Scientists launch sea bots to track the lives of larvae

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Dr. Steven Morgan holds a sea bot while standing on a coast guard vessel in Bodega Bay.

BODEGA BAY, Calif. – Scientists launched state-of-the-art sea bots into a windy Bodega Bay Thursday, in a new effort to track and understand the early stages of crustaceans’ lives.

Equipped with technology to measure temperature, pressure, speed and salinity, these nine bright yellow metal cylinders formally known as ABLES – Autonomous Behaving Lagrangian Explorer(S) – will float in the ocean for two weeks, gathering data on the simulated behavior of larvae.

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Scientists launch sea bots into Bodega Bay on Sept. 22, 2016. Photo by Kelsey Simpkins.

Dr. Steven Morgan, a professor of environmental science and policy at UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory, was joined by 15 journalists visiting from the Society of Environmental Journalists conference Thursday to observe this launch from a coast guard vessel.

Larvae of various species use the same behaviors, and with these sea bots, scientists are “trying to look at the consequences of any one behavior,” Morgan said.

“This will be the first time we really know where the larvae are going,” Morgan said, “by simulating what any one larvae might do.”

Following initial deployment in the summer of 2015, Morgan and fellow researchers are expanding the deployment of sea bots this year in an attempt to shorten the gap between terrestrial and ocean science. Until the 1960s, scientific research rarely occurred underwater.

Now climate change and its effects – ocean acidification, sea level rise and changing currents – have created an urgency to study and gather data on the reproduction and young stages of ocean species’ lives.

“You can’t understand a species until you know the first half of its lifespan,” Morgan said.

The 10-pound sea bots can rise and fall in the water using sensors and internal oil tanks, send real-time data back to the lab, and emit a GPS signal so they can be found at the end of their two-week battery life.

Michael Stocker, bio-acoustics expert and founding director of Ocean Conservation Research, later expressed concern to the journalists about oceanic noise pollution to which research likes this contributes. The ocean is 10 times louder today than it was 50 years ago, according to Stocker.

“One of these, okay, not a big deal,” Stocker said. “But you get thousands of them in the water and you have a problem.”

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