Conservation & Science

An ocean time machine

The ocean keeps scrupulous records of its past: The comings and goings of myriad creatures, the evolving conditions they lived in, even details of who ate what.

“The ocean has a memory. We just have to tap into it,” says Kyle Van Houtan, the Aquarium’s science director.

Turkish towel red algae are common along the Pacific coast. Illustration courtesy Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Turkish towel red algae are common along the Pacific coast. Illustration courtesy Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Consider the secrets we might glean from studying a single blade of algae – commonly known as seaweed. During the year or two it was alive, were the surrounding waters pleasantly cool, or unusually acidic? What plants were its neighbors? And what was the world around it like?

With the help of modern technology, historical specimens can now answer some of these questions. And in the world of ocean science, the details amount to hidden treasure.

Like antiques that startle and thrill their owners, proving to be worth small fortunes, pressed seaweeds can yield surprisingly valuable data. Museums and herbariums hold collections of these souvenirs from the ocean, often dating back decades – and too often left unnoticed in deep storage.

Kyle lucked into one such trove when he started work at the Aquarium last year.

‘What’s in here?’

“I was on my orientation tour of the building, and I saw a large blue metal cabinet behind a ficus tree. I said to my guide ‘What’s in here?’” he recalls. “We moved the tree—and lo and behold, inside were hundreds of specimens of red, green and brown algae.”

A chance encounter opened the door to the Aquarium's forgotten herbarium.
A chance encounter opened the door to the Aquarium’s forgotten herbarium.

He sensed an opportunity.

To understand how the ocean is changing over time, scientists need access to long-term data—historical records from past times, against which to compare newer findings.

“We’re often lacking for long-term baselines of ecosystem health,” Kyle says.

A pressed red algae specimen, part of the Aquarium's herbarium.
A pressed red algae, preserved as part of the Aquarium’s 600-specimen marine herbarium.

This is especially critical given what he calls “the full dynamic variability” of the Pacific, which includes complex ocean currents, climate patterns like El Niño, as well as long-term changes like warming, acidification and rising sea levels.

To make well-informed predictions about the ocean’s future, it helps to place present-day measurements in historical context. As Kyle puts it: “What’s going to happen in the next 50 years that hasn’t happened in the last 500?”

A scientist collecting such data from algae, he notes, might stumble across unexpected works of art, like a 30-year-old spray of kelp, dried and delicately pressed inside a folder.

“You have to pause and appreciate the beauty,” Kyle says.

The legacy of Izzie Abbott

Any discussion of Pacific seaweeds would be incomplete without mention of the late Stanford University professor, Isabella Abbott. Nicknamed Izzie, the renowned marine botanist was the first native Hawaiian woman to receive a science PhD; she authored several books and described more than 200 species before she passed away in 2010 at the age of 91.

Isabella Abbott was a leader in the study of marine algae, in California and Hawaii. Photo courtesy University of Hawaii/Jennifer Crites
Isabella Abbott was a leader in the study of marine algae, in California and Hawaii. Photo courtesy University of Hawaii/Jennifer Crites

Like the diminutive algae to which she devoted much of her career, Izzie was small in stature. But her impact in the scientific community was profound.

“She wrote the definitive books on algae in California and Hawaii,” Kyle says. “That we even have an herbarium at the Aquarium reflects the intellectual legacy of Izzie Abbott.”

For Sue Lisin, a longtime researcher at Monterey Bay Aquarium, seaweed memories go back over three decades. In the fall of 1985, she helped launch a project studying kelp forests around the Monterey Peninsula, and preserved seaweed plucked from the depths.

“I love seaweeds, and used Izzie’s California seaweed book extensively when I was studying them in college,” she says. “When the Monterey Bay Aquarium opened and chose kelp as its hallmark, I knew it was going to be a great place. A year later, I landed a job working on the Aquarium’s new kelp forest ecology project.”

Genesis of the herbarium

As part of the kelp forest study, seaweed specimens were collected and brought into the lab to verify the species and for preservation as vouchers documenting the study. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Herbarium also served to teach others about the species being studied, and helped the Husbandry team to maintain the living Kelp Forest exhibit as an accurate representation of the wild version.

Researcher Sue Lisin collected many of the specimens that are part of the herbarium. Photo Monterey Bay Aquarium/Tyson Rininger
Researcher Sue Lisin collected many of the specimens that are part of the herbarium. Photo Monterey Bay Aquarium/Tyson Rininger

“The kelp forest ecology project ended long ago, so we haven’t used the herbarium collection for many years,” Sue notes.

But now, she explains, laboratory techniques like stable isotope analysis allow scientists to learn much more about not just the specimens themselves, but also about the environments in which they lived.

Stable isotope analysis can tease apart the ratios of elements like carbon, oxygen and nitrogen in preserved samples. This can yield evidence of ambient water temperature and pH, as well as specific nutrients in an organism’s diet—potentially going back over a century.

19th century specimens

The older seaweed specimens come from a collection that long predated Izzie Abbott, who joined the Stanford faculty in 1960. They are part of the Gilbert Smith Herbarium at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station. That collection contains 7,800 seaweed specimens collected and catalogued between 1890 and 1980. By contrast, the Monterey Bay Aquarium collection includes 600 specimens dating from 1970 to 2010.

Algae, shark vertebrae, bird feathers -- even whale ear wax -- hold ocean secrets. Photo Monterey Bay Aquarium/Tyson Rininger
Algae, shark vertebrae, bird feathers — even whale ear wax — hold ocean secrets. Photo Monterey Bay Aquarium/Tyson Rininger

Pressed seaweeds aren’t the only preserved marine specimens that hold secrets of the past. So do the feathers of seabirds, the vertebrae of white sharks, the incisors of sea otters, and the ear stones (otoliths) of bluefin tuna.  When these tissues grow, they take on information about their host and the conditions of the world around it.

“Kyle taught me that whales even have big blobs of ear wax that hold similar information,” Sue says.

Having stumbled on the herbarium, Kyle’s already thinking about how to apply this time machine approach to other marine life, from sharks to sea otters.

“We’re just scratching the surface looking at algae,” he says. “There are many other things we can do. We’re just now really understanding this opportunity.”

The ocean’s history is deeper and older than most of us can fathom. In Kyle’s vision, 2017 will be a year to unlock more of its memories—now filed away in humble specimen cabinets, just waiting to tell their secrets.

– Daniel Potter



A last-ditch effort to save the vaquita

Spotting a vaquita in the northern Gulf of California is a bit like glimpsing a snow leopard in the Himalayas. Some local fishermen told a reporter they’ve never seen a vaquita—and doubt they even exist.

One day soon, they might be right. But not if a coalition of experts, working with the Mexican government, can help it.

Vaquita observers use binoculars capable of spotting vaquitas almost 2 miles away. Photo by NOAA Fisheries/Barbara Taylor

Barbara Taylor is one of the few people who’s seen a vaquita—hundreds of them, she says, in her 20 years doing population surveys. As a conservation biologist and a long-time member of the vaquita recovery team, Barbara has the training, and the powerful binoculars, to locate the small porpoises.

When vaquitas surface to breathe, they do it subtly and disappear quickly; and they tend to keep their distance from boats. “They are almost impossible to see from a little panga on the water,” she says.

But there’s another reason few people have encountered vaquitas: They’re the most highly endangered marine mammal species on Earth. These shy, small porpoises were only discovered in the 1950s. The population dropped from an estimated 567, when Barbara’s team first surveyed them in the late 1990s, to fewer than 60 last year. (UPDATE: According to a report published Feb. 1, the population is now estimated at only 30 individuals.)

Read more…

A year of hope for the global ocean

Say what you will about 2016—the world made some big waves to protect the ocean. As the sun sets on this year, let’s reflect on its brightest marine moments:

The Aquarium and our partners campaigned across the state for Prop 67.

California votes to ban single-use plastic bags

November brought a big ballot win for ocean health. Thanks to voters, California now has the nation’s first law banning single-use plastic carryout bags statewide.

Working with our partners, the Aquarium campaigned in support of Proposition 67, the California ballot measure to uphold the statewide bag ban. We also urged a NO vote on the deceptive Proposition 65, which could have further delayed the ban’s implementation.

Voters agreed, approving Proposition 67 and rejecting Proposition 65. And just like that, single-use plastic carryout bags are now a thing of California’s past. The new law could prevent billions of plastic bags from polluting our ocean each year—which means a cleaner future for marine wildlife and coastal communities.

Read more…

Our best Conservation & Science stories of 2016

It’s been an exciting year for ocean conservation at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

We’ve shared how our care for the animals in our living collections—including snowy ploverscomb jellies, ocean sunfish and Pacific seahorses—contibutes to the conservation of their wild kin.

The Aquarium helps rehabilitate threatened Western snowy plovers.

We’ve visited the Canadian cousins of Monterey Bay’s sea otters, explored how sea otters use tools, and assisted scientists working to decode the sea otter genome.

We’ve collaborated with our colleagues in Baja, Mexico on a number of conservation missions—one of them involving ancient shark mummies. And we joined forces with U.S. aquariums and zoos to call for stronger protections for the endangered vaquita porpoises of the Gulf of California.

As 2016 comes to a close, let’s look back at the top 10 highlights from this blog:

White shark GIF_MBA
A white shark approaches schooling sardines.

10. Camera to Crack a White Shark MysteryOur senior reseach scientist teamed up with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute for a high-tech mission: to capture video footage of great white sharks in their most mysterious habitat.

“Some of the engineering team said it was an impossible job,” MBARI Engineer Thom Maughan recalled. “But I’m attracted to those opportunities.”

Read more…

Taking a stand against shady seafood

The holidays came early for seafood lovers. Thanks to a new federal initiative, Americans will soon know more about where our imported seafood comes from.

Customers use the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch guide at a California fish market.

On Dec. 8, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced a “traceability” program that will track certain seafood imports at risk of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. More than 90 percent of the seafood available to consumers in the United States is imported.

Traceability allows regulators to electronically track seafood through the supply chain—from the moment it’s wild-caught or farm-harvested, to the U.S.border. This new information will help authorities keep illegal seafood products out of the U.S., and level the playing field for American fishermen who follow the rules. And, it also makes it easier for businesses and consumers to support seafood that was produced sustainably.

As we reported last February, traceability can also cut down on seafood fraud, which happens when seafood labels mislead consumers about the identity or source of their seafood.

Monterey Bay Aquarium works globally, through industry-led coalitions and other partnerships, to improve traceability in Southeast Asia, where much of the world’s seafood is produced.     Read more…

Aquariums come together to tackle plastic pollution

Makana stood on a cart at the front of the room and sized up the crowd. Her caretaker offered a few gestures to make her comfortable, scratching her under the chin and misting her with a spray bottle. Then the Laysan albatross partially opened her glossy dark wings, to appreciative murmurs from the audience.

It was as if she knew this was an especially important crowd to impress.

Aquarium Plastic Pollution Symposium 2016
Aimee David, director of ocean conservation policy and initiatives, addresses the Aquarium Plastic Pollution Symposium in Monterey.

Watching Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Makana Show” in front of our Kelp Forest Exhibit were more than 100 professionals from aquariums across the U.S. and Canada, along with experts from scientific institutions, nonprofit organizations and government agencies. They were gathered in Monterey for the first-ever Aquarium Plastic Pollution Symposium, which was hosted by Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Over the course of three days, from December 5-7, the group discussed how aquariums can work together to tackle the problem of plastic pollution in our ocean, rivers and lakes.

Read more…

Dispatch from the Farallones: White shark family portraits

Monterey Bay Aquarium’s white shark tagging team recently made its annual visit to the Farallon Islands outside San Francisco Bay. The goal: to continue its long-term efforts to monitor a genetically distinct population of adult white sharks, which gathers at the islands each fall to gorge on seals and sea lions.

 During the trip, team members took photos to identify individual sharks by their dorsal fin patterns, collected tissue samples for genetic research, and attached electronic tags to study these majestic ocean predators. Presley Adamson, associate producer and editor for the Aquarium’s film team, reports back on his experiences in the field.

Approaching the Farallones.

It’s been two hours since we lost sight of the Golden Gate Bridge and, with it, any sign of civilization. Dr. Salvador Jorgensen, senior research scientist for Monterey Bay Aquarium; and Scot Anderson, a pioneering white shark expert and seasonal researcher for the Aquarium, are somehow sleeping through the relentless rocking and rolling of our sailboat. I’m too excited to sleep.

Choppy waves have kept us stuck on shore for six straight days. Today, the waters are finally calm enough for us to cross the 25 miles of open ocean between San Francisco and the Farallon Islands.

The Farallones are technically part of the City of San Francisco, but we won’t find any subdivisions or grocery stores here. The islands, their surrounding waters, and their plant and animal inhabitants are protected in the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge, within the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.

A whale fluke surfaces near our sailboat as we near the Farallon Islands.

More elephant seals and sea lions than people visit the Farallones. The abundance of blubbery pinnipeds attracts some of the largest white sharks in the world, who hang around the islands looking for a meal.

Sal and Scot have brought me along to document this year’s research season. I’m armed with six cameras that need to be set up before we get to the Farallones. I also need to put on foul-weather gear—boots, life jacket, raincoat, and other gear to stay warm and dry. But I’m distracted by a pod of humpback whales next to our boat, showing off their giant flukes as they go about their own morning commute.

I can just start to make out a lone pinnacle emerging from the sea. We’re almost there.

Read more…

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