Going undercover with a marine biologist

Sure, everybody wants to be a marine biologist. It’s a glamorous job: working on the ocean, diving off coral reefs, discovering a new species here, saving an endangered species there. It’s definitely a profession that would have you as the talk of the table at dinners and family barbeques.

But what you don’t often hear about is the behind the scenes work – the endless report writing, the rigorous trip planning, getting the smell of fish off your hands. Being a marine biologist is, at times, a thankless task.

Luckily for you, today we’re going to focus on the glamorous part.

Marine biologists from our Wealth from Oceans Flagship and The University of Western Australia recently took a trip to the coral reefs of the Pilbara region, in north Western Australia, where they were scouting survey sites for the Pilbara Marine Conservation Partnership.

Platygyra coral form intricate patterns on a reef off the Southern Barrow Shoals. For myself and the research team, the greatest challenge for the Pilbara Marine Conservation Partnership will be to understand how the unique coral reefs in the Pilbara have adapted to such a diverse range of conditions, and how they will survive into the future. We want to make sure that the region’s ecosystem is better understood and appreciated on an international scale.

Platygyra coral form intricate patterns on a reef off the Southern Barrow Shoals, West Pilbara.

This five year project is taking a snap-shot of the health of the marine ecosystems in this biodiversity hotspot, compiling a baseline of research data that will inform environmental and industrial monitoring programs. This data will underpin the Pilbara’s marine management and ensure long-term commercial and conservation sustainability in the region.

The Partnership is all about providing the science for sound decision making, and this research trip has put the process into practice.

Unfortunately, on the trip the research team found evidence of coral bleaching in the region due to some recent marine heatwaves, including the bleaching of a pocket of ancient coral heads – many up to 400 years old – that have provided an important record of reef health.

“We suspect this bleaching event was due to marine heatwaves that occurred in the region over the past few summers, and to see it up so close was sobering,” said our lead scientist on the project, Dr Russ Babcock.

“But to offset this loss, some reefs only a short distance north showed much less damage and will continue to contribute to a healthy ecosystem. By studying these sorts of variations and why they occur, we can improve our overall understanding of the marine environment in the region, and how we can best preserve it”.

The team managed to take some great images of the incredibly diverse flora and fauna that sits under the waters of the Pilbara. We asked Russ to run us through a few photos from the trip to give you an insight into the work of a marine biologist – and maybe even help you learn something in the process! Click on one of the images below to view the gallery.

“For myself and the research team, the greatest challenge for the Pilbara Marine Conservation Partnership will be to understand how the unique coral reefs in the Pilbara have adapted to such a diverse range of conditions, and how they will survive into the future. We want to make sure that the region’s ecosystem is better understood and appreciated on an international scale,” says Russ.

Find out more about the Partnership here.


Do you see what I see?

By Adam Harper

630 kilometres may be a long way to travel for an eye check-up; but when those eyes are viewing landscapes at over 2,000 kilometres away and are responsible for millions of dollars worth of information supporting decisions on environmental management, farming practices and mineral exploration, it’s well worth the trip.

That’s exactly what CSIRO researchers did on a recent mission from Perth when they travelled out to Lake Lefroy (near Kalgoorlie) with colleagues from France, Israel, China and Japan. Their job was to make sure the information coming from several Earth observation satellites orbiting the globe is accurate; it’s a process called vicarious calibration.

And this time, their space communication mission went space age.

Our 'Outback Rover’ is helping scientists improve the accuracy of satellites.

Our ‘Outback Rover’ is helping scientists improve the accuracy of satellites.

Nicknamed the ‘Outback Rover’, this vehicle may look like a cousin to R2-D2 from Star Wars, but it is a prototype from CSIRO, which could enable future calibration missions to be conducted remotely.

CSIRO Research Scientist, Dr Alberto Elfes, said: “Outback Rover could potentially be operating out here at Lake Lefroy on its own while researchers back in their home cities or even countries oversee its movements to take various measurements. These are then fed wirelessly and instantly back to the researchers, saving hours if not days of travel and field work.”

For more information about the Outback Rover and the recent mission to Lake Lefroy, check out this video:

View the transcript. 


Robots, radar and exploding gummy bears

As part of National Science Week, the Queensland Centre for Advanced Technologies – affectionately known as QCAT – is inviting members of the public to a special Open Day to celebrate 20 years of research in Pullenvale.

Showcasing the amazing science and technology developed at the centre, the day will include shows from CSIRO Education, as well as demonstrations, displays and discussions on technologies that are transforming Australia’s industries.

Meet Dr Rob from TV’s SCOPE science show, talk to our experts about the latest innovations in energy, mining and robotics, see the labs and discover what amazing work is going on in your neighbourhood.

Dr Rob

Dr Rob will be doing some ‘scien-terrific’ experiments for all the family to enjoy… gummy bear beware! (credit: courtesy of SCOPE, Channel Ten)

QCAT’s Executive Manager, Dr Michael Brünig, says Australia’s best and brightest scientists are eager to share their knowledge and experience with the community.

“From developing the world’s biggest robot to the world’s most accurate underground longwall coal mining guidance system, research coming out of QCAT has been at the forefront of Australia’s innovation for the past two decades,” said Dr Brünig.

“We want everyone who visits the Open Day to help us celebrate this milestone by leaving with at least one ‘wow’ moment. Whether that happens by talking to our researchers, watching Dr Rob blow up a gummy bear or touring labs by remote control with our robot, there is sure to be a ‘scien-terrific’ experience for everyone.”

Robots to delight: check out the aerial drones being developed on site.

Robots to delight: check out the aerial drones being developed on site.

Highlights include:

  • Science shows for all the family at 11.30am, 12.30pm and 1.30pm
  • Stealth robots and unmanned aerial vehicles
  • 3D mapping and clever navigation systems
  • Public lectures in the auditorium
  • Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) hypersonic research
  • Displays from Rio Tinto Alcan and Metso Process Technology and Innovation
  • A chance to win one of seven Raspberry Pi® mini-computers that you can code at home.

For more information visit www.csiro.au/QCAT-OpenDay.

What: Queensland Centre for Advanced Technologies Open Day
When: 10am to 3pm, Saturday 17 August 2013
Where: 1 Technology Court, Pullenvale 4069 (located at on the corner of Moggill Road and Bainbridge Drive, Pullenvale)

Important information for visitors: QCAT is an industrial research facility and so for safety reasons, visitors are advised to wear closed footwear (i.e. no thongs, clogs or sandals).

About the Queensland Centre for Advanced Technologies

The Queensland Centre for Advanced Technologies (QCAT) is Australia’s largest integrated research and development precinct for the resources and associated advanced technology industries.

Officially opened in 1993, QCAT was established as a cooperative venture between CSIRO and the State of Queensland as a centre of excellence in mining research, iron ore and coal processing, energy research, autonomous systems and social science.

Along with CSIRO, QCAT also houses the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) and commercial tenants Applied Mining Technologies Pty Ltd, BHP Billiton Carbon Steel Technical Marketing Group, CET Group, GeoTek Solutions, Metso and Rio Tinto Alcan Queensland Research and Development Centre.

QCAT has over 380 workers on site, making it one of the largest centres of employment in the region.


Take a bite at the Bight – and its deep ocean ecosystem

One of the many animals collected from the Bight’s deep water column, the unusual amphipod (genus Phronima) – a type of crustacean.

One of the many animals collected from the Bight’s deep water column, the unusual amphipod (genus Phronima) – a type of crustacean.

At the surface, it is home to white sharks, southern bluefin tuna, and marine mammals including blue whales and sealions – the images that make the Great Australian Bight a vast and iconic Australian ocean region.

Down deep there’s another lesser known world – and a frontier area for marine science, plus oil and gas exploration. Although we know that more than 85 per cent of shallow Bight species (such as those mentioned above) can be found nowhere else in the world, very little is known about their deep water counterparts.

We recently returned from 20 days exploring deep waters of the Bight – the first voyage supporting our recently announced science collaboration with BP and Marine Innovation Southern Australia (MISA, a consortium of South Australia’s major marine research institutions, including the South Australian Research and Development Institute, University of Adelaide, Flinders University and the South Australian Museum); a collaboration aimed at gaining a greater scientific understanding of the Bight.

In the video below meet CSIRO’s Mark Lewis and see our research in action.

In one of only a few whole-of-ecosystem studies undertaken in Australia, CSIRO and MISA are providing information to decision makers in industry and government to support sustainable development in the Bight and monitor possible future impacts.

Aboard Australia’s Marine National Facility research vessel, the Southern Surveyor (check out a virtual tour of the ship), we surveyed the Bight in depths of 200 to 2000 metres – collecting the deepest set of samples ever taken from the area.

Using a range of equipment, we collected samples of fauna from the seabed and the water column such as fishes, crustaceans (shrimp and crabs) and echinoderms (sea stars, sea urchins and sea cucumbers) and phytoplankton (single-celled plants).  These included unusual species like the bizarre amphipod Phronima (see picture above) and this deep sea crab (below).

One of the many animals collected from the Bight’s deep seabed, we think it could be a new species but we’re checking (it is similar to Ebalia tuberculosa).

One of the many animals collected from the Bight’s deep seabed, we think it could be a new species but we’re checking (it is similar to Ebalia tuberculosa).

We also collected a great variety of environmental information, including acoustic data that will help map the seabed and determine if oil seeps are present. We used what’s called an integrated coring platform (ICP), pictured below, which collects sediment cores from the seabed plus acoustic measurements (we recently blogged about this piece of gear).

Matt Sherlock with the Integrated Coring Platform (ICP). This instrument is lowered to the seafloor, where it collects a set of six sediment cores, along with a water sample. On the way down, and the way back up, it also collects information on the presence of hydrocarbons, and sends out an acoustic signal (much like that of a depth sounder on a boat) to measure fish and plankton presence.

CSIRO electrical engineer, Matt Sherlock with the Integrated Coring Platform (ICP). This instrument is lowered to the seafloor, where it collects a set of six sediment cores, along with a water sample. On the way down, and the way back up, it also collects information on the presence of hydrocarbons, and sends out an acoustic signal (much like that of a depth sounder on a boat) to measure fish and plankton presence.

There is a reason that we’re collecting all of these wonderful critters, samples and data – it will help us understand the composition, distribution and number of species in the Bight, and the ways in which they are influenced by the environment around them. This will be vital information for any potential development in the Bight.

All of this information contributes to an ecosystem model, which will help CSIRO, MISA and BP understand how the ecosystem could change with, for example, future development or exploration (for oil and gas for example), allowing industry and government to plan for future activities in the region in an informed way.

Survey results will be made available to decision makers in industry and government – to help evaluate the needs for future ecological monitoring as oil and gas activities accelerate and expand in Australia’s deep ocean.

Read more about our Great Australian Bight collaboration with BP and MISA.

Mark Green with a recently collected sediment core from the Bight, which will be used to assess the fauna present in the sediments. These are some of the deepest samples ever collected from the Great Australian Bight.

CSIRO ecologist, Mark Green with a recently collected sediment core from the Bight, which will be used to assess the fauna present in the sediments. These are some of the deepest samples ever collected from the Great Australian Bight.

Last but not least – another amazing piece of gear – the conductivity, temperature, depth sensor (CTD) with niskin bottles (water sampling bottles) for collecting water samples. The instrument is lowered to just above the seabed, recording data on salinity, temperature, oxygen levels, and fluorescence (an indicator of phytoplankton presence) all the way.  Niskin bottles are then fired at specified depths on the way up to collect water samples for detailed analysis of hydrocarbons, phytoplankton and nutrients.

Last but not least – another amazing piece of gear – the conductivity, temperature, depth sensor (CTD) with niskin bottles (water sampling bottles) for collecting water samples. The instrument is lowered to just above the seabed, recording data on salinity, temperature, oxygen levels, and fluorescence (an indicator of phytoplankton presence) all the way. Niskin bottles are then fired at specified depths on the way up to collect water samples for detailed analysis of hydrocarbons, phytoplankton and nutrients.


Hi-tech turtles

This satellite-tagged turtle will signal its position each time the aerial breaks the sea surface.

This satellite-tagged turtle will signal its position each time the aerial breaks the sea surface.

By Keirissa Lawson

We all know that the sewers of New York City, with their proximity to pizza shops and evil villains, provide a thriving habitat for teenage mutant ninja turtles.

But how much do we know about the habitat and movement of real turtles?

Scientists from CSIRO and the WA Department of Environment and Conservation, led by CSIRO’s Dr Mat Vanderklift, are capturing and tagging green sea turtles in the Ningaloo Coast World Heritage Area off Western Australia, to gain a better understanding of sea turtle ecology.

“This is the first time turtle tagging studies of this kind have been conducted in the Ningaloo area,” said Dr Vanderklift. “Understanding where the turtles forage for food and how far they roam will provide invaluable information for ongoing management of these iconic animals in this World Heritage Area.”

Since February this year, Dr Vanderklift and his team have fitted 17 green sea turtles with acoustic tags which track the movement of the turtles as they pass by specialised listening stations in Mangrove Bay. Another two turtles from the same area have been fitted with satellite tags. Each time the aerial on the tag breaks the sea surface a signal is sent to a satellite and used to pinpoint the turtle’s position.

Each captured turtle has its vital statistics measured and logged before being tagged and released.

Each captured turtle has its vital statistics measured and logged before being tagged and released.

The tags, attached to the turtle’s carapace (shell), will give scientists an insight into the range and foraging patterns of these threatened marine reptiles. In addition, scientists are using remote underwater video to observe turtle behaviour up close.

“So far we have looked at more than 140 hours of video and have found that turtles tend to spend quite a lot of time in seaweed patches in the lagoon during the day,” said Dr Vanderklift.

Local students from Exmouth Primary School are getting behind the turtle tagging study and will name the two satellite-tagged turtles.

You too can follow the turtles’ tracks in near-real time.

Dr Mat Vanderklift releasing a tagged green sea turtle.

Dr Mat Vanderklift releasing a tagged green sea turtle.

This project is a partnership between CSIRO, the Western Australian Departments of Environment and Conservation (DEC) and Fisheries (DoF) and the Cape Conservation Group. The research is supported by funding from the Commonwealth Government through the Caring for our Country initiative.


Starbug found!

Starbug, safe and beached as.

Starbug, safe and beached as.

Yesterday we reported a case of a missing robot. The autonomous underwater submarine, also known as Starbug, didn’t arrive back at its expected location after mapping seagrass in Moreton Bay off Brisbane, Queensland. It may sound like an escape, an Apple Maps fail or a timely publicity stunt on the day of Ringo Starr’s Brisbane show. But seriously, we were missing a little yellow submarine. We are delighted to report that Starbug was found today on Gonzales Beach, Moreton Island. Starbug will be transported back to the mainland tomorrow and reunited with its creator, robotics researcher Matt Dunbabin. Matt is a happy man!

Many thanks to the friendly rangers of Queensland Parks and Wildlife who found Starbug on the beach and initiated its safe return. If Starbug’s stolen your heart, read a little more about our Autonomous Underwater Vehicle research.


Ice ice baby: ships and Antarctic voyages

French supply ship and penguins

The French supply ship L’Astrolabe taking a ‘break’ in sea ice en route from Hobart to the French Antarctic base, Dumont D’Urville. Credit: Dale Kolody

By Craig Macaulay

When you rely on shipping in the polar regions as a platform to conduct scientific research the extent of sea ice is very much a consideration in planning.

Sea ice has been a big issue this season for the French Antarctic re-supply vessel, the 65-metre  L’Astrolabe, and it has been well and truly on the radar of CSIRO project leaders who have collaborative research programs on the ship with their French colleagues. Because the vessel operates along the same route between Hobart and the French Antarctic  base of Dumont D’Urville, L’Astrolabe is attractive as a platform for science during its four return voyages each season.

The voyages allow French and Australian researchers to make clear comparisons on water properties through the spring-summer supply months during what has been a very successful and long-running collaborative program, supported in recent years through Australia’s Integrated Marine Observing System.

The journey from Hobart to Dumont D’Urville takes six days, presuming there is little sea ice along the route. The challenge for the ship’s Master is always to find a lead through the sea ice circling the continent, to reach the base.

Throughout this season the ship has encountered heavy ice in East Antarctica, and on January 23 the decision was made to halt science programs because of the ongoing disruption to the ship’s schedule.

Similar conditions will face the larger New Zealand vessel Tangaroa, which leaves Wellington on February 2 carrying three deep ocean moorings intended for deployment in the Mertz Polynya region.

Built by engineering staff at CSIRO’s Hobart Marine Laboratories in 2012, the moorings were shipped to New Zealand before Christmas for loading on the Tangaroa, in voyage, that will be carrying 22 Australian, New Zealand and French on a 42-day voyage to the Mertz Polynya region, one of a few places in the world where the densest ocean waters form.

Among staff from CSIRO will be Beatriz Pena-Molino, Peter Hughes, Kate Berry , Sue Reynolds and CSIRO-Utas student, Eva Cougnon. Elizabeth Shadwick and Mark Rosenberg  from the Antarctic Climate & Ecosystem CRC also will support the voyage science.

Polynya

A polynya. Image: Flickr / Seabamirum

A polynya is an area of open water surrounded by sea ice. Polynyas are kept free of sea ice by the wind, which constantly blows away any ice that tries to form. The formation of sea ice creates heavier saltier water, which then sinks and spreads to fill the bottom of the global ocean. This means it has a significant influence on global ocean circulation.

Steve Rintoul and moorings

Steve Rintoul with one of the $100,000 deep ocean moorings that will be deployed in polar waters.

In 2010, the tongue of Antarctica’s Mertz Glacier was rammed by a huge iceberg, causing much of the tongue to break away. Scientists want to study the impact of this massive change to the Mertz Glacier on the surrounding environment.

This region is one of three unique places around Antarctica which control the properties of the deep ocean – thus the breaking ice tongue could have wider impacts on global ocean circulation. To study the changes in the ocean, the scientists will use a suite of underwater cameras, moorings and sensors.

Hobart’s Steve Rintoul is the leader of the Australian team on the Tangaroa voyage.

“When we speak of global warming, we really mean ocean warming:  more than 90% of the extra heat energy stored by the earth over the last 50 years has gone into warming up the ocean.  The Southern Ocean is particularly important because it stores more heat and carbon dioxide released by human activities than any other region, and so helps to slow the rate of climate change.

“Our earlier research in this region has shown that rapid changes are underway in the deep ocean, but we are not yet sure what is driving the changes. The measurements collected on the Tangaroa voyage will be used to test the hypothesis that increased melt of Antarctic ice is driving changes we see in the deep ocean,” Dr Rintoul said.

But first they have to get there.

Aurora Australis has been the platform for much of Australia’s Southern Ocean marine science programs.  The Australian Government is taking the first steps towards replacing the ship that has been supporting Antarctic and Southern Ocean programs for 23 years.  

In February 2012, Steve Rintoul was interviewed by colleague Nick Roden aboard Aurora Australis and discussed the many and varied aspects of Southern Ocean research:


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