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More About Our Ocean Memory Lab

What were ocean conditions like a century ago?

Our new Ocean Memory Lab lets scientists go back in time to examine ocean conditions 10, 50, even 100 years ago.

We activated the Lab in late 2017 as a location for researchers to use historical data and modern technology to understand how human and environmental impacts are affecting the ocean and its inhabitants today.

The Lab is the brainchild of Director of Science Kyle Van Houtan, PhD, who says the heart of its mission is identifying novel sources of long-term data. That's because conservation projects often lack a baseline of ecosystem health against which to compare current conditions.

As Kyle sees it, the solution lies within the ocean's creatures themselves—or more precisely, in the chemistry of their tissues, which can record what they were eating, as well as offering other clues about the surrounding ocean in which they lived. He and his team are examining the record left behind in long-dead ocean creatures to get a picture of the past.

In the Lab's first paper, published in February, Kyle, Aquarium research scientist Tyler Gagne and two colleagues in Hawaii analyzed seabird feather samples from museum collections to shed light on changing diets of eight North Pacific species over the past 130 years.

Using stable-isotope analysis of feather samples from 134 individual birds, and machine learning algorithms to find patterns in the data, the team discovered 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 seabirds, and tapping into a century of algae samples from Monterey Bay to document changes in ocean chemistry. In this exclusive interview for Shorelines online, we spoke to Kyle about the Ocean Memory Lab in general—and its potential.

Director of Science Kyle Van Houtan
Director of Science Kyle Van Houtan

Congratulations on the Ocean Memory Lab! How did you come up with the idea?
Thanks—we are really excited, too! Last year, when we were designing a new space for the Conservation Research team, we recognized the need for a modest laboratory to conduct some of our studies. We brought together a team of Aquarium staff to think about this and frame the direction we might take. In those sessions, we developed this focus on the role of the Aquarium in telling the story of this place—Monterey Bay. As we worked through that, we saw that in order to tell the story, we needed to have a memory and speak to things happening over a long period of time.

We started to think about the role of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in developing technologies to observe the ocean today, and in the future, but also recognized an opportunity to go back in time to understand where we've come from that's lead to where we are today. We all started to see the opportunity to build a historical body of knowledge through the animals themselves; that is, by looking at the data deposited in their bones and feathers. Sort of like a time machine of ocean data.

As a scientist, why is the Lab an exciting undertaking?
Well, for one thing, the discovery of something new is always enticing for researchers. Beyond that I see this as a platform for us to inspire wonder and curiosity in ocean conservation. We want to create "awesome" if that makes sense. Though there are other important traits, for me, I see one key to a long and rewarding career in science—an intense curiosity. What I mean by that is not just a fierce commitment to wanting to know answers to problems or a prolific productivity in doing so. That's important. In addition to those attributes, I see curiosity as creative imagination about how we answer questions.

The ocean covers most of our vast planet and holds many mysteries we cannot easily answer. That seems daunting. But downstairs at the Aquarium, housed in some closets, there are thousands of preserved seaweeds that were collected over the last 130 years. Those specimens contain priceless data about the ocean ecosystem in which they lived. That information is interesting and helpful for us today. So let's begin there. Let's help the seaweeds tell their story, which just so happens to be part of the story of this place.

Preserved kelp
Marine plants can also offer a snapshot of past ocean conditions.

What kinds of samples does your team work with, and why and how?
I really began to appreciate this kind of inquiry when I was working with sea turtles as a federal biologist in Hawaii. There was a historical global trade for the shells of hawksbill sea turtles—known often as tortoiseshell—that lasted for centuries. Of course the shells themselves were beautiful, dappled with hues of amber and sepia and mahogany. But we found these shells could be up to four inches thick and within have this intricate structure with hundreds of tiny growth lines. We discovered these growth lines were like tree rings and could hold the whole life history of the animal.

So those kinds of tissues are what we look for, parts of the body that are retained over the entire lifetime. For a white shark it's their vertebrae; for sea otters it could be their teeth; for a tuna it's a tiny bone—called an otolith—in their inner ear; and for baleen whales it's something similar to an otolith called a bulla. This is where it gets really interesting. Let's say you had such a structure from a bowhead whale, and that whale died in 1980. Since the longevity of bowhead whales can be two centuries, you potentially possess something that can tell you what the ocean was like when the Declaration of Independence was being written. I find that remarkable.

Walk us through how you go from analyzing samples to understanding past conditions in the ocean.
In the late 1950s, Charles Keeling, a professor at Scripps in San Diego, put an instrument on the top of the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii and began measuring the concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. As the data started to roll in, Keeling and his team identified an annual cycle of the Earth "breathing," or the rise and fall of CO2 with the Northern Hemisphere's winter. The data from this study became the baseline for our understanding of global warming, that the rise of heat-trapping gases in Earth's atmosphere would cause an increase in temperatures.

But as these data started to accrue, scientists began to realize that we needed data before Keeling started his Mauna Loa observations. So they came up with the brilliant idea to bore into glaciers and ice caps in Antarctica and Greenland to go back in time thousands of years to see what the atmosphere was like. While they could not literally go back in time with a scientific instrument to observe the atmosphere, they could bring the past to today, by measuring the air trapped in ancient ice, in controlled laboratory conditions.

That's similar to what we're doing in the Ocean Memory Lab. But instead of using ice cores to recreate paleo climates, we're using the chemical signatures embedded within animal tissues. For now we are focusing on the ratios of heavy to light isotopes of certain elements—nitrogen, carbon, sulfur, oxygen—which can shed light on food webs, ocean temperatures and perhaps even how the acidity (pH) of the ocean is changing. We're also looking at contaminants and toxins, as those tend to accrue in the tissues of marine life and give us insight into habitat quality. Like what we learned from Keeling and his revered study, we want to combine modern scientific instruments with historical projections.

Ocean Memory Lab herbarium
The Lab's herbarium holds hundreds of preserved marine plants.

How does modern technology—artificial intelligence in particular—assist your team in their research?
You hear a lot about artificial intelligence in the news—AI—and it's becoming more and more integrated into our daily lives. For our work in marine science, it's also becoming increasingly useful. We use a kind of AI called machine learning, which loosely refers to a broad family of statistical analyses. Nature is incredibly complex and doesn't really follow straight lines. Machine learning really helps us with both of those things. For one, it can help us find patterns in large amounts of data—and we need and have available to us more and more data to understand how the ocean is changing.

For example, we've been using machine learning to "read" tens of thousands of scientific manuscripts. We are doing this to understand trends over time to learn when and why conservation has been successful. Formerly, this kind of effort would take several people months to accomplish, and the work would be prone to human errors and standardization issues between analysts. Now we scrape the data from search engine servers, develop machine learning algorithms, run the models overnight and voila—we have answers. It's really quite amazing the speed at which we can move.

Machine learning also gives us some flexibility in understanding the form of how things change. Classical statistical models can be a bit restrictive and therefore lack some realism in how they describe ocean or other complex data sets. Temperature or pH or the number of otters—whatever you are trying to measure—doesn't always simply go up or down. Numbers can rise and fall periodically in a nonlinear way, or be chaotic. Machine learning gives us some flexibility to adapt our understanding to the data, instead of forcing the data into some constraint that is really just an artifact of the underlying math. We don't want to do that of course; we want to describe what the data are doing.

Tell us more about the Aquarium's herbarium, and what data from marine plants might reveal that animal tissues don't.
There are several interesting things about marine herbaria. At the Aquarium we've collected marine plants since the late 1970s, going back to when the construction was being planned and the buildings designed. I think we have roughly 600 specimens in our collection. Most of our early scientists, including our co-founder and Executive Director Julie Packard, were trained in marine botany next door at Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University. At Hopkins, they've been archiving specimens since the late 1800s, and they have thousands of specimens. But their collections essentially taper out when ours begin. So together, we have a collective picture of marine plants on the Monterey Peninsula stretching over 130 years.

What's different about many marine plants, compared to say a blue whale, is that the plants typically are annuals, so they have a short lifespan. But this is an opportunity to see a snapshot of ocean conditions, and we can examine many specimens to develop a long-term story of what's happening in the bay. The plants are beautiful, too, and retain their forms and colors even over centuries. The deep red algae collected in 1892 are still deep red today. It's amazing.

Red algae
We'll tap into a century of algae samples to explore changes in ocean chemistry.

Anything else you'd like to add?
I grew up on an estuary that fed right into Chesapeake Bay, and I spent countless hours as a kid exploring the streams and lakes where I lived. Fish, frogs, mud, canoes, jorts (jean shorts)—I was all in! As an undergrad, I studied quite a bit of biogeochemistry, which is exactly like it sounds—biology plus geology plus chemistry rolled into one. While that may seem like a horror story to many, I was transfixed.

The lab I worked in used biogeochem as a tool to understand how rainwater changed as it flowed through a mountain range. At the time there was a significant concern about acid rain and its impacts on Appalachian forests. One of the things I took from that training is there is this inevitable "march of atoms to the sea," as one author put it. We have increasingly documented this to be true. Wind, rain, streams and rivers take much of our waste to the ocean. Though it may seem like it has gone "away" there really is no such thing as "away." Our fertilizers, plastic and other debris end up in the ocean.

You've probably heard that elephants never forget, but I would say it's the ocean that really never forgets. What we're trying to do at the Aquarium is tap into that recall power and harness that memory to understand how the ocean is changing and what we can do about it.

Kyle Van Houtan discussed the conservation research goals of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the promise of the Ocean Memory Lab, during a recent talk at Google.

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