Finding the edge: Preliminary insights into blue whale habitat selection in New Zealand

By Dawn Barlow, MSc student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

I was fortunate enough to spend the Austral summer in the field, and so while the winter rain poured down on Oregon I found myself on the water with the sun and wind on my face, looking for blue whales in New Zealand. This spring I switched gears and spent time taking courses to build my analytical toolbox. In a course on technical writing and communication, I was challenged to present my research using only pictures and words with no written text, and to succinctly summarize the importance of my research in an introduction to a technical paper. I attended weekly seminars to learn about the diverse array of marine science being conducted at Oregon State University and beyond. I also took a course entitled “Advanced Spatial Statistics and Geographic Information Science”. In this skill-building course, we were given the opportunity to work with our own data. Even though my primary objective was to expand the tools in my toolbox, I was excited to explore preliminary results and possible insight into blue whale habitat selection in my study area, the South Taranaki Bight region (STB) of New Zealand (Figure 1).

Figure 1. A map of New Zealand, with the South Taranaki Bight (STB) region delineated by the black box. Farewell Spit is denoted by a star, and Kahurangi point is denoted by an X.

Despite the recent documentation of a foraging ground in the STB, blue whale distribution remains poorly understood in New Zealand. The STB is New Zealand’s most industrially active marine region, and the site of active oil and gas extraction and exploration, busy shipping traffic, and proposed seabed mining. This potential space-use conflict between endangered whales and industry warrants further investigation into the spatial and temporal extent of blue whale habitat in the region. One of my research objectives is to investigate the relationship between blue whales and their environment, and ultimately to build a model that can predict blue whale presence based on physical and biological oceanographic features. For this spring term, the question I asked was:

Is the number of blue whales present in an area correlated with remotely-sensed sea surface temperature and chlorophyll-a concentration?

For the purposes of this exploration, I used data from our 2017 survey of the STB. This meant importing our ship’s track and our blue whale sighting locations into ArcGIS, so that the data went from looking like this:

… to this:

The next step was to get remote-sensed images for sea surface temperature (SST) and chlorophyll-a (chl-a) concentration. I downloaded monthly averages from the NASA Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (MODIS aqua) website for the month of February 2017 at 4 km2 resolution, when our survey took place. Now, my images looked something more like this:

But, I can’t say anything reliable about the relationships between blue whales and their environment in the places we did not survey.  So next I extracted just the portions of my remote-sensed images where we conducted survey effort. Now my maps looked more like this one:

The above map shows SST along our ship’s track, and the locations where we found whales. Just looking at this plot, it seems like the blue whales were observed in both warmer and colder waters, not exclusively in one or the other. There is a productive plume of cold, upwelled water in the STB that is generated off of Kahurangi point and curves around Farewell Spit and into the bight (Figure 1). Most of the whales we saw appear to be near that plume. But how can I find the edges of this upwelled plume? Well, I can look at the amount of change in SST and chl-a across a spatial area. The places where warm and cold water meet can be found by assessing the amount of variability—the standard deviation—in the temperature of the water. In ArcGIS, I calculated the deviation in SST and chl-a concentration across the surrounding 20 km2 for each 4 km2 cell.

Now, how do I tie all of these qualitative visual assessments together to produce a quantitative result? With a statistical model! This next step gives me the opportunity to flex some other analytical muscles, and practice using another computational tool: R. I used a generalized additive model (GAM) to investigate the relationships between the number of blue whales observed in each 4 km2 cell our ship surveyed and the remote-sensed variables. The model can be written like this:

Number of blue whales ~ SST + chl-a + sd(SST) + sd(chl-a)

In other words, are SST, chl-a concentration, deviation in SST, and deviation in chl-a concentration correlated with the number of blue whales observed within each 4 km2 cell on my map?

This model found that the most important predictor was the deviation in SST. In other words, these New Zealand blue whales may be seeking the edges of the upwelling plume, honing in on places where warm and cold water meet. Thinking back on the time I spent in the field, we often saw feeding blue whales diving along lines of mixing water masses where the water column was filled with aggregations of krill, blue whale prey. Studies of marine mammals in other parts of the world have also found that eddies and oceanic fronts—edges between warm and cold water masses—are important habitat features where productivity is increased due to mixing of water masses. The same may be true for these New Zealand blue whales.

These preliminary findings emphasize the benefit of having both presence and absence data. The analysis I have presented here is certainly strengthened by having environmental measurements for locations where we did not see whales. This is comforting, considering the feelings of impatience generated by days on the water spent like this with no whales to be seen:

Moving forward, I will include the blue whale sighting data from our 2014 and 2016 surveys as well. As I think about what would make this model more robust, it would be interesting to see if the patterns become clearer when I incorporate behavior into the model—if I look at whales that are foraging and traveling separately, are the results different? I hope to explore the importance of the upwelling plume in more detail—does the distance from the edge of the upwelling plume matter? And finally, I want to adjust the spatial and temporal scales of my analysis—do patterns shift or become clearer if I don’t use monthly averages, or if I change the grid cell sizes on my maps?

I feel more confident in my growing toolbox, and look forward to improving this model in the coming months! Stay tuned.

A new addition to the GEMM Lab

By Dr. Leigh Torres, GEMM Lab, OSU, Marine Mammal Institute

Prepping for fieldwork is always a complex mental and physical juggling act, especially for an equipment-rich, multi-disciplinary, collaborative project like our research project on the impacts of ocean noise on gray whale physiology. For me, the past couple months has consisted of remembering to coordinate equipment purchasing/testing/updating (cameras, drones, GoPros), obtaining all needed permits/licenses (NMFS, FAA, vessel), prepping data recording and management protocols (data sheets, dropbox), scheduling personnel (7 people over 5 months), organizing sampling gear (fecal nets, zooplankton traps), gathering all needed lab supplies (jars, filters, tubes), and hoping for good weather.

This list would normally be enough to overwhelm me, but this year we have also had the (fortunate) opportunity to outfit our own research vessel. The OSU Marine Mammal Institute (MMI) obtained a surplus 5.4 m coast guard RHIB (rigid inflatable haul boat) and generously handed it off to the GEMM Lab for our coastal Oregon research. Fantastic! But not perfect, of course. What the coast guard needs as a vessel, is not exactly what we need for whale research. When the vessel arrived it had a straddle seat occupying most of the limited interior space, which would make it very hard for three people to ride comfortably during a long day of survey effort or move around during whale sightings.

The RHIB in its original state, with the straddle seat taking up a majority of the interior space.

So, the boat needed a re-fit. And who better to do this re-fit than someone who has spent more than 15 years conducting whale research in a RHIB, is a certified ABYC marine electrician, and runs his own marine repair business? Who has such a qualified resume? My research technician (and husband), Todd Chandler.

Over the last two months Todd has meticulously rearranged the interior of the vessel to maximize the space, prioritize safety and comfort, balance the boat for stability, and allow for effective data collection. He removed the straddle seat, had a light-weight aluminum center console and leaning post built to just the right size and specs, installed and updated electronics (VHF, GPS chart plotter), re-ran the engine wiring (throttle, tilt, kill-switch), patched up a few (8!) leaks in the pontoons, ran new nav lights, installed new fuel tanks, and serviced the engine. Phew! He did an amazing job and really demonstrated his skills, handiwork, and knowledge of field research.

Todd, rightfully proud, with our newly designed RHIB.

The vessel now looks great, runs smoothly, and gives us the space needed for our work. But, she needed a name! So, on Saturday afternoon we hosted a GEMM Lab boat naming BBQ. Our research team and lab gathered in the sun to admire the vessel, eat good food, watch the kids run and play, and come up with boat names.

The gang gets a laugh at another good proposed name.

I was impressed by the appropriate, thoughtful, clever names put forth, like Adam’s rib, Cetacea, Oppo (re-arrange poop), and Whale Done. I was faced with a tough decision so I made everyone vote; three ticks each.

Sharon puts her votes down.

And the winner is…… Ruby: An appropriate name for a research vessel in the GEMM Lab. Perhaps someday we will have a fleet: Ruby, Emerald, Diamond… Ah, a girl can dream.

The kids tally up the votes.
The final count, with Ruby the winner.

Now it’s time for the many hiccups, challenges, and rewards of a field season. So thanks to Todd, the MMI, the GEMM Lab, and our awesome team for getting us ready to go. Stay tuned for updates on the actual research (and how Ruby performs).

RV Ruby, ready to splash and find some whales.

Migrating to higher latitudes

By Leila Lemos, Ph.D. Student, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, OSU

On September 10th of 2015 I was catching an airplane to start a whole new phase of my life in Oregon, United States. Many thoughts, many doubts, many fears, many expectations, and one big dream that was about to come true: I was finally going to United States to work with whales.

I am from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a big city known for pretty beaches, tropical weather and restless nights. Thus, to arrive in a really small city on the countryside that usually rains for about six months a year was the opposite of what I was always used to. Trying to understand another language and culture differences was also not an easy step.

In addition, taking my first classes was a big challenge. It was hard to understand everything that was being said, but recording and listening to the classes afterwards definitely was what helped me the most. Also, my first meetings and discussions where I needed to explain my thoughts in another language was difficult, but when I look back and I can now see how much I have improved and it is gratifying to know that all of my efforts were worth it.

Feeling welcome was essential to start overcoming all of the difficulties. My advisor Leigh and my lab mates (Florence, Amanda, Rachael, Erin, Dawn and Courtney) always created a friendly atmosphere and I started being more confident over time. I also had amazing and understanding teachers who were patient and helped me along the way. My first roommates Jane and Angie, from US, and the students and teachers from Crossroads (an English group that I attend) made me practice English every day and I started feeling more comfortable about speaking (and also thinking) in English, and they became my “Oregon family” together with new friends I made from different nationalities. Also important were my family and friends back in Brazil that never stopped encouraging and supporting me.

Figure 1: GEMM-Lab, from left to right, starting at the top: Leigh Torres, me, Erin, Amanda, Dawn, Rachael, our interns from 2016 season (Catherine, Cat and Kelli), and Florence.

 

Figure 2: Practicing English at Crossroads.

 

The weather and seasons here are also very different from Brazil. We don’t have cold weather or snow, and we don’t see all of the changes that happen here from season to season. The first season I saw was the fall. Seeing all of the fall colors in the trees for the first time was magical and I can already say that fall is my favorite season here. The winter was a bit cruel for me, not because of the cold or eventually the snow, but because of the rain. There is a saying in my city that “people from Rio de Janeiro do not like gray days” and it is true: my mood changes with weather. However, I did travel a bit around Oregon during winter and got to enjoy the snow, and how fun is to slide in the snow, make snow angels and throw snowballs. The spring starts bringing sunny days after cold months and endless rain. Also all of the flowers around the Corvallis campus are so pretty and colorful. Finally the summer is hot, and in some days it can almost be as hot as Rio de Janeiro. However, I spend summer days in the coast, where the temperature is mild. For me, summer days are synonymous with fieldwork, since gray whales are migrating northbound and becoming resident along the Oregon coast to feed, and this is right when the fun begins!

Figure 3: Different seasons in Oregon: (A) Trees during the fall in Corvallis, (B) Winter in Crater Lake, (C) Spring at OSU campus: my office at Hovland Building, and (D) fieldwork in Port Orford during the summer.

 

I finally saw my first gray whale in July of 2016 and got to dive into all of the methodologies we wanted to apply in this project. I learned how to photograph whales for photo-identification, how to take important notes, how to collect fecal samples for hormonal analysis, and how to fly with a drone for the photogrammetry method.

Figure 4: Learning how to fly with a drone over gray whales.
Source: Florence Sullivan

 

I had to digest a lot of information while trying to equilibrate in the boat and to not get seasick. However, it was so pleasurable to see how my field skills were getting better over time and how close I was to the Pacific marine fauna.

During my master’s degree I worked on toxicology in dolphins, which means working with dead carcasses. I remember telling myself all of the time that I wanted to do something different for my PhD – that I would be involved in a project with live animals. I am very glad I could accomplish that goal. Gray whales, sea lions, seals and a variety of marine birds are just some examples of the great diversity the Pacific Ocean has to offer and I am totally amazed.

Figure 5: Great diversity of the Oregon coast. Source: GEMMLab (Leila Lemos, Leigh Torres and Florence Sullivan)

After months of fieldwork it was time to return to the land and start learning how to work with all of the data we collected. We have amazing collaborators working with us and I have had wonderful opportunities to learn from all of them about the different methods we are applying in our project.

Figure 6: Learning the hormonal analysis technique at the Seattle Aquarium.

 

Thus, after one year and a half in Oregon I can already say that I feel home. The experience as an international student is not easy, but that’s what makes it such a valuable and gratifying experience. It has been a great journey, and I hope to continue to see improvements over time and keep learning throughout this amazing project studying gray whales.

 

Building scientific friendships: A reflection on the 21st annual meeting of the Northwest Student Chapter of the Society for Marine Mammalogy

By Dawn Barlow, M.Sc. student, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

I recently had the opportunity to attend and present my research at the 21st meeting of the Northwest Student Chapter of the Society for Marine Mammalogy. This gathering represented a community of graduate and undergraduate students from the Pacific Northwest, networking and discussing their research on the biology of marine mammals. Dr. John Ford, whose name has become synonymous with killer whale research in the Pacific Northwest, delivered a compelling keynote speech on not only the history of his research, but also the history of the relationships he has built in the field and the people that have shaped the past five decades of killer whale research. This theme of cultivating scientific relationships was a thread that carried us through the weekend. Beautiful weather had us all smiling happily as we ate our lunches outside, musing about science in the sunshine. A philosopher’s café event facilitated roundtable discussions with experts in veterinary science, spatial statistics, management consulting, physiology, and marine pollution. Students were given the space to ask questions ranging from manuscript writing advice to the worth of our work in the current political climate (and write notes or doodle drawings on the paper-covered tables as we listened).

The oral and poster presentations were all very impressive. I learned that bowhead whales are likely feeding year-round in the Canadian Arctic, adjusting their dive depth to the vertical location of their copepod prey. I learned that the aerobic dive limit of stellar sea lions is more of a sliding scale rather than a switch as it is for Weddell seals. I learned that some harbor seals are estuary specialists, feeding on salmon smolt. And I learned about the importance of herring to Northeast Pacific marine mammals through an energy-based ecosystem model. I had the opportunity to present my research on the ecology of New Zealand blue whales to an audience outside of Oregon State University for the first time, and was pleased with how my presentation was received.

Aaron Purdy, MSc student with the University of British Columbia’s Marine Mammal Research Unit, moderates the first oral presentation session wearing the designated “fluke tuke”. I may have giggled at the Canadian word for beanie, but I have to admit, “fluke tuke” has a much better ring to it than “fluke beanie”!

But beyond the scientific research itself, I also learned that there is a strong community of motivated and passionate young scientists in the Pacific Northwest studying marine mammals. Our numbers may not be many and we may be scattered across several different universities and labs, but our work is compelling and valuable. At the end of the weekend, it felt like I was saying goodbye to new friends and future colleagues. And, I learned that the magnificent size of a blue whale never fails to impress and amaze, as all the conference attendees marveled over the blue whale skeleton housed in the Beaty Biodiversity Museum at the University of British Columbia.

Left to right: Michelle Fournet, Samara Haver, myself, and Niki Diogou representing Oregon State University at the student conference. Behind us is a blue whale skeleton, housed in the Beaty Biodiversity Museum on the University of British Columbia campus.

Many thanks to the graduate students from the University of British Columbia who organized such a successful event! At the end of the conference, it was decided that the next meeting of the Northwest Student Chapter will be hosted by the Oregon State University students here at Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. It is a year away, but I am already looking forward to seeing these newfound peers again and hearing how their research has progressed.

A happy student selfie at the end of a successful conference! We are looking forward to a reunion at Hatfield Marine Science Center next May!

“Marching for Science” takes many forms

By Florence Sullivan, MSc student, Oregon State University.

Earth day is a worldwide event celebrated annually on April 22, and is typically observed with beach, park, or neighborhood clean ups, and outreach events sponsored by environmental groups.  Last year, environmentalists rejoiced when 195 nations signed the Paris Agreement – to “strengthen global response to the threat of climate change by keeping global temperature rise below 2 degrees C”.

GEMM Lab member Dawn Barlow helps carry the banner for the Newport, OR March for Science which over 600 people attended. photo credit: Maryann Bozza

This year, the enviro-political mood is more somber. Emotions in the GEMM Lab swing between anger and dismay to cautious optimism and hope. The anger comes from threatened budget cuts, the dismissal of climate science, and the restructuring of government agencies, while we find hope at the outpouring of support from our local communities, and the energy building behind the March for Science movement.

The Newport March for Science. photo credit: Maryann Bozza

What is perhaps most striking about the movement is how celebratory it feels. Instead of marching against something, we are marching FOR science, in all its myriad forms. With clever signs and chants like “The oceans are rising, and so are we”, “Science, not Silence”, and “We’re nerds, we’re wet, we’re really quite upset” (it rained on a lot of marches on Saturday) echoing around the globe, Saturday’s Marches for Science were a cathartic release of energy, a celebration of like-minded people.

Our competition room for NOSB 2017! Game officials are in the front of the picture, competitors at the first two desks, and parents, coaches and supporters in the back.

While millions of enthusiastic people were marching through the streets, I “Ran for Science” at the 20th annual National Ocean Science Bowl (NOSB) – delivering question sheets and scores between competitors and graders as 25 teams competed for the title of national champion! Over the course of the competition, teams of four high school students compete through rounds of buzzer-style multiple choice questions, worksheet style team challenge questions, and the Scientific Expert Briefing, a mock congressional hearing where students present science recommendations on a piece of legislation.  The challenges are unified with a yearly theme, which in 2017 was Blue Energy: powering the planet with our ocean.  Watching the students (representing 33 states!) compete is exciting and inspiring, because they obviously know the material, and are passionate about the subject matter.  Even more encouraging though, is realizing that not all of them plan to look for jobs as research scientists. Some express interest in the arts, some in policy, or teaching or engineering. This competition is not just about fostering the next generation of leading marine scientists, but rather about creating an ocean-literate, and scientifically-literate populace.  So, congratulations to Santa Monica High School, who took home the national title for the first time this year! Would you like to test your knowledge against some of the questions they faced? Try your luck here!

Santa Monica competes in the final round

The GEMM Lab also recently participated in the Hatfield Marine Science Center’s Marine Science Day.  It’s an annual open house where the community is invited to come tour labs, meet scientists, get behind the scenes, and learn about all the exciting research going on.  For us as researchers, it’s a great day to practice explaining our work and its relevance to many different groups, from school children to parents and grandparents, from artists to fishermen to teachers, fellow researchers, and many others.  This year the event attracted over 2,000 people, and the GEMM Lab was proud to be a part of this uniquely interactive day.  Outreach events like this help us feel connected to our community and the excitement present in all the questions field during this event reassure us that the public still cares about the work that we do.

Lab members Florence, Leila, and Dawn (L to R) answer questions from the public.

Our science is interdisciplinary, and we recognize the strength of multiple complimentary avenues of action to affect change.  If you are looking to get involved, consider taking a look at these groups:

500 Women Scientists: “working to promote a diverse and inclusive scientific community that brings progressive science-based solutions to local and global challenges.” Read their take on the March for Science.

314Action: starting from Pi (3.14), their mission is “to (1) strengthen communication among the STEM community, the public and our elected officials, (2) Educate and advocate for and defend the integrity of science and its use, (3) Provide a voice for the STEM community on social issues, (4) Promote the responsible use of data driven fact based approaches in public policy and (5) Increase public engagement with the STEM Community through media.”

She should run: “A movement working to create a culture that inspires women and girls to aspire towards public leadership. We believe that women of all backgrounds should have an equal shot at elected leadership and that our country will benefit from having a government with varied perspectives and experiences.” https://peoplesclimate.org/

And finally, The March for Science is finishing up it’s week of action, culminating in the People’s Climate March on April 29.

How will you carry the cause of science forward?

 

New aerial footage captures blue whale lunge feeding!

By Dawn Barlow, MSc student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

This past field season the New Zealand blue whale team was lucky enough to capture something spectacular – an aerial view of a blue whale surface lunge feeding. I invite you to view the footage and listen to Leigh’s narration of the event in the video below!

Below is the full press release, written by Mark Floyd:

NEWPORT, Ore. – Blue whales didn’t become the largest animals ever to live on Earth by being dainty eaters and new video captured by scientists at Oregon State University shows just how they pick and choose their meals.

There is a reason for their discretion, researchers say. The whales are so massive – sometimes growing to the length of three school buses – that they must carefully balance the energy gained through their food intake with the energetic costs of feeding.

“Modeling studies of blue whales ‘lunge-feeding’ theorize that they will not put energy into feeding on low-reward prey patches,” said Leigh Torres, a principal investigator with the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State, who led the expedition studying the blue whales. “Our footage shows this theory in action. We can see the whale making choices, which is really extraordinary because aerial observations of blue whales feeding on krill are rare.”

“The whale bypasses certain krill patches – presumably because the nutritional payoff isn’t sufficient – and targets other krill patches that are more lucrative. We think this is because blue whales are so big, and stopping to lunge-feed and then speeding up again is so energy-intensive, that they try to maximize their effort.”

The video, captured in the Southern Ocean off New Zealand, shows a blue whale cruising toward a large mass of krill – roughly the size of the whale itself. The animal then turns on its side, orients toward the beginning of the krill swarm, and proceeds along its axis through the entire patch, devouring nearly the entire krill mass.

In another vignette, the same whale approaches a smaller mass of krill, which lies more perpendicular to its approach, and blasts through it without feeding.

“We had theorized that blue whales make choices like this and the video makes it clear that they do use such a strategy,” explained Torres, who works out of Oregon State’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon. “It certainly appears that the whale determined that amount of krill to be gained, and the effort it would take to consume the meal wasn’t worth the effort of slowing down.

“It would be like me driving a car and braking every 100 yards, then accelerating again. Whales need to be choosy about when to apply the brakes to feed on a patch of krill.”

The researchers analyzed the whale’s lunge-feeding and found that it approached the krill patch at about 6.7 miles per hour. The act of opening its enormous mouth to feed slowed the whale down to 1.1 mph – and getting that big body back up to cruising speed again requires a lot of energy.

The rare footage was possible through the use of small drones. The OSU team is trained to fly them over whales and was able to view blue whales from a unique perspective.

“It’s hard to get good footage from a ship,” Torres said, “and planes or helicopters can be invasive because of their noise. The drone allows us to get new angles on the whales without bothering them.”

Reporting back on the Whales in a Changing Ocean Conference

Solène Derville, Entropie Lab, Institute of Research for Development, Nouméa, New Caledonia (Ph.D. student under the co-supervision of Dr. Leigh Torres)

My flight back to New Caledonia gives me time to think and process all that I have experienced in the last few days. From April 4th to 6th, I had the great opportunity to attend the “Whales in a Changing Ocean” conference held in Nuku’alofa, in the Kingdom of Tonga. This conference organized by SPREP (Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme) as part of the “Protect Pacific Whales – Ocean Voyagers” campaign brought together members of the Pacific Island governments, whale-watching operators, NGOs, IGOS and scientists.

Opening ceremony

As a relatively novice PhD student studying humpback whale spatial ecology in New Caledonia this was my first experience attending a conservation and management focused conference. To be completely honest, when I was asked to attend the conference as part of the work I am conducting on the effect of environmental changes on humpbacks of the South Pacific breeding grounds, I gladly accepted the offer, as an opportunity for me to learn more about the political mechanisms underlying international conservation plans. However, I was a little sceptical as to what tangible outputs could come out of such event. How would the science be integrated into this rather political event? How many delegations would be able to make it? Would they manage to agree on strong objectives regarding the conservation of cetaceans in the region?

Leena Riekkola, a PhD student at University of Auckland, and I with traditional flower necklaces offered by the organizers

On the first day of the conference, we sat through several hours of formal opening ceremony and comments from the governmental delegations that had travelled to Tonga from all over the Pacific: Samoa, Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu, Niue, French Polynesia, New Zealand, Australia, the Cook Islands, Palau, Fiji and many others. These comments mainly consisted of a succession of (well deserved) acknowledgments to the Tongan government for hosting the event and the enumeration of the endless list of threats faced by cetaceans in the region. Despite the tedious nature of this inevitable display of etiquette, I was impressed by the sight of all these governmental and non-governmental delegations sitting around the same table to discuss the future of whales. I was surprised to hear a note of emotion in several of the speeches that day. I clearly had not realized how valuable whales are to the Pacific islanders. Valuable economically of course, as whale watching is one of the most important drivers of tourism to several of these islands, most of all to Tonga. But also importantly, whales and dolphins bear a strong cultural value to the people of the Pacific. Many of the attendees shared stories and legends about whales, and I quickly realized that these animals were indeed a “cultural heritage” that people were eager to protect and preserve.

The next two days of the conference were built around a series of plenaries and workshops surrounding 3 themes: sustainable whale-watching, scientific research and emerging threats. While I was initially a bit lost and did not quite understand where all of this was going, I progressively saw several recommendations and objectives emerging from the discussions. By the end of the conference, I realized how much had been accomplished in only three days and that these achievements were more than just words. Four main outcomes resulted from this conference:

  • The commitment to adopt and sign a Pacific Island Year of the Whale Declaration by 11 nations/territories of the region (out of 21), namely: Australia, the Cook Islands, Fiji, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga, Tokelau and Tuvalu. Not all of the governmental representatives were able to sign but it is likely that some will join later.

  • The agreement to a voluntary commitment to “Protect, conserve and restore whale populations in the Pacific islands, which will be presented at the UN Oceans conference in June 2017.
  • A technical and scientific input from international working groups to help establish the next SPREP Whale and Dolphin Action Plan for 2018-2023

  • Tonga’s announcement of a whale sanctuary in their waters.

    Governmental representatives group photo after signing the Pacific Island Year of the Whale Declaration

Whether these declarations of intentions and recommendations will actually lead to tangible actions in the short term, I could not tell. But I am glad I got the opportunity to witness the very first regional conference on whales in the Pacific Islands, and the celebration of these beautiful creatures and their place in Pacific cultures.

How Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS, aka “drones”) are being applied in conservation research

By Leila Lemos, Ph.D. Student, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, OSU

 

Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), also known as “drones”, have been increasingly used in many diverse areas. Concerning field research, the use of drones has brought about reduced errors, increased safety and survey efforts, among other benefits, as described in a previous blog post of mine.

Several study groups around the world have been applying this new technology to a great variety of research applications, aiding in the conservation of certain areas and their respective fauna and flora. Examples of these studies include forest monitoring and tree cover analyses, .

Using drones for forest monitoring and tree cover analyses allows for many applications, such as biodiversity and tree height monitoring, forest classification and inventory, and plant disease and detection. The Ugalla Primate Project, for example, performed an interesting study on tree coverage mapping in western Tanzania (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Tree coverage analyses in Tanzania.
Source: Conservation Drones, 2016.

 

The access to this data (not possible before from the ground) and the acquired knowledge on tree density and structure were important to better understand how wild primates exploit a mosaic landscape. Here is a video about this project:

 

Forest restoration activities can also be monitored by drones. Rainforests around the world have been depleted through deforestation, partly to open up space for agriculture. To meet conservation goals, large areas are being restored to rainforests today (Elsevier 2015). It is important to monitor the success of the forest regeneration and to ensure that the inspected area is being replenished with the right vegetation. Since inspection events can be costly, labor intensive and time consuming, drones can facilitate these procedures, making the monitoring process more feasible.

Zahawi et al. (2015) conducted an interesting study in Costa Rica, being able to keep up with the success of the forest regeneration. They were also able to spot many fruit-eating birds important for forest regeneration (eg. mountain thrush, black guan and sooty-capped bush tanager). Researchers concluded that the automation of the process lead to equally accurate results.

Drones can also be used to inspect areas for illegal logging and habitat destruction. Conservationists have struggled to identify illegal activities, and the use of drones can accelerate the identification process of these activities and help to monitor their spread and ensure that they do not intersect with protected areas.

The Amazon Basin Conservation Association Los Amigos conservancy concession (LACC) has been monitoring 145,000 hectars of the local conservation area. Illegal gold mining and logging activities were identified (Figure 2) and drones have aided in tracking the spread of these activities and the progress of reforestation efforts.

Figure 2: Identification of illegal activities in the Amazon Basin.
Source: NPR, 2015.

 

Another remarkable project was held in Mexico, in one of the most important sites for monarch butterflies in the country: the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. Around 10 hectars of vital trees were cut down in the reserve during 2013-2015, and a great decrease of the monarch population was perceived. The reserve did not allow researchers to enter in the area for inspection due to safety concerns. Therefore, drones were used and were able to reveal the illegal logging activity (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Identification of illegal logging at the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, Mexico.
Source: Take Part, 2016.

 

Regarding the use of drones for mapping vulnerable areas, this new technology can be used to map potential exposed areas to avoid catastrophes. Concerning responses to fires or other natural disasters, drones can fly immediately, while planes and helicopters require a certain time. The drone material also allows for operating successfully under challenging conditions such as rain, snow and high temperatures, as in the case of fires. Data can be assessed in real time, with no need to have firefighters or other personnel at a dangerous location anymore. Drones can now fulfill this role. Examples of drone applications in this regard are the detection, monitoring and support for catastrophes such as landslides, tsunamis, ship collisions, volcanic eruptions, nuclear accidents, fire scenes, flooding, storms and hurricanes, and rescue of people and wildlife at risk. In addition, the use of a thermal image camera can better assist in rescue operations.

Researchers from the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (UPM) are developing a system to detect forest fires by using a color index (Cruz et al. 2016). This index is based on vegetation classification techniques that have been adapted to detect different tonalities for flames and smoke (Figure 4). This new technique would result in more cost-effective outcomes than conventional systems (eg. helicopters, satellites) and in reaching inaccessible locations.

Figure 4: Fire detection with Forest Fire Detection Index (FFDI) in different scenes.
Source: UPM, 2016.

 

Marine debris detection by drones is another great functionality. The right localization and the extent of the problem can be detected through drone footage, and action plans for clean-ups can be developed.

A research conducted by the Duke University Marine Lab has been detecting marine debris on beaches around the world. They indicate that marine debris impacts water quality, and harms wildlife (eg. whales, sea birds, seals and sea turtles) that might confuse floating plastic with food. You can read a bit more about their research and its importance for conservation ends here.

Drones are also being extensively used for wildlife monitoring. Through drone footage, researchers around the world have been able to detect and map wildlife and habitat use, estimate densities and evaluate population status, detect rare behaviors, combat poaching, among others. One of the main benefits of using a drone instead of using helicopters or airplanes, or having researchers in the area, is the lower disturbance it may cause on wildlife.

A research team from Monash University is using drones for seabird monitoring in remote islands in northwestern Australia (Figure 5). After some tests, researchers were able to detect which altitude (~75 meters) the drone would not cause any disturbances to the birds. Results achieved by projects like this should be used in the future for approaching the species safely.

Figure 5: Photograph taken by a drone of a crested tern colony on a remote island in Australia.
Source: Conservation Drones, 2014.

 

Drones are also being used to combat elephant and rhino poaching in Africa. They are being implemented to predict, trace, track and catch suspects of poaching. The aim is to reduce the number of animals being killed for the detusking and dehorning practices and the illegal trade. You can read more about this theme here. The drone application on combating one of these illegal practices is also shown here in this video.

As if the innovation of this device alone was not enough, drones are also being used to load other tools. A good example is the collection of whale breath samples by attaching Petri dishes or sterile sponges in the basal part of the drones.

The collection of lung samples allows many health-monitoring applications, such as the analysis of virus and bacteria loads, DNA, hormones, and the detection of environmental toxins in their organisms. This non-invasive physiological tool, known as “Snotbot”, allows sampling collection without approaching closely the individuals and with minimal or no disturbance of the animals. The following video better describes about this amazing project:

It is inspiring to look at all of these wonderful applications of drones in conservation research. Our GEMM Lab team is already applying this great tool in the field and is hoping to support the conservation of wildlife.

 

 

References

Conservation Drones. 2014. Conservation Drones for Seabird Monitoring. Available at: https://conservationdrones.org/2014/05/05/conservation-drones-for-seabird-monitoring/

Conservation Drones. 2016. Tree cover analyses in Tanzania in collaboration with Envirodrone. Available at: https://conservationdrones.org/2016/09/17/tree-cover-analyses-in-tanzania-in-collaboration-with-envirodrone/

Cruz H, Eckert M, Meneses J and Martínez JF. 2016. Efficient Forest Fire Detection Index for Application in Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs). Sensors 16(893):1-16.

Elsevier. 2015. Drones Could Make Forest Conservation Monitoring Significantly Cheaper: new study published in the Biological Conservation wins Elsevier’s Atlas award for September 2015. Available at: https://www.elsevier.com/about/press-releases/research-and-journals/drones-could-make-forest-conservation-monitoring significantly-cheaper

NPR. 2015. Eyes In The Sky: Foam Drones Keep Watch On Rain Forest Trees. Available at: http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2015/05/19/398765759/eyes-in-the-sky-styrofoam-drones-keep-watch-on-rainforest-trees

Take Part. 2016. Drones Uncover Illegal Logging in Critical Monarch Butterfly Reserve. Available at: http://www.takepart.com/article/2016/06/22/drones-uncover-illegal-logging-monarch-butterfly-habitat

UPM. 2016. New automatic forest fire detection system by using surveillance drones. Available at: http://www.upm.es/internacional/UPM/UPM_Channel/News/dc52fff26abf7510VgnVCM10000009c7648aRCRD

Zahawi RA, Dandois JP, Holl KD, Nadwodny D, Reid JL and Ellis EC. 2015. Using lightweight unmanned aerial vehicles to monitor tropical forest recovery. Biological Conservation 186:287–295.

 

Beyond the Rock: Using Satellite Trackers to Study the Lives of Common Murres

By Stephanie Loredo, Seabird Oceanography Lab, OSU

Photo credit: Seabird Oceanography Lab

Common murres (Uria aalgee) are the most abundant seabird on the Oregon Coast. At least half of the population in the California Current Ecosystem breeds on the Oregon Coast (half a million seabirds). This makes them ecologically important consumers of forage fish, especially during the breeding season when they use state-waters.

While they spend most of their time at sea, murres must come to shore to breed. During this time, they are highly visible by humans as they breed in large masses on rocky islands. While they are not the most agile on land, due to their short and stubby legs, they are actually amazing divers. Their short flipper-like wings help them swim, and they typically reach depths of 30-60m to catch their prey.

Aside from their underwater aviation skills, they make great parents as well. Both parents will incubate and care for their chick – murres only lay one egg a year – until they fledge; once they leave the rock, male murres take full responsibility for their chicks while the moms go on vacation (they worked hard to lay the egg so they need some time to recuperate). After the breeding season, murres leave the rock in large quantities – this is often the last time humans will see them this year in large aggregations from shore.

Despite their omnipresence and importance as a marine predator in Oregon, there is still a lot we don’t know about murres. Where do murres go when they are not breeding? Do they migrate? Where do they feed during the breeding and non-breeding period? What habitat characteristics are associated with feeding areas? By answering these questions, we increase knowledge of murre ecology in Oregon. Moreover, a more comprehensive understanding of the year-round movements of murres aids marine spatial planners take more informed actions on the current decisions regarding offshore renewable energy development. This is what I hope to achieve through my Masters research project at OSU.

Most of what is known about the offshore distribution of murres in Oregon comes from vessel observations. However, vessel data only provide snapshots in time, and not a continuous picture of area-use. Within the Seabird Oceanography Lab (SOL), we are using individual satellite tracking devices to follow the movements of murres associated with the Yaquina Head colony, which is a prominent breeding colony in Oregon located near Newport.

A common murre displaying a satellite tag prior to release.

SOL was able to track 15 common murres associated with the Yaquina Head colony in 2015 and 2016.  These tags were deployed periodically throughout the breeding period and have been successful in tracking birds for up to three months. Thus far, we have tracking data ranging from May to December (only one bird tracked during December).

Tracking data from 2015 and 2016 of murres off the Yaquina Head colony provide an interesting comparison.  In both years, murres experienced warmer ocean conditions, high Bald eagle disturbance rates, and consequently high Western gull egg predation at the colony. Some data also indicate low prey availability.  The combination of all these factors is most likely the reason for the observed reproductive failure at the colony in both years. Tracking data showed that 13 of the 15 birds tagged dispersed from the colony earlier than expected. The maps below summarize the dispersal of birds by year and by time of deployment.

 

Each map (Left: 2015, Right: 2016) illustrates all birds that dispersed from the colony and did not engage in central-place foraging (feeding trips to and from the colony). Sample size: n2015=7, n2016_spring=1, n2016_summer=3.

Most birds made a northward movement and traveled as far north as British Columbia, Canada.  Along their movement north, they used inlets and bays, but one of the most prominent areas used was the Columbia River plume. Birds used the Columbia River mouth area during the summer and fall, with the most time spent there during the summer. Dispersal from the colony was not what we expected; we expected individuals to breed on colony and engage in central-place foraging  (feeding to and from the breeding site) nearshore until mid-August when they usually leave the rock. However, we are still interested in the habitat characteristics of feeding areas and the conditions that led to movement from one feeding area to the next.

Prior to examining habitat associations of murre feeding areas, we must first determine their behavior state at each point location derived from the satellite tags.  After data cleaning and filtering out erroneous locations, we applied a behavioral analysis (Residence in Space and Time method) to determine behaviors associated with each point location. This analysis has allowed us to distinguish between intensive foraging, transiting, and extensive foraging. Extensive foraging locations can be interpreted as a set of locations that are mostly spread out in space, where murres searched for prey. On the other hand, intensive foraging locations can be interpreted as a set of locations that are very close together in space where murres likely found prey, and thus spent more time.

We are finalizing the extraction of environmental data for each point location from satellite data. Once all data are extracted, we can begin analysis for determining what environmental conditions were sought during dispersal and what types of habitats are preferred. Some of the ocean conditions that will be examined are sea surface temperate, wind, upwelling index, and primary net productivity. Some other habitat descriptors we are interested in assessing are substrate, distance to river mouth, salinity, depth, distance to the 200-m isobath, and distance to shore. For now, exploration of data indicates differences in habitat associations by behavior and between seasons.

Sample size means everything in a study like this so I am happy to say that more data is yet to come: SOL plans to deploy 15 more tags during spring and summer of 2017. I am excited to see what the additional tagged murres will do, and whether they will follow a pattern similar to those tracked in 2015 and 2016. However this time around, we will deploy tags as late in the summer/early fall as we can, in hope of acquiring some novel winter data to fill this knowledge gap. If we are successful, we may finally have a better idea of what life is like for common murres during more of the year beyond the rock.

 

Celebrating Hydrothermal Vents!

By Florence Sullivan, MSc Student OSU

40 years ago, in 1977 OSU researchers led an NSF funded expedition to the Galapagos on a hunt for suspected hydrothermal vents. From the 1960s to the mid-1970s, mounting evidence such as (1) temperature anomalies found deep in the water column, (2) conduction heat flow probes at mid ocean ridges recording temperatures much lower than expected, (3) unusual mounds found on benthic mapping surveys, and (4) frequent, small, localized earthquakes at mid oceanic ridges, had the oceanographic community suspecting the existence of deep sea hydrothermal vents. However, until the 1977 cruise, no one had conclusive evidence that they existed.  During the discovery cruise at the Galapagos rift, the PI (principle investigator), Dr. Jack Corliss from OSU, used tow-yos (a technique where you drag a CTD up and down through the water in a zig zag pattern – see gif) to pinpoint the location of the hydrothermal vent plume. The team then sent the Deep Submergence Vehicle (DSV) Alvin to investigate and returned with the first photographs and samples from a hydrothermal vent. While discovery of the vent systems helped answer many questions about chemical and heat fluxes in the deep sea, it generated so many new questions that novel fields of study were created in biology, microbiology, marine chemistry, marine geology, planetary science, astrobiology and the study of the origin of life.

 “Literally every organism that came up was something that was unknown to science up until that time. It made it terribly exciting. Anything that came [up] on that basket was a new discovery,” – Dr. Richard Lutz (Rutgers University)

In celebration of this great discovery, OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences sponsored a seminar looking at the past, present, and future of hydrothermal vent sciences. Dr. Robert Collier began with a timeline of how the search for hydrothermal vents began, and a commemoration of all the excellent researchers and collaborations between institutions and agencies that made the discovery possible. He acknowledged that such collaborations are often somewhat tense in terms of who gets credit for which discovery, and that while Oregon State University was the lead of the project, it takes a team to get the work done.  Dr. Jack Corliss proudly followed up with a wonderful rambling explanation of how vent systems work, and a brief dip into his ground breaking paper, “An Hypothesis concerning the relationship between submarine hot springs and the origin of life on Earth.” Published in 1981, with co-authors Dr. John Baross and Dr. Sarah Hoffman, they postulate that the temperature and chemical gradients seen at hydrothermal vents provide pathways for the synthesis of chemical compounds, formation and evolution of ‘precells’ and eventually, the evolution of free living organisms.

Dr. Corliss, Dr. Baross, and Dr. Hoffman were the first to suggest the now popular theory of the origin of life at hydrothermal vents. (click on image to read full paper)

Because of time constraints, the podium was swiftly handed over to Dr. Bill Chadwick (NOAA PMEL/ HMSC CIMRS) who brought us forward to the present day with an exciting overview of current vent research.  He began by saying “at the beginning, we thought, ‘No one has seen one of these systems before, they must be very rare…’ Now, we have found them [hydrothermal vents] in every ocean basin – including the arctic and southern oceans. We just needed to know how to look!”  Dr. Chadwick also reminded us that even 40 years later, new discoveries are still being made. For example, on his most recent cruise aboard the R/V Falkor in December 2016, they found a sulfur chimney that was alternately releasing bubbles of gas (sulfur, CO2 or other, hard to know without sampling) or bubbles of liquid sulfur! Check out the video below:

Some of the goals for this recent cruise included mapping new areas of the Mariana back-arc, and investigating differences in the biological communities between vents in the Mariana trench region (a subduction zone) and vents in the back arc (a spreading zone) to see if geology plays a role in biological community composition.  For some very cool video footage of the expedition and the various dives performed by the brand new ROV SUBastian (because all scientists love puns), check out the Schmidt Ocean Institute youtube channel.

Dr. Chadwick showed this video to highlight results from his last cruise.

Finally, Dr. Andrew Thurber wrapped up the session with some thoughts about hydrothermal vents from the perspective of an ecosystem services model. Even after 40 years of research, there are still many unknowns about these ecosystems.  Individual vent systems are inherently unique due to their deep sea isolation. However, most explored sites have revealed metals and mineral deposits that have generated a lot of interest from commercial sea floor mining companies. Exploitation of these deposits would be an example of ecosystem “provisioning services” (products that are obtained from the ecosystem). Other examples include the biology of the vents as a source of new genetic material, and the thermal and chemical gradients as natural laboratories that could lead to breakthroughs in pharmaceutical research. Cultural services are those non-material benefits that people obtain from an ecosystem. At hydrothermal vents these include new scientific discoveries, educational uses (British children’s television show “The Octonauts,” has several episodes featuring hydrothermal vent creatures), and creative inspiration for artists and others. Dr. Thurber cautions that there are ethical questions to be answered before considering exploitation of these resources, but there is a lot of potential for commercial and non-commercial use of vent ecosystems.

Vent inspired art by Lily Simonson

As an undergraduate at the University of Washington, I spent time as a research assistant in Dr. John Baross’ astrobiology lab. We studied evolutionary pathways of hydrothermal vent viruses and bacteria to inform the search for life on exoplanets such as Jupiter’s moon Europa.  It was very fun and exciting for me to attend this seminar, hear stories from pioneers in the field, and remember the systems I worked on in undergrad.  I may have moved up the food chain a little now, but as we all work on our pieces of the puzzle, it is important for scientists to remember the interdisciplinary nature of our work, and how there is always something more to learn.