Drones and 3D modelling of wildlife habitats with Blair Costelloe


Dr. Blair Costelloe

This week’s curator is Dr. Blair Costelloe. she is a wildlife biologist interested in natural history, behavioral ecology, and conservation. she was born and grew up in Louisville, KY, USA as the second-oldest of five kids. In 2003, she left home to go to college at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. There she majored in Anthropology and took a particular interest in archaeology and primatology. At Wash U, she took a few classes that involved behavioral observation at the nearby Saint Louis Zoo. From there she was pretty hooked on animal behavior (but briefly considered going into marine archaeology, which she was also quite interested in). she worked as a research intern at the Saint Louis Zoo and got a research fellowship at the San Diego Institute for Conservation Research for the summer after college. In San Diego, she worked at the Wild Animal Park, studying the ungulates in the East Africa enclosure. At this point, she’d developed something of an obsession with African mammals and the idea of studying them in the wild. she applied for Ph.D. programs and was accepted into Princeton University’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. There she studied the maternal and antipredator behavior of Thomson’s gazelle, a small East African antelope. For that project she spent many months working at the beautiful Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia, Kenya. she adore field biology and enjoy the challenges of designing and executing projects in unpredictable environments. After completing her Ph.D. in 2014, she spent a year teaching undergraduate courses and working as a research associate in Princeton’s EEB Department, and then a year basically unemployed as she struggled to find a postdoc position. In summer 2016, she proposed a project to study the collective behavior of ungulates and was hired to pursue that research as a postdoc in the Department of Collective Behavior at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology (now the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior) in Konstanz, Germany. She’s currently in her third year of her postdoc, and loving every minute of it.

Outside of work, her interests include cooking, swimming, photography, adventurous foods, and travel. she live in Konstanz with her husband, Mike, who is a self-employed illustrator and website designer.


We asked Blair a few questions before her curation week to find out more about her.


Why/How did you end up in science?

When I started college I thought I would probably major in English and become a writer, but in my first semester I took a course on Human Evolution and found it so interesting that I decided to become an Anthropology major. For my major I took courses that involved observing primates, zebras and asses at the Saint Louis Zoo. From there I did research internships at the Saint Louis Zoo and the San Diego Institute for Conservation Research. I found animal behavior completely fascinating, so I decided to apply for graduate school to see if I could make this a career. So far so good!


Why did you choose your current field?

I love all parts of the scientific process in my field, from learning about a species’ natural history, to observing its behavior, analyzing the data and writing up results. It’s really exciting to generate new knowledge, and there are endless fascinating aspects of animal species that we do not understand. Getting to travel to exciting places for fieldwork is also a huge perk!


What do you do in your daily work?

As a postdoc, I am leading the Herd Hover project (www.herdhover.com, @herdhover on Twitter). This is a collaborative project that I started in 2016, in which we are using drones and image-based analysis to study behavior of wild animal groups. We work in Laikipia, Kenya, where we film groups of ungulates (hoofed mammals) from the air using drones. We also use drones to make 3D models of the animals’ environment. Back in the lab, we use computer vision techniques to track the movement and even the posture of the individual animals in our video footage. We project these data into geographic coordinates so that we can examine the behavior of the animals in the context of our 3D habitat models. We are interested in understanding how groups detect and respond to threats (e.g. predators) in their environment, and how they coordinate their movement through complex environments. This is very much a work in progress!


What is cool about your research?

Besides the fact that drones and wildlife are inherently cool? The image-based tracking tools we are developing for this research have great potential for wildlife conservation and management. We are working with collaborators in computer science to develop tools that would let wildlife managers count and monitor their animals more safely and efficiently. Also, our high-resolution behavioral tracking and detailed 3D habitat models mean we can directly study the effects of the physical habitat on animals’ behavior. Many key wildlife areas are expected to undergo rapid change in the coming years due to human development and climate change. If we can understand how animals behave in different environments, and how they use different habitat types, we may be able to anticipate positive or negative affects of future landscape changes, or identify particular habitat types that are crucial for species conservation.


Any interesting hobbies you’d like to share?

I love cooking with my partner and traveling to new places. I also dabble in photography, especially when I’m in the field. Lately I’ve gotten more into plants: I keep a pretty nice garden on my balcony in the summer, and recently acquired some carnivorous houseplants and orchids.


How would you describe your ideal day off? (Scientists are people too!)

It depends on the day and the season! In the winter I can be very content with a blanket, a cup of coffee and a book on the couch. In the summer I like to enjoy the sunshine and go swimming in Lake Konstanz or the Rhine. It’s always nice to spend the evening cooking a nice dinner with a glass of wine, especially if there’s an interesting new recipe to try.

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