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Marine mammals as oceanographic platforms, a new tool for recording physical and biological data in remote areas

Research on the effects of climate change on oceans remains held back by a lack of in situ data, particularly from Polar Regions. To make up for this deficit, diving marine mammals have become a critical part of the ocean observation system. On June 1, the international MEOP portal opened up access to information collected by animals tagged with tracking devices. The following is a presentation of three projects led by the initiative’s French branch and funded by ANR.

Research concerning the effects of climate change on the world’s oceans remains held back by the lack of in situ data covering remote parts of the world. Hydrographic data has traditionally been obtained using oceanographic vessels and “Argo” profiling floaters. Polar regions however have not been thoroughly surveyed due to the presence of pack ice. To make up for this deficit, diving marine animals have become a key component in the ocean observation system. Some marine mammals travel thousands of kilometres to find food, frequently plunging down into the ocean depths. By fitting them with sensors, researchers have been able to record both their feeding behaviour and the physical and biological characteristics of their foraging habitats in remote Polar Regions.

A one-of-a-kind database for the research communities

On June 1, the international MEOP portal opened up access to information collected to the scientific community. The MEOP consortium, initially formed during International Polar Year 2008-2009, brings together participants from ten countries: South Africa, Germany, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, the United States, France, Great Britain, and Norway. The consortium strives for international coordination in animals’ tracking, and the processing of data quality and distribution. The 320,000 oceanographic profiles collected from the 763 animal-borne electronic devices have been combined and made freely available to the international community via a website. MEOP’s French component is made up of the “animals as samplers of the ocean environment” observation system (SO-MEMO) under SOERE-CTDO21. Research by SO-MEMO has received ANR’s repeated support and has contributed to data accessibility via the MEOP web site.

Three examples of projects supported by the agency

  • Funded in 2008 under the “Vulnerability” programme, the IPSOS-SEAL project (coordinated by Christophe Guinet from CNRS-Chizé, UMR7372) tracked female southern elephant seals over a four-year period. Thanks to temperature, salinity, and fluorescence data provided by these mammals, researchers may assess the effects of global warming on the biological productivity of the Southern Ocean and its consequences regarding CO2 fixation and the biology of top marine predators. The project brought together teams from CNRS (delegations from Poitou-Charentes, Languedoc Roussillon and Avignon) and INRA.
  • In 2010, the TOPP-PATCHES project (coordinated by Frédéric Bailleul from CNRS–Chizé, UMR7372) set out to achieve a more accurate assessment of the effects of global warming on marine mammals’ prey by examining elephant seals’ feeding grounds. Combining the use of accelerometers and Argos trackers and of sensors measuring dissolved oxygen levels, researchers attempted to individually measure changes in feeding rates over space and time and according to oceanographic parameters. Individual data was also used to understand the effects of climate change at the population level.
  • The Myct0-3D-MAP project (coordinated by Yves Cherel from CNRS-Chizé, UMR7372) aimed to describe the distribution and density of lantern fish populations. Lantern fish are the most common fish in oceanic waters where they play a pivotal role in food chains; given little attention until recently, they are becoming attractive targets for in new industrial fisheries. Funded in 2011 under the Blanc programme, this project studies the distribution of dominant lantern fish species in the Southern Ocean, as well as the physical and biological characteristics of their habitats. It draws on tracking information from two lantern fish predator species (king penguins and southern elephant seals) fitted with electronic sensors measuring both their diving feeding behaviour and oceanographic parameters (depth, temperature, salinity, fluorescence). The project includes different CNRS teams (Paris, Sophia-Antipolis and Poitou-Charentes), teams from the French National museum of natural history, the IRD, INRA, and University Pierre et Marie Curie.

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1 observation system organised under the “Coriolis-delayed mode oceanic observations” network

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