The Ocean Memory Lab: Our Ocean Time Machine
Satellites, submersibles and electronic sensors gather impressive amounts of data about ocean current conditions, and help us understand what’s happening to ecosystems during a time of rapid global change.
But what about data that shed light on conditions in the past? For that, you'd need an ocean time machine.
Our research scientists have created a time machine, of sorts—and it's already delivering results. As described in their first paper, published in February, they analyzed seabird feather samples from museum collections to shed light on the changes in diets of eight North Pacific species over the past 130 years.
It's all part of our new effort to leverage historical data and modern technology to understand how human and environmental impacts are affecting the ocean and its inhabitants.
From just a few seabird feathers we can derive what birds ate and even historical ocean conditions.
The seabird study fulfills the promise of the Ocean Memory Lab—the brainchild of Director of Science Kyle Van Houtan, PhD, who co-authored the publication with Research Scientist Tyler Gagne and two colleagues in Hawaii.
"Identifying novel sources of long-term data is at the heart of the Lab's mission," Kyle says, as conservation projects often lack a baseline of ecosystem health against which to compare current conditions.
"What are the conservation targets? What are we managing for? How do we know when we're done?" he asks. "We often don't have enough data or a sufficiently long-term record to provide informed answers to those questions."
The solution, as Kyle sees it, lies within the creatures themselves—or more precisely, in the chemistry of their tissues, which can record what they were eating, as well as offer other clues about the surrounding ocean.
He describes ocean plants and animals as akin to living drones equipped with sensors. Instead of building robotic drones and electronic sensors to collect contemporary information, he and his team examine the record left behind in long-dead ocean creatures to get a picture of the past.
"Organisms are gathering data all the time," Kyle said. "Our task is a sort of reverse engineering—to find the sensor within the plant or animal, see what it's recording, and then translate that into useful information."
The Lab's herbarium houses a collection of preserved marine algae that may also provide clues to the ocean's past.
Using stable-isotope analyses of small feather samples from 134 individual birds, and machine-learning algorithms to find patterns in the data, the team learned that seabirds are eating fewer fish and more squid today, likely a result of increased commercial fishing activity and climate change.
The subject of the Lab's second published paper is the surprising ways sea turtles use their flippers to help them capture and contain prey. The paper was written by Kyle and Jessica Fuji, senior research biologist with our Sea Otter Program, and others.
More papers are coming, including analyses of changing toxin loads in the seabirds, and tapping into a century of algae samples from Monterey Bay to document changes in ocean chemistry.
"My hope is that we're not only taking advantage of the work of our predecessors, but also giving new scientific value to this wealth of data that have been archived for such a long time," Kyle says.
The Ocean Memory Lab and all of our conservation research programs are made possible with support from our members and donors. Thank you for contributing to the science needed to understand and protect the ocean.