Why use technology in scientific research?

Why use satellite tags to study whales and other marine animals?

Why use technology in scientific research?

In order to make more knowledgeable decisions about our uses of our environment, we must better understand it and the organisms which use this environment. Recent innovations and improvements in a number of technologies are allowing scientists to answer more complex questions about animals in their natural environments. The advancement of these technologies comes at a critical time when scientists want to monitor many different animals around the world because of concerns about their populations, health, or issues related to international disputes.

To better understand animals we need to obtain information about their life histories including their long and short-term movements, as well as how their movements may be affected by changing environmental conditions. We need to study the factors relating to their migrations. In order to protect highly migratory animals we must know the locations of all their habitats, how they use each habitat, when they travel between them and the routes they take.

However, this information is difficult to obtain particularly for marine animals. Until recently much of the information about marine animals was from catch and incidental kill data, strandings or direct observations. The recent technological developments of radio and then satellite tags, as well as satellite images, have provided rich new information about marine animals and their habitats.

For example, in 1996 a group of Marine Biologists aboard a ship in the Gulf of Mexico used maps of ocean currents, produced with satellite-gathered data, to help locate and count sperm whales. Based on evidence that whales prefer to feed in the edges of cyclonic eddies, they viewed satellite data which provided them with a picture of where these oceanographic features were located. They used this information to find the whales more quickly which aided them in taking a visual and acoustic census of these marine mammals. They were then able to learn more about their habitat in areas potentially affected by oil and gas activities. The satellite-gathered data, developed to study global ocean circulation, provided a bonanza of information for these marine biologists. Scientists are continuing to find new applications for this satellite data.

Satellite tagging is a relatively new method in the study of organisms in their own habitat. It allows scientists to investigate animal movements, particularly in the case of animals that travel long distances or dive to great depths; as well as animals that are difficult to observe. The use of satellite-linked transmitters has enabled field biologists to overcome many of the difficulties associated with studying cetaceans and other marine animals at sea.

Why use satellite tags to study whales and other marine animals?

If we can determine where the whales and marine mammals travel, where they feed and where they give birth, more informed decisions can be made about how humans use these same areas. For example, war games and other military maneuvers can be moved from critical habitats. Commercial uses of the ocean can be managed more effectively, such as moving navigation channels, controlling when the channels are used, limiting the speed of vessels or providing early warning information for mariners so they can avoid disturbances or collisions. The Right Whale Early Warning System is an example of how this information can be collected and used.

Learning more about the diving behavior of marine animals can reveal whether an animal is at risk of becoming entangled in certain types of fishing gear. Fishing management decisions can then be made about where and when to fish to minimize incidental catch and mortality of whales and other marine mammals.

With the recent advances in electronic sensors and transmitters, marine mammal tags have taken a quantum leap in the amounts and types of data they can provide. Tags with a variety of sensors can be attached to animals to learn about the biology of the animal and about the environment in which the animal lives. (Watch WhaleNet's
movie on the tagging of sperm whales in the Azores.)

In addition, satellite tag studies have been conducted on released rehabilitated animals, that were rescued after stranding. Although these animals may not behave as if they are fully wild, the tags can provide information about the animal after release, such as its survival. Also these tags provide an opportunity to test the satellite transmitters, and to correlate the tag's data with oceanographic and remote sensing data collected from other sources. Ten months of data was sent by the sattelite tag on
Stephanie, a hooded seal rehabilitated by the New England Aquarium.

With the use of satellite tags, we gain important insights into the animal's use of its habitat, range of movements, birthing areas and more. This gives us more insights into the natural history of the animal and enables more intelligent and meaningful decisions about our uses of the oceans. Understanding the full range of an animal's habitat requirements can allow us to better manage and protect those areas, which will increase the potential for recovery and for an improved coexistence in this shared marine environment.

Other Information About Satellite Tags

Other useful links

Migration links

Other Satellite Tagging Projects

Lessons and Curriculum Connections

Satellite Tag Observation Program Cover Page

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