Incorporating Photogrammetric Uncertainty in UAS-based Morphometric Measurements of Baleen Whales
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Increasingly, drone-based photogrammetry has been used to measure size and body condition changes in marine megafauna. A broad range of platforms, sensors, and altimeters are being applied for these purposes, but there is no unified way to predict photogrammetric uncertainty across this methodological spectrum. As such, it is difficult to make robust comparisons across studies, disrupting collaborations amongst researchers using platforms with varying levels of measurement accuracy.
In this dissertation, I evaluate the major drivers of photogrammetric error and develop a framework to easily quantify and incorporate uncertainty associated with different UAS platforms. To do this, I take an experimental approach to train a Bayesian statistical model using a known-sized object floating at the water’s surface to quantify how measurement error scales with altitude for several different drones equipped with different cameras, focal length lenses, and altimeters. I then use the fitted model to predict the length distributions of unknown-sized humpback whales and assess how predicted uncertainty can affect quantities derived from photogrammetric measurements such as the age class of an animal (Chapter 1). I also use the fitted model to predict body condition of blue whales, humpback whales, and Antarctic minke whales, providing the first comparison of how uncertainty scales across commonly used 1-, 2-, and 3-dimensional (1D, 2D, and 3D, respectively) body condition measurements (Chapter 2). This statistical framework jointly estimates errors from altitude and length measurements and accounts for altitudes measured with both barometers and laser altimeters while incorporating errors specific to each. This Bayesian statistical model outputs a posterior predictive distribution of measurement uncertainty around length and body condition measurements and allows for the construction of highest posterior density intervals to define measurement uncertainty, which allows one to make probabilistic statements and stronger inferences pertaining to morphometric features critical for understanding life history patterns and potential impacts from anthropogenically altered habitats. From these studies, I find that altimeters can greatly influence measurement predictions, with measurements using a barometer producing larger and greater uncertainty compared to using a laser altimeter, which can influence age classifications. I also find that while the different body condition measurements are highly correlated with one another, uncertainty does not scale linearly across 1D, 2D, and 3D body condition measurements, with 2D and 3D uncertainty increasing by a factor of 1.44 and 2.14 compared to 1D measurements, respectively. I find that body area index (BAI) accounts for potential variation along the body for each species and was the most precise body condition measurement.
I then use the model to incorporate uncertainty associated with different drone platforms to measure how body condition (as BAI) changes over the course of the foraging season for humpback whales along the Western Antarctic Peninsula (Chapter 3). I find that BAI increases curvilinearly for each reproductive class, with rapid increases in body condition early in the season compared to later in the season. Lactating females had the lowest BAI, reflecting the high energetic costs of reproduction, whereas mature whales had the largest BAI, reflecting their high energy stores for financing the costs of reproduction on the breeding grounds. Calves also increased BAI opposed to strictly increasing length, while immature whales may increase their BAI and commence an early migration by mid-season. These results set a baseline for monitoring this healthy population in the future as they face potential impacts from climate change and anthropogenic stresses. This dissertation concludes with a best practices guide for minimizing, quantifying, and incorporating uncertainty associated with photogrammetry data. This work provides novel insights into how to obtain more accurate morphological measurements to help increase our understanding of how animals perform and function in their environment, as well as better track the health of populations over time and space.
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