The many dimensions of a fat whale: Using drones to measure the body condition of baleen whales 

Dr. KC Bierlich, Postdoctoral Scholar, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, & Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna (GEMM) Lab

In my last blog, I discussed how to obtain morphological measurements from drone-based imagery of whales and the importance of calculating and considering uncertainty, as different drone platforms have varying levels of measurement uncertainty. But how does uncertainty scale and propagate when multiple measurements are combined, such as when measuring body condition of the whole animal? In this blog, I will discuss the different methods used for measuring body condition of baleen whales from drone-based imagery and how uncertainty differs between these metrics.

Body condition is defined as the energy stored in the body as a result of feeding and is assumed to indicate an animal’s overall health, as it reflects the balance between energy intake and investment toward growth, maintenance and reproduction (Peig and Green, 2009). Thus, body condition reflects the foraging success of an individual, as well as the potential for reproductive output and the quality of habitat. For example, female North American brown bears (Ursus arctos) in high quality habitats were in better body condition, produced larger litter sizes, and lived in greater population densities compared to females in lower quality habitats (Hilderbrand et al., 1999). As Dawn Barlow and Will Kennerley discussed in their recent blog, baleen whales are top predators and serve as ecosystem sentinels that shed light not only on the health of their population, but on the health of their ecosystem. As ocean climate conditions continue to change, monitoring the body condition of baleen whales is important to provide insight on how their population and ecosystem is responding. 

As discussed in a previous blog, drones serve as a valuable tool for obtaining morphological measurements of baleen whales to estimate their body condition. Images are imported into photogrammetry software, such as MorphoMetriX (Torres and Bierlich, 2020), to measure the total length of an individual and that is then divided into perpendicular width segments (i.e., in 5 or 10% increments) down the body (Fig. 1). These total length and width measurements are then used to estimate body condition in either 1-, 2-, or 3-dimensions: a single width (1D), a projected dorsal surface area (2D), or a body volume measure (3D). These 1D, 2D, and 3D measurements of body condition can then be standardized by total length to produce a relative measure of an individual’s body condition to compare among individuals and populations. 

Figure 1. An example of a Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) gray whale measured in MorphoMetriX (Torres & Bierlich, 2020).

While several different studies have used each of these dimensions to assess whale body condition, it is unclear how these measurements compare amongst each other. Importantly, it is also unclear how measurement uncertainty scales across these multiple dimensions and influences inference, which can lead to misinterpretation of data. For example, the surface area and volume of two geometrically similar bodies of different sizes are not related to their linear dimensions in the same ratio, but rather to the second and third power, respectively (i.e., x2 vs. x3).  Similarly, uncertainty should not be expected to scale linearly across 1D, 2D, and 3D body condition measurements. 

The second chapter of my dissertation, which was recently published in Frontiers in Marine Science and includes Clara Bird and Leigh Torres as co-authors, compared the uncertainty associated with 1D, 2D, and 3D drone-based body condition measurements in three baleen whale species with different ranges in body sizes: blue, humpback, and Antarctic minke whales (Figure 2) (Bierlich et al., 2021). We used the same Bayesian model discussed in my last blog, to incorporate uncertainty associated with each 1D, 2D, and 3D estimate of body condition. 

Figure 2. An example of total length and perpendicular width (in 5% increments of total length) measurements of an individual blue, humpback and Antarctic minke whale. Each image measured using MorphoMetriX (Torres and Bierlich, 2020). 

We found that uncertainty does not scale linearly across multi-dimensional measurements, with 2D and 3D uncertainty increasing by a factor of 1.45 and 1.76 compared to 1D, respectively. This result means that there is an added cost of increased uncertainty when utilizing a multidimensional body condition measurement. Our finding is important to help researchers decide which body condition measurement best suits their scientific question,  particularly when using a drone platform that is susceptible to greater error – as discussed in my previous blog. However, a 1D measurement only relies on a single width measurement, which may be excluding other regions of an individual’s body condition that is important for energy storage. In these situations, a 2D or 3D measure may be more appropriate.

We found that when comparing relative measures of body condition (standardized by total length of the individual), each standardized metric was highly correlated with one another. This finding suggests that 1D, 2D, and 3D metrics will draw similar relative predictions of body condition for individuals, allowing researchers to be confident they will draw similar conclusions relating to the body condition of individuals, regardless of which standardized metric they use. However, when comparing the precision of each of these metrics, the body area index (BAI) – a 2D standardized metric – displayed the highest level of precision. This result highlights how BAI can advantageously detect small changes in body condition, which is useful for comparing individuals or even tracking the same individual over time.

BAI was developed by the GEMM Lab (Burnett et al., 2018) and was designed to be similar to body mass index (BMI) in humans [BMI = mass (kg)/(height (m))2], where BAI uses the calculated surface area as a surrogate for body mass. In humans, a healthy BMI range is generally considered 18.5–24.9, below 18.5 is considered underweight, above 24.9 is considered overweight, and above 30 is considered obese (Flegal et al., 2012). Identifying a healthy range in BAI for baleen whales is challenged by a limited knowledge of what a “healthy” body condition range is for a whale. We found strong evidence that a healthy range of BAI is species-specific, as each species displayed a distinctive range in BAI: blue whales: 11–16; AMW: 17–24; humpback whales: 23–32; humpback whale calves: 23–28 (Fig. 3). These differences in BAI ranges likely reflect differences in the body shape of each species (Fig. 4). For example, humpbacks have the widest range of BAI compared to these other two species, which was also reflected in their larger variation in perpendicular widths (Figs. 2-4). Thus, it seems that BAI offers conditionally “scalefree” comparisons between species, yet it is unreasonable to set a single, all-whale BAI threshold to determine “healthy” versus “unhealthy” body condition.  Collecting a large sample of body condition measurements across many individuals and demographic units over space and time with information on vital rates (e.g., reproductive capacity) will help elucidate a healthy BAI range for each species.

Figure 3. Body area index (BAI) for each species. AMW = Antarctic minke whale.  Figure from Bierlich et al. (2021).
Figure 4. A) Absolute widths (m) and B) relative widths, standardized by total length (TL) to help elucidate the different body shapes of Antarctic minke whales (AMW; n = 40), blue whales (n = 32), humpback whales (n = 40), and humpback whale calves (n = 15). Note how the peak in body width occurs at a different percent body width between species, demonstrating the natural variation in body shape between baleen whales. Figure from Bierlich et al. (2021).

Over the past six years, the GEMM Lab has been collecting drone images of Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) gray whales off the coast of Oregon to measure their BAI (see GRANITE Project blog). Many of the individuals we encounter are seen across years and throughout the foraging season, providing an opportunity to evaluate how an individual’s BAI is influenced by environmental variation, stress levels, maturity, and reproduction. These data will in turn help determine what the healthy range in BAI for gray whales is. For example, linking BAI to pregnancy – whether a whale is currently pregnant or becomes pregnant the following season – will help determine what BAI is needed to support calf production. We are currently analyzing hundreds of body condition measurements from 2016 – 2021, so stay tuned for upcoming results!


Bierlich, K. C., Hewitt, J., Bird, C. N., Schick, R. S., Friedlaender, A., Torres, L. G., … & Johnston, D. W. (2021). Comparing Uncertainty Associated With 1-, 2-, and 3D Aerial Photogrammetry-Based Body Condition Measurements of Baleen Whales. Frontiers in Marine Science, 1729.

Burnett, J. D., Lemos, L., Barlow, D., Wing, M. G., Chandler, T., & Torres, L. G. (2018). Estimating morphometric attributes of baleen whales with photogrammetry from small UASs: A case study with blue and gray whales. Marine Mammal Science35(1), 108–139.

Flegal, K. M., Carroll, M. D., Kit, B. K., & Ogden, C. L. (2012). Prevalence of Obesity and Trends in the Distribution of Body Mass Index Among US Adults, 1999-2010. JAMA307(5), 491.

Hilderbrand, G. V, Schwartz, C. C., Robbins, C. T., Jacoby, M. E., Hanley, T. A., Arthur, S. M., & Servheen, C. (1999). The importance of meat, particularly salmon, to body size, population productivity, and conservation of North American brown bears. Canadian Journal of Zoology77(1), 132–138.

Peig, J., & Green, A. J. (2009). New perspectives for estimating body condition from mass/length data: the scaled mass index as an alternative method. Oikos118(12), 1883–1891.

Torres, W., & Bierlich, K. C. (2020). MorphoMetriX: a photogrammetric measurement GUI for morphometric analysis of megafauna. Journal of Open Source Software5(45), 1825–1826.

Why Feeling Stupid is Great: How stupidity fuels scientific progress and discovery

By Alexa Kownacki, Ph.D. Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

It all started with a paper. On Halloween, I sat at my desk, searching for papers that could answer my questions about bottlenose dolphin metabolism and realized I had forgotten to check my email earlier. In my inbox, there was a new message with an attachment from Dr. Leigh Torres to the GEMM Lab members, saying this was a “must-read” article. The suggested paper was Martin A. Schwartz’s 2008 essay, “The importance of stupidity in scientific research”, published in the Journal of Cell Science, highlighted universal themes across science. In a single, powerful page, Schwartz captured my feelings—and those of many scientists: the feeling of being stupid.

For the next few minutes, I stood at the printer and absorbed the article, while commenting out loud, “YES!”, “So true!”, and “This person can see into my soul”. Meanwhile, colleagues entered my office to see me, dressed in my Halloween costume—as “Amazon’s Alexa”, talking aloud to myself. Coincidently, I was feeling pretty stupid at that moment after just returning from a weekly meeting, where everyone asked me questions that I clearly did not have the answers to (all because of my costume). This paper seemed too relevant; the timing was uncanny. In the past few weeks, I have been writing my PhD research proposal —a requirement for our department— and my goodness, have I felt stupid. The proposal outlines my dissertation objectives, puts my work into context, and provides background research on common bottlenose dolphin health. There is so much to know that I don’t know!

Alexa dressed as “Amazon Alexa” on Halloween at her office in San Diego, CA.

When I read Schwartz’s 2008 paper, there were a few takeaway messages that stood out:

  1. People take different paths. One path is not necessarily right nor wrong. Simply, different. I compared that to how I split my time between OSU and San Diego, CA. Spending half of the year away from my lab and my department is incredibly challenging; I constantly feel behind and I miss the support that physically being with other students provides. However, I recognize the opportunities I have in San Diego where I work directly with collaborators who teach and challenge me in new ways that bring new skills and perspective.

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    (Image source: St. Albert’s Place)
  2. Feeling stupid is not bad. It can be a good feeling—or at least we should treat it as being a positive thing. It shows we have more to learn. It means that we have not reached our maximum potential for learning (who ever does?). While writing my proposal I realized just how little I know about ecotoxicology, chemistry, and statistics. I re-read papers that are critical to understanding my own research, like “Nontargeted biomonitoring of halogenated organic compounds in two ecotypes of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) from the Southern California bight” (2014) by Shaul et al. and “Bottlenose dolphins as indicators of persistent organic pollutants in the western north Atlantic ocean and northern gulf of Mexico” (2011) by Kucklick et al. These articles took me down what I thought were wormholes that ended up being important rivers of information. Because I recognized my knowledge gap, I can now articulate the purpose and methods of analysis for specific compounds that I will conduct using blubber samples of common bottlenose dolphins

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  3. Drawing upon experts—albeit intimidating—is beneficial for scientific consulting as well as for our mental health; no one person knows everything. That statement can bring us together because when people work together, everyone benefits. I am also reminded that we are our own harshest critics; sometimes our colleagues are the best champions of our own successes. It is also why historical articles are foundational. In the hunt for the newest technology and the latest and greatest in research, it is important to acknowledge the basis for discoveries. My data begins in 1981, when the first of many researchers began surveying the California coastline for common bottlenose dolphins. Geographic information systems (GIS) were different back then. The data requires conversions and investigative work. I had to learn how the data were collected and how to interpret that information. Therefore, it should be no surprise that I cite literature from the 1970s, such as “Results of attempts to tag Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins, (Tursiops truncatus)” by Irvine and Wells. Although published in 1972, the questions the authors tried to answer are very similar to what I am looking at now: how are site fidelity and home ranges impacted by natural and anthropogenic processes. While Irvine and Wells used large bolt tags to identify individuals, my project utilizes much less invasive techniques (photo-identification and blubber biopsies) to track animals, their health, and their exposures to contaminants.

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  4. Struggling is part of the solution. Science is about discovery and without the feeling of stupidity, discovery would not be possible. Feeling stupid is the first step in the discovery process: the spark that fuels wanting to explore the unknown. Feeling stupid can lead to the feeling of accomplishment when we find answers to those very questions that made us feel stupid. Part of being a student and a scientist is identifying those weaknesses and not letting them stop me. Pausing, reflecting, course correcting, and researching are all productive in the end, but stopping is not. Coursework is the easy part of a PhD. The hard part is constantly diving deeper into the great unknown that is research. The great unknown is simultaneously alluring and frightening. Still, it must be faced head on. Schwartz describes “productive stupidity [as] being ignorant by choice.” I picture this as essentially blindly walking into the future with confidence. Although a bit of an oxymoron, it resonates the importance of perseverance and conviction in the midst of uncertainty.

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    (Image source: Redbubble)

Now I think back to my childhood when stupid was one of the forbidden “s-words” and I question whether society had it all wrong. Maybe we should teach children to acknowledge ignorance and pursue the unknown. Stupid is a feeling, not a character flaw. Stupidity is important in science and in life. Fascination and emotional desires to discover new things are healthy. Next time you feel stupid, try running with it, because more often than not, you will learn something.

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Alexa teaching about marine mammals to students ages 2-6 and learning from educators about new ways to engage young students. San Diego, CA in 2016. (Photo source: Lori Lowder)