I think one of the coolest things about science is how researchers are so creative in the ways they use the limited data they have. A new paper came out yesterday that, for the first time, showed how large mammals change their risk–taking behavior depending on whether they’re skinny or fat. Its findings aren’t only the first of their kind; for me, they are also very personal.

Before becoming a journalist, I was a marine biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. About 20 miles north of Santa Cruz sits Ano Nuevo State Park, a beautiful point that juts out into the Pacific Ocean. It is home to a large breeding colony of northern elephant seals, and I used to help Costa Lab scientists tag and track female elephant seals there.

Roxanne Beltran and Jessie Kendall-Bar, two marine biologists at the university, used the tagging data from those seals to help answer a question fundamental to ecologists’ understanding of the natural world: “Do hungry animals take more risks to find food?” The paper, which I consider creative field biology at its best, explores the question and its answer almost poetically, delving into the “lightscape of fear” and the relationship among sleep, food and danger in the life of an elephant seal.

Though I didn’t get my name on the paper, I’d like to think that one of the elephant seals I helped collect data on back in my undergraduate days allowed these researchers to do this fantastic science.

Also today:

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Daniel Merino

Assistant Editor: Science, Health, Environment; Co-Host: The Conversation Weekly Podcast

Female elephant seals take seven-month feeding trips during which they balance danger, starvation and exhaustion. Dan Costa

Risk versus reward on the high seas – skinny elephant seals trade safety for sustenance

Roxanne Beltran, University of California, Santa Cruz; Jessica Kendall-Bar, University of California, Santa Cruz

By measuring how and when elephant seals sleep, researchers were able to figure out how elephant seals change their risk-taking behavior as they gain weight.

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