Database on ocean species traits supports climate-ready fisheries

Climate change has ocean species on the move, with major implications for fisheries. A new database catalogs traits of ocean species to better understand the impacts of these changes on fished species through the lens of their predator-prey relationships.
Database on ocean species traits supports climate-ready fisheries

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Why a trait database?

Imagine you are a predator swimming in search of food in the open ocean. What to choose from the ocean buffet? As you locate a potential meal, how do you choose what to spend the energy attacking and capturing? It all comes down to a balance between costs and benefits, which are given by the characteristics (or ‘traits’) describing species on the ocean prey buffet. For example, the depths at which species live and their migration patterns are traits that inform how a predator and prey can overlap in space and time. Body size and shape are important since many predators swallow prey whole, and the food has to fit in their mouth. Nutritional attributes like fat, protein, and caloric content  describes the energetic gain from consuming prey.  

Our research team is using traits like these to explain predator feeding preferences, and ultimately better understand the impacts of climate change on the fisheries predators support worldwide. Predicting the response of ocean predators to the changing climate can be incredibly challenging because their distributions also depend on how prey are impacted by climate shifts. Plus, feeding interactions in the ocean are complex! Traits simplify all of this by characterizing many prey species based on their similar functional roles. Understanding the traits of prey that are important for a fish helps explain what they might consume in the future, as ocean food webs are reassembled by climate change.

Examines of ocean species in the Pelagic Species Trait Database by Gleiber et al. (2024) and Dr. Stephanie Green's lab at the University of Alberta

The global database includes commercially valuable Northern anchovy (top left), Pacific herring (bottom center), and market squid (bottom left); deep-sea lanternfish (top center) and squids (bottom and top right), and open-ocean tuna crab (middle).  Many of these animals are rarely seen by humans. (Photos by: California Sea Grant, Smithsonian, Oceana, Nautilus Live, Okeanos Explorer, National Geographic) 

Traits are frequently used to study ecosystems and species interactions in terrestrial environments for plants, insects, and mammals. For example, plant traits have been shown to explain a predator's feeding preferences, which can have cascading effects on the rest of the ecosystem. But in open ocean environments, traits-based work is just getting started. 

That is because the ocean is the least directly observed system on the planet, despite covering 70% of the earth. It’s much more challenging to sample animals in the ocean than on land, so we know little about these species, their behaviors and interactions. Additionally, climate change is rapidly impacting ocean environments and species, and traits can help us better understand who will eat who in future oceans. 

Traits-based research in ocean systems requires that we standardize and catalog trait information of the many species that are prey for ocean predators. While there are some great online resources with information on ocean species, labor-intensive interpretation is needed to translate this into data curated for statistical and modeling analysis techniques. Further, many ocean species are rarely observed, with little information available. So, we assembled the Pelagic Species Trait Database

The database and its use in research

Today, the database has traits for over 500 open ocean (‘pelagic’) species found in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, as well as key prey for ocean predators globally . The 33 traits are those that play an important role in the attacking, capture, and consumption of prey by a predator, including habitat use, migration and anti-predator behaviors, body shape, size, coloration, nutritional quality (e.g., fat, protein, calories), and fishery statuses. Each trait has been separately assessed for adult, juvenile, and larval life stages for many species. 

Coverage of traits for ocean species in Pelagic Species Trait Database by Gleiber et al. (2024)  and Dr. Stephanie Green's lab at the University of Alberta

Phylogenetic trees showing species coverage in a) habitat and behavioral, and b) nutritional quality trait data in the Pelagic Species Trait Database. Trees highlight data gaps for nutritional traits; white spaces are species searched and no data found. Silhouettes show examples of species across the phylogenetic range of the database. The database also included morphological and population status traits, as well as multiple lifestages. 

The database has already been central in two recent studies on the feeding dynamics of albacore tuna, a commercially valuable species. Recently, we published a study in Fish and Fisheries that applied traits from the database to the hundreds of prey recorded globally in the diets of albacore tuna. We found that trait guilds serve as a useful framework for identifying similar feeding linkages between albacore and species across ocean basins globally. Last month, we published a second study in Ecological Indicators using the database to examine prey selection by albacore tuna from recent decades in the Eastern Pacific Ocean through a traits-based lens. Analyses paired the database with  long-term ecosystem monitoring by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) using ocean trawl net surveys and predator stomach contents analysis to reveal that consistent trait selection explained albacore tuna’s complex feeding patterns. We found that the trait-based approach can help simplify complex predator-prey interactions, serving as a valuable tool for understanding resource use by predators in changing environments. Our team is collaborating with NOAA scientists on a project called Future Seas, studying the impacts of climate change on US West Coast fisheries using modeling techniques to predict future change.  

Species important in albacore tuna diets in the NE Pacific are included in the Pelagic Species Trait Database by Gleiber et al. (2024)  and Dr. Stephanie Green's lab at the University of Alberta

Albacore tuna are an important commercial and recreational fishery offshore the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Left: Squid and fish removed from an albacore tuna’s stomach (Photo by: Antonella Preti, IMS/NOAA). Right: Author Miram Gleiber is a scientist and recreational fisher (Photos by: F/V FogLifter). 

Built by students, strengthened by collaboration

This database was made possible through heroic efforts by more than a dozen student and staff researchers from a half dozen institutions. Leading our team are  Stephanie Green at the University of Alberta (UA) and Larry Crowder at Stanford University, who designed the database with funding from the Lenfest Ocean program

Our team — comprised of undergraduate and graduate students — collected the traits over the last five years through graduate and undergraduate research projects and courses. This massive data collection effort has involved over 10,000 hours of work and collated 155,000 unique cells of information from over 1,800 resources. Since we selected traits to include that were available solely from online resources, the database creation proceeded during COVID lockdowns, keeping these students engaged in research. The leadership of Research Associates Natasha Hardy and Miram Gleiber was essential to this huge effort, with Hardy providing oversight of much of the data collection, and Gleiber, spearheading online database construction and documentation with this dataset publication. 

As the database was constructed, we identified gaps in information across the traits, with our knowledge of nutritional quality being much more sparse than many other attributes of these species. An animal's nutritional quality, such as calories or fat content, can be highly variable and is measured with resource-intensive laboratory analyses. Given this knowledge gap for a key trait important to feeding, we collaborated with researchers from institutions who were poised to answer similar questions. Anela Choy from Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO), an expert in deep-sea species, along with Elan Portner, a post-doctoral researcher in her lab, led a team of students conducting laboratory nutritional analysis of prey for top ocean predators collected offshore California. Elizabeth Daly, a researcher at the Oregon State University (OSU)/NOAA Cooperative Institute for Marine Ecosystems and Resources Studies (CIMERS), also joined the collaboration. Daly studies juvenile salmon feeding and conducts laboratory analyses to determine the energy content of ocean species that salmon eat and larger nekton.

Collaborators involved with the Pelagic Species Trait Database by Gleiber et al. (2024) and Dr. Stephanie Green's lab at the University of Alberta

Adding nutritional quality information to the database has been a collaborative effort! Left: Anela Choy and Elan Portner from SIO. Middle: UA research team members, Alana Krug-MacLeod, Miram Gleiber, and Stephanie Green working in the Choy Lab at SIO. Right: Elizabeth Daly from OSU/CIMERS.

We developed this open data resource to enhance the use of such traits-based approaches in marine ecosystems. This database goes beyond simply putting standardized trait data online. We also include the resources for others to add to it or create a similar database based on our methods. Resources include all the instructions and materials needed for data collection and the R code used for all data processing, for example, step-by-step protocols for student researchers to conduct literature searches. Our goal is not only to be transparent and make our work reproducible but also to provide a tool for others to amend our work or collate similar types of trait information in other systems. 

Along with the database, our team is using albacore tuna as a case study to test the use of traits-based methods in predicting predator-prey interactions in changing ocean systems. We are working to discover what predators like albacore will eat and where they will go as our climate continues to change- stay tuned for future blog posts!

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Physical Sciences > Earth and Environmental Sciences > Earth Sciences > Ocean Sciences
Physical Sciences > Earth and Environmental Sciences > Earth Sciences > Ocean Sciences > Marine Biology > Fisheries
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