Electronic tags on sharks, penguins, turtles and other species could help monitor the oceans

via University of Exeter

Sharks, penguins, turtles and other seagoing species could help humans monitor the oceans by transmitting oceanographic information from electronic tags.

Thousands of marine animals are tagged for a variety of research and conservation purposes, but at present the information gathered isn’t widely used to track climate change and other shifts in the oceans.

Instead, monitoring is mostly done by research vessels, underwater drones and thousands of floating sensors that drift with the currents. However, large areas of the ocean still remain under-sampled – leaving gaps in our knowledge.

A team led by the University of Exeter says animals carrying sensors can fill many of these gaps through natural behaviour such as diving under ice, swimming in shallow water or moving against currents.

“We want to highlight the massive potential of animal-borne sensors to teach us about the oceans,” said lead author Dr David March, of Centre for Ecology and Conservation on Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall.

“This is already happening on a limited scale, but there’s scope for much more.

“We looked at 183 species – including tuna, sharks, rays, whales and flying seabirds – and the areas they are known to inhabit.

“We have processed more than 1.5 million measurements from floating sensors to identify poorly sampled areas (18.6% of the global ocean surface).”

“By comparing this with gaps in current observations by drifting profiling sensors (known as Argo floats) we identified poorly sampled areas where data from animal sensors would help fill gaps,” said Professor Brendan Godley, who leads Exeter Marine.

“These include seas near the poles (above 60º latitude) and shallow and coastal areas where Argo profilers are at risk of hitting the land.

“The Caribbean and seas around Indonesia, as well as other semi-enclosed seas, are good examples of places where Argo profilers struggle because of these problems.”

Tagged seals in the poles have already complemented ocean observing systems because they can reach areas under ice that are inaccessible to other instruments.

The study suggests data collected by turtles or sharks could also enhance ocean monitoring in other remote and critical areas such as tropical regions, with large influence on global climate variability and weather.

The researchers say their work is a call for further collaboration between ecologists and oceanographers.

Professor Godley added: “It is important to note that animal welfare is paramount and we are only suggesting that animals that are already being tracked for ethically defensible and conservation-relevant ecological research be recruited as oceanographers. We do not advocate for animals being tracked solely for oceanography.”

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Wiring the world below


A network of permanent observatories will soon monitor the oceans

THE planet arrogantly dubbed “Earth” by its dominant terrestrial species might more accurately be called “Sea”. Seven-tenths of its surface is ocean, yet humanity’s need to breathe air and its inability to resist pressure means this part of the orb is barely understood.

In June a project designed to help correct that will open for business. The seven sites of the United States’ Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI), scattered around the Atlantic, Pacific and Southern oceans, will measure physical, chemical, geological and biological phenomena from the seabed to the surface. They will join three similar Canadian facilities, VENUS and NEPTUNE in the Pacific, which have been operating since 2006 and 2009 respectively, and the Arctic observatory in Cambridge Bay, an inlet of the Arctic Ocean, which opened in 2012.

The American project was conceived jointly with Canada, which secured funding first. Canada’s near decade-long operational experience should help to provide pointers to make the bigger operation a success. The OOI’s metaphorical flagship is the Cabled Array, which is being deployed off the coasts of Oregon and Washington, to the south of VENUS and NEPTUNE, with which it will collaborate. In particular, these observatories have a remit to study a suboceanic piece of the Earth’s crust called the Juan de Fuca plate, which is being overridden by the North American plate’s progress westward as part of the stately geological dance called plate tectonics.

As its name suggests, the Cabled Array is organised around a submarine cable—a 900km-long power and data connection between its base in Oregon and its seven submarine nodes (see illustration). These nodes are linked, in turn, to 17 junction boxes that distribute power and signals to the system’s instruments, and collect data from them. It is also connected to “profiler moorings” that let instruments travel up and down a wire stretching from the surface to the bottom, allowing a cross-section of the water column to be sampled at regular intervals.

Strange life

One of the Cabled Array’s jobs is to measure the Juan de Fuca plate’s volcanic and seismological activity, including the output of its hydrothermal vents—submarine springs from which superheated mineral-laden water emerges. These support very unusual forms of life which are not found in any other habitat. It will also, though, study more quotidian matters, such as ocean currents and chemistry, and the biological productivity of the area.

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