Bad News for Bears: Drones Stress Them Out

A new study finds that UAVs buzzing above the animals can raise their heart rate, and they could have similar impacts on other wildlife.

(Photo: Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images)

Sep 5, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Wildlife researchers and conservationists seem to find a new use for unmanned aerial vehicles every day.

Remote-controlled drones are already patrolling the African bush for elephant and rhino poachers, counting dolphins off California’s coast, keeping tabs on Mexico’s sea turtles, and giving wildlife enthusiasts a whole new perspective on their favorite animals.

But with all of the buzz around drones, there’s been little research on whether there’s a negative impact to flying an aircraft into an animal’s natural habitat.

For black bears, drones can be stressful—even if they don’t show it.

That’s according to a recent study published in the journal Current Biology that found that even when the bears exhibited no outward agitation, the mere presence of a drone in the sky raised the animals’ heart rate—sometimes as much as four times higher than normal.

It’s the first time a study has looked at what kind of physiological effects a drone’s presence has on an animal, and not just the observable changes in behavior, such as running or swimming away from the flying machine.

University of Minnesota wildlife ecologist Mark Ditmer had his team strap GPS collars and small heart sensors on four bears roaming northwest Minnesota. They then flew a small, off-the-shelf model drone over the bears’ location and reviewed the heart rates.

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“Some of the spikes in the heart rate of the bears were far beyond what we expected,” Ditmer said in a statement. “We had one bear increase her heart rate by approximately 400 percent—from 41 beats per minute to 162 beats per minute. Keep in mind this was the strongest response we saw, but it was shocking nonetheless.”

Armed with the new data, Ditmer said he wants to test drones on captive bears next to see if the species can be habituated to drones flying overhead.

“Until we know which species are tolerant of UAVs, at what distance animals react to the presence of UAVs, and whether or not individuals can habituate to their presence, we need to exercise caution when using them around wildlife,” he said.

Here are a few highlights—or lowlights, if you’re the drone’s owner—of animals reacting to drone:

Bear vs. Drone

Cheetah vs. Drone

Ram vs. Drone

Eagle vs. Drone

Kangaroo vs. Drone