These Researchers Have Flippers

Elephant seal pups at Año Nuevo State Reserve.
(Photograph by Aaron Walburg.)
Dan Costa presenting his work on real-time environmental sensors at CITRIS’s Corporate Sponsor Day at NASA Ames in April.
(Photograph by Aaron Walburg.)

Pacific Ocean is a familiar sight to coastal Californians, yet what
happens below the surface remains unknown to most of us. In hopes of
cracking that mystery, Dr. Daniel P. Costa, a CITRIS-affiliated
professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UC Santa Cruz, and
colleagues Barbara Block at Stanford University, Steve Bograd at NMFS,
and Randy Kocehvar of the Monterey Bay Aquarium have launched an
ambitious project aimed at exploring and mapping the Pacific with
unprecedented detail. To accomplish this ambitious goal, his team has
enlisted some very unusual research assistants.

Who better
to reveal the mysteries of the deep than those who live there? Named
Tagging of Pacific Pelagic (TOPP), Costa’s project is equipping Pacific
Ocean dwellers with the latest in sensor and satellite communication
technology to provide an “organism’s eye” view of their habitats.
California sea lions, massive Humboldt squid, albacore tuna, sooty
shearwaters, and humpback whales are just some of the 21 species
recording the depth, temperature, salinity, chlorophyll content, and
precise location of their whereabouts on a nearly continual basis, with
a few of these 1850 animals transmitting their journeys 4-6 times a day
via satellite to TOPP’s Web site .

animals give us an ability to sense environments that otherwise aren’t
accessible with the current technology,” says Costa, who is one of four
principal investigators on the project.

An interactive map on TOPP’s Web site provides live updates on the whereabouts of and data collected by tagged animals.
(Image courtesy of TOPP Data Management Team.)

the northern elephant seal, whose foraging trips throughout the
northeastern Pacific and coastal regions can last anywhere from two to
nine months and involve many long dives deep below the ocean’s surface.
Just one seal can cover 90 kilometers in a day. Based on whether a seal
is diving or near the surface or somewhere in between, researchers can
determine what it’s up to at any given time or place along the way.

combining the small-scale data and behavioral information from these
elephant seals and other tagged critters with large-scale information
on ocean color, temperature and ocean height collected by physical and
biological oceanographers, Costa believes a much better understanding
of the ocean will emerge.

“It’s a win-win. Physical
oceanographers can add this incredible data stream to their existing
data sets and can do a better job untangling the physical oceanography
of the North Pacific Ocean. Together we can create a better
understanding of the habitat these animals live in, which leads to
significant increases in our understanding of how animals work and what
they do below the surface,” he says.

That knowledge is
important not only in and of itself, but also because it can be used to
aid climatologists in their understanding of global climate change. It
can assist fisheries in making better decisions on where and when to
fish so that they don’t over-harvest or accidentally ensnare endangered
species. Based on improved behavior knowledge, protected areas can be
carved out near breeding and feeding grounds. Additionally, one of
TOPP’s main goals is to pioneer new technology and techniques for
mapping oceans and share that information so that future researchers
can start to map their corners of the world. A similar mapping project
is already underway in the Antarctic using TOPP-developed technology.

UC Santa Cruz graduate students weigh a recently tagged elephant seal.
(Photograph by Dan Costa.)

tagging marine animals with sensors has been going on since the 1960s,
only in the past decade has the right combination of technologies
existed that enable TOPP’s approach. Satellite capabilities have made
it feasible to track the precise location of tagged animals, while the
miniaturization of electronics have helped make the equipment less
obtrusive. The sensors themselves have become capable of retrieving,
processing, storing, and transmitting increasing amounts of data. The
ability to compress and send that information to satellites which then
transmit it to TOPP’s Web site is yet another piece of the puzzle
that’s only recently fallen into place. Finally, there’s the monumental
task of managing all these data sets.

“One of my main
interests in working with researchers at CITRIS is that those guys are
on the cutting edge of developing these types of tools,” says Costa.

which kicked off its planning stage in late 2000 with 70 participants
from five countries, is a pilot program of the Census of Marine Life
(COML), a ten-year project which according to its Web site aims “to
assess and explain the diversity, distribution, and abundance of marine
life in the oceans” by 2010.

“The idea is to ratchet up our
understanding of the ocean and marine life–where it is and how it
lives in the ocean–and these efforts will be akin to the human genome
project, catalyzing an increased knowledge,” says Costa.


For more information:

Tagging of Pacific Pelagics

Census of Marine Life

Daniel Costa’s CITRIS Corporate Sponsor Day presentation ( PDF | Video )

Daniel Costa’s Web site