“This Robot Thinks It’s a Larva”

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The Story

“This Robot Thinks It’s a Larva”
by Ashley Braun
Hakai, September 29, 2016

The Pitch

From crabs and lobsters to corals and fishes, many marine species begin life as a tiny speck floating in the sea, at the mercy of the currents. At least, that was what scientists had long assumed about the larval stage for much of marine life. They now know that larvae have more control over their fate than that, and have seven different ways they can move in the water column. But we still don’t know where these larvae actually travel in the ocean.

Unlike a wolf or even a whale, you can’t exactly put a satellite tag onto microscopic larvae and follow where they go. However, marine ecologist Steven Morgan at UC Davis and Tom Wolcott at North Carolina State University are coming pretty close. This pair is starting to deploy what they call, alternately, “robotic larvae,” “seabots,” and even “minions,” to simulate the behaviors of larvae in the ocean and find out.

From a Coast Guard vessel in Bodega Bay, California, I watched as Morgan’s team released four bright yellow robotic larvae into the waters of one of the world’s most productive ocean upwelling zones. The soft-spoken Morgan explained the various sensors on these devices that would gather — and when at the surface, transmit in real time — data revealing insights into the dispersal behavior for the early life stages of so many types of marine life.

“This will be the first time we’ll ever know where larvae are actually going,” said Morgan. That has implications for everything from understanding how different groups of marine life may fare in a warming and acidifying ocean to designing marine protected areas.

As a news story for Hakai Magazine, I think sharing this tale of robotic larvae would cast a light on the microscopic marine masses that are usually somewhat alien to most people, while revealing the leading edge of technology — yes, constructed out of used fire extinguishers — in marine science. I also have several photos of the devices, Morgan, and the latest deployment.

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