Drones + Desert Tortoises

On May 22nd, the Turtle Conservancy team was lucky enough to work with Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) specialists Steve Boland, Tim Shields and Mercy Vaughn on a cutting edge conservation strategy.

In this pilot study, the group is using specialized fixed-wing drones to survey vast stretches of the Mojave Desert for signs of ravens. Ravens are a subsidized predator of tortoises in the Mojave. This means that their population is much larger today due to water and food they are able to get from human presence. Not only that, the addition of trees and power poles give the birds unprecedented perching, nesting and shade. This allows them to penetrate deeper into tortoise habitat where they prey upon young tortoises. A single nest can consume over 100 young tortoises in a single spring.

By using aerial photographs from the drone, coupled with nest recognition software, we are hoping scientists can learn more about which tortoise populations are at risk from ravens. If the study proves successful, this could be a long term way of managing raven numbers in the Mojave.

Special thanks to the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund for making the purchase of this drone possible, to Hyundai, who graciously allowed us to conduct our pilot study on their proving grounds and to SenseFly for their support in working with the drone.