Ecologists, and their historic counterparts, naturalists, study the world. They study everything in it, from animals and plants, to climate, to weather, to oceanography, and even tectonics and volcanism. Generally speaking though, their main focus in on animals and their impact on the environment, and vice versa.
In the case of some animals, the study is made easier by their numbers, and their natural range, but those things can also be a hindrance. When one wants to study squirrels, they needn’t go much further than their own backyard to find specimens. However, if one wants to study great white sharks, it becomes a bit more difficult to find a population to observe.
Oceanographers collaborating through the multi-national research project Ocearch are tackling that problem head on, at least as it pertains to sharks. Ocearch is a non-profit, multi-discipline, open-source research and conservation project, founded and headed by renowned shark wrangler Chris Fischer. Among other things, Ocearch researchers have fitted hundreds of sharks with radio transmitters, similar to those found in aircraft transponders. These transmitters send a signal to an orbiting satellite network, allowing anyone who logs onto the Ocearch Shark Tracker to track the whereabouts and movements of a large population of sharks of various species in real time.
This alone is an invaluable tool, for several reasons. Not only does it allow researchers an unprecedented view into the lives and habits of some very elusive creatures – which is useful for measuring population density, migration, feeding and breeding habits, and the extent of their range – but it allows authorities and enthusiasts to track potential dangers in areas known for shark attacks.
Ocearch has come under fire from certain groups and individuals for their apparent mishandling of live sharks through their catch & release efforts. It's through that effort that they capture sharks for tagging, examination and testing, and it is that effort that is most attractive to other oceanographers, biologists and ecologists, as Ocearch’s mandate is to provide researchers up to 15 minutes of examination time with various live, wild sharks species (per capture). Critics claim that sharks have been mistreated and injured during this process and then released back into open water only to die a slow and painful death as a result of this mistreatment. This, of course, is emphatically denied by Chris Fischer and others involved with Ocearch, but the arguments are far from settled.
What do you do, however, if the creature you want to study lives in a climate that is particularly inhospitable? In an area and with a lifestyle that makes catch & release tagging impractical, if not impossible?
Well, a group of British ecologists who have been trying to track the population of emperor penguins in Antarctica have come up with an ingenious, and a somewhat gross, solution.
They pore over satellite images of the region looking for explosive penguin poop on the ice.
Yes, that’s right, penguin poop. Emperor penguins are pretty incredible animals; aptenodytes forsteri are incredibly well adapted to the extreme climate of Antarctica. They can withstand sustained temperatures of -40◦ and are some of the best deep divers on the planet, being able to cope with extreme pressure and oxygen deprivation. More than that, though, they’re very well adapted with camouflage to blend into their environment. Those easily recognised tuxedos they wear actually make them nearly invisible from the air, and as such researchers have been unable to accurately measure their numbers and migratory patterns using satellite imagery.
Until now, that is. In 2009, members of the British Antarctica Survey devised this unique method of tracking the penguins. When emperor penguins gather to breed, they congregate in huge colonies for up to eight months at a time. This means that their wastes tend to leave the ice quite dirty when they leave, and this, it turns out, is easy to track.
Thus far, the BAS researchers have identified 10 new emperor penguin colonies not previously known, out of 38 colonies throughout Antarctica. The total number of penguins on the continent is estimated to be close to 600,000 individuals, and much is being learned about their habits, all thanks to their poop and the wonderfully unconventional thinking of these ecologists.
It’s quite important for us to understand the creatures with which we share this planet. Not only do we need to understand what they are, how they live and how they impact their environments, but we also need to be able to monitor the effect that we have on their habits and populations. Imperative to this is being able to get an accurate picture of their movements and numbers. In the case of sharks, catch & release tagging seems to be the only option available, but thankfully, the case for other animals isn’t so invasive.