Technology aids marine mammal conservation and weather forecasting

John Chapman
Thursday 7 June 2018

New marine tracking technology has improved governmental, environmental and other organisations’ ability to monitor marine mammal species, allowing conservation of endangered species and greater insight into ocean prediction and meteorology.

Read the full REF submission

Tracking seal behaviour in oceans is challenging to study as many species spend up to 90% of their lives underwater, often at great distances from land. Thus, there was a need to develop technology and software to provide data that could follow the movement of animals from any location on the planet.

Researchers at St Andrews looked into two requirements for tracking marine mammals: accuracy of location and the ability to transmit data from the animal itself. The latter requirement was necessary because, in most cases, there is little possibility of recovering information from a tracker (known as an archive tag) by recovering the tagged animals.

The Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU)at St Andrews has been developing instruments with the capability to transmit data since the late 1990s. They successfully developed marine telemetry technology which allowed them to successfully track seals and other marine mammals.

The instruments that were created to track marine mammals had to:

  • be robust enough to survive being attached to large marine mammals for long periods of time (months to years)
  • withstand near-constant immersion in seawater
  • resist water pressures down to a 2000-metre depth
  • carry a power supply and management system in order to collect and transmit data to an orbiting satellite over long periods of time
  • carry and power environmental and movement sensors which could sufficiently characterise the behaviour of the animal, its location and its environment
  • be small enough to not be a significant burden to the tagged animal.

This improved tracking technology has aided the conservation of endangered species, such as the monk seal and the Stellar sea lion, as well as improved operational oceanography in relation to weather forecasting and ocean prediction.

The technology is now being used across the globe to help monitor certain species’ movements. For example, legally, the US Navy must monitor its offshore ranges in the Hawaii Islands. The Navy needs to show that it is not disturbing the highly endangered Hawaiian monk seal. By avoiding areas frequented by monk seals, the Navy was able to pursue offshore exercises without harming the species.

The US National Marine Fisheries Service used SMRU tags on Stellar sea lions in the Aleutian Islands to reduce the probability of negative effects of fishing on the food supply for this endangered species.

Closer to home, the Zoological Society London used SMRU tags to monitor the health of Thames harbour seals to gain insight into their diet.


  • Conservation of species, marine spatial planning and species management. The technology has been used by a total of 44 institutions from 15 countries worldwide. The instruments are used to improve knowledge of endangered or threatened species, especially regarding the habitat they need to sustain themselves. This allows judgements to be made about the regulation of offshore industrial developments, including fisheries.
  • Operational oceanography contributing to weather forecasting and ocean prediction. Instruments worn by seals can measure conductivity and temperature during the ascent and descent portions of an animal’s dive and provide information in areas where traditional data collection methods are unavailable due to climate or geography. Tags on elephant seals in the southern oceans have improved global ocean circulation models significantly, leading to better weather forecasting and consequent economic benefits to shipping, oil and gas companies.
  • Economic growth. SMRU builds approximately 300 to 400 telemetry tags per year and has generated a financial turnover of £5.6m in the initial 2014 REF period. Companies in UK and USA supplying tag components have received over £2m since 2008.

Researchers involved



  • Aarts, G, MacKenzie, M, McConnell, B, Fedak, MA, Matthioupoulos, J (2008). “Estimating space-use and habitat preference from wildlife telemetry data”. Ecography 31: 140-160 DOI: 10.1111/j.2007.0906-7590.05236.x
  • Biuw, M., Boehme, L., Guinet, C., Hindell, M., Costa, D.; Charrasin, J.-B., Roquet, F., Bailleul, F., Meredith, M., Thorpe, S., Tremblay, Y., McDonald, B., Park, Y.-H., Rintoul, S.R., Bindoff, N., Goebel, M., Crocker, D., Lovell, P., Nicholson, J., Monks, F., Fedak, M.A. (2007) “Variations in behaviour and condition of a Southern Ocean top predator in relation to in situ oceanographic conditions”. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 104 (34). 13705-13710. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0701121104
  • Biuw, M, McConnell, B, Bradshaw, CJA., Burton, H & Fedak, MA (2003). “Blubber and buoyancy: monitoring the body condition of free-ranging seals using simple dive characteristics”. J. Exp. Biol. 206, 3405-3423. DOI: 10.1242/jeb.00583
  • Fedak, MA, Lovell, P, McConnell, B, Hunter, C (2002). “Overcoming the constraints of long range radio telemetry from animals: Getting more useful data from smaller packages”. Integrative and Comparative Biology. 42: 3-10 DOI: 10.1093/icb/42.1.3.
  • McConnell, BJ, Fedak, MA, Lovell, P, Hammond, PS (1999). “Movements and foraging areas of grey seals in the North Sea”. J. Appl. Ecol. 36: 573-590 DOI: 10.1046/j.1365-2664.1999.00429.x .
  • Vincent C, McConnell BJ, Ridoux V, Fedak MA (2002). “Assessment of Argos location accuracy from satellite tags deployed on captive gray seals”. Marine Mammal Science 18, 156-166. DOI: 10.1111/j.1748-7692.2002.tb01025.x

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