Conservation & Science

Playing your part through citizen science

On Earth Day,  Monterey Bay Aquarium staff and volunteers joined in March for Science events along with tens of thousands of people in more than 600 cities around the world. With representatives at marches in seven cities across the U.S. and Europe, the Aquarium stood up for one of our founding principles: that evidence-based science should drive conservation action.

From recording and sharing wildlife observations to reporting stranded sea otters, there are many ways to contribute as a citizen scientist.

It’s clear that the March for Science isn’t just about scientists, and it’s more than a one-day phenomenon. People of all ages and backgrounds participated, because you don’t have to be a trained scientist to appreciate the benefits science offers—or to contribute to the scientific process.

Much of the science taking place at the Aquarium, from saving sea otters to tracking white sharks, relies on dedicated citizens quite literally taking science into their own hands. Thanks to our increasingly connected society, opportunities abound for everyone from middle school students to retired teachers to participate in citizen science at the Aquarium—and beyond. Here are a few of the many ways you can become a citizen scientist. 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 surrogate-raised sea otters are helping restore a wetland

Otter 501 meanders through the tidal creeks near Yampah Island in Elkhorn Slough with a dozing pup on her chest. She massages the pup’s rump and blows air into its fur as she makes her way toward a main channel to feed.

To an observer, 501 might look like any other sea otter going about her business. But she’s thriving in the wild today because of a rather remarkable program at Monterey Bay Aquarium.

According to surprising new research, the same can be said of the majority of Elkhorn Slough’s otters.

Read more…

Sea otters are handy with tools

What makes people different from other animals? Scientists used to think the ability to make and use tools was a distinguishing characteristic. That changed in the 1960s, when Jane Goodall observed chimpanzees using sticks to fish termites out of mounds. Now, crows, dolphins and sea otters make the short list of creatures that use tools.

Sea otters dive in shallow coastal waters to collect hard-shelled prey like sea urchins, mussels, abalones, clams and snails. Some shells, like the calcium carbonate armor that protects snails, are harder to crack than others—so otters sometimes use rocks as anvils to break them open.

Read more…

A toast to the coast

Today is Ocean Day, when Monterey Bay Aquarium joins other ocean advocates in Sacramento for a day-long celebration of ocean and coastal health.

We'll bring a message about protecting ocean to the State Capitol for Ocean Day 2016. Photo © Steven Pavlov
We’ll bring a message about protecting ocean health to the State Capitol for Ocean Day 2016. Photo © Steven Pavlov

For the seventh year, the Aquarium is hosting a reception for nearly 200 state legislators, government officials, business executives and ocean advocates—people dedicated to conserving the health and vitality of our state’s ocean and coast.

They’ll enjoy sustainable California seafood rated “Best Choice” by our Seafood Watch program and fine wines from California’s coastal communities. We’ll also present awards to some of California’s strongest ocean champions, honoring the actions they took in 2015 to advance ocean and coastal health.

We have so much to celebrate here in California, thanks to forward-thinking decisions and policies that have made our state a global model for ocean conservation and thriving coastal communities.

Now more than ever, we need to build on our progress and continue to lead by example. This means ensuring we have strong, conservation-minded leaders for agencies like the California Coastal Commission and the Fish and Game Commission.

Three state legislators will receive our California Ocean Champion Award for 2016:

Read more…

Meet our new director of science: Dr. Kyle Van Houtan

Dr. Kyle Van Houtan, a conservation ecologist with expertise in marine biodiversity and global change, has been named director of science at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Dr. Kyle Van Houtan
Dr. Kyle Van Houtan

In his new position, Dr. Van Houtan will manage, coordinate and strengthen our science programs and partnerships. This includes conservation research focused on sea otters, great white sharksPacific bluefin tuna and other iconic California Current species and ecosystems.

For the past six years, he has led several initiatives in global change and protected species from the director’s office at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center in Hawai’i. His research and teaching focus on multi-faceted approaches to marine biodiversity conservation, and his work spans a range of topics from animal behavior, foraging ecology and physiology, to fisheries stock assessments, climate change and ecosystem-based management.

His work includes studies using bomb radiocarbon from Pacific nuclear tests to help in sea turtle conservation.
His work includes studies using bomb radiocarbon from Pacific nuclear tests to help in sea turtle conservation.

His latest research paper uses bomb radiocarbon from Pacific nuclear tests to aid in the conservation of critically endangered hawksbill sea turtles. He has also spoken and written widely about issues of environmental policy and ethics.

Dr. Van Houtan earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Virginia, a master of science from Stanford University and his Ph.D. from Duke University, where he serves as an adjunct associate professor in the Nicholas School of the Environment.

A passionate science and conservation communicator, his research has been featured on National Public Radio, in the New York Times, Nature, Science, National Geographic, WIRED andSmithsonian. He is also a recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from President Obama for his pioneering research into how climate influences sea turtle populations.

When he received the award, NOAA Fisheries Chief Science Advisor Richard Merrick, noted that Dr. Van Houtan “has shown how a deep understanding of biology, ecology, and climate science can provide answers to the important question of how climate change can affect animal populations over decades and vast geographies.”

“We are fortunate to have Kyle Van Houtan as our director of science,” said Margaret Spring, vice president of conservation and science, and chief conservation officer for the aquarium. “He brings new perspectives to our work on behalf of iconic ocean wildlife at a time when marine ecosystems face unprecedented challenges from climate change and ocean acidification.”

Learn more about our Conservation Research initiatives.

Decoding the sea otter genome

Sea otters play a critical role in the health of coastal ecosystems. But we’re not seeing all the benefits because their numbers have yet to recover from the impact of the fur trade that ended more than a century ago. Now there’s a new tool to aid in sea otter recovery: a first-ever sequencing of the sea otter genome.  Annabel Beichman, a PhD student in UCLA’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology is leading the effort and shares the progress – and the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s key role in the project. 

Large sea otter populations once ranged from Northern Japan all the way around the Northern Pacific Rim to Baja California. All that changed starting in 1741 when the Bering Expedition shipwrecked in the Commander Islands. Vitus Bering and most of the crew perished, but a handful of survivors returned to Russia, bringing with them sea otter pelts and stories of abundant sea otter and fur seal populations to the northeast.

Sea otter hunters in Coos Bay, Oregon, 1856. Courtesy Oregon History Project
Sea otter hunters in Coos Bay, Oregon, 1856. Courtesy Oregon History Project

This spurred a mad rush to obtain sea otter pelts that drove sea otter populations nearly to extinction by the end of the 19th century.

In 1911 sea otters were protected by the International Fur Seal Treaty. But for many of the small, isolated populations that remained it was already too late. They were down to fewer than 100 individuals in each fragmented pocket, and in many cases – in British Columbia, Canada and Baja California – they vanished over time.

Long, slow recovery

In the Kuril Islands, Kamchatka Peninsula, Aleutian Islands, South-Central Alaska and California, however, the small remaining populations began to grow. Several returned to their historical population sizes over the course of the 20th century. In California, the population has recovered more slowly, to around 3,000 adults and dependent pups – well below the level that existed before the fur trade.

Sea Otter Genetic BottleneckDecimation of sea otters led to what’s known as a “population bottleneck”. This occurs when a population experiences an extreme decline to a very small size, followed by a re-expansion. A handful of individuals emerge on the other side of the bottleneck and all future members of the population are the descendants of that lucky handful.

The bottleneck can have long-lasting genetic consequences, because the population has lost much of the genetic diversity that once existed and is subject to harmful genetic mutations that can become commonplace in the population. These mutations can impact individuals’ ability to withstand disease, reproduce or survive into adulthood.

Mapping otters’ genetic code

Today, society is in the middle of a revolution in genome sequencing (the sequencing of all the DNA building blocks that make up an individual’s entire genetic code: the unique blueprint that makes them what they are). Sequencing an entire genome used to be an impossible feat, and then impossibly costly. Now, thanks to major advances in technology, it’s possible to map the genetic profile of any organism, at a relatively modest cost.

The first blood sample will come from a Monterey Bay Aquarium exhibit otter. Photo courtesy USGS.
The first blood sample will come from a Monterey Bay Aquarium exhibit otter. Photo courtesy USGS.

We’re now in the process of sequencing the first-ever sea otter genome. We’re using a blood sample from a resident sea otter at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, kindly supplied by the aquarium’s veterinarian, Dr. Michael Murray. (He has himself studied sea otters throughout their range: on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, in Alaska and throughout the Pacific Northwest.)

We’re thrilled that the first sea otter genome will come from an animal that you can visit – a living reminder of the way in which genomics and conservation biology can come together to provide new insights into a remarkable species.

Insights into the population

This first genome will provide a template for the sequencing of an additional 60 genomes from across the sea otter range. Sequencing and assembling the first genome for a species represents a huge technical and computational effort. Once it’s complete, sequencing genomes from additional individuals is straightforward.

Genes from 60 individual sea otters will be sequenced as part of the project. Photo © Jim Capwell.
Genes from 60 individual sea otters will be sequenced as part of the project. Photo © Jim Capwell.

The first genome (known as the “reference” genome) has to be sequenced very deeply (many overlapping sequences of each part of the genome), before we use complex computer algorithms to assemble the sequences into one big genome. Subsequent  genome sequences can be “mapped” to the reference template, rather than having to be assembled from scratch each time.

A single genome by itself provides a lot of information about a species’ evolution. To understand more about past population size changes, specific adaptations, or levels of harmful genetic variation in the genome, you need many more individuals’ genomes. That’s why, once we have the reference genome assembled, we’ll be sequencing the genomes of 10 individuals from each of six remnant populations.

Changes through time

This huge dataset will let us look for special adaptations that allow sea otters to live in the marine environment. Genome sequencing will also tell us how sea otter populations have changed in size through time, and will let us understand how the fur trade population bottleneck has affected modern sea otters’ genomes.

Ancient DNA from bones in midden sites like this in California's Channel Islands will be sequenced, too. Photo © National Park Service
Ancient DNA from bones in midden sites like this in California’s Channel Islands will be sequenced, too. Photo © National Park Service

We aren’t going to stop at merely sequencing modern genomes from living sea otters. Recently, there have been major developments in sequencing “ancient DNA” – DNA from individuals that died long ago. For example, scientists have sequenced a Neanderthal genome and the genome of an ancient horse that lived before horses were domesticated. Many other ancient genomes have been completed and others are on the way.

Our lab will sequence genomes from pre-fur trade sea otter specimens recovered from Native American and First Nations midden sites, to compare sequences from before and after the bottleneck. This will let us directly compare how the abundance of harmful mutations has changed over time, and see whether modern otters have an increased burden of harmful mutations compared to their ancestors.

A boost for recovery efforts

Genome sequencing has practical applications to efforts to recover sea otter populations throughout their range – efforts to which Monterey Bay Aquarium researchers are contributing in significant ways. The genetic information will be incorporated into sea otter conservation plans – to identify populations that may be more vulnerable to disease and catastrophe because of past small population sizes and isolation, and to determine if populations would benefit from introduction of animals with different genetic profiles, perhaps from geographically distant sub-populations that don’t currently interbreed.

Understanding the genetic history of sea otters could advance recovery efforts. Photo © Jane Vargas-Smith
Understanding the genetic history of sea otters could advance recovery efforts. Photo © Jane Vargas-Smith

Like all recovery efforts on behalf of sea otters, our work involves collaboration among many partners; in this case UCLA, UC Santa Cruz, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. We have sea otter experts, genomics experts and conservation genetics experts on board so that we can make the best use of this unprecedented level of genomic data from living sea otters and ancient populations.

We have a lot to learn! We’ll share what we find as the project progresses.

Learn more about the sea otter genome project.

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