and deal directly with boat and oil industry noise – which will allow us to learn more about stress resulting from human impacts.
Those samples are a way off, but if all goes well we will have a specially built drone capable of flying long distances and capturing samples undetected in a few years. The samples collected will allow researchers to do better science with impact on the animals they study.
Jason Bruck is a Teaching Assistant Professor of Integrative Biology, Oklahoma State University.
Disclosure statement: Jason Bruck has received conservation research funding from Dolphin Quest.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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By Kang-Chun Cheng
Modoc County lies in the far northeast corner of California, and most of its 10,000 residents rely on cattle herding, logging, or government jobs for employment. Rodeos and 4-H programs fill most families' calendars; massive belt buckles, blue jeans, and cowboy hats are common attire. Modoc's niche brand of American individualism stems from a free-spirited cowboy culture that imbues the local ranching conflict with wild horses.
The History of Horse Management<p>Before the 1950s, feral horses were largely unregulated in the U.S. They were released, grazed, captured, killed, sold, and otherwise <a href="http://www.blm.gov/sites/blm.gov/files/WHB-Report-2020-NewCover-051920-508.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">managed by local inhabitants</a> as they saw fit. Around that time, Velma Bronn Johnston, aka "Wild Horse Annie," started raising public awareness of the "perceived inhumane capture and treatment of free-ranging herds."</p><p>Thanks in part to Johnston's efforts, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was signed into law by President Nixon in 1971. It declared that the animals "shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this, they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands."</p><p><a href="http://science.sciencemag.org/content/341/6148/847.full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">This act</a> has been amended four times since its conception to accommodate the fluctuating opinions and conditions around maintaining a "thriving natural ecological balance on the public lands"—an admirable although highly subjective goal. Achieving it involves juggling competing interests: those of local residents, permanent grazers, hunters and fishers, advocacy groups, conservationists, and Indigenous tribes.</p><p>The Bureau of Land Management must manage these many conflicting interests. Modoc County's <a href="https://www.fs.fed.us/wild-horse-burro/territories/DevilsGardenPlateau.shtml" target="_blank">Devil's Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory</a> epitomizes the challenges of this task. Officially deemed wild horse territory, the garden consists of 258,000 acres and is wholly within permitted livestock allotments. It is also home to wildlife such as cougar, antelope, migratory birds, and aquatic species dependent on delicate high-desert riparian areas.</p><p>The presence of wild horses has been shown to <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S014019631530094X" target="_blank">decrease native wildlife species diversity</a> for both birds and mammals. Pronghorn antelope are an icon in Western grasslands, known for their annual 350-mile migration along historic routes estimated to be 5,800 years old. This awe-inspiring trek is one of the longest large-mammal migration corridors remaining in North America, but 75% of <a href="http://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2004.00548.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pronghorn migration routes</a> have already been lost because of disturbances from the accelerated leasing of public lands and energy development. Horses also affect the pronghorn's yearly migrations by <a href="http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S014019631630218X" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">monopolizing watering holes</a>, thus preventing native species from drinking.</p>
Indigenous Support for Ecological Balance<p>Ken Sandusky, a public information officer who has worked for the Forest Service in Modoc County for 13 years, lives by his station's mission statement: "Caring for the Land and Serving People." In his work, Sandusky aims to include the broad range of stakeholders and often acts as a tribal liaison. Sandusky himself is a member of the Choctaw tribe of Oklahoma, but as a Modoc native, is more culturally in touch with the local Klamath tribe.</p><p>When it comes to rangeland health, he says, there's a tangible split in what that actually means. "It depends on what you are measuring the outcome against," Sandusky explains. Range managers may perceive progress from a year-to-year basis, but to many Indigenous tribes, the baseline for "progress" goes back generations, to pre-contact times. "They have long memories," he says. "Tribes see damage that is a hundred-plus years in the making."</p>
A Willingness to Try New Things<p>"Americans don't know what's happening on these lands," says Suzanne Roy, the executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign, an advocacy organization. The Bureau of Land Management, she says, "is run by and for the livestock industry. They come from a ranching background. The term 'rangeland' management itself illustrates how livestock management is the dominant perspective."</p><p>Roy is particularly concerned about how resources are being allocated: "Policies of land management agencies don't reflect the desires and interests of the public." To illustrate, most Americans associate public lands with national parks and environmental conservation; only 29% of respondents to a recent poll considered livestock grazing an acceptable use of those lands.</p><p>Grazing on public lands certainly aligns with the financial interests of cattle ranchers and helps explain why they insist on increased wild horse management. Cattle can <a href="http://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RS21232.pdf" target="_blank">graze on public lands</a> for $1.35 per animal per month, while grazing on comparable private land costs ranchers $23 per animal per month (American taxpayer dollars make up the difference). To be fair, though, small-scale ranching would not be viable without public lands.</p><p>The campaign hopes to work toward more equitable resource allocation and improvements to overall habitats for horses and wildlife generally. "There are workable solutions to this issue," Roy says. "Common pushback from rangers is that new conservation strategies will 'destroy our way of life,' but change doesn't have to be bad."</p><p>The <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0362331994900264" target="_blank">social conservatism</a> intrinsic to human cultures makes change seem daunting and people reluctant to try new tactics even in the face of suboptimal systems. Roy uses a case in adjacent Marin County to illustrate: Until 2001, the county ran a USDA program focused on killing apex predators (e.g. coyotes, mountain lions, and cougars) in defense of livestock. Unfortunately, this strategy fails to take into account the science of predators. Killing one mountain lion, for example, creates a vacuum and will eventually lead to increased competition for this newly available territory. In 2001, Marin introduced a country-run program that promoted nonlethal methods such as fox lights, guard dogs, and fladry to deal with predator incidents while compensating ranchers for sheep and lambs lost to predation.</p><p>Ranchers were initially livid, concerned that bans on shooting and trapping hindered their rights, making them defenseless against livestock predation. But 15 years later, a majority agreed that this form of humane <a href="http://www.projectcoyote.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Camilla-Fox-Thesis-FINAL-January-2008.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">adaptive management </a>has successfully reduced both livestock losses and the total number of predators. Ensuring its continued success, the program requires active participation on behalf of all stakeholders and long-term commitment from the local government for support.</p><p>As one fifth-generation sheepherder, Gowan Batiste, explained in an interview to the <a href="https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/mendocino-county-rancher-and-others-calling-for-non-lethal-wildlife-management/ar-BB16CJ8g" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Ukiah Daily Journal,</a> "Livestock is a food of desperation for predators; the more you harass them and make life difficult for them, the more likely they are going to come into conflict with humans."</p>
Keeping Wild Horses in Check<p>When it comes to wild horses, many solutions are already in the works. Through annual autumn wild horse roundups, known as gathers, the Double Devil Wild Horse Corrals has become one of the U.S.'s most successful adoption sites. The California Cattlemen's Association, a nonprofit trade association and organization popular among ranchers in Modoc, urges its members to support the wild horse gathers in Devils Garden, saying they are humane, good for the horses themselves (since competition for scarce water and forage resources may instigate aggression and <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/j.1439-0310.1981.tb01930.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">herd violence</a>), and necessary to support local ranchers and Modoc's agriculture-reliant economy.</p><p>Another popular solution for controlling wild horse populations is a fertility-control vaccine called PZP, given to female horses on the range <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ur7w3UPTCsk" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">using dart guns</a>. Mares are tracked on foot or with game cameras while drones are used to locate more elusive herds. The PZP vaccine has been endorsed by the American Wild Horse Campaign as the "<a href="https://americanwildhorsecampaign.org/fertility-control" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">most promising strategy</a>" for managing wild horses in their habitats and is also recommended by the National Academy of Sciences. Importantly, a dose of the vaccine only costs $30.</p><p>Lastly, land acquisition and <a href="https://americanwildhorsecampaign.org/equitable-share-resources" target="_blank">grazing lease buyouts</a> can promote equitable sharing of public lands and available forage. Acquiring key pieces of land adjacent to or within federally designated wild horse habitat areas can reduce conflicts over resource allocation.</p>
A Global Search for Solutions<p>Pastoralists all over the world face similar land-use conflicts, despite huge variations in climate and culture. The ongoing situation across rural California resonates with that of Fulani cattle herders in Niger and Sami reindeer herders in the Arctic.</p><p>Herders everywhere are accused of having too many animals or are perceived as selfish and irresponsible by their own communities. Overgrazing is certainly an issue, but it's not simply the number of animals that matters: The <a href="https://savory.global/holistic-management/" target="_blank">amount of time</a> animals spend in a certain area is critical to rangeland health. And in the context of such allegations, the ecological value of grazing is frequently omitted. Grazers, both wild and domestic, <a href="https://www.yesmagazine.org/issue/food-everyone/2019/02/04/restoring-the-range-can-beef-be-earth-friendly/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are key to regulating soil health and allowing for species diversity and coverage, </a>as well as efficient carbon sequestration.</p><p>Part of the problem in these heated grazing debates is that moderate viewpoints are drowned out by extremist agendas—those who prioritize wild horse populations at all costs and those who want all of the horses gone, period. "The majority of people don't really have strong views about the horses," Sandusky says. "But the ones who do can get really into it." These unwavering views make it difficult to find compromises that account for all stakeholders.</p><p>"There is no biological problem, merely a social one," says professor Nicholas Tyler, a pastoralism expert at the University of Tromsø in northern Norway. Tyler maintains that in the case of horses and cattle in the West, as with so many others, the so-called equilibria argument is specious and quasi-biological. "Certainly a lot of horses will influence the species composition," he says. "Remove the horses, things change. Add horses, things change again. There is nothing magical about that."</p><p>But Tyler takes it one step further: "There never was, is, or will be a balance. There are shifting equilibria, which is something quite different," he says. "It is up to the community to decide which state of that equilibrium it prefers."</p>
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By Victoria Masterson
Using one of the world's problems to solve another is the philosophy behind a Norwegian start-up's mission to develop affordable housing from 100% recycled plastic.
Sustainable Homes<p>UN-Habitat says an <a href="https://unhabitat.org/un-habitat-aims-to-use-plastic-waste-to-support-housing-for-all" target="_blank">estimated 60% of people living in urban areas of Africa are in informal settlements</a>. At the same time, between 1990 and 2017, African countries imported around 230 metric tonnes of plastic, "which mostly ended up in dump sites creating a massive environmental challenge," the agency adds.</p><p>UN-Habitat deputy executive director, Victor Kisob, said the aim of the partnership with Othalo was to "promote adequate, sustainable and affordable housing for all."</p>
Artist's impression of an Othalo community, imagined by architect Julien De Smedt. Othalo<p>Othalo's process involves shredding plastic waste and mixing it with other elements, including non-flammable materials. Components are used to build up to four floors, with a home of 60 square metres using eight tons of recycled plastic. A factory with one production line can produce 2,800 housing units annually.</p><p>Following successful laboratory tests, Othalo's factory in Estonia has started producing components to build three demonstration homes for Kenya's capital, Nairobi; Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon and Dakar, the capital of Senegal.</p><p>Othalo founder Frank Cato Lahti has been developing and testing the technology since 2016 in partnership with <a href="https://www.sintef.no/en/" target="_blank">SINTEF</a>, a 70-year-old independent research organization in Trondheim, Norway, and experts at Norway's <a href="https://en.uit.no/startsida" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">University of Tromsø</a>.</p>
Othalo founder Frank Cato Lahti. Othalo<p>Almost <a href="https://www.un.org/development/desa/publications/2018-revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html" target="_blank">seven out of every 10 people in the world are expected to live in urban areas by 2050</a>. More than 90% of this growth will take place in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.</p><p>"In the absence of effective urban planning, the consequences of this rapid urbanization will be dramatic," UN-Habitat warns.</p><p>Lack of proper housing and growth of slums, inadequate and outdated infrastructure, escalating poverty and unemployment, and pollution and health issues, are just some of the effects.</p><p>Mindsets, policies, and approaches towards urbanization need to change for the growth of cities and urban areas to be turned into opportunities that will leave nobody behind, UN-Habitat says.</p>
Pioneers of Change<p>Reimagining cities and communities for greater resilience and sustainability was a key topic at the<a href="https://www.weforum.org/events/pioneers-of-change-summit-2020" target="_blank"> World Economic Forum's Pioneers of Change Summit 2020</a>.</p><p>The digital event brought together innovators and stakeholders from around the world to explore solutions to the challenges facing enterprises, governments and society.</p><p>Opening the summit, <a href="https://www.weforum.org/events/pioneers-of-change-summit-2020/sessions/opening-plenary-8f731cbc65" target="_blank">Stephan Mergenthaler, the Forum's Head of Strategic Intelligence and a member of the Executive Committee</a>, said: "We need to change the way we produce, the way we live and interact in our cities to make this transition to net-zero emissions a reality…</p><p>"And as this year has illustrated so dramatically, we need to make every effort that we keep populations healthy, if we want to avoid jeopardizing all this progress."</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/11/un-africa-recycled-plastic-housing/" target="_blank">World Economic Forum</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649069252#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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