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ESR prepress abstract   -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/esr01007

Using small drones to photo-identify Antillean manatees: a novel method for monitoring an endangered marine mammal in the Caribbean Sea

Sarah Sofía Landeo-Yauri*, Eric Angel Ramos, Delma Nataly Castelblanco-Martínez, Carlos Alberto Niño Torres, Linda Searle

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Population assessments and species monitoring for many endangered marine megafauna are limited by the challenges of identifying and tracking individuals that live underwater in remote and sometimes inaccessible areas. Manatees can acquire scarrings from watercraft injury and other incidences that can be used to identify individuals. Here we describe a novel method for photo-identification of Antillean manatees Trichechus manatus manatus using aerial imagery captured during flights with a small multirotor drone. Between 2016 and 2017 we conducted 103 flights to detect and observe manatees in Belize, primarily at St. George’s Caye (SGC) near the Belize Barrier Reef. Review of aerial videos from these flights resulted in 279 sightings of manatees (245 adults, 34 calves). High-resolution images of individual manatees were extracted and classified according to image quality and distinctiveness of individual manatee for photo-identification. High-quality images of manatees classified as sufficiently distinctive were used to create a catalog of 17 identifiable individuals. At SGC, 21% of all sighted adult manatees (N = 214) were considered photo-identifiable over time. We suggest that the method can be used for investigating individual site fidelity, habitat use and behavior of manatee populations. Our photo-identification protocol has the potential to improve long-term monitoring of Antillean manatees in Belize and be applied throughout clear, shallow waters in the Caribbean and elsewhere.