Tracking Baikal seals

This summer, scientists started a large-scale study of Baikal seals (or nerpas) on Lake Baikal. They use latest technology to track the movements of these fresh-water seals without disturbing them. A tracking device attached to a seal’s coat returns accurate real-time data about its location until the seal’s next shedding. One of the study sponsors is Legend of Baikal, a premium brand of Baikal-sourced water.

Smart technology for environmental surveying

The study is not the only environmental research using digital technology. A team of Russian scientists and software developers, including Yandex.Cloud experts, recently started working on an algorithm to monitor the Baikal ecosystem.

They will teach a neural network to analyze Baikal water samples in order to identify and classify the microorganisms it contains. The analysis is to make the work easier for scientists who have to distinguish between 400 species of Baikal plankton and manually organize data. Scientists of Tomsk State University are already testing an immersible holographic camera they developed to collect data they need to study plankton’s phototropic response in its habitat, which has never been done before. Creating this type of technology as part of the Digital Baikal concept will help improve the environmental monitoring of this lake’s shallow waters.

But it is studying the top of the food chain (nerpas in the case of Lake Baikal) that will allow scientists to use animals to understand the quality of the environment. The movement data with a high temporal resolution can show brief but important encounters between animals and thus provide new opportunities for exploring interactions between species. The miniature detectors have very low impact on the test subjects while offering more accurate scientific results. For example, we do not even know the exact population of Baikal seals to date. It is estimated between 60,000 and 130,000 animals but there is no precise number.

These research tools help to boost the volume and diversity of data, which becomes available to a wide circle of researchers in various fields. Interdisciplinary cooperation is also being expanded, all of this providing for a solid foundation for scientific discoveries.

The Baikal seal is species endemic to Lake Baikal and is listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List. Climate change has affected the species: in order to raise their young, Baikal seals need a large snow bank on the ice where they can dig a den. The snow-covered shelter provides the pups with a comfortable temperature and protection from predators. With ice melting, the seals have nowhere to hide. The Baikal seal is the apex predator of the local Baikal food chain, which means it is very vulnerable to the changes in the lower levels of the food chain and can serve as an indicator of the stability of the local ecosystem.

Comprehensive research as key to new discoveries

It is crucially important that the information about the animals was collected on a regular basis to monitor the dynamics. Maria Solovyova, Ph.D. in Biology, research fellow at the Laboratory of Animal Behavior and Behavioral Ecology of Mammals at the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution, Russian Academy of Sciences, and research adviser at earless seal research programs, said:

“A similar study of the Baikal seal was held in the 1990s, but the technical capacities were very limited back then. Then, almost 30 years later, in 2019, we fitted the seals with more advanced sensors. The work continued in 2021: we have recently returned from almost a month-long expedition. We managed to spot seals, attach satellite tags on them, and select samples for various types of studies. It is important to perform comprehensive research that would include studying seals’ use of space as well as assessing their health and habitat. Hopefully, we will receive data on seals’ migrations by late March 2022 and use it for obtaining initial results as early as in April. We have conducted this comprehensive project jointly with the Baikal branch of the federal state budgetary scientific institution Russian Federal Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography and the federal state budgetary institution Podlemorye Conservation Area.”

The field studies included visual monitoring of the Baikal seal rookery: the researchers counted the number of seals on land and at sea three times a day, with particular attention paid to animals with noticeable injuries.

Along with visual observations, the researchers used a drone for aerial surveys in proper weather conditions, which allowed them to additionally count animals that were underwater during the visual monitoring for a more accurate estimation of the seal population.

We are glad to support the professional research of the legendary lake. Today, Baikal still holds a lot of secrets and we know astonishingly little about its ecosystem — and it is highly important to keep its fragile balance. It is certainly important for us as the Legend of Baikal water is taken from the depths of the lake, which should remain clear and its biodiversity preserved,” the brand’s Director of Marketing Anna Lefevr said.

Why use detectors?

Movement is a defining trait of animals; they move to find food or a mate, and to escape predators. Their movements are determined by both evolutional and ecological processes, and their speed and patterns help us assess the amount of food as well as other environmental factors. Animal displacement affects the ecosystem, such as through spreading pollen and plant seeds, as well as diseases. Animal movements provide an insight into biodiversity, ecological features of certain species, and functions of the ecosystem.

Previously, data obtained from wild species used to be too scarce to accurately describe these phenomena. The latest generations of tracking devices are devoid of such limitations: today, animal movements can be monitored non-stop with GPS-equipped monitors. In the future, additional detectors of temperature, humidity and other environmental parameters will allow us to receive a comprehensive picture of a specific animal and its current environment.

Emerging technologies change the process of studying animals’ movements into the sphere of big data application. Exponential data growth is expected to continue in the coming decade. Receiving real-time information on movements and behavior of tagged animals vastly changes the ways scientists and environmental groups use animal tracking information. This data could become a powerful tool for attracting public interest to environmental issues.

What’s next?

Digital technologies are efficiently used worldwide for environmental and scientific purposes. Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, is implementing two innovative projects that utilize high-tech solutions for preventing koala-vehicle collisions and protecting them from wildfires, while AI and facial recognition technologies allow for analyzing koalas’ patterns in crossing roads with intense traffic.

African researchers have used tags on hornbills to prove their essential role in preserving forests. The studies showed that the birds move between scattered natural vegetation spots and spread plant seeds, including those in smaller woodlands: hornbills create a ‘bridge’ to link distant areas.

Technologies allow us to improve our capacity to track animals, with increasingly smaller detectors to collect a greater amount of data. A new approach that views animals as natural environmental sensors will help us study our planet through drastically new methods. Keeping analytical developments up to date will allow for creating prognostic models in real time to integrate habitat preferences as well as moving and sensor abilities into forecasts for animal movements. A comprehensive program for monitoring several species will provide for a new understanding of our world. Hopefully, such research will not only help us study particular animal species but will also allow animals to teach us to see the world in a different way.

By Darya Zubkova

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