Marine animals hold promise for extending ocean monitoring

Marine animals hold promise for extending ocean monitoring
Sea turtle equipped with an animal-borne sensor
Sea turtle equipped with an animal-borne sensor
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Sea turtle equipped with an animal-borne sensor
Sea turtle equipped with an animal-borne sensor

An international team of researchers led by the University of Exeter suggests that a wide variety of marine species could be used for monitoring the world's oceans. Using electronic tags, scientists could exploit the natural behavior of sharks, penguins, turtles, seals and other species to fill gaps in our knowledge of the seas.

With three-quarters of the Earth's surface covered with water, having a comprehensive understanding of the oceans is very important in dealing with everything from fishing quotas to climate change. The problem is that the oceans are much bigger than most people realize and many parts aren't easily, if at all, accessible.

Currently, scientists use satellites and aircraft as well as fleets of survey ships, underwater drones, and floating sensors to gather oceanographic data, but their scope is very limited. However, many animals are also routinely tagged for biological studies, so the Exeter team is suggesting adding additional sensors to collect ocean monitoring data.

The argument is that marine animals can not only act as additional sensor platforms but their natural behavior can probe where conventional sensors can't go, including deep diving, swimming under ice, operating in shallow waters, and against currents.

"We want to highlight the massive potential of animal-borne sensors to teach us about the oceans," says 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 percent of the global ocean surface)."

The hope is that by using animal-borne sensors, gaps can be filled in poorly sampled areas, like arctic seas and shallow coastal areas as well as semi-enclosed seas. According to Exeter, tagged seals have already been used to gather data under polar ice and that turtles or sharks could be used in remote tropical regions, which are very important for understanding global weather and climate.

“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," says Professor Brendan Godley, leader of Exeter Marine. "We do not advocate for animals being tracked solely for oceanography.”

The research was published in Global Change Biology.

Source: University of Exeter

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