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.
For nearly 34 years, Monterey Bay Aquarium has harnessed the power of science to guide every aspect of our work—exhibit development, public policy and outreach, sustainable seafood solutions, research and education programs. In 2017, the Aquarium became one of the first 100 partners to support the first March for Science as a way to share our dedication to the scientific process. As the 2018 March for Science ramps up on April 14, we thought we’d revisit some of our greatest moments in marine conservation science over the last year. In these, and many other ways, we’re harnessing the power of science to make our world a better place.
Dynamic tuna dorsal fins
While observing Pacific bluefin tuna inside the Tuna Research and Conservation Center (TRCC), scientists noticed something…fishy about the way they were swimming. TRCC scientists logged hours of video footage and, after conducting routine medical exams, discovered that the dorsal fins of tunas move both forward and backward as they swim—especially when they hunt for prey in quick flashes of speed. Their work, reported in a cover article published in Science magazine, documented that the team of scientists discovered a hydraulic mechanism that allows a tuna to articulate its dorsal fin along a range of angles depending on which behavior the tuna exhibits.
Sea turtles use flippers like fingers
When evolution, animal behavior and body form meet in one elegant space, we call it “ecomorphology,” an area of expertise for Aquarium senior research biologist Jessica Fujii, who for years has studied how and why sea otters use tools. But when Jessica and her colleagues observed that sea turtles use their flippers like tools to swipe, slice and corral their food, we might call that “evolutionary serendipity”—something that sea turtles did not necessarily evolve to do, but do anyway. In a recent study published in PeerJ and led by Jessica, we learned that sea turtles use their flippers, largely designed for locomotion, to manipulate their prey. The scientists tapped crowdsourced images and videos from around the world to document turtles prying open scallops and karate-chopping jellyfish, confirming that this ancient marine reptile need not have a frontal cortex to perform such complex maneuvers. Because transparency is a key tenet of scientific inquiry, our team decided to make both the paper and the peer reviews of the paper available free to anyone with internet access.
Museum feathers reveal seabird diet changes
Naturalists hiking around the islands of Hawaii in 1890 could never have guessed that the seabird feathers they collected would someday be used to help tell the story of a changing ocean. But for Aquarium researcher Tyler Gagne, lead author on a new study of how seabird diets have changed over the last 130 years, the feathers played a vital role in reconstructing what seabirds have—and have not—been eating. Using stable isotope analysis, Tyler and his team traced specific chemical signatures found in the preserved seabird feathers to show how, over time, eight different species in the North Pacific have shifted from fish to squid, a transition that suggests both human and climate impacts are influencing their dietary choices.
The data behind sea otter rescues
For more than 30 years, sea otter researchers and animal care specialists at the Aquarium have been tagging, tracking, rescuing and rehabilitating stranded adult sea otters and pups. The data collected from 725 live strandings between 1984 and 2015 provide an intricate portrait of major threats California sea otters face as their population slowly recovers. Aquarium researchers determined that the absence of significant kelp canopy coverage at the peripheries of the sea otter range, especially in waters north of Santa Cruz and south toward Point Conception, can inhibit sea otters’ ability to reproduce and survive. Without sufficient kelp cover, sea otters, especially reproductive females and their pups, can be left vulnerable to shark bites.
Young white sharks: the wonder years
After years of studying the underwater lives of white sharks, Aquarium researchers and their partners in the United States and Mexico noticed some missing links in the life history of these apex predators. Where do white sharks give birth, and where do their pups grow up? Thanks to a study published in Fisheries Research, scientists discovered that Bahia Sebastián Vizcaino, a warm lagoon on the coast of Baja California, is a nursery for newborn white sharks. This study formalized a de facto understanding that southern California was the place to find young white sharks, but researchers validated a more surprising fact about juvenile white sharks: they don’t stay in Californian waters and they regularly travel to Mexican waters and back again.
These are just a few highlights reflecting the growing scope of ocean science taking place at the Aquarium. We’ll continue to conduct new science every day, to inspire new generations of science-literate citizens, and to use the best-available science to inform everything we do to assure a bright future for our ocean planet.
For scientists seeking to understand how the ocean is changing, perhaps the ideal research instrument would be a time machine. Absent such technology, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has been working to create the next best thing. It’s a new facility called the Ocean Memory Laboratory.
For the lab’s inaugural project, researchers have put together a dataset of the feeding habits of eight species of seabirds over the span of almost 130 years. They analyzed archived feathers dating as far back as 1890, using a technique called compound-specific stable isotope analysis, to better understand how the birds’ diets shifted in response to factors ranging from competition with humans to the changing climate.
“In the grand scheme of things, in our field of science, even 10 years of data is encouraging,” says Tyler Gagne, an assistant research scientist at the Aquarium and lead author of the new study, published February 14 in Science Advances. “This is a 130-year-long dataset, which is really amazing.”
Data, data everywhere
The study exemplifies the promise of the Ocean Memory Lab—the brainchild of Aquarium science director Dr. Kyle Van Houtan, who co-authored the publication together with two colleagues based in Hawaii, Dr. David Hyrenbach of Hawaii Pacific University and Molly E. Hagemann of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.
Identifying novel sources of long-term data is at the heart of the lab’s mission, Kyle says, because conservation projects often lack an informed baseline of ecosystem health to compare against.
“What are the conservation targets? What are we managing for? How do we know when we’re done?” he asks. “We often don’t have enough data or a sufficiently long-term record to provide informed answers to those questions.”
Two weeks after a pipeline spilled more than 20,000 gallons of crude oil into the ocean near Santa Barbara, oiled wildlife continues to show up on southern California beaches. Now, the Aquarium has dispatched a team of specialists to help care for rescued seabirds, in collaboration with California’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response. Other zoo and aquarium colleagues in California have also responded.
Nearly 200 seabirds and marine mammals have been affected thus far, and about half have survived, according to state wildlife officials.
It’s not the first time the Aquarium has stepped up to care for oiled marine animals in the wake of oil spills. In 1989, we helped rescue and care for sea otters in Alaska after the Exxon Valdez tanker disaster in Prince William Sound. More than 25 years later, that spill continues to affect the health of the marine environment.
While the recent Refugio spill in the Santa Barbara Channel is – fortunately – a relatively small one, it nonetheless carries environmental costs. Oil has been observed in four marine protected areas that are vital feeding and breeding grounds for fish, marine mammals and birds. Two state beaches remain closed until further notice. Commercial fishermen are shut out of 138 square miles of prime waters.
“Incidents like this are unfortunate reminders that offshore oil and gas operations in California pose an ongoing threat to valuable ocean and coastal ecosystems that we’ve worked so hard to protect,” says Aimee David, the Aquarium’s director of ocean conservation policy. “It should be a priority to remove as many of these facilities as soon as possible, and do so in a way that is based on sound science, meets strict state and federal environmental standards, and bolsters funding for marine protection and conservation efforts.”
For the short term, the Aquarium will be working in Santa Barbara to help oiled seabirds recover from the spill. Over the long haul, we’ll be active in Sacramento in support of policies to protect California’s vibrant ocean ecosystems from oil spills and other threats.