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Buzz off: U of M team warns that drones may cause 'acute stress' in wildlife

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Could your cool, remote-control drone be making life difficult for wild animals?

A team of researchers at the University of Minnesota fears the answer is "yes," according to the findings of a study on black bears released Thursday.

In the news release, the U's team admits that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – better known as drones – have become valuable tools for wildlife researchers, giving them the means to observe animals that were once difficult to reach because of long distances and inhospitable terrain.

But the researchers, led by Mark Ditmer, a post-doctoral member of the U of M's Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology, found that the little fliers sent the black bears' heart rates soaring.

Such activity, the release says, is a sign of "acute stress."

To conduct the study, the scientists fitted a number of "free-roaming" black bears in northwestern Minnesota with GPS collars and "biologgers" that monitored heart activity.

Surprising results

Although the animals appeared to be "unfazed" by the presence of the UAVs, what the researchers found came as a shock.

“Some of the spikes in the heart rate of the bears were far beyond what we expected,” Ditmer said. “We had one bear increase her heart rate by approximately 400 percent...this was the strongest response we saw, but it was shocking nonetheless.”

According to the Washington Post, the bears might not be reacting outwardly because the ones being studied live in "heavily populated" areas and are used to human noise and activity.

But, as Ditmer told the paper, “just because we can’t directly observe an effect doesn’t mean it’s not there,” adding that the potentially harmful heart activity would have remained hidden had researchers only watched the animals' movements.

The findings come as a warning, as drones are growing in popularity across a broad range of fields, including scientific research, the U of M notes.

“UAVs hold tremendous potential for scientific research and as tools for conservation,” Ditmer says. However, he continued, until the full effects of drones on animals are known, "we need to exercise caution when using them around wildlife.”

Ditmer and his team are now working with captive bears to determine whether animals can "get used" to overhead UAVs, the release says.

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