By Tim Stephens, UC Santa Cruz
The David and Lucile Packard Foundation has awarded a Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering to Roxanne Beltran, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz. The Packard Fellowships support young scientists and engineers who show exceptional promise and creativity.
The Packard Fellowship gives Beltran $875,000 over the next five years to support her research using migrating elephant seals as “smart sensors” for monitoring ocean ecosystems. By outfitting female elephant seals with a compact array of sophisticated instruments, Beltran’s research group will collect large-scale, long-term, three-dimensional data on ocean health as the seals travel great distances across the North Pacific Ocean on their 7-month foraging migrations.
“The elephant seals we work with are so reliable and so smart, they can take us directly to the ecologically important areas of the ocean,” Beltran said. “The open ocean looks homogenous to humans, but the seals make a living out there by detecting the areas where prey are plentiful, and we can leverage those abilities for science.”
Fast, quiet, far-ranging, and deep-diving, female elephant seals are ideal platforms for oceanographic sensors. During foraging migrations, they travel some 6,000 miles (10,000 kilometers) while diving continually to depths of around 2,000 feet (700 meters). When the seals return to their breeding beaches in California, researchers can recover the instruments attached harmlessly to the animals’ fur. Multiple studies have shown that carrying the tags does not change the seals’ behavior.
UCSC researchers have been studying the elephant seals at the NRS’s Año Nuevo Island Reserve north of Santa Cruz for more than 50 years, and Beltran is building on the knowledge and experience gained from this long-term research program.
“Because we know the age and history of each seal, we can instrument specific animals,” she said. “We know which seals will go to certain places or come back consistently, and that makes them dependable partners for this project.”
In conjunction with her recent Beckman Young Investigator award, Beltran will deploy 20 seals each year with sensors to collect data on everything from temperature and salinity to chlorophyll levels (for measuring phytoplankton abundance), as well as sonar and sound recordings. The data will provide a wealth of environmental and biological information from across the northeast Pacific Ocean, allowing Beltran to track productivity in the open ocean, predator-prey interactions, and the effects of ocean noise and ocean warming.
“We know so little about what goes on in the open ocean, I’m excited to discover what’s out there,” Beltran said. “This approach opens the door for endless possibilities. For example, acoustic tags can record whale sounds, and sonar tags have recently been developed to estimate prey availability, so you can imagine combining those to see how the abundance of whales relates to prey availability, and then dig into the oceanographic drivers.”
The Packard Fellowship will allow Beltran to support a field technician and a graduate student, as well as a dozen undergraduate student researchers each year. “It will take a team effort to get this done, and I’m excited for the next generation of marine mammal scientists to be trained in this program,” she said. “In partnership with Dan Costa and his team, we just selected our first cohort of 12 undergraduate students to become elephant seal researchers in the next few weeks. It’s a special opportunity to let them find their own niches in this exciting science.”
Beltran has a long history of working at NRS reserves. As an undergraduate, she took field courses that took her to several NRS sties, including Santa Cruz Island Reserve. Inspired by that experience, she went on to publish a paper showing how removing livestock enabled the island’s landscape to recover after 150 years of grazing.
The Packard Fellowships provide early-career scientists and engineers with flexible funding and the freedom to take risks and explore new frontiers in their fields of study. The Packard Foundation selects 20 fellows each year for these prestigious grants.
“At a time when we are confronting so many difficult, intertwined challenges, including climate change, a global pandemic, and racial injustice, I am buoyed by the determination and energy of these 20 scientists and engineers,” said Nancy Lindborg, Packard Foundation President and CEO. “Through their research, creativity, and mentorship to their students and in their labs, these young leaders have the potential to help equip us all to better understand and address the challenges we face.”