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Using feathers and bone fragments, scientists paint a picture of the ocean’s past

At the Ocean Memory Lab, part of California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium, scientists are undertaking a study of the world’s oceans and marine life before plastic and chemical pollutants were introduced to the water. By studying the feeding habits of seabirds over the course of almost 130 years, they hope to learn how the ocean has changed during that time. Ivette Feliciano reports.

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  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    At northern California's Monterey Bay Aquarium, scientists are conducting an experiment in time travel.

  • KYLE VAN HOUTAN:

    We put it in one of those little vials and send it off.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    They're part of what's known as the Ocean Memory Lab.

  • KYLE VAN HOUTAN:

    So we can sort of go back in time from zero to the very end here.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Its mission: to paint a picture of what the ocean looked like 200 years ago.

  • KYLE VAN HOUTAN:

    Imagine opening up a book at the last chapter and trying to understand what the story's about. We're kind of doing that right now with the ocean.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Science director Kyle Van Houtan heads the project.

  • KYLE VAN HOUTAN:

    We've studied the land. We live on land. And we've studied the land for centuries. We know—quite a bit about the dynamics of how things work in forests and deserts and grasslands. We know a bit less about the ocean.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Studies on the ocean's environmental health only go back a few decades, so scientists often can't say what marine life was like before pollutants—including plastics and chemicals—were introduced to the water.

  • KYLE VAN HOUTAN:

    We really wanna generate an informed baseline for what a healthy ocean is. To do that, we need more data than we have. And to—we have to get creative.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    To that end, the year-old ocean memory lab draws on specimens collected by naturalists and explorers over the last two centuries. Using modern techniques, lab scientists can analyze those specimens and compare them with samples collected today.

  • KYLE VAN HOUTAN:

    The seabirds and the turtles and the whales, all these things that we study, they're essentially drones taking information about their ecosystem experience out in the ocean and recording it in their feathers, in their bones, in their blubber, various parts of their body, and storing that away. So by using this approach and using the animals as drones to measure the environment, we can actually go back in museum archives and records and repositories and go back much further than if we started measuring today.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Seabirds—gulls, cormorants, and albatross—provide the Ocean Memory Lab with a particularly valuable data set.

  • KYLE VAN HOUTAN:

    Seabirds—are famous for nesting on land, of course, but flying thousands of kilometers out into the ocean, sometimes spending more than 95% of their life on the wing, in flight. And these air—these animals search huge areas of the ocean for fish and squids, and then will come back to their colonies to breed.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    To get data on the ocean from sea birds, scientists cut small fragments from their feathers and then grind them into a fine powder. They then send the samples to a lab for protein analysis.

  • KYLE VAN HOUTAN:

    They're recording all sorts of information about their food in their feathers. And so we recently did an analysis looking at 130 years of seabird feathers and recreating their diets from those feathers, from the ratio of amino acids and proteins in those feathers.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    With this technique, the Ocean Memory Lab has been able to map out the changes in diet for several seabird species over time.

  • KYLE VAN HOUTAN:

    What we learned was that, over the past 130 years, these birds have gradually been shifting their place in the food web, and they've been eating more squid and less fish, about twice as much squid than they were eating in the late 1800s. From our analysis, that's due to climate change and due to the fisheries activity, that humans have been taking a lot of fish out of the ocean.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    But it's not just animal life that provides clues to the ocean's history. Algae samples have been collected at the Hopkins Marine Station—right next door to the aquarium—for 125 years.

  • KYLE VAN HOUTAN:

    This is from 1916. It's amazing that they've been preserved, so—but what we hope to do is to recreate what the ocean was like just here, down the coast, in 1916 through the experience of that—of that specimen.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Scientists can analyze the specimen and extract information on the state of the ocean from the time it was preserved.

  • KYLE VAN HOUTAN:

    So, we can get the temperature of the ocean, we can get pollutants in the ocean, we can get the nutrient levels. What we hope to do is—is to kind of repeat some of these things today, but then, pricelessly, go back in time to these specimens.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Other specimens can provide the lab with centuries' worth of data. This is the ear bone of a bowhead whale—which can live to be over 200 years old. The bone can provide information about the ocean throughout the animal's lifetime.

  • KYLE VAN HOUTAN:

    Yeah, so this animal could have been several hundred years old and this sample is from the early 1950s. This animal, uh, could have been swimming around in the ocean before the Declaration of Independence was written. So, that's quite amazing. And all of the information here, it's not just a snapshot of the recent life of that animal, it's the entire life. It's kind of like a black box for an airplane, you know, it records all of the data that happened in that whale's lifetime.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Van Houtan says that furthering our understanding of the ocean's history isn't just important for posterity. It's also vital to understanding how changes in the ocean's makeup affect people now.

  • KYLE VAN HOUTAN:

    The ocean is the beating heart of the climate system. And we need to understand that, and we need to explain that and to educate the world about that. We want to– them to understand the importance of the ocean, not just—for fish and things that swim in the ocean, but the importance of the ocean for them.

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