Remote monitoring of resource allocation to growth vs energy storage in space and time by sexually dimorphic elephant seals foraging at sea

Lead Research Organisation: University of St Andrews
Department Name: Biology


Despite considerable recent progress in studies of movements and behaviour of large marine vertebrates at sea, continuous measures of foraging activity and associated changes in body condition such as total mass and fat content have remained elusive. Such information is essential for understanding the links between foraging ecology and population regulation of important marine foragers, for identifying areas of special management significance more accurately in space and time, and for identifying food chain effects of global climate change. Newly developed technologies have been used in archival data loggers to make high-resolution measurements of animal swimming behaviour, such as identifying when an animal is gliding. Animal morphology and body condition (density and total mass) determine the drag and buoyancy forces affecting animal movement during a glide. Therefore, by analysing closely how seals slow down during glides, we can estimate both animal density (i.e. body composition) and mass of the seal. We will deploy sensors on 5-6 year old male and female elephant seals to track changes in body composition and mass during the 8-month feeding migration they make in the Southern Ocean. We will carefully measure the mass and density of the seals when the tag is attached prior to the migration, and again when the tags are recovered when the seals return to the breeding grounds. Elephant seals of this age are expected to use different tissue allocation strategies depending on sex, with males benefiting most from lean-tissue growth for increased body size and females benefiting from increased energy stores for transfer to their offspring through lactation. However, during the final few months before, a pregnant female is under strong pressure to provide lean tissue to the rapidly growing foetus. With this new approach, we will be able to identify the timing when, and location in the Southern ocean where, seals make these critical contributions to different tissues within their body. As the health of such top predators depends on the food web, this technique will allow us to use them to study variations in the health of the ecosystem on which they depend. Once developed, the instrumentation and methodologies developed will be applicable to other seal and marine vertebrate species, across the world's oceans. To achieve this goal, we will build on existing technologies and skills of the researchers and collaborators to develop an instrument with dual functions: 1.) measuring and archiving large quantities of data for high-resolution analyses of changes in body composition and behavior throughout long at-sea migrations, and 2.) meaningfully compressing and processing data on-board the tag for relay via the ARGOS satellite system in near real-time. Apart from the specific scientific objectives of this proposal, the development of these instruments and analysis techniques has the potential to significantly add to our understanding of the foraging ecology and free-ranging energetics of many marine vertebrates, such as pinnipeds, turtles, cetaceans and sharks.


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Title Where The Animals Go: Tracking Wildlife with Technology in 50 Maps and Graphics 
Description A book of creative ways to display geographical information and associated data 
Type Of Art Creative Writing 
Year Produced 2016 
Impact Popular "coffee table" book which, among many examples, uses information from seals to map a set of animal movements withing oceanographic parameters. 
Description There are numerous challenges to relate non-lethal disturbance effects to long-term consequences for individuals, Chronic sublethal effects have the potential to affect vital rates via their influence on individual health and the resources they accrue for reproduction. A key component of health for marine mammals is their lipid-store body condition, the amount of lipid they carry. Lipid-store body condition is amenable for study using animal-attached tags because the lipid is less dense than other animal tissues, so net buoyancy of marine mammals is altered as a function of the quantity of fat they carry. These changes in buoyancy lead to changes in hydrodynamic performance of swimming animals that can be recorded in animal-attached tags, enabling longitudinal estimation of body density as a quantitative indicator of the body condition of free ranging marine mammals.

This award developed and validated the methodology to monitor the resource acquisition of marine mammals remotely through the use of telemetered information sent from tags attached to the animals. This capability is essential to place other information provided by the tags on the animals distribution, behaviour and environment and how these parameters change into meaningful statements on how animals are responding to anthropogenic or natural changes. Such capability is required for judging im[pacts of human impacts or environmentalcome to late to avoid the negative outcome.
Exploitation Route This study has led to a recently funded multiyear grant from the US Office of naval research to fund the development of onboard algorithms that enable tags to compute changes in body composition over the medium and longer term and relay these data with the limited bandwidth available with smal tags with limited energy available for transmission.
Sectors Electronics,Energy,Environment

Description On-board calculation and telemetry of the body condition of individual marine mammals
Amount $347,798 (USD)
Funding ID N00014-17-1-2757 
Organisation US Navy 
Department US Office of Naval Research Global
Sector Public
Country United States
Start 07/2018 
End 10/2019
Title Nature Data 
Description Much of the animal platform data from scientists and organizations around the world has been post processed and made availble in the World Ocean Database and in the data publishing organ implemented by the publishers of Nature, Nature Data 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2012 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Improved estimates of the state of the ocean expressed in the (MIT) ECCO model and improvements to the Met Office ocean model from animal platform temperature data. See the following publications for details: 
Description University of California Santa Cruz 
Organisation University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC)
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution expertise, equipment, analysis, writing
Collaborator Contribution expertise, equipment, logistic support, analysis, writing
Impact It is obviously necessary to "account" for investment in science by some process. And unfortunately, it is felt this process has to take into account the very narrow vision of science that seems to dominate the governance of science these days. But by overly constraining the expression of this value, the process may itself defeat its purpose. I believe that with researchfish, this is the case. The simplest way I can think of supporting this notion is via an example of how NERC investment in a linked chain of my NERC grants has created a string of high impact papers, an unprecedented legacy of ocean data and a rich global network of collaborators that collectively have brought in a high level of resources synergistically to support the work. On top of this, the collective of people associated with these projects supported the technological development and evolution of unique methodology within SMRU Instrumentation. It is worth remembering that SMRU Instrumentation is a group supported largely by the "sales" (with a turnover of 1 M £, much from overseas) of the monitoring equipment for observing the ocean used in these grants, which both facilitates collection of observations from important but unobserved times and locations with drastically reduced cost and logistic requirements. So how did NERC funding help to bring the remarkable success of these projects about? And how much funding did it leverage? It's not a simple story and not one that can be reflected in researchfish in any sensible way. The only way to shoe-horn it into the system forces the misrepresentation of the process of the scientific endeavour itself. The chain of my NERC projects involving ocean obs started with a £5000 pound NERC grant to build a couple of the first animal-carried ocean profiling instruments, CTD-SRDLs. The initial development of these tags had been supported with about £20,000 pounds from the Norwegian Polar Institute and then later, $250,000 from the US Office of Naval Research. The success of these "proof of concept" instruments resulted in my submitting a NERC grant to support their first large-scale deployment in the Southern Ocean on elephant seals. We also sold tags to researchers in France, Australia and the US to deploy the tags simultaneously on elephant seals in their areas of interest in the Southern Ocean. The combine effort was collectively known as the SEaOS project. The success of this project led to an even larger follow-on project in both polar oceans involving 10 different countries, MEOPP (an awkwardMarine Mammals Exploring the ocean Pole to Pole). It was part of the International Polar Year. Collectively, these projects generated data about the distribution, behaviour and environmental associations 100s of seals and produced hundreds of thousands of ocean profiles from the seas around f both poles, often from unsampled times and locations. These projects generated momentum of animal platform approach that has led to a growing range of onging projects and new proposals. To date, the many hundreds of animals that have carried the tags have delivered almost 400,000 ocean profiles and these data sets numerically outnumber all other data available in the Southern Ocean . All of the data were sent out on the GTS and are or will be freely available, either through the world ocean database or in published data sets. They projects have generated a large and growing number of publications and have been used operationally by the Met office. How do we capture the value of this in Researcfish? The success of SEaOS and MEOPP lhas also led on to the current ocean2ice project (part of NERC iStar project) includes the use of seals to study the oceanic heat flow to the Pine Island glacier. The BAS ship, JCR , moorings and autosub collected detailed highly accurate data from the immediate area during the month it was in position. The seals provided an additional 12000 CTD profiles in a wide area of some 20,000 km^2 from February through October that dramatically increased the value of the other data sources. How do you account for that increase in value in researchfish terms? The NERC contribution to this complex set of interlinked project was critically important but represents only a small fraction of the total cost of the combined effort. The value of the data , however, very much depended on the scale large cooperative effort involved. The deployment of these tags and the analysis of the data collected involved universities, research institutions and the polar research arms of all the countries in 10 countries. Ships, logistics, maintenance of bases, help from voluntary technical personnel, etc. are all involved and sometimes un-costed even in each group's proposals . Assigning contributions in cash or kind in a realistic way is impossible for me. So I will not even attempt to include all these links collaborations in my researchfish input. The only way I could do it is by pulling numbers out of the air to satisfy the required fields and I will not do this. In the final analysis, the value of the larger global, cooperative project and each national component of it cannot be measured in simple monetary terms but only in its on-going academic output, the growing use of the data in publications and models, the way the approach affects, in a difficult to determine way, the cost effectiveness of the general on-going effort in ocean observation. Perhaps, more importantly, researchfish , in demanding that we pound large round pegs in small square holes, can't even start to assess, in any realistic way, how the improved understanding of the behaviour of the oceans in the climate system allows us to plan ahead and prepare for change nor the value of understanding of the functioning of a complex and exploited marine ecosystem. I think the real worry is that in using such constrained accounting practices to provide a narrow measure of value to pander to a government that seems only able to measure value in simple monetary terms, you risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater. You devalue the process of science and lead to a downward spiral in the perception of that value in government and the public. This really is a dangerous spiral to get caught in. Perhaps I am taking researchfish too seriously and should just ignore its inadequacies. Like I suspect many more sensible people will do, I should just fill in the forms as quickly as possible and get on with useful work, treating the task as just one more of the many silly things we have to do to satisfy an increasing perceived need for detailed accounting, regardless of how unrealistic the results are. But I feel I should at least try to make the case for a developing broader, more meaningful approach for "valuing" my scientific efforts. In the final analysis, I thought expressing these concerns was more valuable than labouring over a flawed set of forms.
Description Arrow Media, television production company, London -elephant seals 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact producing a wildlife series which looks to explain, in depth, the behaviours, anatomy and physiology at play in various clips which show intraspecific or interspecific fighting in the animal kingdom.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description BBC News Interview about myoglobin in diving animals 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Quote from interview: Professor Michael Fedak from the University of St Andrews' Sea Mammal Research Unit pointed out that myoglobin was only "part of the story" of how marine mammals were able to dive.

"But it's an important part," he said.

The scientist, who was not involved in this study, explained that a great deal of research at the moment was looking into how marine mammals manage to survive repeatedly cutting off and re-establishing the blood supply to their body tissues, something he likened to repeatedly suffering a crush injury.

"But being able to pick up a few [fossilised] bones of an extinct marine mammal and estimate its dive time from that - that's miraculous."
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
Description NERC 50th anniversary display on RV Discovery, London 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact NERC 50th anniversary display on-board Discovery. 7-9 October, 2015, Presented posters and slides about NERC funded projects including ocean2ice, SAVEX, SEaOS among others
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Science Discovery Day 2016 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact This is an annual event which runs close to National Science and Engineering Week every year, and the target audience is anyone with an interest in science, but particularly families. We typically have about 100 (!) volunteers and 500+ visitors throughout the day, which runs from 10:00 until 16:00 in the Physics & Astronomy building. Activities on offer range from short talks to longer talks, hands-on activities, static displays and interactive exhibits and demonstrations
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016