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Cutting Edge Research

Technology and the way we study the marine ecosystem have come a long way since scientists began investigating the ocean over 130 years ago aboard Britian’s HMS Challenger. Even within the last 15 years, scientists have uncovered some of the oceans most coveted secrets from the aid of technological advances. Since 1998, the Alaska SeaLife Center has been designing and implementing cutting-edge technology to help answer the complex questions about the Gulf of Alaska ecosystem and the species that inhabit it.

Because marine animals spend the majority of their lives at sea—often in remote and extreme locations—they prove to be difficult species to study. As a result, scientists have been extremely creative designing effective methods and applications for collecting data. The Alaska SeaLife Center has been integral in these cutting-edge advancements, but more importantly, implementing technology that greatly reduces our impact on the animals we study and their overall population. We recognize that researching animals in the wild can have a significant impact on their habitat, physiology, and behavior. It is critical, however, to conduct experiments on wild populations and their habitats to better aid in recovery, management, and conservation of the species. For these reasons, the equipment and instrumentation we use maximizes the amount of data we collect without compromising the species’ overall quality of life.

Where cutting-edge technology has dramatically improved data collection—both quality and quantity—is in the field of remote monitoring instrumentation. These tools allow scientists to collect data on the animal(s) without having to be in its presence, thereby recording natural behaviors and conditions. Remote monitoring instruments utilized by the Alaska SeaLife Center include:

  • Remote Video Monitoring: With a click of a mouse-button, scientists at the Alaska SeaLife Center can record real-time video on harbor seals, sea lions, and walrus directly from their computers. Collaborating with SeeMore Wildlife Systems, the Alaska SeaLife Center has deployed sophisticated remote camera systems to observe populations of harbor seals and Steller sea lions in southcentral Alaska. Another camera system has been deployed at Round Island observing Pacific Walrus.
  • Satellite and VHF Telemetry: Whether mounted or implanted on marine mammals and sea birds, these devices can transmit real-time data either through VHF frequencies or via satellites. Transmitters are useful tools to determine seasonal or annual migration routes, foraging ecology, GPS location, among other data.
  • Remote Sensing: Satellite imagery has become an invaluable tool in describing real-time geophysical and geospatial data. When the ASLC studies marine predators, it is important we analyze the ecosystem dynamics in which the species inhabit. Satellite imagery and the science of remote sensing help achieve that understanding.  
  • VDAP: Considered the Swiss Army knife of telemetry devices, the (V)ideo (D)ata (A)cquisition (P)latform can do just about anything. Equipped with a video camera that records exactly what the animals sees, this device can also record the animal’s dive depth and duration, GPS location, and a suite of oceanographic parameters including salinity, temperature, and dissolved oxygen.
  • Life History Transmitters: Where satellite transmitters are limited because of species’ molting periods, Life History Transmitters (LHX) collect data during the course of the entire animal’s life. This device is implanted intraperitoneally in the abdomen and will record data for upwards to 10-12 years, and measure the mortality event of the animal.
  • 3D Photogrammetry: Using our remote video monitoring equipment at sea lion haulouts and rookeries we can take simultaneous digital images of sea lions, build computerized 3D graphic representations or models from these images, and ultimately determine their general physiological health—all with several clicks on the mouse-button.

Remote monitoring devices and techniques are not the only technological advances the ASLC utilizes. Below are other cutting-edge technological advancements:

  • Portable Ultrasound: Previous methods of sampling blubber thickness in marine mammals required a blubber biopsy. Researchers at the ASLC have found that using a portable ultrasound device is an effective, non-invasive alternative for measuring blubber thickness and body fat content.
  • GIS Applications: Geography plus Biology? Meet Biogeography. Since the late 1990s, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) has become the tool for biogeographical applications. GIS has enabled ASLC researchers to map species-specific spatial data (e.g. distribution, animal tracking, migration routes, etc.) and link it to other relevant information.
  •  Animal Training Techniques: The ASLC is a state-of-the-art facility specifically designed to conduct research on its captive animals. At our special quarantined sea lion facility, named Steller South Beach, our animal trainers are implementing cutting-edge training methods that minimize the amount of contact they have with temporarily captive sea lions.

Not all data that we collect, though, utilizes cutting-edge technology. Some techniques and equipment that have been around for 15-20 years are still being used today. Their methodologies have been refined over the years to the point where very little in ways of technology can improve them. Standard measurements such as length, girth, and mass provide invaluable insight to the overall physiological condition of an animal, but the tools to collect these data have not changed dramatically over the years.

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