Conservation & Science

Painting a picture of the ocean’s past

At our new Ocean Memory Lab, Monterey Bay Aquarium researchers are studying the global ocean and marine life in novel ways, to gain insights into a world before plastic and chemical pollutants were introduced to the water. Feathers, bones, teeth, bits of marine algae and other tissues from ocean plants and animals can paint a picture of conditions dating back a century or more.  They’ve already learned how the feeding habits of seabirds have changed since the late 19th century, as PBS NewsHour Weekend producer Ivette Feliciano discovered when she talked with our director of science, Dr. Kyle Van Houtan.

Here’s her report:

We’ll share the latest news and updates about the Ocean Memory Lab in future blog stories.

Learn more about our Conservation Research programs and priorities.

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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