Conservation & Science

Designing an animal-friendly fin tag

For over two decades, Monterey Bay Aquarium and Stanford University have partnered to study some of the world’s most mysterious ocean predators at the Tuna Research and Conservation Center (TRCC). Some of the latest work to come from the TRCC include an innovative tuna tag design, and a paper recently published in the journal Science detailing the discovery of a hydraulic mechanism in tuna dorsal fins, which helps them swim with speed and precision.


In his office at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, California, Dr. Vadim Pavlov holds a pale, sleeve-like device. Its smooth lines and soft edges make it seem more like a child’s toy than a high-tech scientific product. He slips the device over a model of a dolphin dorsal fin and “swims” it around his office, mimicking a dolphin’s movements as it leaps and twists out of the water.

The device is a prototype of a new tag design intended to track top ocean predators, such as sharks and tunas, without using pins and bolts that penetrate the fin.

“Even when the dolphin leaps, the tag stays on,” Vadim says. “But, how did we do it?”

Form and function

Vadim is one of the world’s top experts in biomimetics: the science of translating natural phenomena, such as the flow of water over a dolphin’s dorsal fin, into useful technology.

For years, he’s been tackling the challenge of tagging and tracking wildlife in the open ocean. He wanted to provide “animal-friendly” tags as an alternative to the invasive bolt tags anchored into the fins of apex marine predators such as sharks, dolphins and tunas. For Vadim, that’s not just a scientific goal; it’s personal, inspired by his experience as a free diver. “I don’t like swimming with lots of gear, so I don’t think [animals] do either,” he says. “They are very sensitive to anything on their bodies.”

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A traditional tag can cause drag on an animal as it swims through the water.

Traditional bolt tags, a key tool in marine animal field studies for the last half century, are kind of like an ear piercing. Researchers punch through the cartilage and collagen in the dorsal fin and attach tags that can help track the animals, or collect environmental data such as salinity, temperature, and depth.

“But over time, these bolt tags do not move with the animals,” Vadim explains. “They can alter the flow of water around the animal’s bodies, and can even cause animals to turn more in one direction over time,” he says. “The faster the animal swims, the greater the energy needed to override the drag.”

Smaller animals, such as harbor porpoises and juvenile dolphins and sharks, are especially susceptible to the pitfalls of traditional bolt tags. “There’s a conflict between the animal’s biology and the technological requirements of the tag,” says Vadim. “So my job became how to reconcile that disconnect.” 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…

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.

Read more…

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…

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.

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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:

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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…

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.


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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.

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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…

The spooky science of shark mummies

John O’Sullivan, the Aquarium’s Director of Collections, was in Mexico on a mission. A young white shark equipped with an electronic tag had traveled over 650 nautical miles south from its release point in Monterey Bay, and the tag had popped off somewhere along the central coast of Baja California. The tag contained a complete data set documenting the shark’s movements and physiology since its release, and John aimed to recover it.

Instead his guide, a local fisherman, led John to a shark graveyard.

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Location of shark dump site in Baja California, Mexico.

A grisly grimace

Sometimes, commercial and sport fishermen accidentally ensnare juvenile white sharks off the coasts of California and Mexico. But locals in some communities consider it bad luck to discard the unmarketable parts, such as the heads, back into the ocean. Instead, they deposit these shark parts at dump sites in the Mexican desert.

In central Baja, just north of Guerrero Negro, John and a team of local Mexicans encountered hundreds of shark heads, in various stages of decay. Some were fresh; others were rotting. Some had skin that was dry and well-preserved—in other words, mummified—in this arid location.

Many of us would turn away from that gruesome sight. But John and his colleagues looked into the mouths of the shark-head mummies and saw an opportunity.

Read more…

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