California aquarium, agencies work to develop sea otter tracker

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The device is designed to fit humanely into the hind flippers of beavers

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NASA is assisting in the effort to humanely track sea otter populations.

The agency’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley is working to develop a modern tracking device designed to fit into the hind flippers of animals.

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NASA is partnering with the US Geological Survey (USGS) and Northern California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium on the project, and noted in a release That the tags have also gone through preliminary testing with sea otters in the aquarium.

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Whereas previous generations of otter trackers were bulky, expensive, relied on specialized batteries and provided only an approximate location, NASA said in a release that the new technology – which is still being tested – would provide “accurate GPS-enabled otters”. Delivers locations more often, in one. Very small, low cost and minimally invasive solar powered tag.”

The Space Shop at Ames Research Center is developing equipment, prototyping and producing the housing of the Otter tag that keeps its electronics safe and secure, and is one of NASA’s main facilities for 3D printing plastics.

Project members had to ensure that the equipment could withstand saltwater and the strong jaws and teeth of otters while not harming the animals. Early prototypes were mocked up using 3D printing.

The team decided to use a material made mostly of nylon with carbon fiber particles to increase strength.

“Designing a tag for an otter is very different from typical electronics enclosures,” Elizabeth Hyde, a USGS research engineer, said in a statement. “Not only do you have the rigors of the marine environment to deal with, but also the unique anatomy and behavior of otters.”

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“This was a really exciting design challenge for us,” Alex Mazhari, manager of the Space Shop’s Rapid Prototyping Lab, said in the release. “Being able to rapidly prototype a cost-effective solution to enable better science, not only for NASA, but also for our partners, speaks to the value of Space Shop.”

NASA said the technology could be used to track other wild animals in the future.

“We are bringing cutting-edge technology to the challenge of tracking wildlife,” said Chad Frost, the project’s principal investigator at Ames. “By using modern networking techniques and affordable prototyping techniques such as 3D printing, this collaboration is creating a new type of tag that will fundamentally change the scale of science that can emerge from tracking wildlife such as sea otters.”

After continued testing, the tags will be deployed in the wild by the USGS’s Western Ecological Research Center.

Developing tracking devices will help scientists do much more than simply locate members of keystone species.

According to Monterey Bay Aquarium, the current southern sea otter population averages about 3,000 individuals and contributes to the health of coastal kelp forests and estuaries.

Understanding sea otter populations and how endangered animals interact with changing environments, NASA said, “is critical to understanding the effects of climate change on wildlife and ecosystems.”

“When we have these critical gaps in tracking, we can miss how these species are interacting with their ecosystems as they are affected by climate change,” John Stock, director of the USGS’s National Innovation Center. said in an accompanying release from the aquarium. “We have a responsibility to understand how endangered and threatened species are responding.”


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