Gifts for the science lover in your life.

It’s been a long day. The PCR machine broke (again), your buffer solution may be contaminated and you’ve just realised that your data is all non-parametric so your statistics could be totally off. Although the gods of scientific endeavour may not be smiling on you today, you know deep down that you’re still a grade A science nerd and you just need a little ‘pick-me-up’. So, as a favour to your inner geek, we at the brain bank have compiled a list of some of our favourite science-themed gifts

Go ahead, give your brain a treat!

1: Giant microbes.

If, like me, you are a sucker for anything cute, fluffy and quirky you’ll most likely love Giant microbes. From Cholera to the Common Cold, these fuzzy oddities somehow brain-cellsucceed in making microbes mesmerisingly cute. As a neuroscientist my personal favorite has to be the brain cell. But, putting my serious science hat on, I did notice a problem with the product description online. Specifically, the website states that ‘the more brain cells you have the smarter you are’ – this is not necessarily true. Note that studies of Einstein’s brain did not find any significant differences in the number of brain cells coiled in the genius’s cortex. Instead there was some speculation that Einstein’s brain contained more glial cells than neurons – these specialised cells support brain cell function, fixing them in place, keeping them supplied with oxygen and nutrients alongside many other important functions. So, perhaps we should petition Giant Microbes to make Bobby Brain Cell a new friend… Glenda Glia perhaps?

2: Euler’s Identity Romantic Geek Art

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 12.51.15A few years ago my partner bought this for me as a valentines present and there is nothing I don’t love about it. The text is the perfect mix of geeky and cute, plus the disclaimer he gave me when I ripped open the wrapping was so beautifully him….On opening the gift he looked at me and, with a serious expression on his face, said “I’m glad you like it but of course you do know that nothing is actually more beautiful than Euler’s Identity…and if that upsets you, you obviously don’t understand maths”. Somehow this comment made me love him more and we are now married…so, there’s another win for the geeks. If you want to check out this and similar products they can be found here.

3: Serotonin Necklace.

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 12.52.34For days when you need a little boost, how about wearing a little piece of happiness around your neck? This white metal neurotransmitter necklace is just the right balance of quirky and cute and will certainly get noticed – I do love wearing it around the lab! Check out this website for more products – personally I think the Dopamine necklace may also be quite rewarding (boom boom)…

4: Try Science.

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 12.54.02For academics and fans of the amazing xkcd this may be just the t-shirt for you. My brother-in-law bought me this for Christmas and it never fails to put a smile on my face. Actually, I’m going to admit to a bit of a crazy biologist trade secret here. Biology is one branch of science which many lament does not always follow logic… It’s not unusual to run two identical experiments on successive days and get very different results (dam you complex biological variability). This means that many biologists harbor a bit of a superstitious streak…For me I find that wearing this t-shirt always seems to bring me luck in the lab. So, if you’re having a run of bad luck, this may just be the outfit choice for you.

5: Brain specimen coasters.

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 12.54.48OK so I don’t currently own these, but I very much would like to – hint hint ;). I have spent many long days painstakingly mounting sections of brain tissue onto glass microscope slides with a paintbrush (no I’m not kidding this is actually how we do this) and the results always amaze me. Looking at the intricate structure of these brain slices is absolutely inspirational and I’ve often wished I could take my slides home. Sadly, knowing the cocktail of chemicals used to mount and fix these samples, I’ve always decided it was too risky to remove them from the lab. But, these coasters may be the perfect solution to this problem – put some serious thought into your morning cuppa and rest it on a slice of brain!

Post by: Sarah Fox

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Dian Fossey and the ‘Gorillas in the Mist’

Dian Fossey is one of those rare biologists in that her name and work are known by a vast proportion of the general public. Nearly everybody knows of her work, perhaps by the title of the book she wrote describing her scientific career, “Gorillas in the Mist“.

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Dian Fossey. Image provided via CC BY-SA 2.0 by Flickr user mary-lynn. Originally provided by ‘danisolas’

Fossey’s incredible 18-year study of Rwandan mountain gorillas and her conservation work are testament to the passion she had for her work. However, it isn’t just the work for which Fossey is best known that I wanted to draw people’s attention to in this post. Fossey’s early career also featured defining moments that many of us will recognise from our own lives and lessons from which we can learn.

Career Choices

Like many young people, Fossey took a rather meandering route to finding her ideal job. She was encouraged by her stepfather to study business at college but, after one year, she decided to foster her love of animals by switching to a pre-veterinary course. Somewhat surprisingly, given her famous career, Fossey shortly changed courses once more thanks to struggles with her Physics and Chemistry modules. After eventually completing a course in Occupational Therapy, Fossey began a career working with tuberculosis patients and then crippled children.

It wasn’t until she was 31 years old that Dian Fossey discovered her real passion. In 1963 she fulfilled a long-held dream and went travelling around Africa. There she met a pair of wildlife photographers – Joan and Alan Root – in Uganda who were photographing mountain gorillas in the Virunga mountains. It was at this point that she began to transform into the Dian Fossey we are familiar with. The Roots took her with them to watch the gorillas and, when it came time to leave, Fossey had resolved to return and learn more about the species that had so captivated her during her time there.

Many young professionals worry that they don’t know what to do with their lives. I see Fossey’s life as an encouraging reminder that even some of our most celebrated individuals only worked out what they wanted to do at a relatively late age.

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Gorillas in the Virunga Mountains. Image provided via CC BY-SA 3.0 by Cai Tjeenk Willink.

Enthusiasm

During her time in Africa, Dian Fossey met archaeologist and naturalist Louis Leakey, who was funding research into the great apes at the time. When she returned home, Fossey wrote three articles about her time in Africa, which she had published in local newspaper, ‘The Courier-Journal’. Her eagerness to tell the world about this subject that so fascinated her would turn out to be a great aid in achieving her goal.

In 1966, Leakey gave a series of lectures that brought him to Fossey’s home of Louisville. Upon speaking to her again and being impressed by the articles she’d had published, Leakey invited Fossey to lead a long-term field project in Africa to study the gorillas; the only stipulation being that she would have to have her appendix removed first. Fossey willingly went ahead with the operation only the find out that Leakey had just been trying to see how enthusiastic she was about the project!

This goes to show just how much fervour for one’s work can pave the way for even greater success. Had Dian Fossey not spent her free time writing about her trip to Africa and had she not being willing to go ahead with the appendectomy, she might not have been given this life-changing opportunity. Now, I wouldn’t encourage anyone to go around offering up bodily organs in exchange for research grants, but Fossey is a prime example of how pushing yourself that bit further than other people can pay dividends in a big way.

Gorillas in the Mist

Dian Fossey was finally able to begin her studies into the mountain gorillas in early 1967. Based in the Kabara meadow in the Congo, Fossey would venture into the forests to track and observe the gorillas. Through careful study and considerable patience, she identified three distinct social groups of gorillas in the region, which she was able to get close to by mimicking their grooming, grunting and eating habits so they were more accepting of her presence.

When Fossey’s work was disrupted by a civil war in the Congo, she relocated to a national park on the Rwandan side of the mountains in September 1967. There she established the ‘Karisoke Research Centre’, naming the camp after the two volcanoes in-between which it was nestled. This move to Rwanda would eventually inspire Fossey’s famed conservation work as the gorillas in this region were under constant threat from poachers.

Laws prohibiting poaching were rarely enforced in the park, with bribery of conservation staff rife. Given her love of, and fascination with, the gorillas, it is easy to understand how Fossey was affected when she came across areas in which the apes had been slaughtered. Consequently, she financed her own team to destroy poachers’ traps and assisted in several arrests.

Fossey’s efforts protected the gorillas in her study area for a decade, whilst those outside of her protection suffered extensive poaching. Having been able to interact with some of the apes in her area, again by mimicking their actions, Fossey also grew rather attached to them; forming a particularly strong bond with a male she named Digit. Tragically, on New Year’s Eve in 1977, Digit’s group was attacked by poachers and he died protecting the other gorillas. Digit was decapitated and his hands were severed so they could be sold as ashtrays.

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The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. Image provided via CC BY-SA 4.0 by ‘azurfrog

In the wake of Digit’s death, Fossey set up the ‘Digit Fund’ to finance anti-poaching patrols. Now renamed in some countries, this fund still works to protect mountain gorillas and operate Fossey’s Karisoke Research Centre. In its formative years, Fossey used the fund to great effect, destroying nearly 1,000 traps in one 4 month period. The fund acts as her legacy since her untimely death in December 1985, when she was found murdered in her mountain   cabin in a case that has never been solved…

Post by: Ian Wilson

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How to build a brain

4155648600_67c6ecc258_zI will always remember the moment which first sparked my interest in neuroscience. It was a rainy day in Oxford – it poured as we stepped off the bus. We had arrived at the University Department for Neuroscience. After being introduced to a group of researchers we were given an extensive tour of the facilities. As an A-level student, the visit was my first encounter with a fully functioning research lab. At its close, the visit left a resounding impression on many of us, and personally I remember becoming immediately interested in the prospect of studying neuroscience at university.

The lab was at least 15 strong, yet they continually reminded us that they were investigating a tiny piece of a puzzle which has been studied by generations of brilliant minds. The interconnection issue; how does the structure of our brain, from single neurones to complex circuits, relate to function. It was their enthusiasm for such a complex question that sparked my own interest. Whether you’re a member of the general public or an active researcher, it’s easy to forget just how amazing the brain is, either because you’re unaware of the dizzying numbers or, like me, you’ve become transfixed on understanding a small part of brain infrastructure from a very specific angle. I write this post to briefly introduce the structure of the brain to those unfamiliar with it, and to serve as a source of motivation for fellow neuroscientists who spend huge amounts of times with their heads buried in the vast sands of the field.

Let’s start with the building blocks. The human brain has about 100 billion individual neurones with an estimated 200 trillion contacts between them. Remarkably this staggering number of neurones are arranged in such a way that we can effortlessly transition from a walk to a run, respond to sensory stimuli, perceive emotions and learn complex skills such as playing an instrument.

A human neocortical pyramidal neuron stained via Golgi technique. Notice the apical dendrite extending vertically above the soma and the numerous basal dendrites radiating laterally from the base of the cell body.

A human neocortical pyramidal neuron stained via Golgi technique. Notice the apical dendrite extending vertically above the soma and the numerous basal dendrites radiating laterally from the base of the cell body.

To complicate things further, each neurone is a complex device in its own right; perhaps the most intricate cell type nature has created. Neurones are tree like cells with branching appendages that maximise the receptive surface area for connections from other neurones. To increase the cells receptive area these branched appendages, called dendrites, are covered by many spines. Yes that’s right, branches on branches. The spines accommodate between thousands and tens of thousands of postsynaptic receptors which listen for signals from other neurones.

Dendrites are the targets of thin and long processes from other neurones, called axon collaterals, which typically emerge from the cell body and take a long, convoluted journey to reach a dozen or tens of thousands of nearby and distant neurones. Terminating in close proximity to the cell body and dendrites of other neurones, axons release chemicals that modulate the postsynaptic receptors, evoking a response. This is the basis of neurone to
neurone communication.

Fluorescent micrograph showing the cerebellar network of purkinje neurons from a mouse imaged using 2-photon microscopy. The neurons are visualised by labelling the cells with green fluorescent protein (GFP). Purkinje cells are specialised neurons found in layers within the cerebellum (at the back of the brain). In humans they are one of the longest types of neurons in the brain and are involved in transmitting motor output from the cerebellum.

Fluorescent micrograph showing the cerebellar network of purkinje neurons from a mouse imaged using 2-photon microscopy. The neurons are visualised by labelling the cells with green fluorescent protein (GFP). Purkinje cells are specialised neurons found in layers within the cerebellum (at the back of the brain). In humans they are one of the longest types of neurons in the brain and are involved in transmitting motor output from the cerebellum.

Now we have met the basic structural characteristics that permit neurones to communicate with one another, let’s consider how these change between neurones. We know from detailed imaging studies that the shape and dimensions of a neurone are tailored to fit its role in the brain’s circuitry. Furthermore, different neuronal types are more strongly localised to specific areas of the brain. For example, the cerebellar Purkinje cell epitomises the link between structure and the broader function. Named after their discoverer, Czech anatomist Johann Evangelist Purkinje, these cells are amongst the largest in the brain. Their elaborate tree of dendrites makes them ideally suited to receive input from many other neurones. This is an important feature for a cell which needs a lot of incoming information to effectively coordinate the fine movement of our limbs.

Finally, I want to put aside the physical components and touch briefly on how information is encoded in the brain. Neurones produce single electro-chemical spikes, called action potentials. These electrical discharges result from rapid and well-timed ion movements across the neuronal membrane. Action potentials typically last 2-5ms however they can stretch or compress depending on the amalgamation of ion channels that are incorporated into the membrane. Neurones can repeatedly fire action potentials; the firing frequency depends on postsynaptic inputs and cascades of processes occurring within the cell.  Any given neurone may fire just one action potential per second in its resting state. However, when receiving a stimulus from another can increase this firing rate . Neurones can also produce elaborate bursting patterns of action potentials, or can be completely silent.

The brain is complex at every level of its architecture. The billions of neurones, trillions of synapses, an unimaginable number of action potentials and many flavours of ion channel all add layers to its computational capacity. Perhaps even more staggering is that all these components occupy less than a 1 litre volume inside the skull, and are somehow wired together as circuits to convert tiny fluxes of ions to organism-wide behaviours. Now a PhD student, deeply entrenched in a specific research question, I try not to lose sight of the reason I chose to study neuroscience. For me it all comes back to that rainy day in Oxford.

Post by: Adam Watson

References:

‘Ion Channels of Excitable Membranes’ Third Edition- Bertil Hille.
‘Rhythms of the brain’- Gyӧrgy Buzsáki

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Decisions, decisions.

5351193177_323958b11a_zImagine this. You’ve bought a new house. It’s everything you’ve ever dreamed of and you can’t wait to decorate and furnish it. You come across a copy of the Ikea catalogue, which you casually flick through whilst having your breakfast. The sleek and affordable designs catch your eye and so you immediately make the trip to the nearest Ikea store. It’s 10am when you arrive and you happily weave your shopping trolley through the model kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms, around the aisles of quirky lampshades, bathroom accessories and contemporary artwork, finally reaching the mighty warehouse, stacked high with boxes of DIY flat-pack units.

Three hours have passed and you arrive at the checkout. You place your items on the conveyer belt for the shop assistant to scan through the till. You move closer to the front of the queue and greet them with a sigh and an awkward smile of embarrassment, as you hand over £3.50 for a solitary vanilla-scented candle and a pack of Daim bars!

So what happened? Why didn’t you buy anything else? Chances are you experienced Decision Fatigue. Scientists have coined this phrase to describe the exhausting process of making decisions, which we are all susceptible to in many aspects of normal life but particularly as consumers where willpower is key.

5076824636_060b30f19d_zExperiments have demonstrated the link between Decision Fatigue and willpower in various ways.  In one study (Vohs et al., 2008), subjects were asked to repeatedly choose one item from random pairs of inexpensive objects, ranging from chewing gum to tennis balls. They were also told their decision would influence which item they could keep and take home at the end of the day. Let’s call this group the deciders. Another group of subjects (we can call these the non-deciders) were simply asked to write down what they thought about each item (i.e. they didn’t have to make any decisions) and were told that the experimenters would choose an item for them to keep and take home.

Immediately after, both deciders and non-deciders, were asked to hold their hand in ice-cold water, as a measure of willpower. The results showed that deciders pulled their hands out of the water much faster than non-deciders. Essentially, those subjects who were forced to make several decisions in the first part of the experiment, gave up much quicker than those who didn’t have to decide on anything.

As a consumer the same tends to happen, whether you are shopping in a store, choosing food in a restaurant or browsing the Internet for holidays. To make any decision you need to place some value on each option and imagine the possible futures that would arise from selecting A over B. For example, if you were browsing for shower curtains in Ikea, you brain would be hard at work, pondering and analysing what the outcome would be if you chose shower curtain A over shower curtain B. Would it be long enough to fit over the bathtub? Is the material thick enough to prevent water spraying on the floor? Does the pattern match the bathroom tiles? Thought after thought. Question after question.

It’s the Prefrontal Cortex (at the front of your brain) that has the job of decision-making by processing this kind of information. You won’t be aware that this is happening, but it is, and if you spent a couple of hours looking at all the products in a large shop like Ikea your Prefrontal Cortex can go into overdrive (perhaps this explains why you often hear people complaining of headaches whilst shopping!). Your poor brain becomes exhausted, your willpower plummets and you could give up completely (explaining why the deciders in the experiment pulled their hands out of the icy water quicker than the non-deciders). Or, like the Ikea shopper, when willpower drops you could simply default to an easier decision such as the most pleasant smelling candle or which chocolates would best satisfy a sugar craving.

In fact, it’s no surprise that our fictional Ikea shopper sought out chocolates after their 3-hour shopping trip. It’s well known that willpower is reduced when blood sugar levels fall (Galliot and Baumeister, 2007). Indeed, have you ever wondered why there are 2410506932_5a64e1bc1e_zrestaurants or cafés in stores (and if the boss is clever enough, located right in the middle of them)? It gives hungry consumers, who have become tired of making decisions, the chance to re-fuel and boost their blood sugar, before continuing with their intensive shopping/decision-making trip.

So, perhaps the answer is to first have a hearty meal and then break the decision-making into small chunks interspersed with regular snack breaks to give your Prefrontal Cortex time to rest and re-fuel. That way your Prefrontal Cortex may be more able to effectively compute information and make clearer decisions. Otherwise, as time goes on, Decision Fatigue is still likely to kick in, your willpower could decline and your prefrontal cortex might only have enough energy to make the easiest decision it can – to do nothing at all.

Post by: Tarah Patel

REFERENCES:

Galliot M and Baumeister R,  Pers Soc Psychol Rev. 2007 Nov; 11(4):303-27.

Vohs K et al., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2008, Vol. 94, No. 5, 883– 898.

 

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One, Two, Tree

Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 09.04.55For centuries trees have defined our landscapes and proved homes for our ancestors. However, when walking through a busy town center or university square, it can be very easy for us to forget that trees even exist. In fact, when trees are acknowledged it’s usually just in terms of what they can do for us i.e providing clean air or a making places look prettier. But, trees are far more than just picturesque garden features, or soldiers against global warming. So, here is a list of little-known tree facts which prove that trees are much more in-tree-guing than we give them credit for.

Mother trees feed their young: One large tree can be connected to many others in a forest via an underground network of fungi associated with their roots. Studies have shown that older, more established, trees can provide young ones with carbon, water and nutrients through this fungal network to aid survival. Rather like a mother passing food through her umbilical cord to her offspring! Without this motherly nurture, many young trees would not survive. Resources can also be assigned depending on which individual needs them most.

Trees leave a will: Just as relatives pass money down the generations, studies have shown that dying trees can also donate their resources to the next generation before they die and collapse.

Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 09.05.04Trees warn each other about danger: Studies have suggested that trees can communicate via chemical signals which travel through the air. A study from Pretoria University has found that Acacia trees emit warning signals to other trees in the area when they are being attacked. It is suggested that the attacked tree emits ethylene into the air which can travel up to 50 yards. Nearby trees can pick up on this signal, giving them time to produce leaf tannins, which can be lethal to the their biggest predator the antelope.

Trees cry:  It has been shown that trees can make sound when under stress. Zweifel, R and Zeugin, F (2011) carried out a study in Central Valais, Switzerland, which found that trees release Ultrasonic acoustic emissions (UAE) under drought conditions. The study suggested that this may be due to the collapsing water columns in the flow path resulting from high tension, due to drought. Although, these sounds cannot be heard by humans, a thirsty tree could be crying out for water, so go grab a watering can.

Trees look very good for their age: The oldest age documented for a human is 122 years and 164 days. However, one bristlecone pine tree in California’s White Mountains beats this by miles as it is thought to be almost 5,000 years old. So, respect your elders!

Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 09.05.13So, there you have it, trees are much more than just a pretty picture, or a way out of global warming. They are living beings in their own right and should be respected! We can learn a lot from trees: they show that cries can be silent, that good mothering may involve sacrifice and that teamwork can be crucial to look after one another. The secret to aging slower is still unknown, but if anyone finds out, they’ll make a fortune on beauty products.

So, go hug a tree! – Although avoid the Manchineel tree, found in the Caribbean and Central America, whose sap can cause skin irritation and blistering on contact.

Post by: Alice Brown

References:

http://www.camping-expert.com/hug-a-tree.html

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1469-8137.2008.02521.x/full

http://www.karmatube.org/videos.php?id=2764

http://www.ecology.com/2012/10/08/trees-communicate/

https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg12717361.200-antelope-activate-the-acacias-alarm-system

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Marine Strandings and Selfies: Should the two ever mix?

Screen Shot 2016-03-14 at 08.40.05No doubt everyone has heard about the dolphin that was passed between tourists for endless selfies, sparking debates over animal cruelty and inhuman acts. Of course the idea of a dolphin being dragged from the ocean and killed is diabolical, but probably what is most upsetting is that it is believable. It has been claimed that the dolphin was dead when it was found and did not die due to dehydration during the selfie frenzy that ensued, but this may be a lie formed by the offenders who felt guilty after the event – we’ll never know for sure.  Whichever story you decide to believe the sad fact still remains that humanity has become more obsessed with trying to snap the ‘perfect picture’ to get a few facebook ‘likes’, rather than trying to help an animal in distress.

Shortly after the baby dolphin story emerged, a video went viral of a man holding down a shark on a beach – again for photos. This time the video does confirm that the shark had been caught by a fisherman and was also filmed being released into the water. As far as I’m aware sharks can’t suffer psychological damage and if no physical harm was done it is no different from fishermen who visit fishing ponds. Assuming the animal isn’t away from the water from too long, a quick photo won’t kill it. However, it is setting a dangerous precedent for people to start deliberately seeking out marine animals to take selfies.

Sadly we have around 500 recorded marine animal strandings per year on Britain’s coasts. There are many reasons why these animal become stranded, it may be due to injuries, disease, or entanglement in fishing gear. Many strandings occur when young animals become separated from their mother and can’t survive. Whatever the reason these animals still deserve to be treated with respect.

Screen Shot 2016-03-14 at 08.41.07But, how many of us would really know what to do if we found a dolphin washed up on the beach? Well there are plenty of ways to find out. The WDC (Whales and Dolphins Conservation) have step by step instructions of what to do and who to call in such a situation. Or, if you are feeling more adventurous and want to be able to physically help a stranded animal, you can look out for training courses in your local area. The BDMLR (British Divers Marine Life Rescue) provide a single day course on how to rescue a beached animal, currently a training course is also being organised in the North West area, (follow the link below for more information).

It’s important that people start to appreciate the world without the need of a lens between them – isn’t a story about rescuing a stranded animal better than a picture with a dying one? So, let’s try and see more stories of people saving stranded animals rather than prolonging their suffering for a photo that will probably get lost in the many thousands we take over our lifetime.

Post By:Jennifer Rasal

For information about the training course- https://www.facebook.com/groups/LUMOES/

WDC’s guide of what to do in a stranding situation- http://uk.whales.org/issues/what-to-do-if-you-find-live-stranded-whale-or-dolphin

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A helping hand for oceanographers

Whilst exploring Google Scholar, I came across an interesting article that used a rather different approach to oceanographic observation: elephant seals.

Screen Shot 2016-03-06 at 21.08.10Living in herds in the Southern Ocean, these three tonne tanks seem a strange choice when it comes to measuring various oceanic properties, but are surprisingly efficient. By attaching conductivity-temperature-depth sensors (or CTDs) onto the heads of elephant seals, these mammals act as a biological platform from which measurements can be made. In fact, elephant seals are well suited to this job: they dive very deep and are able to swim long distances, likely visiting a wide proportion of the Southern Ocean. In a study by Xing et al (2012), 15 elephant seals were tagged in the region surrounding the Kerguelen Islands – an archipelgelo that lies on the boundary of the Antarctic tectonic plate. This equated to 1894 profiles being collected in just over a year, and emphasises the potential of utilising animals in this way.  As it happens, the use of animals in scientific research is a growing field, and is known as biologging.

Biologging has only become possible relatively recently and is used primarily to monitor animal behaviour e.g. foraging, migration and even environmental assessment – such as the impact of offshore wind farms on seabirds. However, over the last 15 years, the development of Satellite Relay Loggers (that is, the combination of satellite relay – essentially fancy GPS) and CTD sensors has allowed a collaboration between biologists and physical oceanographers, expanding our observational capabilities of the ocean.

One of the main problems with observational oceanography is the sampling resolution: there are enormous parts of the ocean that remain a sampling mystery. This is due primarily to the fact that the sensors we use are very small and the ocean is very big, so only a limited proportion of the ocean can be measured at any one time. Combined with the fact that research ships are expensive to run, this leads to some parts of the global ocean that are very well-known to us (such as the easily accessible coastal regions) and areas that haven’t seen any CTD sensor in over ten years, if ever!

One of the ways to combat this problem is through the introduction of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) – essentially robotic sensors. These robots are quite happy to go up, down, backwards and forwards, measuring the water column as they go for however long their lithium batteries last, and have drastically increased both the spatial and temporal resolution of observational oceanography.

However, they aren’t perfect, and there are still vast regions of the ocean where these robots can’t reach. Outside of 60°N-60°S latitudinal range, the presence of sea ice is a problem. When I was an undergraduate, we were told a story of a multimillion pound AUV that became lost beneath the Arctic sea ice. I have yet to know if it was ever recovered, but global warming might lead to some interesting robotic discoveries if the ice caps continue to melt.

New technological advances with AUVs are being made constantly, so it is highly possible that these type of limitations may not be permanent. In the meantime, however, biologging may be a useful and reliable alternative, particularly as elephant seals don’t need batteries and their thick skin is not prone to water leakage.

That being said, biologging does come with its own unique difficulties, the animal must be sedated for the sensor to be attached, and once again for its removal – a dangerous and sometimes laborious task. It also has to be noted that the animal’s welfare is a top priority for these researchers, and every effort is taken to ensure the animal is by no means distressed throughout the biologging process.

Nevertheless, biologging provides a useful tool to measure those hard to reach places where humans and robots dare not tread.

Post By: Jenny Jardine

References:

Charrassin, J B., and others, (2010), Bio-optical profiling floats as new observational tools for biogeochemical and ecosystem studies: potential synergies with ocean color remote sensing, IN J. Hall, D. E. Harrison and D. Stammer (Eds.), Proceedings of OceanObs 09: Sustained ocean observations and information for society (Vol. 2), Venice Italy, September 2009. ESA Publication WPP-306

Roquet, F., and others, (2011), Validation of hydrographic data obtained from animal-bourne satellite-relay data loggers, Journal of Atmospheric and Oceanic Technology, 28, 787-801

Xing, X., and others, (2012) Quenching correction for in vivo chlorophyll fluorescence acquired by autonomous platforms: A case study with instrumented elephant seals in the Kerguelen region (Southern Ocean), Limnology and Oceanography: Methods, 10, 483-495

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