Tracking Within the Blue Planet

Understanding how and why marine animals move around, across a range of environments from the tropics to the poles, is all part of a day’s work for Prof Rob Harcourt and Dr Iain Field at the Australian Animal Tracking and Monitoring (AATAMS) Facility based at the Sydney Institute of Marine Science and Macquarie University. Their work focuses on a wide range of species of marine predators including sharks, seals, seabirds, and whales and how they are influenced by changes in the marine environment. For example, in the warm, clear waters of the tropics, coral reefs are a key habitat for marine life and reef sharks play an important role in keeping those systems healthy. However we know relatively little about how they live around these reefs. Recently at the Rowley Shoals, three coral reef atolls about 300 km from Broome off the NW coast, Prof Harcourt and his team tagged grey reef sharks to look at exactly these questions. They caught and attached underwater acoustic transmitters to the sharks , and deployed a series of acoustic receivers around the reefs. Over the coming years the sharks’ daily movement patterns and migrations between reefs will be observed. This will provide important baseline information for marine conservation and marine protected area design as well as letting us know if sharks are changing their habits as temperatures change.

At the other extreme, Dr Field is part of a team tracking the movement of Antarctic predators in relation to seasonal and environmental change. The focus of Dr Field’s work is understanding the foraging and movement patterns of seals and seabirds such as penguins in the vast and harsh Southern Ocean around Antarctica. In this remote challenging environment we know very little about the distribution and abundance of the lower trophic levels, the fish, squid and crustaceans, which are the main prey for many of the top predators of the regions. Many environmental and biological influences effect where and how seals and seabirds find food. By understanding how these factors interact, we not only learn how the seals and seabirds find food, but how the Antarctic ecosystem is working and how it is changing in relation to environmental change. At the same time, the seals’ tracking devices collect vital oceanographic data which are helping to unlock some key questions about how the Southern Ocean is changing and consequently influencing global ocean and weather patterns.

Although these two examples of the AATAMS team’s work are highly varied the key similarity and goal is to better understand biological patterns of marine predators and the responses to their changing environment. The research is part of the Australian Government’s Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS) programme through the Australian Animal Tracking and Monitoring (AATAMS) Facility based at the Sydney Institute of Marine Science. AATAMS is a key regional partner in the Ocean Tracking Network, a global initiative looking at animal movement patterns worldwide, and a key player in a number of other international and national collaborations including the global Marine Mammal Explorers of the Oceans Pole to Pole (a collaboration between researchers in Norway, France, UK, Germany, Brazil, South Africa, US, and Australia), with the Australian Antarctic Division, CSIRO, and the Australian Institute of Marine Science, with other universities, and locally with NSW DPI, NSW DEC, and Taronga Zoo.

Read more in the Sydney Morning Herald November 2011 Feature.

Southern lights, Aurora Australis, over meterological building Davis Station, Antarctica

Relaxed Weddell seal and researcher, Tryne Fjord, Vetfold Hills, Antarctica

Relaxed Weddell seal and researcher, Tryne Fjord, Vetfold Hills, Antarctica