Conservation & Science

After a jubilant March for Science, we’re marching on for the ocean

Silicon Valley-Jennifer Matlock with Zoe Lofgren arriving at Plaza
The Aquarium’s Jennifer Matlock (fourth from left) heads up the March for Science Silicon Valley beside Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren and others. Photo © Monterey Bay Aquarium / Paul Sakuma

On Earth Day, April 22, people came together in more than 600 cities around the world to stand up for science. And Monterey Bay Aquarium was all-in, standing up for the power of science to protect our shared ocean.

At the Aquarium, to quote Executive Director Julie Packard, “science is in our DNA.” We use research to make discoveries about marine wildlife and ecosystems, to inform ocean conservation policy, and to inspire the next generation of ocean leaders. We believe that evidence-based science can inform decisions that make our world better.

To show our support, Aquarium staff marched for science in cities across the U.S., including Washington DC, Dallas, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Santa Cruz. We went international too, with staff marching in Brussels and Amsterdam.

Even our resident African penguins joined in with a “March of the Penguins for Science,” waddling through our Kelp Forest gallery while staff—and a Facebook Live audience (now at 2.5 million, and rising)—cheered them on.

Read more…

Using science to save ocean wildlife

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a science-driven organization, and rigorous science underpins all of our public policy, research and education programs. Much of our research centers on marine life that visitors can also see in our exhibits – from sea otters to sharks and tunas, even our giant kelp forest. Here’s some of what we’ve learned over the past 30-plus years that is contributing to conservation of key ocean species and ecosystems.

A sea otter works to crack a mussel shell open on a rock off the coast of Moss Landing, California. Photo by Jessica Fujii

Sea otters crack open tool-use secrets

Revolutionary female scientist Jane Goodall was the first person to discover that chimps use tools and live within complex social systems. Our team of female researchers are walking in Jane’s footsteps with their recent studies on use of tools by another mammal: the sea otter. When observing sea otters along the Monterey Peninsula, sometimes we can hear a “crack, crack, crack!” above the roar of the tide. That sound comes from sea otters using rocks and other tools to open prey items, such as crabs or bivalves, as they float on their backs. Sea otters are avid tool users, but until recently not much was known about how sea otters choose their tools, what aspects of their environments influence tool use, or whether they teach tool use to other otters. The Aquarium’s decades of research into sea otter behavior provided years of observations of sea otter foraging and tool-use behavior, including sea otter pups pounding empty fists against their chests. Could such activity be instinctual? Research Biologist Jessica Fujii has devoted much of her young career to studying the frequency and types of tools used and whether tool use can be coded in sea otter genes. Jessica is looking ahead to see how sea otters learn, teach, and eventually master tool use in the wild.

A sea otter rests in an eelgrass bed in Elkhorn Slough National
Estuarine Research Reserve. Sea otters contribute to the recovery of eelgrass and ecosystem health in this vital wetland on Monterey Bay. Photo by Ron Eby.

Sea otter surrogacy helps restore Elkhorn Slough

With 15 years of experience rescuing, rehabilitating, and then releasing surrogate-reared sea otters into Elkhorn Slough, an estuary near Moss Landing, California, the sea otter research team at the Aquarium began to wonder how and if their work was affecting the otter population there. Does releasing a few animals into the slough each year really make any difference? After crunching some serious numbers from the surrogacy program and the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) annual sea otter census, the researchers discovered that it did. Nearly 60 percent of the 140 or so sea otters living in Elkhorn Slough today are there as a result of the Aquarium’s surrogacy program. While we’d known that sea otters served as ecosystem engineers for the giant kelp forests in Monterey Bay, we have now documented that sea otters in Elkhorn Slough are restoring the health and biodiversity of the estuary. This gives us further insights into how sea otters may contribute to coastal ecosystem resilience. Read more…

For deep-ocean science, nothing beats being there

Today’s guest post on the importance of ocean science comes from Nancy Barr of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), our partner institution.

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Creatures of the deep sea. Photo © MBARI

The casual observer of the ocean might notice day-to-day changes in the waves and currents, or in the water’s color or smell. But how do we know what is going on far below the surface, if we are not there to observe it?

One key focus of MBARI technology development is to create a “persistent presence”—being where changes are taking place, as they happen. It means placing instrumentation in the deep ocean for extended periods of time, instead of relying on the occasional research cruise to make observations and collect data.

Tracking seafloor movement

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First Mate Paul Ban assists with the recovery of a tripod frame onto the R/V Rachel Carson, Photo by Roberto Gwiazda © MBARI 2017

Sediment moves from the continents into the deep sea both gradually, and in large bursts. This movement plays an important role in providing nutrition to deep-sea organisms. But it can also harm seafloor infrastructure, like underwater Internet cables—and it could possibly trigger geohazards like tsunamis.

MBARI engineers and scientists devised several instruments to record sediment-moving events as they happen. For the past two years, MBARI scientist Charlie Paull and an international research team have been monitoring movement in Monterey Canyon with a suite of instruments and sensors. The effort proved its worth in 2016, when the instruments detected a movement so strong, it swept a large volume of sediment down the canyon—carrying a one-ton steel tripod more than 3 miles down the canyon and burying it deep in the mud.

Read more…

Our commitment to science: white shark research

Monterey Bay Aquarium has since its inception affirmed that we are a science-driven organization, and that science underpins all of our public policy, research and education programs. That’s why we’re a partner with the national March for Science, a series of more than 500 events around the world on April 22.

As part of our commitment to the scientific process, our white shark research team works to understand and conserve these vital ocean predators. In advance of the March for Science, we’re taking a look at many of our scientific initiatives—in research, policy and education. Here’s a look at some of our recent white shark science highlights.

Annual Field Research

Every fall for the last decade, the Aquarium’s white shark research team has headed out to the Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco to tag, track, and identify white sharks as they feed on elephant seals and sea lions. The team observes behavior, captures underwater video, and deploys electronic tracking tags that relay information about white shark migrations and habitat preferences. When the team returns to the lab, they combine and analyze all these data to better understand white shark populations and their role in maintaining the healthy ocean ecosystems that ultimately support all life on Earth.

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We’re lacing up for the March for Science

Try to imagine one morning without science. You’d have no cell phone alarm to wake you up; no clean running water for your shower; no electricity to power your coffee maker. No weather forecast to help you plan your day.

We have science to thank for so many of the benefits of modern life, from our medicines to our food supply to our smartphones. Science also holds the promise of addressing our planet’s most serious environmental challenges. Innovations in renewable energy and clean vehicles can slow the pace of climate change. Rigorous research can better equip us to address the growing problem of plastic pollution in our ocean.

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Scientists with the Aquarium’s Sea Otter Program release a rescued sea otter back into the wild.

At Monterey Bay Aquarium, science is at the core of our mission to inspire conservation of the ocean. That’s why we’re one of the first 100 partners in the national March for Science, a series of nearly 500 coordinated events across the United States and around the world on Saturday, April 22. Other partners include the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), American Geophysical Union, Ecological Society of America, Society for Conservation Biology and Union of Concerned Scientists.

“The world is too interconnected, and the issues are too complex, to make decisions without the input of science,” says Kyle Van Houtan, the Aquarium’s science director.

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Aquarist Jennifer O’Quin Anstey checks in on baby seahorses (Hippocampus ingens) in the Aquarium’s lab.

Over the next two weeks, on this blog and through our Twitter and Facebook feeds, we’ll share more about how science contributes to ocean health. We’ll highlight research that’s leading to exciting discoveries about ocean wildlife, and science-based programs transforming the market for sustainable seafood.

We’ll celebrate science education programs that empower young people from diverse backgrounds to become citizen scientists and the ocean conservation leaders of the future. We’ll highlight policy work in support of science-based decision-making, and breakthroughs in deep-sea exploration.

This Earth Day, April 22, the movement will go global as people from all walks of life come together to stand up for science. Advocates in Washington, D.C., will be joined by people at satellite marches on six continents, celebrating science—and their hope for our shared future—with one voice.


Find a March for Science near you.

 

International partnership confirms a new Baja nursery area for white sharks

It’s relatively easy to spot when and where a pregnant animal gives birth on land. But in the sea, it’s a whole different story.

Over the past few decades, researchers studying the elusive great white shark have pieced together a picture of their underwater lives: The adults seasonally travel between a remote region of the Pacific Ocean—dubbed the White Shark Café—and their feeding grounds in Central California and Mexico.

But where do females give birth, and where do the offspring grow up?

Researchers in Mexico and the United States, including a team from the Aquarium, have confirmed a new nursery area for white sharks on the Pacific Coast of Baja California.

“We don’t know whether [the sharks] pup in-shore or off-shore,” explains the Aquarium’s Director of Collections John O’Sullivan. “We don’t even know whether they pup in American or Mexican waters.”

But in a paper recently published online in the journal Fisheries Research, scientists have revealed a new piece of the juvenile white shark puzzle. The study—an international collaboration between researchers at the Ensenada Center for Scientific Research and Higher Education (CICESE); Monterey Bay Aquarium; California State University, Long Beach; and other institutions—revealed that Bahia Sebastian Vizcaino, a warm lagoon on the coast of Baja California, is a nursery area for newborn white sharks.

The bay, part of a protected biosphere reserve and a prime breeding ground for gray whales, is located on the west coast of the Baja Peninsula, 500 miles south of San Diego. Read more…

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.

Read more…

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