How tracking animal movement may save the planet

Article by Matthew Ponsford: “Researchers have been dreaming of an Internet of Animals. They’re getting closer to monitoring 100,000 creatures—and revealing hidden facets of our shared world….There was something strange about the way the sharks were moving between the islands of the Bahamas.

Tiger sharks tend to hug the shoreline, explains marine biologist Austin Gallagher, but when he began tagging the 1,000-pound animals with satellite transmitters in 2016, he discovered that these predators turned away from it, toward two ancient underwater hills made of sand and coral fragments that stretch out 300 miles toward Cuba. They were spending a lot of time “crisscrossing, making highly tortuous, convoluted movements” to be near them, Gallagher says. 

It wasn’t immediately clear what attracted sharks to the area: while satellite images clearly showed the subsea terrain, they didn’t pick up anything out of the ordinary. It was only when Gallagher and his colleagues attached 360-degree cameras to the animals that they were able to confirm what they were so drawn to: vast, previously unseen seagrass meadows—a biodiverse habitat that offered a smorgasbord of prey.   

The discovery did more than solve a minor mystery of animal behavior. Using the data they gathered from the sharks, the researchers were able to map an expanse of seagrass stretching across 93,000 square kilometers of Caribbean seabed—extending the total known global seagrass coverage by more than 40%, according to a study Gallagher’s team published in 2022. This revelation could have huge implications for efforts to protect threatened marine ecosystems—seagrass meadows are a nursery for one-fifth of key fish stocks and habitats for endangered marine species—and also for all of us above the waves, as seagrasses can capture carbon up to 35 times faster than tropical rainforests. 

Animals have long been able to offer unique insights about the natural world around us, acting as organic sensors picking up phenomena that remain invisible to humans. More than 100 years ago, leeches signaled storms ahead by slithering out of the water; canaries warned of looming catastrophe in coal mines until the 1980s; and mollusks that close when exposed to toxic substances are still used to trigger alarms in municipal water systems in Minneapolis and Poland…(More)”.

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