Development of an animal-borne sonar tag for quantifying prey availability: Test deployments on northern elephant seals

Open Access Peer Reviewed Publication 2015

Animal Biotelemetry

Background: Developments in electronic tagging technologies have provided unprecedented insight into the movements and behavior of marine predators. Concurrent information on the prey of these tracked animals, however, is mostly lacking. We developed and tested a prototype autonomous echosounder (aka the sonar tag) for deployment on large marine animals intended to provide quantification of their prey fields. Results: The resulting fully autonomous, internally recording prototype sonar tag operated at a power of 1 W and a frequency of 200 kHz. A series of test deployments were successfully conducted on four juvenile female elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) captured at the Año Nuevo State Reserve, California, and released short distances away. Translocated seals were instrumented with a sonar tag and a Fastloc GPS tag with an integrated time-depth recorder (TDR). All four animals returned to land after 3–18 days, making dives to depths of up to 778 m. Strong backscattering from the bottom was observed during many dives, indicating an often close association with the seafloor. Numerous observations of strongly scattering targets, potentially indicative of prey, were also made in the water column, often associated with particular dive and movement behaviors. During dives identified as foraging-type and also travel-type, one animal with the acoustic transducer on its head showed successive targets getting increasingly closer to the animal, possibly consistent with prey pursuit. Conclusion: These results demonstrate the value of active acoustic backscattering measurements made from free-ranging animals, complementing the ecological insight afforded by traditional depth- and position-logging tags. Future refinements will include further miniaturization, performance optimization, and extensions in the deployment duration.

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