Research to identify biological hotspots in the oceans will help reduce human impacts

A grant from the Office of Naval Research funds research using elephant seals to find marine hotspots while providing support for undergraduate researchers, an assessment of ethical considerations, and training to create inclusive environments for field research

elephant seals
Elephant seals are an ideal platform for gathering information about biological hotspots in the ocean. (Photo by Roxanne Beltran)
Roxanne Beltran
Roxanne Beltran (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

Roxanne Beltran, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz, has received a grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR) Young Investigator Program to detect hotspots of biological activity in the ocean using data from her lab’s ongoing research on northern elephant seals.

The project will provide valuable training for undergraduates and graduate students in Beltran’s lab, and the grant also includes funding for an assessment of ethical considerations in conducting field research with wild animals.

“Our group has always emphasized the importance of mentoring and ethical practices, but we now have financial resources to put behind them, which is really exciting,” Beltran said.

The $750,000 grant includes over $100,000 budgeted for a paid field researcher program for undergraduate students. Each year, nine students will be brought into the elephant seal field research program through the Work-Study Research Initiative (WSRI), a program Beltran helped spearhead (with the science division’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee) to streamline the process for undergraduate students to be active members of a research lab and conduct relevant research while being supported financially.

“We want to train students from low-income and marginalized backgrounds, and we don’t want them to have to get paid jobs in retail or food service, so the funding for this paid field assistant program will help diversify our team,” she said.

The focus of the project is to obtain detailed information about the locations of areas in the ocean where intense biological activity leads to concentrations of marine organisms, including large marine vertebrates such as whales and seals drawn to aggregations of prey. Identifying these biological hotspots will enable the U.S. Navy to reduce negative interactions with wildlife during naval exercises.

UCSC researchers have been studying elephant seals for decades using sophisticated tagging technology to track their migrations and study their behavior at sea. The biologging instruments carried by the seals can also gather valuable information about the ocean environment, including sound recordings that can reveal the presence of elusive species such as beaked whales, which are known to be sensitive to Navy sonar.

“If we know where sensitive species are doing important things like feeding, then we can avoid activities that might affect the environment there,” said Dan Palance, a graduate student involved in the project who is leading a review of current knowledge about marine hotspots.

Elephant seals are an ideal platform for gathering information about biological hotspots, ranging far across the North Pacific Ocean and diving repeatedly into the depths in search of prey. They also return reliably to the breeding colony at Año Nuevo Reserve, where researchers can recover the instruments.

“These instruments have allowed us to make huge advances in what we know, not only about the animals themselves, but about the marine environment,” said Allison Payne, a graduate student in Beltran’s lab. “Elephant seals are an amazing mobile sensor platform for identifying biologically important areas, including places with large aggregations of prey.”

In their work with the elephant seals at Año Nuevo, UCSC researchers have always sought to minimize the impact on the animals of the instruments and the procedures involved in attaching and recovering them. But a comprehensive review of the ethics of biologging studies and guidelines for conducting and reporting such research has been lacking.

“A lot of thought goes into the size and shape of the biologgers to ensure the seals are not impacted by data collection—primarily because we care about these amazing animals, but also because our studies depend on recording their natural behavior,” Beltran said. “Allison’s dissertation will include developing a set of guidelines for how to plan ethical projects and how we should be reporting our practices.”

Another area of emphasis for Beltran has been ensuring safe environments for diverse young scientists participating in field research. Surveys have revealed a disturbing amount of harassment and bias in field settings, particularly for women and members of marginalized communities. Beltran worked with colleagues at UCSC, including Professor Erika Zavaleta and graduate student Melissa Cronin, to develop a program called Building a Better Fieldwork Future (BBFF) to offer sexual harassment trainings for scientific teams that do fieldwork.

The BBFF program will be administered as part of the field safety training for all members of the Beltran lab. In addition, Payne, who is now the program coordinator for BBFF, will lead an effort to expand the program to address a broader range of challenges in field settings. The goal is to ensure that field settings are safer, more equitable, and more welcoming for the next generation of field scientists.

Beltran said the proposal for this grant was a group effort by her lab, bringing together different approaches to address key questions about the locations and dynamics of biological hotspots in the ocean. In addition to high-resolution biologging techniques, the project will include analyzing stable isotopes in elephant seal whiskers for information on the diets of individual seals, which will help identify feeding hotspots. The researchers will also test drone technologies using forward-looking infrared (FLIR) cameras through the CITRIS Initiative for Drone Education and Research as a potential tool for counting animals and detecting hotspots.

“The grant pulls all of those efforts together, leveraging our existing data collection efforts to train a new generation of scientists in ethical, inclusive research,” Beltran said.