Instruction manuals for scientists

Horning M, et al. 2019. Best practice recommendations for the use of external telemetry devices on pinnipeds. Animal Biotelemetry, 7(1), 1-17. Open Access

As scientists, we often connect with each other over a coffee at conferences, through message boards on online forums, and more recently through various social media outlets such as blogging and twitter.  Connecting with each other can mean that we exchange thoughts and discuss issues we may be having – ever had an issue with a piece of code? It’s likely that someone else has had that experience! 

These connections are invaluable – innovations are often achieved through intense collaboration. Testing of ideas through new and unique perspectives are often only achievable when people starting putting their heads together, sometimes aided by an after-work pint and a few notes scribbled on the back of a napkin.

The oldest, most formal of these scientific connections are what we call peer-reviewed publications.  Journal articles illustrate findings of specific experiments or studies which are invaluable pieces of information, not only for their specific results, but they can also be extremely helpful as a ‘how-to’ guide for a statistical approach, study design, or new modelling approach.  While this form of ‘communication’ is somewhat sterile by comparison to sharing ideas over a cup of coffee, these notes and thoughts remain available for anyone and everyone to access * , forever, and help to ensure that innovation and good science continue.

*The issues surrounding paying to access scientific papers is another topic…

Instruction manuals…for scientists?

Beyond specific studies, sometimes scientists come together to write review articles to synthesize new ideas, given the work that they themselves and perhaps others have done around a specific question or field of study.  These reviews aim to assess what we call the ‘state-of-the-art’.  Specifically, we aim to highlight what has been done and often the best approaches to do them, but also we aim to identify any gaps in knowledge and future directions that we as scientists should drive new work towards. After all, each puzzle piece may fit well to others, but we can only see what pieces are missing until we attempt to put it all together.  These types of reviews can be incredibly helpful, not only to those who are already well versed in the subject area, but can also be invaluable to someone just starting to scratch the surface of that field to avoid pitfalls and do the best science possible.  These are what we call “Best Practices” recommendations.

Telemetry with pinnipeds

From: Best practice recommendations for the use of external telemetry devices on pinnipeds Examples of improvements in ETD attachment methods over time. The attachment methods allow different placements and attachment durations, and may have different impacts on study animals. (a) Photo © DP Costa, 1983, (b) Photo © PW Robinson, 2015, NMFS Permit #17952.  (c) Photos © PL Boveng, 2016, NMFS Permit #19309 (d) Photo © J Skinner, 2012, NMFS Permit #15748

Many people around the world have used, and are using, telemetry devices to study behaviour and physiology of pinnipeds.  If you are a seasoned follower of science at the ASLC through this blog and others, you know that telemetry data are invaluable to studying an animal that lives a duality of both an aquatic and terrestrial existence – much of what they get up to is largely invisible to us while they are at sea!  Now, while tags and telemetry devices have improved vastly since their inception in the 1970s, we as scientists always strive to continue to improve practices in order to ensure not only that we get great data from our study animals, but also so that we minimize the chance of any unintended consequences for their health and well-being.

From: Best practice recommendations for the use of external telemetry devices on pinnipeds
Examples of recent and contemporary ETDs. a CTD-SRDL archival Argos transmitter configured with CTD and Fluorometry sensors (SMRU Instrumentation, St. Andrews, United Kingdom; 105 × 72 × 60 mm, 630 g). Mid-2000s to present. Photo © by DP Costa. b Archival data logger with tri-axial jaw accelerometer and light level sensor designed for detecting bioluminescence (Little Leonardo Corp., Tokyo, Japan; 20 × 73 mm, 48 g). 2015 to present. Photo © DP Costa. c ARCGEO-13T archival data logger with temperature, depth sensors and geo-location via light levels (Lotek Wireless, St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada; 13 × 57 mm, 12 g). Early 2000s to present. Photo © DP Costa. d Three generations of Argos-compatible satellite data transmitters commonly used as ETDs on pinnipeds made by Wildlife Computers Inc. (Redmond, WA, USA).

As part of an effort to keep this field improving, Dr. Markus Horning assembled a crack team of 24 researchers from around the world with a broad range of experience handling and studying pinnipeds to build a set of these ‘state-of-the-art’ recommendations for the use of external telemetry devices. 

How does one assemble this kind of list? Well, each of us listed our top considerations – from a collective knowledge base spanning 29 species of pinnipeds, a combined 445 person-years of experience (almost 6,400 individual deployments!), and a wide variety of devices – that we then pooled together and refined to a succinct, but comprehensive list of 15 recommendations that anyone should consider when using external telemetry devices with pinnipeds, but also could be applied to other marine taxa.  

Broadly, these recommendations were grouped into 7 categories including:

(1) justifying the use of external telemetry devices

(2) best practices for capturing study subjects

(3) considerations for tag design

(4) best practices for tag attachment

(5) assessing how telemetry may effect study subjects

(6) how to ensure that team members are properly prepared

(7) what should be reported in journal articles as well as data accessibility.

While some of these considerations may seem exceedingly obvious, having all of these thoughts compiled into a single, well thought out plan can be a useful way to approach designing a new study.  

For example, one major consideration that is raised is for scientists to conduct assessments on the impact that these studies may have on individuals.  Obviously, we always aim to reduce and remove any potential detrimental effects for our study animals, but showing that your work has no effect on individuals is incredibly important and yet may not be part of the main aim of a study.  As part of my masters research while I was at the ASLC, I aimed to evaluate the effect of tagging and temporary captivity on the survival of juvenile Steller sea lions – what we found was that these individuals were surviving at the same rates as the rest of the population, exhibiting no apparent effects on longevity or reproductive output – many are still out on the Chiswell Islands happily raising pups and defending mating territories! In this recommendation, we encourage anyone undertaking telemetry studies to incorporate these types of studies into the long-term goals of any project using external telemetry devices.

We hope that this paper not only helps us reflect on the past and present, but to pave a path forward for the future that encourages pursuing, testing, and integrating new sensors (leading to increased capabilities, smaller tags, and longer life); validating energetic proxies; expanding life history studies and improving data accessibility and sharing.

If you’re interested in similar papers, check out our previous work “Best Practice Recommendations for the use of fully implanted telemetry devices in pinnipeds”

Written by: Dr. Courtney Shuert, guest blogger (Durham University, @CourtneyShuert)

ASLC Scientists Participating in this work: Markus Horning (lead author); Amy Bishop; Renae Sattler; Pam Tuomi

Permit for Cover Photo: NMFS MMPA Permit #16991, Photo © S Steingass

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