Animals could help humans monitor oceans


University of Exeter

Sea turtle equipped with an animal-borne sensor. Credit: Miquel Gomila/SOCIB
Sea turtle equipped with an animal-borne sensor. Credit: Miquel Gomila/SOCIB

Sharks, penguins, turtles and other seagoing species could help humans monitor the oceans by transmitting oceanographic information from electronic tags.

Thousands of marine animals are tagged for a variety of research and conservation purposes, but at present the information gathered isn’t widely used to track climate change and other shifts in the oceans.

Instead, monitoring is mostly done by research vessels, underwater drones and thousands of floating sensors that drift with the currents. However, large areas of the ocean still remain under-sampled – leaving gaps in our knowledge.

A team led by the University of Exeter says animals carrying sensors can fill many of these gaps through natural behaviour such as diving under ice, swimming in shallow water or moving against currents.

“We want to highlight the massive potential of animal-borne sensors to teach us about the oceans,” said lead author Dr David March, of Centre for Ecology and Conservation on Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall.

“This is already happening on a limited scale, but there’s scope for much more.

“We looked at 183 species – including tuna, sharks, rays, whales and flying seabirds – and the areas they are known to inhabit.

“We have processed more than 1.5 million measurements from floating sensors to identify poorly sampled areas (18.6% of the global ocean surface).”

“By comparing this with gaps in current observations by drifting profiling sensors (known as Argo floats) we identified poorly sampled areas where data from animal sensors would help fill gaps,” said Professor Brendan Godley, who leads Exeter Marine.

“These include seas near the poles (above 60º latitude) and shallow and coastal areas where Argo profilers are at risk of hitting the land.

“The Caribbean and seas around Indonesia, as well as other semi-enclosed seas, are good examples of places where Argo profilers struggle because of these problems.”

Tagged seals in the poles have already complemented ocean observing systems because they can reach areas under ice that are inaccessible to other instruments.

The study suggests data collected by turtles or sharks could also enhance ocean monitoring in other remote and critical areas such as tropical regions, with large influence on global climate variability and weather.

The researchers say their work is a call for further collaboration between ecologists and oceanographers.

Professor Godley added: “It is important to note that animal welfare is paramount and we are only suggesting that animals that are already being tracked for ethically defensible and conservation-relevant ecological research be recruited as oceanographers. We do not advocate for animals being tracked solely for oceanography.”


The research team included the Balearic Islands Coastal Observing and Forecasting System (SOCIB), the University of St Andrews, the Mediterranean Institute of Advanced Studies and the Spanish Institute of Oceanography.

The paper, published in the journal Global Change Biology, is entitled: “Towards the integration of animal-borne instruments into global ocean observing systems.”

From EurekAlert!

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December 2, 2019 6:25 pm

Interesting concept, but it seems to me the tagged marine animals will go where they want to go, and not necessarily where the researches need them to go.

Reply to  PaulH
December 2, 2019 6:48 pm

Electroshock therapy may help those too stubborn obey.

December 2, 2019 7:15 pm

My God, that turtle has some plastic stuck to its back.

Patrick MJD
December 2, 2019 7:22 pm

Cornwall is a lovely part of the UK, shame about raw sewage being poured in to the seas around the county though. THAT is where attention should be focused not on some boondoggle study. I guess if it keeps you employed until retirement, why not?

J Cuttance
December 2, 2019 9:25 pm

A New Zealand conservation dept. study tagging rare penguins was found to have significantly increased their mortality – well done guys. Anyone else killing such birds gets ruinous charges thrown at them by – you guessed it – the department of conservation.

Patrick MJD
Reply to  J Cuttance
December 3, 2019 7:02 pm

I used to work for the Department of Conservation (DoC) in Wellington about 20 years ago. Some their software was so shonky I found it unbelievable it was actually used *AND* maintained. Their fish “database” was a real laugh (Which I had to package up and distribute/install for users), and it was actually used as a reference.

But then around the same time, DoC spent NZ$800,000 to move 800 native worms from the site of a road upgrade project just north of Wellington. Money well spent /sarc off!

December 3, 2019 12:23 am

Animal exploitation: completely unacceptable to the Greenies!

Reply to  Susan
December 3, 2019 7:00 am

Unless they are the ones making money off of it.

Dan Sudlik
Reply to  MarkW
December 3, 2019 10:44 am

The greenies or the animals? 😂🤪🤪

December 3, 2019 12:57 am

Patrict MJD of 2.12.19 says it. It a “”Make work”” scheme, perfect for under
employed professors.


Right-Handed Shark
December 3, 2019 1:36 am

Do we really need another data set that doubtless will require “adjustments” to reflect the “true picture”?

Komrade Kuma
Reply to  Right-Handed Shark
December 3, 2019 1:59 am

ummm… that’s the point RH.

Job creation in the data adjustment offices of climate science departments is an important outcome and nothing unintended about it. These are low energy, low CO2 jobs that can be used to absorb people laid off from planet murdering work in the old economy.

Let your inner wokeness float to the surface RH.

December 3, 2019 4:20 am

Surely we need to tag the right handed sharks because we want all the right data.

December 3, 2019 5:13 am

They’ll go out and tag Right Whales to get the right data.

December 3, 2019 6:59 am

“However, large areas of the ocean still remain under-sampled”

Yet they are still willing to claim that they know the temperature of the entire ocean to a few thousandths of a degree.

Joe Crawford
December 3, 2019 7:58 am

I do hope that’s a male turtle in the picture.

Andy Pattullo
December 3, 2019 8:01 am

There are many disturbing trends in science that inevitably reduce the value of science to human development. One of these is the tendency to take the path of least resistance. Tagging sea life and letting it wander off to transmit whatever data is randomly collected, only to later try and find patterns with “statistical significance” that can be fudged into “ground-breaking” research publications is just plain lazy. No hypothesis, no controlled data, likely no statistical rigor in the analysis if this work follows the usual trends, and guaranteed “findings of interest” as determined by what will scare people the most and get the most grant money. Creating mounds of data (including all of that pseudo data generated by modeling) and then sifting through it for “interesting” patterns is science malpractice if not followed up by validating well planned investigation. Every pile of data, no matter how random and inaccurate will have “patterns of interest” when subjected to the statistical sieves of modern “science”.

December 3, 2019 8:27 am

Yet another excuse for half wit children just graduated to interfere wholesale with the rest of the animal kingdom on the pretense of vital research.
All of course acclaimed in solemn voices by Atenborough and cohorts, as creatures are trapped, netted, grasped, measured, weighed and intimately sampled allegedly for there own or another common good.
Perhaps we should return to ways of the nineteenth century where these tormentors could be employed as gleaners, needing urgently to satisfy their hunger rather than their idly inquiring minds.

Johann Wundersamer
December 8, 2019 9:56 am

Animals could help humans monitor oceans

Charles Rotter / as always: well meant and meaningless empty.

Nothing new under the sun:

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We explained that police officers are not able to be at posts or supervising the crossing guards, as they have responsibilities for the safety of the entire borough. The borough’s police officers would assist whenever possible.”

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