Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Diana Reiss

Committee Members

Marcelo O. Magnasco

Laura J. May-Collado

Chris Braun

Martin Chodorow

Subject Categories

Animal Studies | Biological Psychology


dolphin, marine mammals, conservation, behavior, manatee, drone


Marine mammals inhabit aquatic worlds where their subsurface behavior, cryptic surface profiles, and movements make them difficult to study. New tools are needed to study coastal marine mammals in a world increasing impacted by climate change related shifts in weather and animal distribution patterns. Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) are important remote-sensing tools for studying a range of wildlife including terrestrial and aquatic flora and fauna. These systems offer flexible platforms for adding sensor packages needed for different applications, for example, most are equipped with high-resolution cameras and GPS sensors. The vantage point from an aerial platform dramatically improves the ability to directly observe marine mammal behavior. However, to date, there are no studies using small UAS to investigate the behavior of coastal marine mammals, in particular, the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) and the Endangered Antillean manatee (Trichechus manatus manatus). The conservation and management of marine mammals can be resource-intensive and challenging, often resulting in a lack of important contextual information on the abundance, distribution, and threats faced by local populations. Fine-scale quantitative information on the importance of different habitats to dolphin populations is often lacking because animals spend most of their time underwater requiring inferences from surface behaviors to determine their activity. Small multirotor UAS offer low-cost systems that can be effectively used to observe animal behavior at the surface and subsurface several meters down. In the shallow, clear waters of the Caribbean coast of Central America, these systems should enable researchers to directly track dolphins and manatees underwater. However, the efficacy of small UAS for tracking these species and gathering crucial information on their presence and activity has not yet been examined.The overarching goal of my dissertation is to: 1) develop methodology for using small UAS to study the behavioral ecology of free-ranging coastal marine mammals; 2) use UAS-derived data to test hypotheses regarding bottlenose dolphin habitat use and behavior in an offshore marine reserve; and 3) use the findings of our study to make key recommendations on regulations governing protections for marine mammals. The methodology developed in these studies will facilitate the development of UAS-studies for marine mammals.