Animal Oceanographers

Ocean observation systems are of critical value to humanity. Observing systems inform us of the ocean’s health and its ecosystems. They help us forecast the weather and predict future climate conditions. To make these systems work, ocean data needs to be collected. Since 2002, the Animal Borne Ocean Sensor (AniBOS) programme has been using animals to gather data. By attaching sensors to animals like seals and turtles, they can be deployed as oceanographers, collecting data as they go about their daily activities.

Clive McMahon and David March are marine biologists working with the seal and turtle tagging teams. Before AniBOS, scientists were already tagging seals and turtles for biological purposes, to learn more their behaviours. Clive explains, ‘It all started when we realised that by tracking how animals use their environment, we can also measure some exciting things about the physical environment.’ In particular, the sensors collect information on water temperature and salinity – the cornerstones of ocean observations. Working with marine animals in this way, offers scientists the ability to see into corners of the ocean that are inaccessible to large vessels and research equipment.

Turtle Cannoli having her tag fitted in Ibiza. Photograph: AniBOS.

“The seals have been instrumental in discovering new areas of dense water formation”

Underwater agents

Elephant Seals are the largest of all seals, growing up to 6 metres in length and weighing up to 4.5 tonnes. These seals make the ideal agents to collect data from the watery depths beneath the ice in the Northern polar regions. The tags attached to the seals take a reading every 4 seconds, transferring the data to a satellite when the seals resurface. In the Antarctic, the AniBOS seals have been vital assistants in the investigation into dense water areas. Dense water is water that freezes, removing much of the salt, which allows it to sink to the bottom of the ocean, creating an ocean current. These currents are crucial for mixing water throughout the entirety of the world’s ocean, regulating the planet’s climate. Covered by thick sheets of ice, these dense water areas have been extremely challenging to access in the past. Clive concludes, ‘The seals have been instrumental in discovering new areas of dense water formation.’

As seals do in the Arctic, turtles make ideal couriers for AniBOS sensors in the tropical and temperate regions. This is because turtles often search for food in the coastal, shallow waters that are hard to sample through other methods. In Japan, tagged turtles are being utilised to monitor and collect data to predict cyclone activity. Along with collecting data to make a safer ocean for humans, the turtles give scientists important information about conservation. For example, in the West Africa region, turtles often inhabit fishing areas, leaving them vulnerable to being accidentally caught through bycatch. David explains, ‘Having an understanding of where the turtles are, and at what depth, means we can inform fisheries to adjust their practices.’

First image: David fitting Cannoli’s tag.  Second image:  Releasing a tagged turtle. Photographs: AniBOS

A unique element of the AniBOS programme is its commitment to making the data it collects freely available. Clive explains, ‘In the past, this has been a big problem in the biological community. Part of our vision for the programme is to drive our community towards open data availability. The AniBOS programme is a part of the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS). GOOS works to coordinate the collaboration and data availability of ocean observations from a variety of networks globally. You can see the data for yourself here.

As the programme works with wild animals, ethical considerations are a priority. Clive explains that, ‘We take our responsibility for the animals very seriously.’ Over the years, the team has perfected its tagging process, ensuring it has as little impact on the animals as possible. For example, each year, a group mounts an expedition to the sub-Antarctic to tag the seals. ‘We attach the instrument after the seal’s annual malt when the hair is fresh. The instrument then falls off naturally when the seal malts again a year later.’

Given its success with seals and turtles, the AniBOS programme hopes to expand its tagging to other animals. David finishes by saying, ‘There’s a lot of work happening to miniaturise the technology to attach tags to flying seabirds, and to penguins in the Southern Ocean.’ Watch this space for more animal oceanographers in the future!

The GenO campaign sits within the UN Ocean Decade – visit the Decade website for more information.

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