Communications & Media

New continental-scale data maps a decade of widespread movements of our iconic sea species

The University of Tasmania is well known for its excellent marine and Antarctic science.  What’s perhaps less well known is that the University has a large marine data team who run Australia’s Ocean Data Network – a facility of the Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS).  

The data team ensure that all IMOS and other marine data can be discovered, accessed, used and reused in perpetuity.  Building big datasets is what they do, and the power of that approach is showcased in a new paper published in the prestigious journal Nature Scientific Data.  Dr Xavier Hoenner from the IMOS data team is lead author on the paper, entitled Australia’s continental-scale acoustic tracking database and its automated quality control process.

The new continental-scale marine animal tracking dataset has been published from the Integrated Marine Observing System’s Animal Tracking Facility, based on a permanent network of acoustic signal receivers installed in coastal waters around Australia, shedding light on the movements of some of our most majestic and dangerous sea creatures.

“The established IMOS Animal Tracking Facility network, which is operated by the Sydney Institute of Marine Science and comprises nearly 2,000 receiving stations located around the country, allowed us to track 3,777 Australian sea animals, including some of Australia’s most iconic species, such as great white sharks, green sea turtles and tunas,” explained lead author Dr Hoenner.

“We collected and quality controlled 49.6 million acoustic detections from these tagged animals, which has given us insights into how far they moved, ranging from only a few kilometres to thousands, their preferred habitats and how their movements vary over time,” added Hoenner.

It has been known for some time that climate change is causing oceans around Australia to be warmer further south, meaning many marine species are also shifting south, altering their habitual movements and feeding habits.

“The data gives an in-depth picture of the behaviour of these animals over the 10 years of the study enabling us to predict how behaviour might change in the future. For example, in the case of bull sharks – a species we tracked that is known to be potentially dangerous - research has shown that they move within warmer waters, meaning it is important that we understand how they modify their movements in response to changes in ocean conditions and processes,” explained Professor Rob Harcourt from Macquarie University, who is the Leader of the Animal Tracking Facility at IMOS.

The researchers say that the data is a powerful addition to their centralised national database, and hope that the results will also foster future investigations by other marine research groups.

“In this study we were able to validate our tracking data by developing an open-source, state of the art algorithm that identifies background noise signals and anomalous movements, thus strengthening considerably the quality and re-usability of our dataset.

“The data is available through the online Australian Ocean Data Network Portal, making it a very valuable resource for comparing the behaviour of marine animals today and in the future.  We are also going to add the data to public marine species location databases to improve existing biodiversity records and enhance existing geographical distribution maps for Australian sea species,” Professor Harcourt concluded.

“The University of Tasmania is big in big (marine) data” says IMOS Director Tim Moltmann.  “In fact, this is the fifth Nature Scientific Data paper for IMOS, with two more in the pipeline.  It is however the first with a University of Tasmania lead author, and we’re very proud of what Xavier and his colleagues have achieved.  Everything we do is open access, so it can be used by anyone under a creative commons licence.  We’d love to see more academics and students from our own University making use of these incredible marine data resources.  As Xavier’s paper shows, the quality of our datasets is of the highest international standard.”

The full paper can be read here: Australia’s continental-scale acoustic tracking database and its automated quality control process.

Image credit: Fabrice Jaine, Sydney Institute of Marine Science.

Published on: 01 Feb 2018 12:14pm