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environment general science genetics health and medicine space technology January 12, 2003 
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Tuna Tracker (video)
September 04, 2001

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Arctic Caribou


It’s a high-flying, deep-diving, high-tech communications link on the high seas.

As this ScienCentral News video reports, scientists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium are using satellites to track endangered bluefin tuna.


High-tech trackers

On October 1, 2000, three adult Pacific Loggerhead sea turtles (a male and two females) were released off the coast of Point Loma, California after living 20 years at SeaWorld in San Diego. Since then, satellite transmitters worn by the endangered sea turtles have allowed scientists and web surfers to track their progress across the Pacific Ocean. Recently the male, "Bubba," became the first to reach the waters off Japan.

An amazing story, but just another job for the system of polar-orbiting satellites called ARGOS. Using ARGOS, scientists now routinely track endangered and threatened animals over long distances, day and night, over land, air and sea, and process and transmit the information via the Internet.

Tagging wild animals is still quite a challenge for scientist. But once your critters are tagged, "you can wake up on a Sunday morning, have a cup of coffee, check your email and find out where your Bluefin tuna was," says biologist Barbara Block of Stanford University.

ARGOS began as a collaboration between the French government and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 1978, and is most well-known for its original purpose: relaying data from the floating buoys that monitor sea surface temperatures and allowing climatologists to predict anomalies like El Niño/La Niña.

Since then its uses have expanded to include tracking hazardous materials shipments, monitoring volcanoes, and even tracking sailboat races. And, says Rob Bassett, ARGOS system manager at NOAA, when it comes to wildlife tracking, "We’re the only ones really doing it."

Bassett says the size of the transmitters initially limited satellite tracking to studies of large animals like reindeer and polar bears. Now, though, "the transmitters can be the size of a pack of gum and weigh just 15 to 20 grams," according to Bassett. That’s allowed tracking of much smaller animals, especially birds. The batteries on these small tags are the main limitation. For birds, the transmitter batteries last up to about a year.

And today’s transmitters don’t just relay animals’ locations. High-tech sensors in the transmitter tags can measure temperature, pressure, movement, sound and light changes both inside and outside the animals, revealing unprecedented insights into not only their locations, but also their health, activities and behavior.

According to Bassett, 40 nations around the world now use ARGOS for wildlife projects from Japanese monkeys to freshwater eels in New Zealand. And as he points out, many of the projects have websites where the public can participate. See "Elsewhere on the Web" for just a few fascinating examples.



by Joyce Gramza


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