The researchers, including those from the University of Exeter in the UK, said while ocean monitoring is mostly done by research vessels, underwater drones, and thousands of floating sensors drifting with the currents, large areas still remain under-sampled, leaving gaps in our knowledge.
Animals such as penguins, turtles, or sharks carrying sensors could help humans monitor the oceans by transmitting information, according to a study which assessed 183 species and the areas they are known to inhabit. The researchers, including those from the University of Exeter in the UK, said while ocean monitoring is mostly done by research vessels, underwater drones, and thousands of floating sensors drifting with the currents, large areas still remain under-sampled, leaving gaps in our knowledge.
The study, published in the journal Global Change Biology, noted that animals carrying sensors can fill many of these gaps through their natural behaviour like 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 study lead author David March from the University of Exeter.
“This is already happening on a limited scale, but there’s scope for much more,” March said. The researchers looked at 183 species — including tuna, sharks, rays, whales and flying seabirds — and the areas they inhabit. “We have processed more than 1.5 million measurements from floating sensors to identify poorly sampled areas (18.6 per cent of the global ocean surface),” March said. The study identified poorly sampled areas where data from animal sensors would help fill gaps.
The researchers found these areas by comparing the data from floating measurements with gaps in current observations. “These include seas near the poles (above 60 degree latitude) and shallow and coastal areas where Argo profilers are at risk of hitting the land.” said Brendan Godley, study co-author from the University of Exeter. “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,” Godley said.
Tagged seals in the poles have already complemented ocean observing systems because they can reach areas under ice that are inaccessible to other instruments. According to the study, the data collected by turtles or sharks could also enhance ocean monitoring in other remote and critical areas like the tropics where there is a large influence on global climate variability and weather.
“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,” Godley said.