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Oceans of Life: Understanding the Ocean and Its Many Inhabitants

Ecology is the sub-discipline of biological science that aims to document, understand, and predict the distribution and abundance of life forms. Ecologists consider biological, chemical and physical factors that might explain why an animal occurs in some places and not others, why its population is growing or shrinking, and how a species interacts with the other elements within an ecosystem. Knowledge of these patterns and interactions is the first step in predicting a species’ vulnerability to human activities and to environmental changes.

Long-term ecological studies are essential for making sound management decisions for long-lived species like marine mammals, sea turtles, sea birds and large fishes. The Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute (HSWRI) Marine Vertebrate Ecology Laboratory (MarVEL) has conducted uninterrupted studies of seals and sea lions at the California Channel Islands and of small cetaceans in eastern central Florida since the late 1970s. Field research by HSWRI scientists in these locations in recent years, along with baseline data collected in past decades, supported investigations by HSWRI and others into underlying causes of Unusual Mortality Events affecting bottlenose dolphins in Florida and California sea lions and Guadalupe fur seals on the U.S. west coast.

Ecological research by HSWRI and colleagues over the past year documented migratory and diving behavior of whale sharks in the Philippines, Indonesia (Papua) and the Galapagos Islands. This collaborative whale shark ecology program is the largest of its kind in the world.

HSWRI is taking advantage of emerging opportunities to use automated aerial vehicles, automated remote-sensing instruments, and space technologies to transform the way marine animals are observed in the wild. Aerial photographs from these remotely-operated vehicles allow HSWRI scientists to evaluate changes in distribution of animals on breeding colonies with habitat conditions and over time.

The Institute’s collaborative photo-identification surveys, combined with data collected from live and dead stranded dolphins, are providing new information on the movement patterns, habitat requirements, and threats faced by bottlenose dolphins in the Indian River Lagoon (an estuary of national significance), and the previously unstudied adjacent estuarine waters.