From University of California-Santa Cruz (US) : Women in STEM-Roxanne Beltran “Biologist Roxanne Beltran wins funding from Beckman Young Investigator Program”

From University of California-Santa Cruz (US)

June 03, 2021
Tim Stephens

New project aims to provide the first large-scale recordings of sound in the open ocean, using elephant seals as a platform for a novel acoustic recorder.

Roxanne Beltran (Photo by C. Lagattuta)

The Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation has awarded a $600,000 grant to Roxanne Beltran, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz, through its Beckman Young Investigator Program.

The grant will fund a new project to develop and deploy a novel acoustic recorder for eavesdropping on the ocean soundscape. Beltran plans to use this new technology to monitor the acoustic environment of elephant seals, which migrate thousands of miles across the North Pacific Ocean. By using elephant seals as a mobile sensor platform to carry the acoustic recorder, Beltran will explore poorly understood areas of the open ocean, including the “twilight zone” just beyond the reach of sunlight (below about 650 feet).

“We want to figure out what the open ocean and the twilight zone sound like to an elephant seal—what sounds they are exposed to in terms of both manmade noise like shipping traffic as well as other species like whales,” she said.

For over three decades UCSC researchers have been tagging and studying elephant seals at Año Nuevo Reserve managed by the UC Natural Reserve System. Daniel Costa, distinguished professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and director of UCSC’s Institute of Marine Sciences, has been a pioneer in the development and use of electronic tags to track the movements and behavior of elephant seals and other marine mammals and to gather oceanographic data.

Beltran, a UCSC alumna (Stevenson ’13, marine biology) who joined Costa’s lab as a postdoctoral researcher before being appointed to the faculty, has a decade of experience working with elephant seals and other marine mammals. The new project will expand into the acoustic realm her lab’s ongoing efforts to study the ocean environment and ecology of migrating elephant seals.

“The importance of understanding ocean sounds has increased significantly in recent years, but our ability to monitor the soundscapes of the open ocean is logistically difficult,” Costa said. “Elephant seals have provided an excellent platform for measuring ocean temperature and salinity, and Roxanne’s study will add ocean acoustics to those crucial baseline measurements.”

Oceanographers and biologists have used various approaches to monitor sound in the ocean, but most are limited to areas near the coast. Ship-based surveys can go beyond coastal regions, but they are expensive and limited by the noise of the ship. Elephant seals migrate far offshore and move quietly and rapidly through the ocean ecosystem in search of prey.

“Using elephant seals is like having a smart sensor for biological hot spots, because they navigate straight to the regions with lots of productivity and prey. They can tell us a lot about the environment out in the middle of the open ocean,” Beltran said.

The tags will effectively eavesdrop on whales by recording their vocalizations and echolocations, and will also detect ships, sonar, and other sounds in the open ocean. Beltran said she is excited to find out what the tags will reveal about the soundscape of the North Pacific Ocean. Among other things, she hopes to learn more about the elusive beaked whales, a poorly understood family of deep-diving whales.

“We will also be able to learn if elephant seals are exposed to noises from sonar or oil exploration and how that affects them,” Beltran said. “We think acoustic cues are hugely important to elephant seals because they spend a lot of time in complete darkness, feeding at night and at depth, but we have no idea what they hear out there.”

By enabling more comprehensive monitoring of ocean noise and revealing the most prevalent and harmful sound sources, the project will provide valuable information and recommendations for marine mammal conservation.

The first stage of the project will be to develop a durable high-capacity acoustic recorder with the specifications needed for the project. Beltran will work with her colleague Holger Klinck, an acoustics expert at Cornell University (US), to develop the necessary hardware and software. Improvements in the acoustic tags will include longer duration recordings and a stronger housing to withstand the extreme pressure of the deep ocean.

After testing and validation of the new devices, the researchers will attach them to 24 adult female elephant seals over three years starting in February 2022. The tags are attached to the seals’ fur and are removed when the animals return to the beach and molt. The fidelity of elephant seals to their breeding grounds enables the researchers to reliably recover the tags. Beltran plans to train a team of UCSC undergraduate students to assist with the field work and undertake independent projects through the Undergraduate Work-Study Research Initiative.

“In addition to teaching us about large marine vertebrates, our fieldwork provides an ideal outdoor classroom for the next generation of biologists,” she said.

The Beckman Young Investigator Program provides research support to the most promising young faculty members in the early stages of their academic careers in the chemical and life sciences, particularly to foster the invention of methods, instruments, and materials that will open up new avenues of research in science.

“I feel lucky for the opportunity to be a part of this foundation and to contribute to the legacy of Dr. Beckman, a kind and curious innovator who is making it possible for young scientists to dream big,” Beltran said.

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UC Santa Cruz (US) Lick Observatory Since 1888 Mt Hamilton, in San Jose, California, Altitude 1,283 m (4,209 ft)

UC Observatories Lick Automated Planet Finder fully robotic 2.4-meter optical telescope at Lick Observatory, situated on the summit of Mount Hamilton, east of San Jose, California, USA.

The UCO Lick C. Donald Shane telescope is a 120-inch (3.0-meter) reflecting telescope located at the Lick Observatory, Mt Hamilton, in San Jose, California, Altitude 1,283 m (4,209 ft).
UC Santa Cruz (US) campus.

The University of California-Santa Cruz (US) , opened in 1965 and grew, one college at a time, to its current (2008-09) enrollment of more than 16,000 students. Undergraduates pursue more than 60 majors supervised by divisional deans of humanities, physical & biological sciences, social sciences, and arts. Graduate students work toward graduate certificates, master’s degrees, or doctoral degrees in more than 30 academic fields under the supervision of the divisional and graduate deans. The dean of the Jack Baskin School of Engineering oversees the campus’s undergraduate and graduate engineering programs.

UCSC is the home base for the Lick Observatory.

UCO Lick Observatory’s 36-inch Great Refractor telescope housed in the South (large) Dome of main building.

Search for extraterrestrial intelligence expands at Lick Observatory
New instrument scans the sky for pulses of infrared light
March 23, 2015
By Hilary Lebow

Astronomers are expanding the search for extraterrestrial intelligence into a new realm with detectors tuned to infrared light at UC’s Lick Observatory. A new instrument, called NIROSETI, will soon scour the sky for messages from other worlds.

“Infrared light would be an excellent means of interstellar communication,” said Shelley Wright, an assistant professor of physics at UC San Diego (US) who led the development of the new instrument while at the U Toronto Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics (CA).

Shelley Wright of UC San Diego with (US) NIROSETI, developed at U Toronto Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics (CA) at the 1-meter Nickel Telescope at Lick Observatory at UC Santa Cruz

Wright worked on an earlier SETI project at Lick Observatory as a UC Santa Cruz undergraduate, when she built an optical instrument designed by University of California-Berkeley (US) researchers. The infrared project takes advantage of new technology not available for that first optical search.

Infrared light would be a good way for extraterrestrials to get our attention here on Earth, since pulses from a powerful infrared laser could outshine a star, if only for a billionth of a second. Interstellar gas and dust is almost transparent to near infrared, so these signals can be seen from great distances. It also takes less energy to send information using infrared signals than with visible light.

Frank Drake, professor emeritus of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz and director emeritus of the SETI Institute, said there are several additional advantages to a search in the infrared realm.

Frank Drake with his Drake Equation. Credit Frank Drake.

“The signals are so strong that we only need a small telescope to receive them. Smaller telescopes can offer more observational time, and that is good because we need to search many stars for a chance of success,” said Drake.

The only downside is that extraterrestrials would need to be transmitting their signals in our direction, Drake said, though he sees this as a positive side to that limitation. “If we get a signal from someone who’s aiming for us, it could mean there’s altruism in the universe. I like that idea. If they want to be friendly, that’s who we will find.”

Scientists have searched the skies for radio signals for more than 50 years and expanded their search into the optical realm more than a decade ago. The idea of searching in the infrared is not a new one, but instruments capable of capturing pulses of infrared light only recently became available.

“We had to wait,” Wright said. “I spent eight years waiting and watching as new technology emerged.”

Now that technology has caught up, the search will extend to stars thousands of light years away, rather than just hundreds. NIROSETI, or Near-Infrared Optical Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, could also uncover new information about the physical universe.

“This is the first time Earthlings have looked at the universe at infrared wavelengths with nanosecond time scales,” said Dan Werthimer, UC Berkeley SETI Project Director. “The instrument could discover new astrophysical phenomena, or perhaps answer the question of whether we are alone.”

NIROSETI will also gather more information than previous optical detectors by recording levels of light over time so that patterns can be analyzed for potential signs of other civilizations.

“Searching for intelligent life in the universe is both thrilling and somewhat unorthodox,” said Claire Max, director of UC Observatories and professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz. “Lick Observatory has already been the site of several previous SETI searches, so this is a very exciting addition to the current research taking place.”

NIROSETI will scan the skies several times a week on the Nickel 1-meter telescope at Lick Observatory, located on Mt. Hamilton east of San Jose.