Conservation & Science

Voyage to the White Shark Café

For nearly 20 years, researchers from Monterey Bay Aquarium and Stanford University have fitted electronic tracking tags on adult white sharks each fall and winter along the California coast around San Francisco Bay. Each year, the tags documented a consistent migration by the sharks to a region more than 1,200 miles offshore—halfway to Hawaii—that’s been considered an oceanic desert. They dubbed it the White Shark Café, guessing that opportunities to feed and to mate might be the draw.

Now a team of scientists will spend a month at the Café in a month-long expedition to learn why the sharks make an epic annual migration to such a distant and seemingly uninviting location. The multi-disciplinary team is bringing an impressive complement of sophisticated oceanographic equipment, from undersea robots and submersibles to windsurfing drones that will search signs of sharks and their possible prey.

Funded by the Schmidt Ocean institute (SOI), the team is led by Stanford University Professor Barbara Block and includes marine biologists and oceanographers from Stanford University, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), the University of Delaware, and NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research.  They are traveling aboard the SOI research vessel Falkor and set sail from Honolulu on April 20. They will return to port in San Diego on May 19.

Unraveling a mystery

We’ve studied these sharks for nearly 20 years, and they’ve told us consistently that the White Shark Café is a really important place in the ocean—but we’ve never known why,” said Dr. Salvador Jorgensen, a senior research scientist and shark research lead at Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Sophisticated oceanographic monitoring tools like these Saildrones will collect data to document the presence of white sharks and their prey species in the cafe. Photo courtesy Schmidt Ocean Institute.

By documenting the biology, chemistry and physical conditions in the region—a swath of the Pacific Ocean the size of Colorado—the researchers hope to understand what makes the Café an annual offshore hot spot for one of the ocean’s most charismatic predators. Read more…

Raising the “beautiful sea goddess”

Unearthly, transparent and beautiful—and also exceedingly delicate. The spotted comb jelly is so fragile a creature, just waving your hand through the water could destroy it. Now, for the first time anywhere, animal care staff at the Monterey Bay Aquarium have managed to culture these fragile, scintillating creatures.

Young spotted comb jellies were raised behind the scenes at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and are now on exhibit.

Several of the newly hatched jellies are now on public display. It’s the latest advance in comb jelly science from the Aquarium team.

The species, known scientifically as Leucothea pulchra—Latin for “beautiful sea goddess”is “a clear football-shaped gelatinous animal” says Wyatt Patry, a senior aquarist who’s worked at the Aquarium for 11 years, and who led the culturing effort this winter.

“They’re ctenophores, not true jellyfish,” Wyatt notes. “Instead of stinging cells they have sticky cells called colloblasts.”

The spotted comb jelly’s common name refers to orange “knobs” or spots along its body.

“We don’t know what those do but we suspect they aid in prey capture,” Wyatt says. Two sticky tentacles trail behind it, acting like fishing lines.

“They also have cool whips called ‘auricles’ that they wave around—undulate—in this really cool slow wave motion, probably driving food into their mouths,” he says.

Read more…

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.”

Fin flow
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…

Re-writing the future for coral reefs

The Paris Agreement— the strongest global commitment to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases—became international law on November 4. Ratifying nations from both the developed and developing world have gathered in Marrakech, Morocco, for the 2016 U.N. Climate Change Conference, known as COP22. Nations are now focusing on detailed steps to meet reduction targets designed to keep Earth’s temperature from rising 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. 

Today’s guest post, focused on the important role of coral reefs, comes from Kristen Weiss of the Center for Ocean Solutions—a partnership between Stanford Woods Insititute for the Environment, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.


“It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.” -Miracle Max, The Princess Bride

tr16-1075
A toadstool leather coral (Sarcophyton sp.) on exhibit at Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Coral reefs have suffered from an intense global bleaching event that began in 2014, threatening more than 40% of the world’s corals and sparking environmental writer Rowan Jacobsen to write a controversial “Obituary for the Great Barrier Reef.” Global warming, plus last year’s El Niño event, are the key culprits in this mass bleaching.

Closer to home, reef habitats from Florida to the Gulf of Mexico have also been hard hit. Fortunately, despite this widespread devastation, there are still regions where at least some coral species have survived bleaching—in other words, where coral reefs are mostly dead, but still slightly alive. According to many coral biologists, that makes all the difference.

“In every bleaching event, there are survivors,” explains Professor Steve Palumbi of Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station. “Corals sitting right next to a bleached one that are not themselves bleached. Why? Do those corals just have the right genes? The right algal symbiont? The right micro-habitat? And do they give rise to the next generation of growing corals?”

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.

5-shark-mummies-location-map
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…

Seawater sleuthing with eDNA

Every living thing is constantly shedding fragments of itself into the environment. Police detectives take advantage of this at a crime scene when they search for hair, skin or saliva—all of which contain DNA, a full genome of information unique to their owner.

Fishes, sharks and other marine organisms shed their DNA, too. In every cup of seawater, there are sloughed-off cells and waste from the animals that have swum, drifted or floated there.

This DNA from the environment is called eDNA. Over the past few years, scientists at the Center for Ocean Solutions (COS)— a partnership among the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) and Stanford University—have investigated how scientists, conservationists and resource managers can use eDNA to gain critical information about marine ecosystems, more quickly and more cheaply than ever before.

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.

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