Scientists express concern over possible wildlife-harming drone use in a recent viral video of a bear cub

Sorry, shower rat, the Internet has found another cutesy animal viral video to enjoy. Unfortunately, much like the troubled saga of old “shower rat”, it’s causing some raised eyebrows among animal experts.

Over the past week, you might have come across a video of a baby bear scrambling up a snowy mountain to reach its mother. After numerous failed attempts and nerve-racking slips down the mountainside, the cub finally achieves its goal and reaches its mother. Cute, eh?

While thousands of people have shared the video as a heart-warming piece of bite-sized drama, some researchers and drone operators have raised concern that the drone used to capture the footage appears to be dangerously close to the wildlife.

“It’s a dangerous stunt by an irresponsible drone operator who should know better,” tweeted Dr Jacquelyn Gill, a paleoecologist and assistant professor of climate science at the University of Maine.

“Harassing wildlife for a photograph, a selfie, or a video is never okay. Respect animals by giving them space, and don’t share posts where animals are clearly in distress or in danger just because someone wanted to go viral.”

Drones are an incredible tool for documenting and learning about the world’s wildlife. In fact, over the past couple of years, drones have proved an indispensable tool for an unbelievable number of scientific projects involving wildlife and biodiversity. Just look at some of the incredible drone footage from the BBC’s Planet Earth II.

That said, they shouldn’t be used recklessly. Drones can be noisy and have the obvious potential to disturb wildlife. Research published in 2015 about black bears in northwestern Minnesota actually showed how nearby UAV flights increased the bears’ heart rates by as much as 123 beats per minute. Aerial drones can also lay shadows very similar to birds of prey which might unsettle certain species. The effects of drones on animal behavior are still relatively understudied, but scientists and drone operators are becoming increasingly aware of the problems they might pose.

“As a UAV operator I can confirm drones are loud and startling when not expected,” tweeted Lucy Gem Poley, an ecologist and geography PhD candidate at the University of Calgary. “Can only imagine how disturbing they are to wildlife.

Brown bear Bjoerk sleeps with her four-month-old bear cub in the public bear park in Bern April 5, 2010.
Michael Buholzer/Reuters

“Even if drones don’t cause a noticeable behavioural reaction they might affect animals physiologically (stress hormones, heart rate, etc),” she also said.

“As a drone operator, I was disgusted with how close the operator went in to get ‘the perfect shot’,” Lida Far responded.

It’s impossible to say whether the bears in the video were affected by the drone’s presence. Nevertheless, the video serves as a quiet reminder that you should always carefully evaluate how your behavior might be affecting the wildlife you’re observing or photographing.

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