Tagged Animal "Army" to Help Map Ocean, Experts Say

John Roach
for National Geographic News
February 23, 2004

Equipped with high-tech data-collection tags, a veritable army of marine animals is being prepped to swarm the North Pacific Ocean on a reconnaissance mission of epic proportions. Their mandate is simple: Live a normal life.

The tags collect data on the behavior and environmental preferences of these animals, helping researchers create interactive, three-dimensional portraits of the inner workings of what may be Earth's last great unknown, the ocean.

"Our fleets of animal explorers, carrying the most sophisticated tags, are providing to us a glimpse of Earth that we have not seen before," said Barbara Block, a marine scientist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

Block, a pioneer in the use of electronic tag technology for marine research, is one of the principal investigators of the Tagging of Pacific Pelagics (TOPP) program. Launched in 1999, the program plans to deploy some 5,000 tags on more than 20 different marine animals by 2010.

Equating TOPP to terrestrial research, ecological physiologist Dan Costa said, "A major thrust of TOPP is to find out where the watering holes are, where the grasslands are, where the pastures are—to figure out where animals are and why they are where they are." Based at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Costa is a co-director of TOPP.

Funded by the New York-based Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, TOPP is part of the Census of Marine Life (CoML), an initiative to understand the past, present, and future of ocean life.

Under another CoML initiative, marine biologists are using advances in the types of information the tags can collect to develop high-resolution, interactive, three-dimensional maps of the oceans.

"In addition to telling where these animals are, [the tags] are telling us things about the ocean they traverse through," said the initiative's leader, Larry Crowder of North Carolina's Duke University. "They're not only telling us location but the depths they dive to and the conditions they encounter along the way."

In theory, the information will be used to create maps that show the ocean as a dynamic, changing environment of shifting currents, temperatures, and animal migration routes.

Block and Crowder discussed their CoML research earlier this month at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle, Washington.

Tag Tech

According to Crowder, data-collection technology and the ability to analyze and use the data are developing at a pace akin to that of home computer technology. "Tags of four to five years ago are dinosaurs today," he said.

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