Marine animals or underwater spies?

The US military is pumping millions of dollars into researching whether or not a range of marine species could be used as secret spies. The project will determine if the sensory systems of ocean dwellers can be used as a low cost alternative to underwater surveillance equipment.

Submarines are typically detected by sonar but can marine life do the same job

Marine creatures have some of the most powerful and effective sensory systems on the planet. Now a bold and bizarre new project is looking at whether they can be used to detect enemy submarines and covert divers. A range of creatures including fish, shrimp and even plankton are being trialled as next generation spies by the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). If they pass they could replace traditional technologies such as sonar and save the US navy millions. But what are the advantages and problems of using wildlife for espionage and will it work?

The ‘PALS’ program

Marine organisms are highly sensitive to a range of sensory cues in the oceans including sound, light chemicals and even electromagnetic pulses. According to the US military that makes them ideal candidates to replace expensive surveillance systems such as sonar. As a result DARPA have pumped $45 million of funding into the Persistent Aquatic Living Sensors (PALS) program to find out. Project leader Lori Adornato told Scientific American that “The PALS program was developed to leverage the great sensitivity that organisms have in the ocean to changes in their environment”.  The hope is that their new marine spies will not only cut costs and reduce dependence on technology but may also pick up things that would normally be missed. Although using marine wildlife for espionage may seem questionable the programme is designed to be completely passive. Plus if it replaces damaging technologies such as sonar it may actually be environmentally beneficial.

goliath grouper
Goliath groupers produce loud ‘booms’ when they come in contact with divers and underwater vehicles

Potential recruits

There are currently five different species being looked at as potential recruits for the PALS initiative. One of the main contenders are the goliath grouper, a type of highly territorial fish that can grow up to 8ft long. They produce a loud deep-pitched boom when they come into contact with scuba divers and any other intruders such as underwater drones and submarines. These warning signals are often filtered out as background noise in sonar but if equipment was designed to detect them instead it could be equally useful. An added benefit is that unlike sonar it does not require generating sound meaning you won’t give up your own position to enemy submarines. Other fish species such as black sea bass also radically alter their behaviour in groups when they come into contact with human activity. If you could track such changes by monitoring large groups it may also give you a way of passively spying for enemy vessels.

Pistol Shrimp ( ),  St. Vincent, West Indies
It may seem unlikely but the snapping shrimp are some of the loudest animals on the planet

But it’s not just fish that have shown potential to uncover enemy technology. The program will also look at snapping shrimp, tiny crustaceans capable of producing a 200-decibel popping noise equivalent to a rocket launch. Their ‘pops’ are capable of travelling large distances underwater and like the ‘booms’ of goliath grouper could be modified into a form of passive sonar. Another surprising inclusion in the program is a type of bioluminescent plankton that alters its behaviour in the presence of large underwater vehicles like submarines. It is believed that specialised cameras on aerial drones may be able to pick up these ‘flashes’ of bioluminescent to detect submarines from above. However all of these ideas are very much preliminary theories which is why DARPA are funding the research to determine if any of them could be feasible.

Putting it to the test

There are two main challenges that have to be overcome before any of these marine creatures can become undercover agents. Firstly researchers have to fully understand their behaviour, in particular distinguishing reactions to humans from reactions to other species. That is to prevent any false positives such as grouper producing ‘booms’ in response to a shark rather than a submarine. Secondly new technology will also have to be created to be able to detect these behavioural changes without interfering with the animal’s natural behaviour and giving away their positions. This is perhaps the hardest aspect of the program and is why so much money is being put in to fund it. It will also take lots of time to properly test the feasibility of each organism and could likely take several years just to produce the initial results.

Bioluminescent plankton could provide visual clues to the location of submarines

Is it OK to use marine animals as spies?

This is an ethical dilemma that for obvious reasons academics have spent little to no time considering. So is it acceptable to use marine creatures to gain an advantage over your enemies? Well there are actually several benefits to the animals from being used in this way. Firstly if technologies such as sonar, that produce lots of damaging noise pollution, are replaced by passive methods then not just the individuals involved but many other species will benefit. As well as this the money being put into research also includes environmental and population surveys that will help better understand the health of the species and their homes. If these animals are found to be useful it will also increase their value and likelihood of being protected in the future.

However at the same time something just doesn’t sit right with the idea of using innocent marine animals as a tool for warfare in this way. It could put a target on their backs from those who wish to remain undetected and until the research is completed there are no guarantees it will be safe for the animals. If these wonderful creatures are to become the next wave of maritime spies then their welfare should be a priority.


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