In putting together an atlas for one of Earth's least understood marine ecosystems, the Patagonian Sea, scientists had a novel idea: What if it could be written by the very creatures that call it home?
Thanks to modern GPS technology, it can. After fitting GPS collars to 16 different species of marine animals and collecting some 280,000 individual uplinks of data over the course of 10 years, the atlas practically wrote itself.
The unprecedented project, which is part of a collaborative effort by the Wildlife Conservation Society and BirdLife International, will be used to help inform potential policy decisions in the region such as managing fisheries and charting transportation routes of oil tankers. It should also fill in huge gaps of biological and ecological knowledge about the region and serve as a blueprint for future conservation efforts.
"This is an exceptional collaborative achievement; now that we know where some of the region's most important marine areas are, they need to receive appropriate protection and management," said John Croxall, chair of BirdLife's Global Seabird Programme.
Among the marine animals chosen to 'write' the atlas were penguins, sea lions, albatrosses, petrels and elephant seals. They gave scientists unparalleled access to 1.1 million square miles of unmapped ecosystems, a huge area ranging from southern Brazil to southern Chile. Moreover, the maps reveal key migratory corridors that span from coastlines to deep-sea feeding areas off the continental shelf hundreds of miles away.
"[The atlas] will advance conservation of this region and can serve as a roadmap for the creation and management of future marine protected areas — of which there are precious few worldwide," said Dr. Steven E. Sanderson, president and CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Those protected marine reserves are urgently needed in the Patagonian Sea in particular, since the area is becoming increasingly threatened by burgeoning development and overfishing.
The 300-page atlas will be called Atlas of the Patagonian Sea: Species and Spaces, and it will be published in both English and Spanish. Translated from penguin and sea lion, that is.