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Assessment of the accuracy of counting large ungulate species (red deer Cervus elaphus) with UAV-mounted thermal infrared cameras during night flights

Frank, Zabel; Findlay, Melanie; White, Patrick James Ciaran


Zabel Frank

Melanie Findlay


Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are increasingly used in wildlife surveying, including estimation of population densities. It is essential that we evaluate and test new survey methods to guide optimal sampling strategies. This study aimed to assess the accuracy of using a UAV-mounted thermal infrared (TIR) camera to count red deer Cervus elaphus populations, and how this was influenced by flight season, height and velocity, in order to help guide future census design. We flew 57 flights across a captive population of red deer in a 13 ha deer park enclosure of semi-natural habitat, representative of the species' range in northern Germany. Flights and image assessments were performed with no prior knowledge of actual population size. Accuracy was quantified by comparing real population size (known only to deer park staff) and independently estimated population sizes from UAV TIR images. Accuracy was significantly influenced by ecological season (early and late winter, spring and early summer) and height. Across all seasons, lower flights (100 m) performed better than higher ones (120 m), with lower flights in early winter and early summer being on average accurate to within 1% of actual population counts. For the season where we had the largest range of temperatures between flights (late winter) we found that accuracy was highest when temperatures were lowest. Flights were also able to identify all five stags (defined as a male deer ≥ 2 years old) present in early summer, but not in spring. Deer appeared to avoid the landing/take-off area, but there were no noted behavioural responses to drones flying over animals when at constant height and velocity during surveys. Our results indicate that UAV-mounted TIR camera have the potential to accurately count populations of large ungulate species, but that flight season, height and potentially temperature need to be taken into account to maximise accuracy. This approach has the potential to be scaled up to more accurately estimate densities of wild populations compared to existing approaches.


Frank, Z., Findlay, M., & White, P. J. C. (in press). Assessment of the accuracy of counting large ungulate species (red deer Cervus elaphus) with UAV-mounted thermal infrared cameras during night flights. Wildlife Biology,

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Jan 17, 2023
Online Publication Date Feb 14, 2023
Deposit Date Feb 21, 2023
Publicly Available Date Feb 21, 2023
Print ISSN 0909-6396
Publisher Nordic Council for Wildlife Research
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Keywords drones, population census, population density, thermography, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV)


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