National Geographic explorer Tierney Thys shines new light on ocean life

25 Jul 2014

Dr Tierney Thys, marine biologist, National Geographic explorer and science educator. Photo by Mike Johnson

Dr Tierney Thys is using technology to track ocean life, from tiny plankton to giant sunfish.

When Dr Tierney Thys was four years old, her parents made her a wetsuit and introduced her to the sea in her native California. She has been in love with the ocean ever since.

That passion has led her around the globe discovering more about marine organisms, from the tiny plankton that sustain life on the planet to the giant ocean sunfish that can reach thousands of kilos in weight.

Chasing the (sun)fish

Now a marine biologist, National Geographic explorer and science educator, Thys first became interested in the intriguingly-shaped ocean sunfish when she was a graduate student of zoology at Duke University. Her biomechanics adviser, Dr Stephen Wainwright, had taped a small picture of the fish to his office door.

“It looked like a complete biomechanical conundrum and sparked my curiosity,” recalls Thys, who is in Dublin this week to take part in the Festival of Curiosity. “Little did I know that journey of wondering about the sunfish on the door would end up taking me all over the world.”

She had to wait awhile for the technology to catch up with her aspirations, but around the year 2000 she started tagging ocean sunfish (Mola mola) with tracking devices that can log an animal’s travel for up to two years (no need for recapture) and GPS tags to pinpoint the fish when it surfaces.

The web has allowed members of the public to be involved in the tracking, too, and Thys has a sightings form on her sunfish site. “Every day I am getting reports of sunfish sightings offered up by people around the globe,” she says. “I’ve got a wealth of sunfish searchers out there working with me.”

By integrating the tagging and sighting data with information such as sea surface temperature, currents and satellite images, Thys and colleagues in the field have been discovering sunfish migration routes and home ranges, particularly in the waters near Japan, the west coast of the United States, Galapagos, British Columbia and South Africa.

The data show that ocean sunfish are able to cover upwards of 20km a day and have burst speeds up to 6.5m per second, plus some notable diving skills, as Thys describes.

“These are industrious fishes with impressive thermal tolerances – they are able to withstand temperature changes from 2˚C-20˚C in one dive,” she says. “We’ve discovered they have  daily behavioural patterns consisting of multiple dives to 200m and even 800m or more during the course of a day, followed by relative quiescence during the night-time hours, which unfortunately exposes them to drift gillnets in places like California.”

Plankton soup

As well as tracking the giant sunfish, Thys is homing in on plankton, the tiny marine organisms that provide food and, in some cases, oxygen to sustain life on Earth.

“Plankton comprise the foundation of the largest food web on the planet and are directly correlated with the overall health of the ocean, and yet we know so little about the mechanics of the plankton world,” she says.

“We barely even know who eats whom. When a whale shark slurps a single swirl of seawater, it may be consuming up to 15 different animal phyla (major animal groups) just in that one gulp – that’s as many divisions of all animal life on land. Plankton is a soup of diversity and an unexplored galaxy of life extending from the surface to just above the seafloor with endless forms most beautiful.”

Thys has been working with developmental biologist and plankton cinematographer Christian Sardet from the Tara Expeditions along with filmmakers Noe Sardet and Sharif Mirshak of Parafilms in Montreal to create a series of films for TED-Ed starring marine plankton, and the hope is to tour a spectacular, immersive science/art plankton museum exhibit around the world, she says.

Marine biologist Dr Tierney Thys, ‘one with the fishes’. Photo by Mike Johnson

DNA clues

Thys is always intrigued with new technology to find out more about the mysteries of the marine world. She works with Stephen Karl from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, to look at the genetics of Mola samples from around the world, and she is excited by the potential of emerging approaches to glean clues from ‘environmental’ DNA in material such as metabolic waste, damaged tissue or sloughed off skin cells.

“Once it is collected, scientists can sequence the DNA to create a fast, high-resolution, non-invasive survey of whole biological communities, so I think advances like that are tremendously exciting,” she says.

Thys also looks forward to the day that, thanks to developments at the National Geographic Tech Lab, an ocean sunfish may soon get to wear a miniature camera or ‘critter cam’ to get a fish-eye view of its daily activities. “We may be able to put a critter cam on a Mola at some point soon,” she says.

New looks at nature

As well as her oceanic field trips (she is just back from Belize, where she led a student expedition), Thys is interested in how nature imagery can affect the brain, and along with National Geographic explorers Tan Le and Dr Nalini Nadkarni she is using mobile electroencephalography (EEG) to look at the effects.

“The project aims to develop guidelines for creating nature imagery optimised for social and therapeutic good, for example, lowering stress and violence in incarcerated populations and promoting attention restoration and learning in urban populations and other nature-deprived groups,” she says.

“I have also partnered with researchers at University of California, Berkeley, to explore how nature sounds versus urban sounds influence mood and engagement, using eye-trackers that measure pupil dilation.”

Thys is a Daily Explorer each month in an online video game called Animal Jam. She is also creating a film series for TED ed called Stories from the Sea and she volunteers in her children’s schools, “devising fun ways to explore and protect the ocean as a family”.

Be one with the fishes

For aspiring marine biologists and explorers, Thys recommends apprenticing with researchers who are doing what you want to do.

“Volunteer to get your foot in the door, or your fins in the water as the case may be, and figure out how to make yourself so useful people ask you to stick around and offer to teach you new skills,” she says.

Science, statistics and coding are valuable tools to have, and there are plenty of online academic courses and interesting resources, including Upwell’s Tide Report, Marine Bio, OpenROV the Ocean Conservancy’s Blog Aquatic and for exploring ocean science.

“(Seahack has) everything from deciphering whale songs to transcribing old ship’s logs to bolster past weather records, to identifying plankton, deep sea animals and more,” Thys says.

But her key advice is to go where the action is: “Don a mask and get yourself underwater,” says Thys. “Be one with the fishes.”

Thys presents Under the Ocean this morning at Smock Alley as part of the Festival of Curiosity.

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication