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NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium

Gorgeous Images of Killer Whales from Above

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NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium

Scientists have deployed all kinds of technology to study wildlife, from satellite tags and collars to field cameras. Now, a new test has shown that they could use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to study wildlife populations, too. For the first time, scientists from NOAA Fisheries and the Vancouver Aquarium used a camera-equipped UAV to take gorgeous, straight-down photos of northern resident killer whales, animals that swim in the waters near Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Their paper was recently published in the Journal of Unmanned Vehicles.

You can tell a lot about a whale from a photo. From this photo, for example, scientists were able to determine that the top female "appears skinny and in poor condition," while the female in the middle appears healthy. The whale at the bottom of the photo is pregnant—you can tell because her body bulges near the ribcage. Photo credit: NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium

They flew a hexacopter UAV (named for its six rotor blades) about 100 feet above the whales so they wouldn’t notice its presence. When whales were in the frame, the pilot used a remote link to trigger the capture of still images on the camera's flash memory. The UAV was equipped with both a high-resolution digital camera—which provided enough detail that the scientists could distinguish between the unique markings on individual whales—and a pressure altimeter, which told them the exact altitude of the UAV. Combining this information with the focal length of the camera lens allowed them to calculate the size of objects to an accuracy of 5 centimeters. 

Photo credit: NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium

“Because the image resolution is so great,” John Durban, a marine mammal ecologist with NOAA Fisheries, said, “we can monitor very small changes in an animal’s condition from year to year,” Durban said.

The UAV flew a total of 60 successful missions last year, snapping photographs that aren't just beautiful, but useful too, allowing scientists to “make very precise measurements from them,” Durban said. “We can’t put a whale on a scale, but we can use aerial images to analyze their body condition—basically, how fat or skinny they are.”

By examining the photos, scientists can figure out (among other things) if the whales are eating enough; these northern whales, which are categorized as threatened under Canada’s Species At Risk Act, eat mostly Chinook salmon. The dwindling numbers of Chinook could be adversely affecting the whale population.

Photo credit: NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium

Scientists have used manned aircraft to do this sort of thing for decades, but UAVs provide a number of benefits: They're less expensive to fly, can take off from small vessels, and are much quieter than manned planes, allowing scientists to observe the whales without bothering them.

Two killer whales playfully butt heads. Photo credit: NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium

Researchers conduct a summer census annually to determine how many whales have died. "But mortality is a pretty coarse measure of how well the population is doing because the problem, if there is one, has already occurred," Durban said on the NOAA Fisheries blog. The UAV, however, "can give us a more sensitive measure that we might be able to respond to before whales die."

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images
6 Radiant Facts About Irène Joliot-Curie
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Though her accomplishments are often overshadowed by those of her parents, the elder daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie was a brilliant researcher in her own right.


A black and white photo of Irene and Marie Curie in the laboratory in 1925.
Irène and Marie in the laboratory, 1925.
Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

Irène’s birth in Paris in 1897 launched what would become a world-changing scientific dynasty. A restless Marie rejoined her loving husband in the laboratory shortly after the baby’s arrival. Over the next 10 years, the Curies discovered radium and polonium, founded the science of radioactivity, welcomed a second daughter, Eve, and won a Nobel Prize in Physics. The Curies expected their daughters to excel in their education and their work. And excel they did; by 1925, Irène had a doctorate in chemistry and was working in her mother’s laboratory.


Like her mother, Irène fell in love in the lab—both with her work and with another scientist. Frédéric Joliot joined the Curie team as an assistant. He and Irène quickly bonded over shared interests in sports, the arts, and human rights. The two began collaborating on research and soon married, equitably combining their names and signing their work Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie.


Black and white photo of Irène and Fréderic Joliot-Curie working side by side in their laboratory.
Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Their passion for exploration drove them ever onward into exciting new territory. A decade of experimentation yielded advances in several disciplines. They learned how the thyroid gland absorbs radioiodine and how the body metabolizes radioactive phosphates. They found ways to coax radioactive isotopes from ordinarily non-radioactive materials—a discovery that would eventually enable both nuclear power and atomic weaponry, and one that earned them the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935.


The humanist principles that initially drew Irène and Frédéric together only deepened as they grew older. Both were proud members of the Socialist Party and the Comité de Vigilance des Intellectuels Antifascistes (Vigilance Committee of Anti-Fascist Intellectuals). They took great pains to keep atomic research out of Nazi hands, sealing and hiding their research as Germany occupied their country, Irène also served as undersecretary of state for scientific research of the Popular Front government.


Irène eventually scaled back her time in the lab to raise her children Hélène and Pierre. But she never slowed down, nor did she stop fighting for equality and freedom for all. Especially active in women’s rights groups, she became a member of the Comité National de l'Union des Femmes Françaises and the World Peace Council.


Irène’s extraordinary life was a mirror of her mother’s. Tragically, her death was, too. Years of watching radiation poisoning and cancer taking their toll on Marie never dissuaded Irène from her work. In 1956, dying of leukemia, she entered the Curie Hospital, where she followed her mother’s luminous footsteps into the great beyond.

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Live Smarter
You Can Now Order Food Through Facebook
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After a bit of controversy over its way of aggregating news feeds and some questionable content censoring policies, it’s nice to have Facebook roll out a feature everyone can agree on: allowing you to order food without leaving the social media site.

According to a press release, Facebook says that the company decided to begin offering food delivery options after realizing that many of its users come to the social media hub to rate and discuss local eateries. Rather than hop from Facebook to the restaurant or a delivery service, you’ll be able to stay within the app and select from a menu of food choices. Just click “Order Food” from the Explore menu on a desktop interface or under the “More” option on Android or iOS devices. There, you’ll be presented with options that will accept takeout or delivery orders, as well as businesses participating with services like or EatStreet.

If you need to sign up and create an account with or Jimmy John’s, for example, you can do that without leaving Facebook. The feature is expected to be available nationally, effective immediately.

[h/t Forbes]


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