Quantifying the age structure of free-ranging delphinid populations: testing the accuracy of Unoccupied Aerial System photogrammetry

Fabien Vivier*, Randall S Wells, Marie C Hill, Kymberly M Yano, Amanda L Bradford, Eva M Leunissen, Aude Pacini, Cormac G Booth, Julie Rocho-Levine, Jens J Currie, Philip T Patton, Lars Bejder

*Corresponding author for this work

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Understanding the population health status of long-lived and slow-reproducing species is critical for their management. However, it can take decades with traditional monitoring techniques to detect population-level changes in demographic parameters. Early detection of the effects of environmental and anthropogenic stressors on vital rates would aid in forecasting changes in population dynamics and therefore inform management efforts. Changes in vital rates strongly correlate with deviations in population growth, highlighting the need for novel approaches that can provide early warning signs of population decline (e.g., changes in age structure). We tested a novel and frequentist approach, using Unoccupied Aerial System (UAS) photogrammetry, to assess the population age structure of small delphinids. First, we measured the precision and accuracy of UAS photogrammetry in estimating total body length (TL) of trained bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). Using a log-transformed linear model, we estimated TL using the blowhole to dorsal fin distance (BHDF) for surfacing animals. To test the performance of UAS photogrammetry to age-classify individuals, we then used length measurements from a 35-year dataset from a free-ranging bottlenose dolphin community to simulate UAS estimates of BHDF and TL. We tested five age classifiers and determined where young individuals (<10 years) were assigned when misclassified. Finally, we tested whether UAS-simulated BHDF only or the associated TL estimates provided better classifications. TL of surfacing dolphins was overestimated by 3.3% ±3.1% based on UAS-estimated BHDF. Our age classifiers performed best in predicting age-class when using broader and fewer (two and three) age-class bins with ~80% and ~72% assignment performance, respectively. Overall, 72.5%–93% of the individuals were correctly classified within 2 years of their actual age-class bin. Similar classification performances were obtained using both proxies. UAS photogrammetry is a non-invasive, inexpensive, and effective method to estimate TL and age-class of free-swimming dolphins. UAS photogrammetry can facilitate the detection of early signs of population changes, which can provide important insights for timely management decisions.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere10082
Number of pages18
JournalEcology and Evolution
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 26 Jun 2023


  • Population
  • Conservation
  • UAS
  • Drone
  • Precision
  • Demography
  • Photogrammetry
  • Dolphin


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