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The value of underwater observations


As natural history disappears from our education, Gonzalo Mucientes and colleagues argue that technology can only take us so far in our comprehension of aquatic life. The Marine Biologist magazine
18 e Marine Biologist | October 2020
As natural history disappears
from our education, Gonzalo
Mucientes and colleagues
argue that technology can
only take us so far in our
comprehension of aquatic life.
child's close observation of
the natural world has,
throughout the ages, been
the strongest source of inspiration
for many scientists, and particularly
for biologists. However, the links
between scientists and the natural
world have weakened in recent years.
More than 20 years ago, Professor
Reed F. Noss (1996) stated that ‘e
naturalists are dying o … and have
few heirs’, resulting in biologists
with little experience of eldwork
or observational methods, and less
able to separate biological truth
from computer fabrication. is
disconnect is worrying, since biology
is rooted in natural history, which
in turn is the science that allows
us to describe and ask questions
about the natural world [1].
e separation from the natural
world of society in general, and
scientists in particular, shows no sign
of easing. In academia, eldwork is
the rst casualty of time and funding
constraints, and observation-
driven scientic disciplines such
as taxonomy, systematics, and
Figure 1. Underwater observations can
provide information out of the reach of
technology. For instance, it can reveal
mating behaviour (a) or correlations
between environmental drivers and
spawning (b). It can also reveal species
interactions (c), parasitism relationships
(d), or reaction of aquatic animals to
human presence (e). Finally, it can reveal
important aspects of reproductive biology
such as nest-building (f), patterns of
ghost fishing (g), or mimicry (h).
The value of
October 2020 | e Marine Biologist 19
ethology are increasingly adopting technologies (e.g.
genomics, telemetry, and articial intelligence), that
relegate the role of human interactions with nature.
is loss of contact with the natural world is particularly
evident in aquatic environmental research, which
remains uniquely opaque and inhospitable to humans.
Nevertheless, sophisticated methods are increasingly used
which have clearly boosted the quantity of information
obtained from marine and freshwater systems [2].
However, qualitative aspects of the data can only be
obtained by looking directly into the underwater world.
Direct observations can also provide added value as a
complement to technological methods (Table 1; Fig 1).
Take, for instance, the growing eld of animal social
and collective behaviour. Marine ecologists now have
access to an unprecedented suite of tools to infer social
associations between individuals, ranging from high-
resolution acoustic telemetry to proximity loggers. However,
unveiling the nature of such associations—antagonistic,
cleaning behaviour, courtship—
with certainty requires direct
observation (or video recording)
of the individuals. While this
is routine in terrestrial systems,
the diculty of conducting direct observations of aquatic
populations has resulted in social behavioural science
being less developed in aquatic systems. Tracking processes
such as biological invasions that normally take place
faster in aquatic environments [3], may rely in the rst
instance on observations by researchers or citizens [4].
A critical challenge for marine scientists is to incorporate
greater realism into the interpretation of raw data obtained
from nature. We believe that by complementing their
education with natural history methods and approaches,
marine scientists have much to gain in terms of understanding
the functioning of aquatic environments and enhancing their
ability to generate new hypotheses. ere are several ways in
which this can be achieved. Time at sea (above or below the
surface) should be part of graduate and postgraduate research
programmes in order that students can ‘feel’ and ‘see’ the data
and the processes where, and when, they happen. Supervisors,
too, need to foster student interactions with the underwater
world, even at the cost of immediate scientic productivity.
And why should researchers themselves not spend more time in
the eld? Importantly, nding an equilibrium between natural
eldwork and desk-based quantitative study may make marine
science more attractive and motivating to young scientists [5].
e importance of underwater natural history observations
for science and society remains under-appreciated, yet it
is the beginning of many questions in marine science [6].
Table 1. Non-exhaustive list of examples of research topics where
underwater observations are critical (++) or may complement (+)
other techniques.
‘The naturalists are
dying off … and
have few heirs’
Research area Contribution Example
building refuges ++ Johansen et
al., 2007
Locomotion patterns ++ Webb, 2015
Aggressiveness and
defensive behaviour ++ Bryan et al., 2002
Cleaning behaviour ++ Grutter, 1999
Social roles + Renn et al., 2008
Home range
spatial utilization +Villegas-Ríos
et al., 2013
Individual behaviour/
personality + Magurran, 1986
Habitat description
and utilization + Wilson et al. 2008
Hunting habits + Pitman &
Durban, 2012
Circadian rhythm/
resting/activity + Villegas et al., 2013
Unusual species
interactions ++ Deakos et al., 2010
Symbiotic species
interactions ++ Losey, 1978
Parasite interactions ++ Khan, 2012
Human interactions ++ Tuyttens et al., 2014
Long-term ecosystem
changes + Verges et al., 2016
Interaction intensity + Valdimarsson &
Metcalfe, 2001
Ghost shing impact + Kaiser et al., 1996
Morphology changes
(colour, ...) ++
Aposematism ++
Mimicry ++
malnutrition ++
Mating behaviour ++
Parental care/
nest building ++
Spawning phenology +
Sharing marine science
20 e Marine Biologist | October 2020
We call on researchers, funding agencies, governments,
and scientic publishers to embrace the importance of the
natural history approach in aquatic science. A clear appeal for
observation-driven research from the scientic community
may increase society's interest in nature and natural processes,
and contribute to the conservation of aquatic ecosystems.
Gonzalo Mucientes1,2*(, Albert
Fernández-Chacón3, David Villegas-Ríos1,2,4
1. Instituto de Investigaciones Marinas (IIM-CSIC), Eduardo
Cabello 6, 36208 Vigo, Spain
2. Asociación Ecoloxía Azul / Blue Ecology (BEC). Vigo,
3. Centre for Coastal Research, University of Agder, P.O.
Box 422, 4604 Kristiansand, Norway
4. Instituto Mediterráneo de Estudios Avanzados (CSIC-
UiB), Miquel Marqués 21, 07190 Esporles, Spain
This project has received funding from the European
Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme
under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No
793627 (BEMAR).
1. Travis, J. (2020) Where is natural history in ecological,
evolutionary, and behavioral science? The American
Naturalist 196(1), 1-8.
2. Hussey, N.E., Kessel, S.T., Aarestrup, K., Cooke, S.J.,
Cowley, P.D., Fisk, A.T., Harcourt, R.G., Holland, K.N.,
Iverson, S.J., Kocik, J.F., Mills Flemming, J.E., Whoriskey,
F.G. (2015). Aquatic animal telemetry: A panoramic window
into the underwater world. Science 348, 1255642.
3. Stachowicz, J.J., Terwin, J.R., Whitlatch, R.B., Osman,
R.W. (2002). Linking climate change and biological inva-
sions: Ocean warming facilitates nonindigenous species
invasions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
of America 99(24): 15497-15500.
4. Guerra, A., Pascual, S., Garci, M.E., Roura, A.,
Mucientes, G. & González, A.F. (2013). The black-pygmy
mussel Limnoperna securis in Galician Rias (north-eastern
Atlantic): new records and first evidence of larval stages
predation by copepods. Marine Biodiversity Records 6 (e15):
5. Gimenez, O., Abadi, F., Barnagaud J.‐Y., Blanc, L.,
Buoro, M., Cubaynes, S., Desprez, M., Gamelon, M.,
Guilhaumon, F., Lagrange, P., Madon, B., Marescot, L.,
Papadatou, E., Papaïx, J., Péron, G. & Servanty, S. (2013).
How can quantitative ecology be attractive to young
scientists? Balancing computer/desk work with fieldwork.
Animal Conservation 16(2): 134-136.
6. Tewksbury, J.J, Anderson, J.G.T., Bakker, J.D., Billo,
T.J., Dunwiddie, P.W., Groom, M.J., Hampton, S.E.,
Herman, S.G., Levey, D.J., Machnicki, N.J., Martinez del
Rio, C., Power, M.E., Rowell, K., Salomon, A.K., Stacey, L.,
Trombulak, S.C. & Wheeler, T.A. (2014). Natural history's
place in science and society. BioScience 64(4), 300-310.
Open Ocean Camera
The Underwater Camera Trap
The Ocean Camera for Long-Term Underwater Video
Monitoring and Processing for Marine Researchers
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
The distribution and interactions of aquatic organisms across space and time structure our marine, freshwater, and estuarine ecosystems. Over the past decade, technological advances in telemetry have transformed our ability to observe aquatic animal behavior and movement. These advances are now providing unprecedented ecological insights by connecting animal movements with measures of their physiology and environment. These developments are revolutionizing the scope and scale of questions that can be asked about the causes and consequences of movement and are redefining how we view and manage individuals, populations, and entire ecosystems. The next advance in aquatic telemetry will be the development of a global collaborative effort to facilitate infrastructure and data sharing and management over scales not previously possible. Copyright © 2015, American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Full-text available
The fundamental properties of organisms—what they are, how and where they live, and the biotic and abiotic interactions that link them to communities and ecosystems—are the domain of natural history. We provide examples illustrating the vital importance of natural history knowledge to many disciplines, from human health and food security to conservation, management, and recreation. We then present several lines of evidence showing that traditional approaches to and support for natural history in developed economies has declined significantly over the past 40 years. Finally, we argue that a revitalization of the practice of natural history—one that is focused on new frontiers in a rapidly changing world and that incorporates new technologies—would provide significant benefits for both science and society.
Full-text available
The presence of the non-indigenous species, the black-pygmy mussel Limnoperna securis, was surveyed for the first time in the Rias of Pontevedra and Arousa, areas adjacent to the first location (Ria of Vigo) of this potential invader in Atlantic waters. Molecular identification of the mussels was conducted by PCR amplification and sequencing of nuclear and mitochondrial genes. This paper describes for the first time the species in the Ria of Pontevedra, confirming that this invader was absent in an intense shellfish farming area of the Ria of Arousa (Galicia, NW Spain). Field sampling revealed that relatively high concentrations of this mytilid bivalve have colonized some localities of the inner part of the Ria of Pontevedra located in brackish waters. A comparison between population densities, size and substrate preference of L. securis in the Rias of Pontevedra and Vigo was conducted. Dispersion capacity of L. securis is discussed based on molecular detection of larval stages in the stomach contents of the copepod Centropages typicus coupled with physical oceanography of the Southern Galician Rias. The invasive role of L. securis is also discussed in the context of the bissus secretion and attachment strength, ecological tolerance of the species, and the recent finding of settlements of this species on numerous colonies of the economically important blue mussel Mytilus galloprovincialis.
Natural history is the careful observation of nature, wherever nature is. Ultimately, it is what ecological, evolutionary, and behavioral science are supposed to explain. It is difficult to use natural history alone to test hypotheses in these fields because of the complex paths between process and pattern. Few patterns are predicted by one and only one hypothesis, so experiments are almost always necessary. However, the robustness of experimental results depends on how well experimental conditions reflect the integration of natural history. Natural history also plays a vital role in how well we can apply Krogh's principle to our work. Krogh's principle is that scientists begin with an important hypothesis and find a system (organism, habitat, species interaction) with which to test it. However, natural history is essential for knowing whether the question applies to the system or whether we are forcing the question on the system. There is value in beginning one's research not by identifying an interesting question and searching for the right system but by identifying an interesting system in which to ask the right question. This approach carries the danger of parochialism, which can be avoided only by having a command of theory as well as natural history. A command of both areas allows nature to tell us which question to ask instead of demanding that nature answer the question we find most interesting.
The spread of exotic species and climate change are among the most serious global environmental threats. Each independently causes considerable ecological damage, yet few data are available to assess whether changing climate might facilitate invasions by favoring introduced over native species. Here, we compare our long-term record of weekly sessile marine invertebrate recruitment with interannual variation in water temperature to assess the likely effect of climate change on the success and spread of introduced species. For the three most abundant introduced species of ascidian (sea squirt), the timing of the initiation of recruitment was strongly negatively correlated with winter water temperature, indicating that invaders arrived earlier in the season in years with warmer winters. Total recruitment of introduced species during the following summer also was positively correlated with winter water temperature. In contrast, the magnitude of native ascidian recruitment was negatively correlated with winter temperature (more recruitment in colder years) and the timing of native recruitment was unaffected. In manipulative laboratory experiments, two introduced compound ascidians grew faster than a native species, but only at temperatures near the maximum observed in summer. These data suggest that the greatest effects of climate change on biotic communities may be due to changing maximum and minimum temperatures rather than annual means. By giving introduced species an earlier start, and increasing the magnitude of their growth and recruitment relative to natives, global warming may facilitate a shift to dominance by nonnative species, accelerating the homogenization of the global biota.