What does it mean to be an effective science communicator?

By Dominique Kone, Masters Student in Marine Resource Management

To succeed as a scientist, you not only need to be well-trained in the scientific method, but also be familiar with the standards and practices in your discipline. While many scientists are skilled in the production of scientific information, fewer are as well-prepared to disseminate and communicate that information to diverse audiences. As a graduate student, learning effective science communication is one of my top priorities because I believe scientific information can and should be accessible to everyone. As I’ve been building and expanding upon my own communication toolbox, I constantly ask myself, what is effective science communication?

Simply put, communication can be thought of as the two-way transfer of information and knowledge. On one side, information is broadcasted and amplified out into the world, and on the other side, that information is received and understood, ideally. If communicating were this easy, people would never have to worry about being misinterpreted. Yet, this ideal is far from reality, and information is oftentimes misconstrued and/or ignored. This scenario is quite common when scientists communicate technical concepts or findings to non-scientists, either due to differences in communication styles or terminology use. In connecting with these types of audiences, I think effective science communication is a function of three key qualities: intentionality, creativity, and knowledge.

Source: ISTOCKPHOTO/THINKSTOCK

Intentionality

When scientists communicate information, being intentional with what they say and when they say it, can greatly influence how messages resonate with their audience. There’s often a big disconnect between the very specific scientific terms scientists use and the terms their non-technical audiences use. One way scientists can bridge this disconnect and be more intentional (thoughtful), is with word-choice. When scientists change their words, this doesn’t mean they “dumb down” their presentations; rather, they substitute words to better explain concepts in terms the audience easily understands. For example, if I tell the public “I’m predicting sea otter populations at carrying capacity in Oregon using a Bayesian habitat model”, this sentence has three jargon words (carrying capacity, Bayesian, model) that likely mean nothing to this audience. Instead, what I say is, “I’m predicting how many sea otters could live in Oregon based on available habitat”. Now I’m speaking in terms that resonate with my audience, and I have effectively made the same point. An intentional science communicator knows how to deliver information to meet their audience’s ability to take in and process that information.

Source: Andrew Grossman

Creativity

Scientists typically follow structured and defensible protocols when conducting analyses. Far fewer standards apply to how they communicate that research, which can free them up to be more creative in their delivery. One way scientists can be both intentional and creative is by using analogies, examples, or metaphors. When I give talks, I always talk about the high metabolism of sea otters (30% of their own body weight in food, daily) (Costa 1978, Riedman & Estes 1990). Most researchers seem intrigued by this fact, but anyone younger than the age of 10, honestly, could care less. To catch their attention, I always follow up this fact by estimating how many pizza slices I would need to eat to reach that daily food requirement, based on my own weight (230 pizza slices, if you’re curious). By using this analogy, my young audience not only understands my point, but they’re now way more interested because they can’t fathom a human eating that much pizza. It’s a simple comparison, but effective.

Creativity can also be applied to the different ways scientific information is delivered. Scientists regularly publish their work in peer-review scientific journals to reach other scientists. But they also produce short reports and fact sheets to briefly summarize studies for managers or policy-makers. They hold events or workshops to engage stakeholders. They use blogs, webpages, and YouTube to reach the broader public. They even use Twitter to share papers! Scientists do so much more than just publishing their work, and they have several options for delivering and communicating their research. All these different options create more opportunities for scientists to experiment and find new and exciting ways to deliver their science.

A stoic scientist communicating to the masses. Source: Dave Allen via NIWA.

Knowledge

It’s important for scientists to be knowledgeable about their subjects when communicating, but they can’t know everything. Rather, I think a more reasonable goal is for scientists to be comfortable and prepared to say what they know and what they don’t know. Scientists have a thirst for knowledge, but some communicate false information because they have a drive to answer every question they’re asked. They can sometimes get into trouble when they’re asked to talk about something they’re less familiar with. When asked a difficult question, I’ve witnessed a lot of scientists say, “I don’t know”, or, “I don’t know, but I could speculate [insert answer] based on other information”.  This response allows them to answer the question, while also being truthful. The alternative could have real negative implications (e.g. a certain President spreading false information about a dangerous hurricane).

Aside from factual knowledge, contextual knowledge is underappreciated in science communication, but can be vitally important. Some management issues are politically contentious, and effective science communicators can play vital roles in those management processes or actions. One study found that by scientists engaging with stakeholders in the planning process for renewable energy development along the coast of Maine, community members felt the development planning process was being conducted in the most effective manner (Johnson et al. 2015). In this example, a seemingly contentious situation was defused because scientists understood the political and social landscape, and were able to carefully communicate with stakeholders before any management actions took place. Scientists are not required to engage with stakeholders to this degree, but being sensitive to the broader (political, social, cultural, economic) environment in which those stakeholders live and operate can help them better target your messages and relieve potential tension.

GEMM Lab booth at Hatfield Marine Science Day! Source: Leila Lemos.

These three qualities (intentionality, creativity, and knowledge) are not meant to serve as hard, fast science communication rules. Instead, these are simply some qualities I’ve observed in other scientists skilled in effective communication. Scientists don’t automatically enter this space as expert communicators. For those that are great at it, it probably took some time and practice to hone their skills and find their own voice. It might come more naturally to some scientists, but I would argue most – like myself – have to work really hard to develop those skills. As I progress through my career, I’m excited to develop my own skills in effective science communication, and perhaps discover new and exciting approaches along the way.

References:

Costa, D. P. 1978. The ecological energetics, water, and electrolyte balance of the California sea otter (Enhydra lutris). Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Santa Cruz.

Reidman, M. L. and J. A. Estes. 1990. The sea otter (Enhydra lutris): behavior, ecology, and natural history. United States Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, Biological Report. 90: 1-126.

Johnson, T. R., Jansujwiez, J. S., and G. Zydlewski. 2015. Tidal power development n Maine: stakeholder identification and perceptions of engagement. Estuaries and Coasts 38: S266-S278.

The Seascape of Fear: What are the ecological implications of being afraid in the marine environment?

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

In the GEMM Lab, our research focuses largely on the ecology of marine top predators. Inherent in our work are often assumptions that our study species—wide-ranging predators including whales, dolphins, otters, or seabirds—will distribute themselves relative to their prey. In order to make a living in the highly patchy and dynamic marine environment, predators must find ways to predictably locate and exploit prey resources.

But what about the prey? How do the prey structure themselves relative to their predators? This question is explored in depth in a paper titled “The Landscape of Fear: Ecological Implications of Being Afraid” (Laundre et al. 2010), which we discussed in our most recent lab meeting. When wolves were re-introduced in Yellowstone, the elk increased their vigilance and altered their grazing patterns. As a result, the plant community was altered to reflect this “landscape of fear” that the elk move through, where their distribution not only reflected opportunities for the elk to eat but also the risk of being eaten.

Translating the landscape of fear concept to the marine environment is tricky, but a fascinating exercise in ecological theory. We grappled with drawing parallels between the example system of wolves, elk, and vegetation and baleen whales, zooplankton, and phytoplankton. Relative to grazing mammals like elk, the cognitive abilities of zooplankton like krill, copepods, and mysid might pale in comparison. How could we possibly measure “fear” or “vigilance” in zooplankton? The swarming behavior of mysid and krill into dense patches is a defense mechanism—the strategy they have evolved to lessen the likelihood that any one of them will be eaten by a predator. I would posit that the diel vertical migration (DVM) of zooplankton is a manifestation of fear, at least on some level. DVM occurs over the course of each day, with plankton in pelagic ecosystems migrating vertically in the water column to avoid predators by hiding at depth during the daylight hours, and then swimming upward to feed on phytoplankton under the cover of darkness. I won’t speculate any further on the intelligence of zooplankton, but the need to survive predation has driven them to evolve this effective evolutionary strategy of hiding in the ocean’s twilight zone, swimming upward to feed only after dark so that they’re less likely to linger in spaces occupied by predators.

Laundre et al. (2010) present a visual representation of the landscape of fear (Fig. 1, reproduced below), where as an animal moves through space (represented as distance in meters or kilometers, for example), they also move through varying levels of predation risk. Environmental gradients (temperature, for example) tend to be much more stable across space in terrestrial ecosystems such as in the Yellowstone example from the paper. I wonder whether the same concept and visual depiction of a landscape of fear could be translated as risk across various environmental gradients, rather than geographic distances? In this proposed illustration, a landscape of fear would vary based on gradients of environmental conditions rather than geographic space. Such a shift in spatial reference —from geographic to environmental space—might make the model more applicable in the dynamic ocean ecosystems that we study.

What about cases when the predators we study become prey? One example we discussed was gray whales migrating from breeding lagoons in Mexico to feeding grounds in the Bering Sea. Mother-calf pairs hug the coastline tightly, by no means taking the most direct route between locations and adding considerable travel distance to their migration. The leading hypothesis is that mother gray whales take the coastal route to minimize the risk that their calves will fall prey to killer whale attacks. Are there other cases where the predators we study operate in a seascape of fear that we do not yet understand? Likely so, and the predators’ own seascape of fear may account for cases when we cannot explain predator distribution simply by their prey and their environment. To take this a step further, it might be beneficial not only to think of predation risk as only the potential to be eaten, but expand our definition to include human disturbance. While humans may not directly prey on marine predators, the disturbance from human activity in the ocean likely creates a layer of fear which animals must navigate, even in the absence of actual predation.

Our lively lab meeting discussion prompted me to look into how the landscape of fear model has been applied to the highly dynamic and intricate marine environment. In a study examining predator-prey dynamics of three species of marine mammals—bottlenose dolphins, harbor seals, and dugongs—Wirsing et al. (2007) found that in all three cases, the study species spent less time in more desirable prey patches or decreased riskier behavior in the presence of predators. Most studies in marine ecology are observational, as we rarely have the opportunity to manipulate our study system for experimental design and hypothesis testing. However, a study of coral reefs in the Florida Keys conducted by Catano et al. (2015) used fabricated predators—decoys of black grouper, a predatory fish—to investigate the influence of fear of predation on the reef system. What they found was that herbivorous fish consumed significantly less and fed at a much faster rate in the presence of this decoy predator. The grouper, even in decoy form, created a “reefscape of fear”, altering patterns in herbivory with potential ramifications for the entire ecosystem.

My takeaway from our discussion and my musings in this week’s blog post is that predator and prey distribution and behavior is highly interconnected. While predators distribute themselves to maximize their ability to find a meal, their prey respond accordingly by balancing finding a meal of their own with minimizing the risk that they will be eaten. Ecology is the study of an ecosystem, which means the questions we ask are complicated and hierarchical, and must be considered from multiple angles, accounting for biological, environmental, and behavioral elements to name a few. These challenges of studying ecosystems are simultaneously what make ecology fascinating, and exciting.

References:

Laundré, J. W., Hernández, L., & Ripple, W. J. (2010). The landscape of fear: ecological implications of being afraid. Open Ecology Journal3, 1-7.

Catano, L. B., Rojas, M. C., Malossi, R. J., Peters, J. R., Heithaus, M. R., Fourqurean, J. W., & Burkepile, D. E. (2016). Reefscapes of fear: predation risk and reef hetero‐geneity interact to shape herbivore foraging behaviour. Journal of Animal Ecology85(1), 146-156.

Wirsing, A. J., Heithaus, M. R., Frid, A., & Dill, L. M. (2008). Seascapes of fear: evaluating sublethal predator effects experienced and generated by marine mammals. Marine Mammal Science24(1), 1-15.

Burning it down

By Leila S. Lemos, PhD Candidate in Wildlife Sciences, Fisheries and Wildlife Department, OSU

As you might know, the GEMM Lab (Geospatial Ecology of MARINE Megafauna Laboratory) researches the marine environment, but today I am going to leave the marine ecosystem aside and I will discuss the Amazon biome. As a Brazilian, I cannot think of anything else to talk about this week than the terrifying fire that is burning down the Amazon forest in this exact minute.

For some context, the Amazon biome is known as the biome with the highest biodiversity in the world (ICMBio, 2019). It is the largest biome in Brazil, accounting for ~49% of the Brazilian territory. This biome houses the biggest tropical forest and hydrographic basin in the world. The Amazon forest also extends through eight other countries: Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guiana, French Guiana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela. To date, at least 40,000 plant species, 427 mammals, 1,300 birds, 378 reptiles, more than 400 amphibians, around 3,000 freshwater fishes, and around 100,000 invertebrate species have been described by scientists in the Amazon, comprising more than 1/3 of all fauna species on the planet (Da Silva et al. 2005, Lewinsohn and Prado 2005). And, these numbers are likely to increase; According to Patterson (2000), one new genus and eight new species of Neotropical mammals are discovered each year in the region.

I feel very connected to the Amazon as I worked as an environmental consultant and field coordinator in 2014 and 2015 (Figs. 1 and 2) along the Madeira river (or “Wood” river) in Rondonia, Brazil (Fig. 3). I monitored Amazon river dolphins (Inia geoffrensis; Fig. 4), a species considered endangered by the IUCN Red List in 2018 (Da Silva et al. 2018). The Madeira river originates in Bolivia and flows into the great Amazon river, comprising one of its main tributaries (Fig. 3).

Figure 1: Me, working along the Madeira river, Rondonia, Brazil, in 2015.
Source: Laura K. Honda, 2015.

Figure 2: Me, helping to rescue a sloth from the Madeira river, Rondonia, Brazil, in 2014.
Source: Roberta Lanziani, 2014.

Figure 3: The Amazon hydrographic basin, with the Madeira river highlighted.
Source: Wikipedia, 2019.

Figure 4: Amazon river dolphins (I. geoffrensis) along the Madeira river, Rondonia, Brazil.
Source: Leila S. Lemos, 2014; 2015.

Here is also a video where you can see some Amazon river dolphins along the Madeira river:

Source: Leila S. Lemos, 2014; 2015.

In addition to the dolphins, I witnessed the presence of many other fauna specimens like birds (including macaws and parrots), monkeys, alligators and sloths (Fig. 5). The biodiversity of the Amazon is unquestionable.

Figure 5: Macaws (Ara chloropterus), parrots (Amazona sp.) and the Guariba monkey or brown howler (Allouatta guariba) along the Madeira river, Rondonia, Brazil.
Source: Leila S. Lemos

Other than its great biodiversity, the Amazon is known as the “lungs of the Earth”, which is an erroneous statement since plants consume as much oxygen as they produce (Malhi et al. 2008, Malhi 2019). But still, the Amazon forest is responsible for 16% of the oxygen produced by photosynthesis on land and 9% of the oxygen on the global scale (Fig. 6). This seems a small percentage, but it is still substantial, especially because the plants use carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, which accounts for a 10% reduction of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Thus, imagine if there was no Amazon rainforest. The rise in carbon dioxide would be enormous and have serious implications on the global climate, surpassing safe temperature boundaries for many regions.

Figure 6: Total photosynthesis of each major land biome. This value is multiplied by 2.67 to convert to total oxygen production. Hence total oxygen production by photosynthesis on land is around 330 Pg of oxygen per year. The Amazon (just under half of the tropical forests) is around 16% of this, around 54 Pg of oxygen per year.
Source: Malhi 2019.

Unfortunately, this scenario is not really far from us. Even though deforestation indices have fallen in the last 15 years, fire incidence associated with droughts and carbon emissions have increased (Aragão et al. 2018; Fig. 7).

Figure 7: Linear trends (2003–2015) of annual (a) deforestation rates, and (b) active fires counts in the Brazilian Amazon. Red circles indicate the analyzed drought years by Aragão et al. (2018).
Source: Aragão et al. 2018.

Since August 2019, the Amazon forest has experienced extreme fire outbreaks (Figs. 8 and 9). Around 80,000 fires occurred only in 2019. Despite 2019 not being an extreme drought year, the period of January-August 2019 is characterized by an ~80% increase in fires compared to the previous year (Wagner and Hayes 2019). The intensification of the fires has been linked to the Brazilian President’s incentive to “open the rainforest to development”. Leaving politics aside, the truth is that the majority of these fires have been set by loggers and ranchers seeking to clear land to expand the agro-cattle area (Yeung 2019).

Figure 8: The Amazon in July 28: just clouds; and in August 22: choked with smoke.
Source: NOAA, in: Wagner and Hayes, 2019.

Figure 9: Images showing some of the destruction caused by the fires in the Amazon region in 2019.
Source: Buzz Feed News 2019, Sea Mashable 2019.

Here you can see some videos showing the extension of the problem:

Video 1 – by NBC News:

Video 2 – a drone footage by The Guardian:

I consider myself lucky for the opportunity to have worked in the Amazon rainforest before these chaotic fires have destroyed so much biodiversity. The Amazon is a crucial home for countless animal and plant species, and to ~900,000 indigenous individuals that live in the region. They are all at risk of losing their homes and lives. We are all at risk of global warming.

References

Aragão LEOC, Anderson LO, Fonseca MG, Rosan TM, Vedovato LB, Wagner FH, Silva CVJ, Silva Junior CHL, Arai E, Aguiar AP, Barlow J, Berenguer E, Deeter MN, Domingues LG, Gatti L, Gloor M, Malhi Y, Marengo JA, Miller JB, Phillips OL, and Saatchi S. 2018. 21stCentury drought-related fires counteract the decline of Amazon deforestation carbon emissions. Nature Communications 9(536):1-12.

Buzz Feed News. 2019. These Heartbreaking Photos Show The Devastation Of The Amazon Fires. Retrieved 1 September 2019 from https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/gabrielsanchez/photos-trending-devastation-amazon-wildfire

Da Silva JMC, Rylands AB, and Da Fonseca GAB. 2005. The Fate of the Amazonian Areas of Endemism. Conservation Biology 19(3):689-694.

Da Silva V, Trujillo F, Martin A, Zerbini AN, Crespo E, Aliaga-Rossel E, and Reeves R. 2018. Inia geoffrensis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T10831A50358152. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2018-2.RLTS.T10831A50358152.en. Downloaded on 27 August 2019.

ICMBio. 2019. Amazônia. Retrieved 26 August 2019 from http://www.icmbio.gov.br/portal/unidades deconservacao/biomas-brasileiros/amazonia

Lewinsohn TM, and Prado PI. 2005. How Many Species Are There in Brazil? Conservation Biology 19(3):619.

Malhi Y. 2019. does the amazon provide 20% of our oxygen? Travels in ecosystem science. Retrieved 29 August 2019 from http://www.yadvindermalhi.org/blog/does-the-amazon-provide-20-of-our-oxygen

Malhi Y., Roberts JT, Betts RA, Killeen TJ, Li W, Nobre CA. 2008. Climate Change, Deforestation, and the Fate of the Amazon. Science 319:169-172.

Patterson BD. 2000. Patterns and trends in the discovery of new Neotropical mammals. Diversity and Distributions, 6, 145-151.

Sea Mashable. 2019. The Amazon forest is burning to the ground. Here’s how it happened and what you can do to help. Retrieved 1 September 2019 from https://sea.mashable.com/culture/5813/the-amazon-forest-is-burning-to-the-ground-heres-how-it-happened-and-what-you-can-do-to-help

Wagner M, and Hayes M. 2019. Wildfires rage in the Amazon. CNN. Retrieved 26 August 2019 from https://www.cnn.com/americas/live-news/amazon-wildfire-august-2019/index.html

Wikipedia. 2019. Madeira river. Retrieved 29 August 2019 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madeira_River

Yeung J. 2019. Blame humans for starting the Amazon fires, environmentalists say. CNN. Retrieved 26 August 2019 from https://www.cnn.com/2019/08/22/americas/amazon-fires-humans-intl-hnk-trnd/index.html

A Series of Short Stories from A Field Season in Port Orford

By Mia Arvizu, Marine Studies Initiative (MSI) & GEMM Lab summer intern, OSU junior

Part 1: The Green Life Jacket

The swells are churning and for once my stomach is calm. I take advantage of it while I can, and head out on the kayak. Another beautiful day, another good data set. After about three hours in the kayak and a long paddle fighting winds and swells, we arrive at TC1. That’s short for Tichenor Cove Station 1. I’m fairly tired by now but my teammate and I are determined to finish all stations today. GPS says we arrived, and I paddle against any slight movement to keep us on station. It’s getting more difficult though, so I check in with Anthony, one of the high school interns this summer. “Anthony, have you sent the GoPro camera down yet?”  I take a quick look back peering over my green life jacket. Red flash, and I know it’s on. Anthony sends it down, and I watch as it plunges into depths I couldn’t see on my own. I’m confident it’s doing its job. 

Part 2: The GoPro Dive

The green life jacket is familiar, but there’s a different soul, a different face every year. It’s the same month though. August – the month of whales. 

Red flash, I’m on,  and it’s my time to shine. The scientists debrief me on my latest mission, and I’m alive. “Secchi depth .75 meters.” Hmm, low visibility. This may be a tough one. “Station TC1” One of my favorites but challenging no doubt. “Time is 10:36. 5, 6, 7, 8…” I’m ready. A flush of swirling water surrounds me as I plunge into the depths of a different realm. I’m cocooned in the beauty of an ocean so blue, so majestic, so entrancing. Oh, the mission! Right, I need to stay focused. They lurk all around but with sand clouding the water, I can barely see. I just need one good visual of the purple spikes and the swaying green leaves, and the mission will be complete. I glance just to the left and oh my!

Sea urchins actively foraging on kelp at station TC1 in Tichenor Cove. Source: GEMM Lab.

A giant purple spike comes too close. I barely caught a glimpse of it. I need a better shot, but I only have so much control especially with these undercurrents. I’m ready now though. I peer through the sediment and nothing, but one quick swivel to the right shows me what I feared and what the green life jackets predicted: The purple spikes have grown too many and reduced the swaying greens down to half chewed, severed, scared dead masses. I thought their hypothesis was right, but I didn’t expect this degree of damage. It’s so frightening I almost look away.

But I don’t. I have a mission. So, I look straight ahead documenting the scene. I haven’t seen it this bad in the past years. I wonder what the green life jackets will do about this. I feel a tug, and I’m reeled in. I guess I’ll find out.

GoPro video taken from tandem research kayak during 2019 gray whale field season in Tichenor Cove, Port Orford. Source: GEMM Lab.

Part 3: The Science, how I see it

After collecting data in the kayak, I go back to the field station ready to do data processing. I grab the GoPro and take a look at the video from TC1. I’m both amazed and terrified for the surrounding habitat from what I see. Sea urchins seem to have been actively foraging on kelp stalks. 

Last summer, around this time, a previous intern pointed out that he was witnessing damaged kelp and a notable number of urchins in the GoPro videos. Thus, the GEMM Lab is looking into the relationship between kelp health and sea urchin abundance in Port Orford, which can have significant trophic cascades for the rest of the ecosystem, including whales and their zooplankton prey. The hypothesis is that if sea urchin populations increase in number they may actively forage on kelp, reducing the health of that habitat. Many creatures depend on this habitat including zooplankton which whales feed on. I have looked at videos from past years and the temporal difference in the abundance of urchins is stark. A detailed methodology for the project and our pending results will be featured in a later post, but for now this story is unfolding before our eyes and the GoPro’s lens as well. 

Part 4: The Transformation from STEM to STEAM

I hope you enjoyed these short stories. As the writer, it was nice to express the ecological phenomena I’ve learned about in the last few weeks between sea urchins and kelp in this creative and artistic outlet. Especially since I feel science can be rigid at times. It can be easy to lose myself in numbers and large datasets. However, by tying together the arts and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), there is more space for well-rounded inquiry and expressive results. STEAM, which is STEM with the Arts included, is not a new movement. Examples of STEAM are preserved in the past and is ongoing in present examples. A great example of how the sciences and arts are merged together is in the songs of Aboriginal Australians. These songs can take hours to recite fully and are full of environmental knowledge such as species types, behavior of animals, and edible plants. The combination of art and STEM is also displayed in the modern age and is shown in Leah Heiss’s work to create jewelry that helps measure cardiac data and also helps diabetics administer their insulin.  

This is one of Leah’s feature blends of biotechnology and jewelry. It measures cardiac data and is primarily beneficial for patients at risk of heart attacks. Source: Leah Heiss.

There are many ways in which the two subjects can merge together, making each other stronger and better. As a well-rounded student pursuing Environmental Science and interested dance and writing, I am comforted to know that STEAM can allow me to blend my interests. 

Intricacies of Zooplankton Species Identification

By Donovan Burns, Astoria High School Junior, GEMM Lab summer intern

The term zooplankton is used to describe a large number of creatures; the exact definition is any animal that cannot move against a sustained current in the marine environment. There are two main types of plankton: holoplankton and meroplankton. Meroplankton are organisms that are plankton for only part of their life cycle. So this makes most sea creatures plankton, for instance, salmon, sunfish, tuna, and most other fish are meroplankton because they start out their lives as plankton. Holoplankton are plankton that remain plankton for their whole lives, these include mysid shrimp, most marine worms, and most jellyfish.

I have spent a good deal of time this summer looking through a microscope at the zooplankton we have captured during sampling from our research kayak, trying to distinguish and identify different species. Telsons, the tail of the tail, are what we use to identify different types of mysid shrimp, which are a primary gray whale prey item along the Oregon coast and the most predominant type of zooplankton we capture in our sampling. For instance Neomysis is a genus of mysid shrimp and is one of the two most abundant zooplankton species we get. Their telsons end with two spikes that are somewhat longer than the spikes on the side of the telson.  This look is distinct from Holmesimysis sculpta, the other of the two most abundant zooplankton species we get, which have four-pronged telsons with varying sizes of spikes along the sides of the telson. Alienacanthomysis macropsis is identified by both their long eye stalks and their rather bland rounded telson.

Caprellidae. Source: R. Norman.

However, creatures that are not mysid shrimp cannot be identified this way.  Like gammarids, they look like fleas.  We have only found one kind of gammarid here in Port Orford this year, Atylus tridens. There are other types but that is the only type we have found this year. After that, we have Caprellidae, also known as skeleton shrimp. They are long and stalky, and have claws in every spot where they could have claws.

Copepod. Source: L. Hildebrand.

Then there are copepods. Copepods are tiny and have long antennae that string down to the sides of their bodies. We also have been seeing lots of crab larvae. I have also seen a couple of polychaete worms, which are marine worms with many legs and segments. The only reason I was able to identify them as polychaetes is due to my marine biology class at Astoria High School where we identified these worms using microscopes before.

We also have had some trouble identifying somethings. For instance, we have found a few individuals of a type of mysid shrimp with a rake-like tail that we are still trying to identify.  Also, we have captured some jellyfish that we are not trying to identify. When the kayak team gets back in from gathering samples, we freeze the samples to kill and preserve the critters in them. This process turns the jellyfish to mush, so they are hard to identify.

To identify these zooplankton and other critters, we put them into a Petri dish and under a dissection scope, at which point we use forceps to move and pivot creatures.  If a jellyfish had just eaten another plankton, we have to cut it open to get the plankton out so we can identify it.  

Sometimes we have large samples of thousands of the same creature, in this case, we would normally sub-sample it. Sub-sampling is when we take a portion of a sample and identify and count individual zooplankton in that sub-sample. Then we multiply those counts by the portion of the whole sample to get the approximate total number that are in that sample.  For instance, say we had a rather large sample, we would take a tenth of that sample and count what is in it. Say we count 500 individuals in that tenth. We would then multiply 500 by ten to get the total number in that whole sample.

Then there are some plankton that we do not catch, like large jellyfish.  The kayak team has gotten photos of a giant jellyfish that was nearly a meter long.

Jellyfish seen by the kayak team. Source: L. Hildebrand.

All in all, Port Orford has an amazing and diverse population of marine life. From gray whales to thresher sharks to mysid shrimp to copepods to jellyfish, this little ecosystem has pretty much some of everything. 

Fieldwork experience as a GEMM Lab intern

By Anthony Howe, Astoria High School graduate 2019, GEMM Lab summer intern

Murphy’s Law says that “things will go wrong in any given situation if you give them a chance”. This statement certainly applies to research where you never really know what is going to happen when performing fieldwork. You can only try to be prepared for all of the situations. When I arrived at the Oregon State University (OSU) Field Station in Port Orford, I had no idea that it would harbor some of the best educational experiences I have ever had. I had no idea what a theodolite was, nor did I know how to kayak in the ocean, but I learned fast. When we first started being trained on using a theodolite and the program that processes the data, Pythagoras, we had some problems. The theodolite would not stay level, but just as we were learning how to work the theodolite, we also learned how to work as a team. When we finally managed to level the theodolite, which did take a few days, I began to realize the hard work of doing fieldwork. You can be prepared but there will always be something that goes wrong, and that’s okay. I have learned that mistakes happen and cannot be dwelled on. Only learned from. No one is perfect.

Fig 1. Me holding two zooplankton samples after collecting them on the kayak. Source: L. Hildebrand.

Just two days ago I was on our tandem research kayak with Mia Arvizu, the OSU Marine Studies Initiative (MSI) undergraduate intern. When we go out on the kayak, we paddle around our study area and go to GPS-marked “stations” to collect prey samples of zooplankton, test for water visibility using a Secchi disk, and send a GoPro underwater to have a better understanding of what is going on under the surface. While sampling at Station 15 in Mill Rocks I lowered the GoPro into the water using a downrigger. When the GoPro reached the bottom, I began to pull it up, only to realize it had gotten snagged in a crevice. I gave the line to which the GoPro is attached some slack and began to give Mia instructions to move to different spots to try and retrieve the GoPro out of this tight crevice. Unfortunately, I did not realize all of the lines had wrapped themselves underneath the downrigger and as soon as a swell came up, the line broke. My eyes widened as I realized what had just happened. Thankfully, I managed to grasp the last of the remaining line left connected to the GoPro and pulled it back into the kayak using my hand wrapped in a towel since the line is thin and can cut into your hands easily. Only then did I realize that neither Mia nor I had packed a knife in the event we needed to cut a line. We sat and pondered ideas of how to cut the last of the line so that I could reattach the GoPro to the downrigger. Mia came up with the idea to use a barnacle or a mussel, and it worked perfectly. We were proud of ourselves for being resourceful and using nature to our advantage. But as soon as I finished using the mussel to cut the line, Lisa’s voice came over the VHF radio that we always carry with us in the kayak that there were scissors in the First Aid Kit that is stowed in the dry hatch of the kayak. Mia and I looked at each other and could only laugh. The kayak team can be rough at times but it’s made up by the fact that we get beautiful prey samples and stunning GoPro videos of what is below the water.

Fig 2. Mia and myself paddling the kayak across “The Passage”, the approximately 1 km stretch between Mill Rocks and Tichenor Cove, our two study sites. Red Fish Rocks, which is Oregon’s first Marine Reserve, can be seen in the background. Source: L. Hildebrand.

After all of the kayak sampling is done we organize and store our gear, and then go to the lab. In the lab, one person will clean all tools and devices touched by saltwater while the other sieves all of our zooplankton samples. Each sample is individually sieved and then placed in a sample jar with its station name on it and placed into the freezer. We put them in the freezer to increase the longevity of the samples, as well as euthanizing all zooplankton so that they are easier to identify under a dissection scope. After all of that is done we take a 45-minute break before taking over the cliff team job so they can have a lunch break, as well as a rest from staring at the glare of the water all day searching for whales. 

The cliff team generally consists of two people. One person will be on the theodolite, and the other will be on the laptop. The idea is that the theodolite uses the Pythagorean Theorem to get the exact coordinates of the whale we are spotting. This allows us to track exactly where the whales are going, what they are doing, how they’re doing it, and the fashion in which they’re doing it. The fixed points will fall on a plotted map on the laptop. The other job of the person on the laptop is to take pictures when possible so we can identify the whales. For instance, there is a whale named Buttons that has been recorded during past summers in Port Orford. By using the photos we take of a whale, combined with previous data about the whale named Buttons, we can cross-reference the body color and patterns of the whale to be able to re-identify Buttons. We now know that we have seen Buttons for 4 consecutive days feeding in our study area. The camera also acts as a tool to take pictures of whales not just for identity but for rare activity. Today while on the cliff Mia and I spotted a whale in Tichenor Cove (one of our sampling sites) that breached four times! These experiences are rare and beautiful. You never think about how big a whale truly is until you see it almost completely leap out of the water – it is beautiful. 

Fig 3. The post-breach splash created by Buttons. Unfortunately we weren’t able to get a good photo from the cliff because we were too stunned by the fact that we were seeing this rare behavior. Source: GEMM Lab.

I’m sure more mistakes will be made but that’s okay. I have many more experiences to witness, and many more memories to make from this internship, as well as challenges. I couldn’t be more than happy with the team I have to share all of these learning experiences and hardships with. 

Introducing Crew Cinco – the Port Orford Gray Whale Foraging Ecology Field Team of 2019

By Lisa Hildebrand, MSc student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

It seems unfathomable to me that one year and two months ago I had never used a theodolite before, never been in an ocean kayak before, never identified zooplankton before, never seen a Time-Depth-Recorder (TDR) before. Now, one year later, it seems like all of those tools, techniques and things are just a couple of old friends with which I am being reunited with again. My second field season as the project team lead of the gray whale foraging ecology project in Port Orford (PO) is slowly getting underway and so many of the lessons I learned from my first field season last year have already helped me tremendously this year. I know how to interpret weather forecasts and determine whether it will be a kayak-appropriate day. I know how to figure out the quirks of Pythagoras, the program we use to interface with our theodolite which helps us track whales from our cliff site. I know how to keep track of a budget and feed a team of hungry researchers after a long day of work. Knowing all of these things ahead of this year’s field season have made me feel a little more prepared and at ease with the training of my team and the work to be done. Nevertheless, there are always new curveballs to be thrown my way and while they can often be frustrating, I enjoy the challenges that being a team leader has to offer as it allows me to continue to grow as a field research scientist. 

Figure 1. Crew Cinco tracks a whale in Tichenor Cove. Source: L Hildebrand.

2019 marks the fifth year that this project has been taking place in PO. Back in the summer of 2015, former GEMM Lab Master’s student Florence Sullivan started this project together with Leigh. That year the research focused more on investigating vessel disturbance to gray whales by comparing sites of heavy (Boiler Bay) to low boat traffic (Port Orford). The effort found that there were significant differences in gray whale activity budgets between the heavy and low boat traffic conditions (Sullivan & Torres 2018). The following year, the focus of the research switched to being more on the foraging ecology side of things and the project was based solely out of Port Orford, as it continues to be to this day. Being in our fifth year means that we are starting to build a humbly-sized database of sightings across multiple years allowing me to investigate potential individual specialization of the whales that we document. Similarly, multiple years of prey sampling is starting to reveal temporal and spatial trends of prey community assemblages.

Figure 2. Buttons (pictured above) is one of the stars of the Port Orford gray whale foraging ecology project as he has been seen every year since 2016. Crew Cinco has already seen him three times since the start of August. Source: L Hildebrand.

It has become a tradition to come up with a name for the field team that spends 6 weeks at the Oregon State University (OSU) Port Orford Field Station to collect the data for the project. It started with Team Ro“buff”stus in 2015, which I believe carried through until 2017. This is understandable since it’s such a clever name. It’s a play on the species name for gray whales, robustus, but the word “Buff” has been substituted in the center. Buffs are pieces of cloth sewn into a cylindrical shape, often with fun patterns or colors, that can be used as face masks, headbands, and scarves, which come in very handy when your face is exposed to the elements. Doing this project, we can be confronted by wind, sun, fog and sea water all in one day, so Buffs have definitely served the team members very well over the years. Last year, as the project’s torch was passed from Florence to myself, I felt a new team name was apt, and so last year’s team decided our name would be Team Whale Storm. I believe it was because we said we would take the whale world by storm with our insanely good theodolite tracking and kayak sampling skills. With a new year and new team upon us, a new team name was in order. As the title of this blog post indicates, this year the team is called Crew Cinco. The reason behind this name is that we are the fifth team to carry out this field work. Since the gray whales breed in the lagoons of Baja California, Mexico, I like to think that their native language is Spanish. Hence, we have decided that instead of being Crew Five, we are Crew Cinco, as cinco is the Spanish word for five (besides, alliteration makes for a much better team name).

Now that you are up to speed on the history of the PO gray whale project, let me tell you a little about who is part of Crew Cinco and what we have been up to already.

This year’s Marine Studies Initiative OSU undergraduate intern is Mia Arvizu. Mia has just finished her sophomore year at OSU and majors in Environmental Science. Besides being my co-captain this year in the field, Mia is also undertaking an independent research project which focuses on the relationship between sea urchin abundance, kelp health and gray whale foraging. She will tell you all about this project in a few weeks when she takes over the GEMM lab blog. Aside from her interest in ecology and the way science can be used to help local communities in a changing environment, Mia is a dancer, having performed in several dances in OSU’s annual luau this year, and she is currently teaching herself Spanish and Hawaiian.

Both of our high school interns this year are from Astoria. Anthony Howe has just graduated from Astoria High School and will be starting at Clatsop Community College in the fall. His plan is to transfer to OSU and to pursue his interest in marine biology. Anthony, like myself, was born in Germany and lived there until he was six, which means that he is able to speak fluent German. He also introduced the team to the wonders of the Instant Pot, which has made cooking for a team of four hungry scientists much simpler.

Donovan Burns is our other high school intern. He will be going into his junior year in the fall. Donovan never ceases to amaze us with the seemingly endless amounts of general knowledge he has, often sharing facts about Astoria’s history to Asimov’s Laws of Robotics to pickling vegetables, specifically carrots, with us during dinner or while scanning for whales on the cliff site. He also named the first whale we saw here this season – Speckles. 

Figure 3. Crew Cinco, from left to right: Anthony Howe, Donovan Burns, Lisa Hildebrand and Mia Arvizu. Source: L Torres.

Crew Cinco has already been in PO for two weeks now. After having a full team meeting with Leigh in Newport and a GEMM lab summer pizza party, we headed south to begin our 6-week field season. It’s hard to believe that the two training weeks are already over. The team worked hard to figure out the subtleties of the theodolite, observe different gray whales and start to understand their dive and foraging patterns, undertake a kayak paddle & safety course, as well as CPR and First Aid training, learn about data processing and management, and how to use a variety of gizmos to aid us in data collection. But it hasn’t all been work. We enjoyed a day in the Californian Redwoods on one of our day’s off and picked blueberries at the Twin Creek Ranch, stocking our freezer with several bags of juicy berries. We have played ‘Sorry!’ perhaps one too many times already (we are in desperate need of some more boardgames if anyone wants to send some our way to the field station!), and enjoyed many walks and runs on beautiful Battle Rock Beach. 

The next four weeks will not be easy – very early mornings, lots of paddling and squinting into the sun, followed by several hours in the lab processing samples and backing up data. But the next four weeks will also be extremely rewarding – learning lots of new skills that will be valuable beyond this 6-week period, revealing ecological trends and relationships, and ultimately (the true reason for why Mia, Anthony, Donovan and myself are more than happy to put in 6 weeks-worth of hard work), the chance to see whales every day up close and personal. Follow Crew Cinco’s journey over the next few weeks as my interns will be posting to the blog for the next three weeks!

References

Sullivan, F.A., & Torres L.G. Assessment of vessel disturbance to gray whales to inform sustainable ecotourism. Journal of Wildlife Management, 2018. 82: 896-905. 

Is there life after graduate school?

By Amanda Holdman, MS, GEMM Lab Alumni 2016

I graduated in March 2017 from the GEMM lab at Oregon State, with a Master’s of Science in Wildlife Management. Graduate school was finally over! No more constant coffee refills, popcorn dinners and overnight library stays; I had submitted my final thesis and I was done! Graduate school was no walk in the park for me, and finishing a master’s or a doctorate degree for anyone is no easy feat! It takes years of hard work, commitment, long hours, and a dedication to learning. I remember feeling both excited and a bit disoriented to be done with this phase of much stress and growth. After submitting my thesis, I took a much-needed month off to unknot the muscles in my back and get myself reacquainted with sunlight. The breath of fresh air was exactly what I needed to recover, but it took no time at all for a new type of challenge to emerge: the arduous task of finding a job.

I did what most job seekers do, I sat behind my computer applying for opportunities, hit as many roles as I could, and hoped for the best. Days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months. I was getting desperate, I resorted to applying for a whole spectrum of roles – consulting, project management, administration, youth team leader – hoping that something would land. Soon enough, almost 3 months had passed and I was still in the same spot as before. I was ready to throw in the towel.

In theory, landing a job after graduation sounds like it should be technically easy because more education should mean you are more qualified for the job, but anyone who has been out of grad school for more than an hour can tell you that landing a job after graduate school can be a long and frustrating process. I did not enter this field and its job prospects blindly – that is, I had a working idea of what type of research career I wanted when I completed my education and how much education I would need to get there. I was aware that navigating the job market in a competitive field could be tricky and time-consuming, especially as a green-job seeker. I knew it would be an added difficulty to land a position near the ocean but also close enough to family (I’m from the Midwest). Or at least, I thought I knew how hard it would be to secure a job. The process turned out to be much harder. Mental preparation alone was not enough and months and months of rejection and feeling stuck within the hamster wheel of the job search cycle was becoming my normal.

So, when I was stuck in the depths of a seemingly fruitless job search, and trying as hard as I possibly could, it was hard for me to do anything but roll my eyes, sigh, and give up. But I had to find a way to work through an apparently endless string of rejection by figuring out some way to accept, address and navigate my emotions. I needed to take charge of my own personal development. I started reflecting on what areas of my work on my master’s thesis that I found most difficult and wanted to improve, and would be  an important component of the job I wanted. Identifying my own “knowledge gaps” led me to seek out courses, workshops, job-shadowing and online courses that could fill those holes.

The first thing at the top of my list was to be more efficient at coding. Every job description that made me excited to apply had some description of a coding program: R, Python, MATLAB.  I was lucky enough to attend courses and workshops during my time at the GEMM lab that provided me much of the code I would need to create my habitat models with minimal tweaking. On top of that I was surrounded by supervisors and a lab full of coding geniuses that had an almost, if not completely, open door policy. When I was stuck and a deadline was quickly approaching, it was great to have an army of people to help me get through my obstacles. However, I knew if I wanted to be successful, I needed to become like them: experts and not a beginner. I purchased a subscription to DataCamp, and started searching out courses that could help keep my skills fresh and learn new things. I was over the moon to discover the course “Where are the Fishes?”. It checked all my boxes: geospatial analysis, R, marine related, acoustics…. perfect. Within this course, there were plenty of DataCamp prerequisites, like working with data in the tidyverse and working with dates and times in R, so I had plenty to keep me busy.

I also started looking for in-person, hands-on courses I could enroll in. Since the majority of my marine experience took place on the west coast but I was searching for jobs on the east coast, I enrolled in the Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Observer Certification Course for the US Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico Oceans in order to learn a little more about identifying species I did not commonly see in nearshore, northern Pacific waters. In this course, I learned about regulations surrounding protected species monitoring, proper camera settings for photographing marine life, and gained the certification needed to work as an observer during seismic surveys for Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) in coordination with the National Marine Fisheries Service. Most of these topics were familiar to me, other than identifying new species, but it was nice to have the refresher and the renewed certification. Heads up this course is coming to Newport in October and I highly recommend it! During this observer course in Charleston, I was able to network with others in the field taking the course, the Charleston aquarium, and the South Carolina DNR. By introducing myself and providing a little bit of my background, I was invited by the South Carolina DNR to watch a satellite tag and release of a sea turtle that the aquarium had been rehabilitating. From the sea turtle release I learned of the International Sea Turtle Symposium that would take place in February in Myrtle Beach, North Carolina and was invited to attend and network by one of the conference chairs, which lead me to my current position. See below…

I tried everything I could to keep myself attached to the field. I attended the Biannual Marine Mammal Conference, enrolled in a bioacoustics short course, watched webinars every Friday, read recent journal articles, looked for voluntary work. I even dropped in on offices like NOAA or Universities of towns I was driving through or visiting to see what they were researching, and if they were looking for researchers. Continuous learning and developing took a lot of time, money, and energy but being conscientious about my personal development kept me motivated and engaged. Graduate school prepared me for all of this. My GEMM lab experience taught me to be open to learning, to be flexible and adaptable, to accept, overcome and learn from failures and find solutions. In fact, graduate school provided me a variety of skills that have been transferable to almost everything I have done since graduation.

In December of 2017, I began volunteering at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, under the supervision of Dr. Thane Wibbels, and I began to use those skills I learned from graduate school more than ever. Flash forward and I am now part of a team, called the Kemp’s Ridley Working Group, which is made up of researchers from state, federal and international agencies working together on conservation strategies and programs for Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles. Specifically, we are hoping to identify the cues Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles are using to control arribadas (synchronized, large-scale nesting behaviors) in Rancho Nuevo, Mexico. We have a long-term dataset on the number of nests and weather conditions during arribadas from 2007 to 2019 collected using a variety of methods that we are trying to standardize and analyze. Historically, the number of nests has been counted by hand, but over the last few years Dr. Wibbels and his lab have worked to create a protocol for using drones to track the number of sea turtle nests, which has been highly successful. In 2018, the drone recorded the largest sea turtle arribada in 30 years, which consisted of about 4,000 Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle nests within 900 meters of beach.

June 2018 Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle Arribada, Rancho Nuevo, Mexico

It’s ironic how incredibly similar my current project is to my master’s thesis I am gathering environmental data from weather stations and remote sensing to analyze tides, currents, wind speed, wind direction, water temperature, air temperature, salinity, etc. in relation to these large arribadas. I am arguably much faster at this process than I was before due to my GEMM lab experience.  I am quickly able to recognize when something isn’t right, and am able to debug where I went wrong. I feel comfortable contributing new ideas and approaches of how to standardize data from old and new technology, how close to fly drones to the animals to capture the data we need without animal disturbance, and at what scales to look for temporal and spatial patterns within our data. The GEMM lab allowed me to gain knowledge through my own work and by association of my lab mates projects, trials and tribulations that have directly transferred into what I am doing now. I am still grant-writing, presenting, collaborating, managing time, and mentoring – all of which I learned in graduate school. I am also still coding, and I have joined a local coding group in Birmingham, Bham Quants, and have been asked to give a series of lectures called “Introduction to R”. The GEMM lab and my own drawn-out job-hunting process allowed me to end up in the position that I am in today, and the struggles and cycle of no’s I heard along the way led me to these opportunities that I am so grateful that I took.

Building on the foundation of my GEMM lab experience, adding my personal development and a couple of years of post-graduate work experience, I no longer feel disoriented. I feel like I have an identity and I know how I want to market myself in the future. I have always considered myself a spatial ecologist, as this is the GEMM labs specializes in, but now I know I’m more of a generalist in terms of species, methods, models and analysis and I want to continue learning and growing in this field to become a jack-of-all-trades. I’ve always had a love for the marine environment, but I also know I have the skills and confidence to transition into terrestrial if I need to. I have fallen in love with geospatial ecology and it isn’t a field that would have even been on my radar, if I had not met Leigh almost 5 years ago *gasp*. Working and studying in the GEMM lab opened up doors for me that I will appreciate for the rest of my life. My advice for anyone studying and working in this field is to stay alert with your eye always on the next step, poised for the next opportunity, whatever it is: to present a paper, attend a conference, meet a scholar in your field, forge a connection, gain a professional skill. There are tons of opportunities (and jobs) that are never posted online, which you will only find out about if you talk to people in your personal network or start knocking on doors. You never know where these doors might lead.

Applying novel methods in conservation physiology to understand cases of large whale mortalities

By Alejandro Fernánez Ajó, PhD student at NAU and GEMM Lab research technician

Although commercial whaling is currently banned and several whale populations show evidence of recovery, today´s whales are exposed to a variety of other human stressors (e.g., entanglement in fishing gear, vessel strikes, shipping noise, climate change, etc.; reviewed in Hunt et al., 2017a). The recovery and conservation of large whale populations is particularly important to the oceanic environment due to their key ecological role and unique biological traits, including their large body size, long lifespan and sizable home ranges (Magera et al., 2013; Atkinson et al., 2015; Thomas and Reeves, 2015). Thus, scientists must develop novel tools to overcome the challenges of studying whale physiology in order to distinguish the relative importance of the different impacts and guide conservation actions accordingly (Ayres et al., 2012; Hunt et al., 2013).

To this end, baleen hormone analysis represents a powerful tool for retrospective assessment of patterns in whale physiology (Hunt et al., 2014, 2016, 2017a, 2017b, 2018; Lysiak et. al., 2018; Fernández Ajó et al., 2018; Rolland et al., 2019). Moreover, hormonal panels, which include multiple hormones, are helping to better clarify and distinguish between the physiological effects of different sources of anthropogenic and environmental stressors (Ayres et al., 2012; Wasser et al., 2017; Lysiak et al., 2018; Romero et al., 2015).

What is Baleen? Baleen is a stratified epithelial tissue consisting of long, fringed plates that grow downward from the upper jaw, which collectively form the whale´s filter-feeding apparatus (Figure 1). This tissue accumulates hormones as it grows. Hormones are deposited in a linear fashion with time so that a single plate of baleen allows retrospective assessment and evaluation of a whales’ physiological condition, and in calves baleen provides a record of the entire lifespan including part of their gestation. Baleen samples are also readily accessible and routinely collected during necropsy along with other samples and relevant information.

Figure 1: Top: A baleen plate from a southern right whale calf (Source: Fernández Ajó et al. 2018). Bottom: A southern right whale with mouth open exposing its baleen (photo credit: Stephen Johnson).

Why are the Southern Right Whales calves (SRW) dying in Patagonia?

I am a Fulbright Ph.D. student in the Buck Laboratory  at Northern Arizona University since Fall 2017, a researcher with the Whale Conservation Institute of Argentina (Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas) and Field Technician for the GEMM Lab over the summer. I focus my research on the application and development of novel methods in conservation physiology to improve our understanding of how physiological parameters are affected by human pressures that impact large whales and marine mammals. I am especially interested in understanding the underlaying causes of large whale mortalities with the aim of preventing their occurrence when possible. In particular, for my Ph.D. dissertation, I am studying a die-off case of Southern Right Whale (SRW) calves, Eubalaena australis, off Peninsula Valdés (PV) in Patagonia-Argentina (Figure 2).

Prior to 2000, annual calf mortality at PV was considered normal and tracked the population growth rate (Rowntree et al., 2013). However, between 2007 and 2013, 558 whales died, including 513 newborn calves (Sironi et al., 2018). Average total whale deaths per year increased tenfold, from 8.2 in 1993-2002 to 80 in 2007-2013. These mortality levels have never before been observed for the species or any other population of whales (Thomas et al., 2013, Sironi et al., 2018).


Figure 2: Study area, the red dots along the shoreline indicate the location where the whales were found stranded at Península Valdés in 2018 (Source: The Right Whale Program Research Report 2018, Sironi and Rowntree, 2018)

Among several hypotheses proposed to explain these elevated calf mortalities, harassment by Kelp Gulls, Larus dominicanus, on young calves stands out as a plausible cause and is a unique problem only seen at the PV calving ground. Kelp gull parasitism on SRWs near PV was first observed in the 1970’s (Thomas, 1988). Gulls primarily harass mother-calf pairs, and this parasitic behavior includes pecking on the backs of the whales and creating open wounds to feed on their skin and blubber. The current intensity of gull harassment has been identified as a significant environmental stressor to whales and potential contributor to calf deaths (Marón et al., 2015b; Fernández Ajó et al., 2018).

Figure 3: The significant preference for calves as a target of gull attacks highlights the impact of this parasitic behavior on this age class. The situation continues to be worrisome and serious for the health and well-being of newborn calves at Península Valdés. Left: A Kelp Gull landing on whale´s back to feed on her skin and blubber (Photo credit: Lisandro Crespo). Right: A calf with multiple lesions on its back produced by repeated gull attacks (Photo credit: ICB).

Quantifying gull inflicted wounds

Photographs of gull wounds on whales taken during necropsies and were quantified and assigned to one of seven objectively defined size categories (Fig. 4): extra-small (XS), small (S), medium (M), large (L), extra-large (XL), double XL (XXL) and triple XL (XXXL). The size and number of lesions on each whale were compared to baleen hormones to determine the effect of the of the attacks on the whales health.

Figure 4. Kelp gull lesion scoring. Source: Maron et al. 2015).

How baleen hormones are applied

Impact factors such as injuries, predation avoidance, storms, and starvation promote an increase in the secretion of the glucocorticoids (GCs) cortisol and corticosterone (stress hormones), which then induce a variety of physiological and behavioral responses that help animals cope with the stressor. Prolonged exposure to chronic stress, however, may exceed the animal’s ability to cope with such stimuli and, therefore, adversely affects its body condition, its health, and even its survival. Triiodothyronine (T3), is the most biologically active form of the thyroid hormones and helps regulate metabolism. Sustained food deprivation causes a decrease in T3 concentrations, slowing metabolism to conserve energy stores. Combining GCs and T3 hormone measures allowed us to investigate and distinguish the relative impacts of nutritional and other sources of stressors.

Combining these novel methods produced unique results about whale physiology. With my research, we are finding that the GCs concentrations measured in calves´ baleen positively correlate with the intensity of gull wounding (Figure 4, 1 and 2), while calf’s baleen thyroid hormone concentrations are relative stable across time and do not correlate with intensity of gull wounding (Figure 4 – 3). Taken together these findings indicate that SRW calves exposed to Kelp gull parasitism and harassment experience high levels of physiological stress that compromise their health and survival. Ultimately these results will inform government officials and managers to direct conservation actions aimed to reduce the negative interaction between Kelp gulls and Southern Right Whales in Patagonia.

Figure 4: Physiological stress correlates with number of gull lesions (1 and 2). According to the best-fit linear model, immunoreactive baleen corticosterone (B) and cortisol (F) concentrations increased with wound severity (i.e. number of gull lesions). However, nutritional status indexed by baleen immunoreactive triiodothyronine (T3) concentrations does not correlate with the number of gull lesions (3). (Fernández Ajó et al. 2019, manuscript under revision)

Baleen hormones as a conservation tool

Baleen hormones represent a powerful tool for retrospective assessments of longitudinal trends in whale physiology by helping discriminate the underlying mechanisms by which different stressors may affect a whale’s health and physiology. Moreover, while most sample types used for studying whale physiology provide single time-point measures of current circulating hormone levels (e.g., skin or respiratory vapor), or information from previous few hours or days (e.g., urine and feces), baleen tissue provides a unique opportunity for longitudinal analyses of hormone patterns. These retrospective analyses can be conducted for both stranded or archived specimens, and can be conducted jointly with other biological markers (e.g., stable isotopes and biotoxins) to describe migration patterns and exposure to pollutants. Further research efforts on baleen hormones should focus on completing biological validations to better understand the hormone measurements in baleen and its correlation with measurements from alternative sample matrices (i.e., feces, skin, blubber, and respiratory vapors).

References:

Atkinson, S., Crocker, D., Houser, D., Mashburn, K., 2015. Stress physiology in marine mammals: how well do they fit the terrestrial model? J. Comp. Physiol. B. 185, 463–486. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00360-015-0901-0.

Ayres, K.L., Booth, R.K., Hempelmann, J.A., Koski, K.L., Emmons, C.K., Baird, R.W., Balcomb-Bartok, K., Hanson, M.B., Ford, M.J., Wasser, S.K., 2012. Distinguishing the impacts of inadequate prey and vessel traffic on an endangered killer whale (Orcinus orca) population. PLoS ONE. 7, e36842. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0036842.

Fernández Ajó, A.A., Hunt, K., Uhart, M., Rowntree, V., Sironi, M., Marón, C.F., Di Martino, M., Buck, L., 2018. Lifetime glucocorticoid profiles in baleen of right whale calves: potential relationships to chronic stress of repeated wounding by Kelp Gull. Conserv. Physiol. 6, coy045. https://doi.org/10.1093/conphys/coy045.

Hunt, K., Lysiak, N., Moore, M., Rolland, R.M., 2017a. Multi-year longitudinal profiles of cortisol and corticosterone recovered from baleen of North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis). Gen. Comp. Endocrinol. 254: 50–59. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ygcen.2017.09.009.

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Lingering questions on the potential to bring sea otters back to Oregon

By Dominique Kone, Masters Student in Marine Resource Management

By now, I’m sure you’re aware of recent interests to reintroduce sea otters to Oregon. To inform this effort, my research focuses on predicting suitable sea otter habitat and investigating the potential ecological effects if sea otters are reintroduced in the future. This information will help managers gain a better understanding of the potential for sea otters to reestablish in Oregon, as well as how Oregon’s ecosystems may change via top-down processes. These analyses will address some sources of uncertainties of this effort, but there are still many more questions researchers could address to further guide this process. Here, I note some lingering questions I’ve come across in the course of conducting my research. This is not a complete list of all questions that could or should be investigated, but they represent some of the most interesting questions I have and others have in Oregon.

Credit: Todd Mcleish

The questions, and our associated knowledge on each of these topics:

Is there enough available prey to support a robust sea otter population in Oregon?

Sea otters require approximately 30% of their own body weight in food every day (Costa 1978, Reidman & Estes 1990). With a large appetite, they not only need to spend most of their time foraging, but require a steady supply of prey to survive. For predators, we assume the presence of suitable habitat is a reliable proxy for prey availability (Redfern et al. 2006). Whereby, quality habitat should supply enough prey to sustain predators at higher trophic levels.

In making these habitat predictions for sea otters, we must also recognize the potential limitations of this “habitat equals prey” paradigm, in that there may be parcels of habitat where prey is unavailable or inaccessible. In Oregon, there could be unknown processes unique to our nearshore ecosystems that would support less prey for sea otters. This possibility highlights the importance of not only understanding how much suitable habitat is available for foraging sea otters, but also how much prey is available in these habitats to sustain a viable otter population in the future. Supplementing these habitat predictions with fishery-independent prey surveys is one way to address this question.

Credit: Suzi Eszterhas via Smithsonian Magazine

How will Oregon’s oceanographic seasonality alter or impact habitat suitability?

Sea otters along the California coast exist in an environment with persistent Giant kelp beds, moderate to low wave intensity, and year-round upwelling regimes. These environmental variables and habitat factors create productive ecosystems that provide quality sea otter habitat and a steady supply of prey; thus, supporting high densities of sea otters. This environment contrasts with the Oregon coast, which is characterized by seasonal changes in bull kelp and wave intensity. Summer months have dense kelp beds, calm surf, and strong upwellings. While winter months have little to no kelp, weak upwellings, and intense wave climates. These seasonal variations raise the question as to how these temporal fluctuations in available habitat could impact the number of sea otters able to survive in Oregon.

In Washington – an environment like Oregon – sea otters exhibit seasonal distribution patterns in response to intensifying wave climates. During calm summer months, sea otters primarily forage along the outer coast, but move into more protected areas, such as the Strait of Juan de Fuca, during winter months (Laidre et al. 2009). If sea otters were reintroduced to Oregon, we may very well observe similar seasonal movement patterns (e.g. dispersal into estuaries), but the degree to which this seasonal redistribution and reduction in foraging habitat could impact sea otter reestablishment and recovery is currently unknown.

Credit: Oregon Coast Aquarium

In the event of a reintroduction, do northern or southern sea otters have a greater capacity to adapt to Oregon environments?

In the early 1970’s, Oregon’s first sea otter translocation effort failed (Jameson et al. 1982). Since then, hypotheses on the potential ecological differences between northern and southern sea otters have been proposed as potential factors of the failed effort, potentially due to different abilities to exploit specific prey species. Studies have demonstrated that northern and southern sea otters have slight morphological differences – northern otters having larger skulls and teeth than southern otters (Wilson et al. 1991). This finding has created the hypothesis that the northern otter’s larger skull and teeth allow it to consume prey with denser exoskeletons, and thereby can exploit a greater diversity of prey species. However, there appears to be a lack of evidence to suggest larger skulls and teeth translate to greater bite force. Based on morphology alone, either sub-species could be just as successful in exploiting different prey species.

A different direction to address questions around adaptability is to look at similarities in habitat and oceanographic characteristics. Sea otters exist along a gradient of habitat types (e.g. kelp forests, estuaries, soft-sediment environments) and oceanographic conditions (e.g. warm-temperature to cooler sub-Arctic waters) (Laidre et al. 2009, Lafferty et al. 2014). Yet, we currently don’t know how well or quickly otters can adapt when they expand into new habitats that differ from ones they are familiar with. Sea otters must be efficient foragers and need to acquire skills that allow them to effectively hunt specific prey species (Estes et al. 2003). Hypothetically, if we take sea otters from rocky environments where they’ve developed foraging skills to hunt sea urchins and abalones, and place them in a soft-sediment environment, how quickly would they develop new foraging skills to exploit soft-sediment prey species? Would they adapt quickly enough to meet their daily prey requirements?

Credit: Eric Risberg/Associated Press via The Columbian

In Oregon, specifically, how might climate change impact sea otters, and how might sea otters mediate climate impacts?

Climate change has been shown to directly impact many species via changes in temperature (Chen et al. 2011). Some species have specific thermal tolerances, in which they can only survive within a specified temperature range (i.e. maximum and minimum). Once the temperature moves out of that range, the species can either move with those shifting water masses, behaviorally adapt or perish (Sunday et al. 2012). It’s unclear if and how changing temperatures will impact sea otters, directly. However, sea otters could still be indirectly affected via impacts to their prey. If prey species in sea otter habitat decline due to changing temperatures, this would reduce available food for otters. Ocean acidification (OA) is another climate-induced process that could indirectly impact sea otters. By creating chemical conditions that make it difficult for species to form shells, OA could decrease the availability of some prey species, as well (Gaylord et al. 2011).

Interestingly, these pathways between sea otters and climate change become more complex when we consider the potentially mediating effects from sea otters. Aquatic plants – such as kelp and seagrass – can reduce the impacts of climate change by absorbing and taking carbon out of the water column (Krause-Jensen & Duarte 2016). This carbon sequestration can then decrease acidic conditions from OA and mediate the negative impacts to shell-forming species. When sea otters catalyze a tropic cascade, in which herbivores are reduced and aquatic plants are restored, they could increase rates of carbon sequestration. While sea otters could be an effective tool against climate impacts, it’s not clear how this predator and catalyst will balance each other out. We first need to investigate the potential magnitude – both temporal and spatial – of these two processes to make any predictions about how sea otters and climate change might interact here in Oregon.

Credit: National Wildlife Federation

In Summary

There are several questions I’ve noted here that warrant further investigation and could be a focus for future research as this potential sea otter reintroduction effort progresses. These are by no means every question that should be addressed, but they do represent topics or themes I have come across several times in my own research or in conversations with other researchers and managers. I think it’s also important to recognize that these questions predominantly relate to the natural sciences and reflect my interest as an ecologist. The number of relevant questions that would inform this effort could grow infinitely large if we expand our disciplines to the social sciences, economics, genetics, so on and so forth. Lastly, these questions highlight the important point that there is still a lot we currently don’t know about (1) the ecology and natural behavior of sea otters, and (2) what a future with sea otters in Oregon might look like. As with any new idea, there will always be more questions than concrete answers, but we – here in the GEMM Lab – are working hard to address the most crucial ones first and provide reliable answers and information wherever we can.

References:

Chen, I., Hill, J. K., Ohlemuller, R., Roy, D. B., and C. D. Thomas. 2011. Rapid range shifts of species associated with high levels of climate warming. Science. 333: 1024-1026.

Costa, D. P. 1978. The ecological energetics, water, and electrolyte balance of the California sea otter (Enhydra lutris). Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Santa Cruz.

Estes, J. A., Riedman, M. L., Staedler, M. M., Tinker, M. T., and B. E. Lyon. 2003. Individual variation in prey selection by sea otters: patterns, causes and implications. Journal of Animal Ecology. 72: 144-155.

Gaylord et al. 2011. Functional impacts of ocean acidification in an ecologically critical foundation species. Journal of Experimental Biology. 214: 2586-2594.

Jameson, R. J., Kenyon, K. W., Johnson, A. M., and H. M. Wight. 1982. History and status of translocated sea otter populations in North America. Wildlife Society Bulletin. 10(2): 100-107.

Krause-Jensen, D., and C. M. Duarte. 2016. Substantial role of macroalgae in marine carbon sequestration. Nature Geoscience. 9: 737-742.

Lafferty, K. D., and M. T. Tinker. 2014. Sea otters are recolonizing southern California in fits and starts. Ecosphere.5(5).

Laidre, K. L., Jameson, R. J., Gurarie, E., Jeffries, S. J., and H. Allen. 2009. Spatial habitat use patterns of sea otters in coastal Washington. Journal of Marine Mammalogy. 90(4): 906-917.

Redfern et al. 2006. Techniques for cetacean-habitat modeling. Marine Ecology Progress Series. 310: 271-295.

Reidman, M. L. and J. A. Estes. 1990. The sea otter (Enhydra lutris): behavior, ecology, and natural history. United States Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, Biological Report. 90: 1-126.

Sunday, J. M., Bates, A. E., and N. K. Dulvy. 2012. Thermal tolerance and the global redistribution of animals. Nature: Climate Change. 2: 686-690.

Wilson, D. E., Bogan, M. A., Brownell, R. L., Burdin, A. M., and M. K. Maminov. 1991. Geographic variation in sea otters, Ehydra lutris. Journal of Mammalogy. 72(1): 22-36.