Using Stingrays to Map the Ocean Floor

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The ocean floor is one are of the Earth that still needs to be mapped in detail. Only about 20% of the ocean’s floor has been mapped in detail.

As countries and private organizations work to develop technology that will speed up the mapping of the ocean floor, one research lab in Japan is looking at using marine life to collect 3D geospatial data about the ocean floor.

Southern stingray (Dasyatis americana), U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Croix.  Photo:  NOAA CCMA Biogeography Team, public domain.
Southern stingray (Dasyatis americana), U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Croix. Photo: NOAA CCMA Biogeography Team, public domain.

The research seeks to take advantage of the natural swimming pattern of these benthic animals by outfitting them with pinger technology and digital cameras. “Electric rays and sting rays are benthic animals, meaning that they spend most of their time swimming around the ocean floor in deep places,” explains Yo Tanaka, lead researcher at the RIKEN Center for Biosystems Dynamics Research (BDR) in Japan. “By combining simple pinger technology and digital cameras with this natural behavior, we think we can use rays to map the ocean floor, and at the same time collect meaningful data about ocean wildlife, biota, and resources.” 

By outfitting stingrays and other sea rays with pinger technology, researchers can calculate the location of those animals by using receivers to calculate where the sound from the pinger occurred. The cameras are used to develop a 3D map of the ocean environment at the same time.

Concept drawings showing how sea rays outfitted with pingers and cameras can help map the ocean floor.  Image: Funano et al., 2020, CC BY 4.0
Concept drawings showing how sea rays outfitted with pingers and cameras can help map the ocean floor. Image: Funano et al., 2020, CC BY 4.0

After testing the methodology with a water tank, the researchers then released outfitted sea rays into a study area off the coast of Okinawa in Japan. Data was collected from the rays swimming in an ocean area that was 20 feet deep and over flat terrain. The researchers found the the locations collected were within 10cm of existing maps.

An electric ray outfitted with a pinger and camera.  Photo: Funano et al., 2020, CC BY 4.0
An electric ray outfitted with a pinger and camera. Photo: Funano et al., 2020, CC BY 4.0

The next steps will be to test the method in ocean areas with more diverse ocean topography and to develop self-charging batteries for longer monitoring.

The Stingray Mapping Research

Funano, S. I., Tanaka, N., Amaya, S., Hamano, A., Sasakura, T., & Tanaka, Y. (2020). Movement tracing and analysis of benthic sting ray (Dasyatis akajei) and electric ray (Narke japonica) toward seabed exploration. SN Applied Sciences2(12), 1-13. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42452-020-03967-6

Can sting rays and electric rays help us map the ocean floor? (2020, December 8). 理化学研究所. https://www.riken.jp/en/news_pubs/research_news/pr/2020/20201208_1/index.html

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