Our work focuses on using emerging technology for the conservation of marine species and spaces.

From oysters to blue whales, we work across scales and ecosystems to advance marine science and conservation applications with new technology.

We embrace open approaches to science, sharing expertise, hardware, and software details to support enhanced collaboration and better science outcomes


Morphometrics of Marine Megafauna
Our lab is applying new photogrammetric techniques to the study of body condition in marine mammals and other large vertebrates, including the use of deep learning techniques.

Habitat Assessments and Spatial Modeling
Our lab is studying how coastal environments like islands, beaches and salt marshes are changing in response to acute and long-term factors. This includes the use of very high resolution satellite data and drone-based Structure from Motion modeling to assess habitat changes.
Animal Abundance and Distribution
Our lab uses drones and other remote sensing techniques to study the density and distribution of marine organisms such as seabirds, seals, whales and sea turtles.


Drones in Marine biology, Ecology, and Conservation

Comprehensive exploration of current drone technologies in coastal and marine research, including aeronautical concepts, rules and regulations, safety, mission planning, aircraft design, payload selection, operational procedures, maintenance, data management and data analysis.

Marine Conservation Ecology

An experiential field course focusing on the ecology and management of marine vertebrates in North Carolina or the main Hawaiian Islands.

Climate Change in the Marine Environment

A graduate course that introduces students to the ongoing effects of climate change and variability on marine systems.

Marine Mammal Biology and Ecology

A course on marine mammal biology, ecology and conservation. Summer block section includes field excursions with local fauna to demonstrate oceanographic observations and quantitative lab components including conservation genetics and population assessment techniques for studying populations in the wild.


Dr. David W. Johnston is an Associate Professor of the Practice of Marine Conservation & Ecology at Duke University and the Director of the Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing (MaRRS) Lab at the Duke University Marine Laboratory. Johnston holds a PhD from Duke University and received post-doctoral training at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California. His professional experience ranges from leading research programs for NOAA to working as an ecologist within the NGO sector. Johnston’s research program currently focuses on advancing robotic applications, platforms and sensors for marine science, education, and conservation missions. He has published extensively in top journals in the fields of conservation biology, oceanography, marine ecology and marine policy on research that spans tropical, temperate and polar biomes.


Current Doctoral Students:

  • Everette Newton
  • KC Bierlich
  • Greg Larsen
  • Patrick Gray

Current Masters Students

  • Kelly Dobroski

Current Undergraduate Students

  • Anne Harshbarger
  • Alexandra DiGiacomo
  • Kenneth Lau


Recent Lab Publications

Johnston D. W. 2019. Unoccupied aircraft systems in marine science and conservation. Annual Reviews of Marine Science. 11:9.1-9.25

Windle A. E.*, D. S. Hooley *, and D. W. Johnston. 2018. Robotic Vehicles Enable High-Resolution Light Pollution Sampling of Sea Turtle Nesting Beaches. Front. Mar. Sci. 5:702

Gray P. C.*, A. B. Fleishman,D. J.  Klein, W. W. McKow, K. J. Lohmann, and D. W. Johnston. 2018. A convolutional neural network for detecting sea turtles in drone imagery. Methods in Ecology and Evolution

Tyne J. A. , F. Christiansen, H. L. Heenehan, D. W. Johnston and L. Bejder. 2018. Chronic exposure of Hawaii Island spinner dolphins ( Stenella longirostris) to human activities. Royal Society Open Science. 5(10):171506

Gray P. C*., J. T. Ridge, S. K. Poulin*, A. C. Seymour, A. M. Schwantes*, J. J. Swenson and D. W. Johnston. 2018. Integrating drone imagery into high resolution satellite remote sensing assessments of estuarine environments. Remote Sensing. 10(8):1257

Soulen, B. K.*, B, J. Venables, D. W. Johnston and A. P. Roberts. 2018. Accumulation of PBDEs in Stranded Harp (Pagophilus groenlandicus) and Hooded Seals (Cystophora cristata) from the Northeastern United States. Marine Environmental Research.138:96–101

Arona, L.*, J. Dale, S. Heaslip, M. O. Hammill and D. W. Johnston. 2018. Assessing the disturbance potential of small unoccupied aircraft systems (UAS) on gray seals (Halichoerus grypus) at breeding colonies in Nova Scotia, Canada.  PeerJ 6:e4467 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.4467

Pallin , L. J*. , C. S, Baker, D. Steel, N. M. Kellar, J. Robbins, D. W. Johnston, D. P. Nowacek, A. J. Read and A. S. Friedlaender. 2018. High pregnancy rates in humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) around the Western Antarctic Peninsula, evidence of a rapidly growing population. Royal Society Open Science. 5: 180017

Rees, A.F., L. Avens, K. Ballorain, E. Bevan, A. C. Broderick, R. R. Carthy, M. Christianen, G. Duclos, M. R. Heithaus, D. W. Johnston, J. C. Mangel, F. Paladino, K. Pendoley, R. D. Reina, N.J. Robinson, R. Ryan, S. T. Sykora-Bodie*, D. Tilley, M. R. Varela, E. R. Whitman, P. A. Whittock, T. Wibbels, B. J. Godley, 2018. The potential of unmanned aerial systems for sea turtle research and conservation: a review and future directions. Endangered Species Research 35: 81–100. doi:10.3354/esr00877

Bierlich, K. C*., C. Miller, E. DeForce, A. S. Friedlaender, D. W. Johnston and A. Apprill. 2017. Seasonal and regional variability in the skin microbiome of humpback whales along the Western Antarctic Peninsula. Applied and Environmental Microbiology. AEM.02574–17

Seymour, A. C*., J. T. Ridge, A. B. Rodriguez, E. Newton, J. Dale and D. W. Johnston. 2017. Deploying fixed wing unoccupied aerial systems (UAS) for coastal morphology assessment and management. Journal of Coastal Research. DOI: 10.2112/JCOASTRES-D-17-00088.1
eenehan, H. L*. S. M. Van Parijs, L. Bejder; J. A Tyne, B. L. Southall, H. Southall and D. W. Johnston. In Press. Natural and anthropogenic events influence the soundscapes of four bays on Hawaii Island. Marine Pollution Bulletin. 124:9–20

Sykora-Bodie, S. T*., V. Bezy, D. W. Johnston, E. Newton* and K. J. Lohmann. 2017. Quantifying nearshore sea turtle densities: Applications of unmanned aerial systems for population assessments. Scientific Reports. 7:17690

Johnston, D. W., J. Dale, K. T. Murray, E. Josephson, E. Newton and S. Wood. 2017. Comparing occupied and unoccupied aircraft surveys of wildlife populations: Assessing the gray seal (Halichoerus grypus) breeding colony on Muskeget Island, USA. Journal of Unmanned Vehicle systems. 5:178–191

Albertson, G. R., A. S. Friedlaender, D. J. Steel, A. Aguayo-Lobo, S. L. Bonatto, S. Caballero, R. Constantine, A. L. Cypriano-Souza, M. H. Engel, C. Garrigue, L. Flórez-González, D. W. Johnston, D. P. Nowacek, C. Olavarría, M. M. Poole, A. J. Read, J. Robbins, A. L. Sremba and C. S. Baker. 2017. Temporal stability and mixed-stock analyses of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in the nearshore waters of the Western Antarctic Peninsula. Polar Biology. 23:1–18

Moxley, J. H*., A. Bogomolni, M. O Hammill, K. Moore, M. Polito, L. Sette, B. Sharp, G. Waring, J. Gilbert, P. Halphin and D. W. Johnston. 2017. Google Haul Out: Earth observation imagery and digital aerial surveys in coastal wildlife management and abundance estimation. Bioscience. bix059. DOI:10.1093/biosci/bix059

Weinstein, B. G, M. Double, N. Gales, D. W. Johnston and A. S. Friedlaender. 2017. Identifying overlap between humpback whale foraging grounds and the Antarctic krill fishery. Biological Conservation. 210:184–191

Heenehan, H. L.*, S. Van Parijs, L. Bejder, J. Tyne and D. W. Johnston. 2017. Differential effects of human activity on Hawaiian spinner dolphins in their resting bays. Global Ecology and Conservation. 10:60-69

Seymour, A. C*. J. Dale, M. O. Hammill, P. N. Halpin and D. W. Johnston. 2017. Automated detection and enumeration of marine wildlife using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and thermal imagery. Scientific Reports. 7:45127.

Tyne, J. A., D. W. Johnston, F. Christiansen, L. Bejder. 2017. Temporally and spatially partitioned behaviours of spinner dolphins: implications for resilience to human disturbance. Royal Society Open Science 4:160626

Hammill, M. O., J. Dale, G .B. Stenson, C. den Heyer, J.-F. Gosselin, P. Leblanc and D. W. Johnston. 2017. Comparison of methods to estimate grey seal pup production at different colonies. DFO Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat Research Document. 2017/041:iv–19

Burrows J. A*., D. W. Johnston, J. M. Straley, E.M. Chenoweth, C. Ware, C. Curtice, S. L. DeRuiter, and A. S. Friedlaender. 2016. Prey density and depth affect the fine-scale foraging behavior of humpback whales Megaptera novaeangliae in Sitka Sound, Alaska, USA. Marine Ecology Progress Series 561:245–260

Heenehan, H. L.*, S. Van Parijs, L. Bejder, J. Tyne, D. W. Johnston. 2016. Using acoustics to prioritize management decisions to protect coastal dolphins: a case study using Hawaiian spinner dolphins. Marine Policy. 75:84-90

Puryear, W., M. Keogh, N. Hill, J. Moxley, E. Josephson, K. R. Davis, C. Bandoro, D. Lidgard, A. Bogomolni, M. Levin, S. Lang, M. Hammill, D. Bowen, D. W. Johnston, T. Romano, G. Waring and J. Runstadler. 2016. Prevalence of Influenza A virus in live-captured North Atlantic gray seals: a possible wild reservoir. Emerging Microbes & Infections 5: e81

Friedlaender, A., D. W. Johnston, R. Tyson, Reny, A. Kaltenberg, J. Goldbogen, A. Stimpert, E. Hazen, P. Halpin, A. Read, D. Nowacek. 2016. Two-step decisions in a central-place forager. Royal Society Open Science. 3: 160043

Heenehan, H. L.*, J. A. Tyne, Julian, L. Bejder, S. M. Van Parijs, D. W. Johnston. 2016. Passive acoustic monitoring of coastally associated Hawaiian spinner dolphins, Stenella longirostris, ground-truthed through visual surveys. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. 140: 206-215

Tyne, J. A.*, N. R. Loneragan, D. W. Johnston, K. H. Pollock, R. Williams, L. Bejder. 2016. Evaluating monitoring methods for cetaceans. Biological Conservation. 201: 252-260

Bejder, M., D. W. Johnston, J. Smith, A. S. Friedlaender and L. Bejder. 2016. Embracing conservation success of recovering humpback whale populations: evaluating the case for downlisting their conservation status in Australia. Marine Policy. 66:137–141

Heenehan, H. L., J. Tyne, L. Bejder, S.M. Van Paris, D. W. Johnston. 2016. Passive acoustic monitoring of coastally-associated Hawaiian spinner dolphins, Stenella longirostris, ground-truthed through visual surveys. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America

Johnston, D. W., J. Frungillo, A. Smith K. Moore B. Sharp J. Schuh and A. J. Read. 2015. Trends in stranding and by-catch rates of gray and harbor seals along the northeastern coast of the United States: evidence of divergence in the abundance of two sympatric phocid species? PLOS ONE

Tyne, J., D. W. Johnston, R. Rankin, N. Lonergan and L. Bejder. 2015. The importance of spinner dolphin (Stenella longirostris) resting habitat: Implications for management.  Journal of Applied Ecology 52(3): 621–630

Curtice, C. D. W. Johnston, H. Ducklow, N. Gales, P. N. Halpin and A. S. Friedlaender. 2015. Spatial and temporal dynamics in the foraging movements of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in the Western Antarctic Peninsula. Movement Ecology. 3 (1):13

Roman, J.. M. Dunphy-Daly, D. W.. Johnston, and A. J. Read. 2015. Lifting baselines to address the consequences of conservation success. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 30(6): 299–302

Heenehan, H., X. Basurto, L. Bejder, J. Tyne, and D. W. Johnston. 2015. Using Ostrom’s common pool resource theory to build towards an integrated ecosystem based sustainable cetacean tourism system in Hawai`i. Journal of Sustainable Tourism 23(4):536–556

Kraska J, G. O. Crespo and D. W. Johnston 2015. Bio-logging of marine migratory species in the law of the sea. Marine Policy 51:394–400.

Friedlaender, A. S., J. A. Goldbogen, D. P. Nowacek, A. J. Read, D. W. Johnston and N. Gales. 2014. Feeding rates and under-ice foraging strategies of the smallest lunge filter feeder, the Antarctic minke whale (Balaenoptera bonaerensis). Journal of Experimental Biology. 217: 2851-2854