International Collaborations: What do the Oregon Coast and Maui’s dolphins have in common?

My name is Solène Derville and I am a master’s student in the Department of Biology at the Ecole Normale Supérieure of Lyon, France. As part of my master’s, I am spending a few months in Newport, where I am working under Dr Leigh Torres’s supervision in the GEMM Lab. Hopefully, this will be the starting point for a longer term collaboration, for a PhD project about the spatial ecology of humpback whales in New-Caledonia (South Western Pacific Ocean) which I am currently preparing.

Solene at Crater lake

On an early morning of February 2015, I am waiting at the airport for my flight to PORTLAND/PDX. I’ve had only one day to pack but I feel confident that I’ve made the right choices as my 23kg luggage contains mainly jumpers, sweatshirts, thick socks, and a brand new umbrella. I’ve got everything I need to face my four months internship in rainy Newport, Oregon.

A few disillusionments await me when I finally land: 1) my “saucisson” (fancy sausage) can’t pass customs and ends up in a bin despite my attempts to negotiate with the customs official, and 2) as soon as I am out of the airport, it starts raining. At first sight this looks like the harmless kind of drizzle I’ve experienced in England, until I realize it’s raining sideways! So much for buying a new umbrella…

Luckily, these small inconveniences don’t affect my spirits for long as I get to discover the richnesses Oregon has to offer.

My mouth drops open the first time someone tells me that I can see elk around Newport and that gray whales are commonly observed next to the jetty at this time of year. It’s difficult to describe to someone who’s always been living in this environment how exciting it is to me. I am not used to all this wilderness and certainly not to living so close to it. It’s a thrill to think that I only need to ride my bike for a few miles to meet the amazing local fauna.

Oregon Coast by Solene
Oregon Coast by Solene

Of course, the beauty of Oregon’s landscapes and the richness of its wildlife is not the only thing that catches my attention. I am immediately touched by the kindness of people, the sense of sharing and the deeply rooted sense of community. I feel welcomed at HMSC, and by my colleagues in the GEMM lab and I am eager to start my internship.

So what is my work here exactly?

Well, believe it or not, I’ve crossed the Atlantic Ocean and came to the US to actually work on a species of dolphins endemic to New-Zealand! Dr Leigh Torres, and I are investigating the fine-scale distribution and habitat selection patterns of Maui’s dolphin (Cephalorhyncus hectori maui). This subspecies of the more common Hector’s dolphin (Cephalorhyncus hectori, also endemic to New-Zealand) is the smallest dolphin in the world and unfortunately among the most endangered (listed as “critically endangered” by the IUCN). The Maui’s dolphin population is thought to have decreased to under 100 individuals in the past decades.

Maui's dolphin credit: Will Rayment
Maui’s dolphin credit: Will Rayment

In practice, this means I am doing data analysis so I spend my days in front of my computer. This may sound a bit dull, but computer work is actually a great part of research in ecology (apart from awesome field work stage, but this is only the tip of the iceberg). Speaking for myself, I’ve always found it very exciting to put together all this hard-won data to answer important questions, especially when the conservation of species as emblematic as the Maui’s dolphin is at stake. To tell the truth, the nerdy code writing work is also a lot of fun!

My data set consists of boat-based observations of Maui dolphin groups made during the 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2015 summer surveys. Overall about a hundred groups were observed. Based on these observations we would like to know: WHERE are the Maui dolphins (distribution pattern)? And WHY (habitat preferences)?

New Zealand
New Zealand

My job is first to describe the spatial distribution patterns of these observations given the year, composition of groups, or group behaviour (whether animals were feeding, resting etc.). This can be done using kernel density estimates: a very good method for “smoothing” a distribution in 2 dimensions and highlighting its main characteristics (extent, core areas etc.). This allows us to answer (or try to answer) the “WHERE” question.

Kernel density maps
Kernel density maps

The second stage of my analysis is to describe the environmental conditions at each of the dolphin group locations and compare them with the environmental conditions in surveyed areas where Maui dolphins where not observed. This allows us to better understand the environmental cues that Maui dolphins might be following to find “suitable” places for their every-day activities and therefore try answer the “WHY” question. In statistical jargon, we are exploring the relationship between probability of presence of Maui dolphins and environmental predictors such as: sea surface temperature, turbidity of the water, distance to closest river mouths, distance to the coast and depth.

The resulting models will be used to predict seasonal variations in Maui’s dolphin distribution, notably in winter when direct surveying is difficult because of weather conditions. Based on the resulting dynamic distribution models, we finally aim to predict how Maui’s dolphins might interact with anthropogenic activities or react to changes in their environment.

So far, preliminary results are very promising and I am hoping to share these soon!

Surveying Harbor Porpoises on the Oregon Coast!

Hello Gemm lab readers!

Spring has officially made it to the Oregon coast.  The smells of blooming flowers are lingering in the air at the Hatfield Marine Science Center (HMSC), the seagulls are hovering around our afternoon BBQ’s, the local whale watching tour boats are zipping through the jetty’s to catch sight of all the whales still hovering in the area, and my team and I are right behind them as the field season is upon us in full force!

My name is Amanda Holdman and I am a master’s student in the Oregon State University’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and Marine Mammal Institute. Our lab, the geospatial ecology of marine megafuana, or GEMM lab for short, focuseharbor-porpoises_569_600x450s on the ecology, behavior and conservation of marine megafauna including cetaceans, pinnipeds, seabirds, and sharks. My research in particular is centered around the cetacean species that inhabit Oregon’s near coastal waters. While the cetacean order includes over 80 species, 30 of which can be found in Oregon, I am specifically targeting the small and charismatic harbor porpoise! I am hoping to answer questions about seasonal and diel patterns, and the drivers of these patterns to create a better understanding of the porpoise community off the coast of Newport.

To accomplish this, I have been using a couple different survey methods! Over the last year or so I have been conducting marine mammal visual surveys with a crew of observers, binoculars, cameras and lifejackets.  We’ve been very fortunate to work alongside and partner up with a number of labs and projects taking place at HMSC — including Sarah Henkel’s Benthic Ecology Lab, Jay Peterson’s Zooplankton Ecology Project, and Rob Suryan’s Seabird Oceanography Lab — who’ve invited us to share their boat time and join in on cruises to spot marine mammals. We had some motivating cruises with last year’s field season (bow riding pacific white sided dolphins and a possible fin whale sighting!) but now that the summer season is around the corner, It’s time to recruit additional observers and get everyone up to date on their safety certifications (at sea safety, first aid, etc.)



While we currently have about 6-8 boat trips a month, I am not only just looking  for harbor porpoises, I’m also listening for them. To complement the visual surveys, I’ve added an acoustic component to my research, with the help of the Oregon State Research Collective for Applied Acoustics lab (ORCAA). This allows me to survey for harbor porpoises even under the worst sea conditions, when boat trips are unavailable. Odontocetes, such as the harbor porpoise use echolocation to navigate and forage and can be identified acoustically by their frequency range. While a full-depth analysis of last summer’s data hasn’t yet been accomplished, I was able to take a quick peek and MAN IT LOOKS GOOD! Both harbor porpoise and killer whale vocalizations were identified – you can check out the spectrogram below! This combination of using visual and acoustic surveys will help us answer when the porpoises are in our near waters, and where there primary hang-outs are!

Visual representation of an echolocation clicks emitted by a feeding harbor porpoise

But springtime isn’t just for fieldwork, it’s also for course work! This quarter, my lab mate Erin Picket and I have enrolled into Julia Jones “Arcaholics anonymous” class, an introductory spatial statistics and GIS course that helps us piece together all the hard work we’ve put towards data collection to look for trends of animal distributions across space and time. This is the first time for both of us that we  get to upgrade our excel spreadsheets into a visual representation of our data! There will be more updates to come soon on how our projects are unfolding, but if you can’t wait til then, feel free to follow along with our class website!

Seabird Research on the Western Antarctic Peninsula

I’d venture to say that I’m not the first field biologist to stare into the distance past my computer for a long while before deciding that trying to describe the smell of a seabird colony in a blog was futile.

My name is Erin Pickett and I am a graduate student at OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute. I am affiliated with the Biotelemetry and Behavioral Ecology Laboratory, a sister-lab of GEMM, and am here to share my recent experience conducting field research in Antarctica.

I’ve recently returned from a field season at Palmer station on Anvers Island, along the Western Antarctic Peninsula. Throughout the month of January I was collecting data for my masters’ project, while partaking in an on-going study conducted by the Palmer Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) program. I was fortunate enough to join the seabird research team at Palmer, a group that has been monitoring the area’s breeding seabirds for over two decades. January is the team’s busiest Antarctic summer month as the seabirds are in the midst of their annual breeding season. Our primary focus was studying the foraging ecology and demography of Adelie penguins; however, we also monitored Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins, southern giant-petrels, brown and south polar skuas, and blue-eyed shags. Before I delve into a description of this research, I’ll tell you a bit more about what it’s like to work in Antarctica.

It became quickly apparent to me that working with a team of experienced field biologists who have spent a collective thirty or so seasons in Antarctica meant that I would be the only one distracted by the scenery. This situation was exacerbated by the fact that I had never witnessed snow falling before I had arrived in Antarctica. I tried to play it cool, but inevitably rolled down every snow-covered hill I came across, and I couldn’t help but stop and stare into the sky every time it snowed.

There might have been some misunderstanding when in an email to a friend I referred to the weather as balmy. By Antarctic standards this was true, the average daily temperature hovered around 35°F. By my Hawaii-born standards, it was only balmy once I donned three or four layers, slipped toe warmers in my boots, and sipped on hot coffee while I hiked up a hill. Still, I considered myself lucky to have escaped my first Oregon winter by travelling south.

At Palmer I quickly learned that birders don’t come in for lunch. I adjusted my rations accordingly, although I have to admit that my “emergency food” in my “emergency boat bag” got eaten despite the fact that no real (non-hunger related) emergencies occurred. Every day after packing lunch and suiting up, we would load a small zodiac with our gear and set off to work on the numerous islands surrounding the station where seabirds were nesting.

One of the main objectives of the Palmer LTER program is to research the effects of climate variability and change on the marine ecosystem surrounding Palmer station. As an apex predator, the Adelie penguin plays a focal role in this project by providing insight into ecosystem-wide changes in the marine environment and the surrounding coastal habitat. Over the last four decades, Adelie penguins on the Western Antarctic Peninsula have experienced a decline of over 85% of their population. During this same time period Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins, who were previously unknown in this area, established founder colonies and they have been increasing in number ever since.

These recent population trends have been alarming and have driven Palmer LTER research objectives aimed at understand the mechanisms behind these changes. The proximal cause behind these demographic shifts is a warming-induced loss of sea ice along the peninsula. Over the last 50 years, the average mid-winter temperature in this region has risen by 6°C (five times higher than rise of the average global temperature). By decreasing the extent, duration and concentration of winter sea-ice, this warming has altered marine primary productivity and transformed coastal habitat along the peninsula.

These transformations have caused the climate along the WAP to more closely resemble the warmer and moister sub-Antarctic, rather than the traditionally cold and arid Antarctic it once was. This has resulted in a southward expansion of the ranges of sub-polar, ice-avoiding species (e.g. the Gentoo penguin) and a contraction of the ranges of ice-obligate species (e.g. the Adelie penguin). The strong influence of sea ice on the ranges of these two species makes it difficult to determine whether sea ice driven marine variability has also influenced these trends. The life history of Antarctic krill, a primary prey item of both Adelie and Gentoo penguins, is intricately tied to the seasonality of sea ice. In regions north of Palmer, decreasing sea ice has resulted in declining krill stocks. In the future, trends at Palmer are predicted to mirror those seen in the northern WAP.

For my master’s research, I am working with the seabird biologists at Palmer station to gain a better understanding of how prey variability affects the foraging strategies of Gentoo and Adelie penguins in this area. Specifically, I will be investigating how the foraging behaviors of Adelie and Gentoo penguins change in relation to inter-annual krill recruitment variability. I will be utilizing a long time series of data collected at Palmer by outfitting Adelie and Gentoo penguins with satellite transmitters and time depth recorders. This data will allow me to describe the foraging behavior and effort expended by these penguins on the daily foraging trips they make to feed their chicks. Determining how each of these species responds to prey variability will help us better understand the current community structure of penguins at Palmer. This is important because it will leave us better informed to predict the effects of future ecosystem shifts on the reproductive success and geographic distributions of these two species.

I’m looking forward to sharing more of this research as time goes on. Until then, enjoy the photos!

Sharing the Coast Conference

GEMM lab recently attended the Sharing the Coast Conference 2015 at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon where graduate student Courtney Hann presented on a marine mammal citizen science project, called Whale mAPP.

The Sharing the Coast Conference was a wonderful opportunity for scientists, researchers, community members, and avid ocean enthusiasts alike to come together and discuss current research on the Oregon Coast, with a focus on citizen science research. Many of the presenters introduced Oregon Coast or online citizen science projects people could participate. Other hands-on activities included field trips to Moolack Beach, Devil’s Punchbowl, along with tutorials on how to monitor marine debris and sea star wasting.

Courtney Hann represented the GEMM lab with her Sunday presentation on Whale mAPP, an Android application that can be used by volunteers, whom we call citizen scientists, to record marine mammal sighting data. The audience was inquisitive and intrigued by this project, along with many of the other wonderful citizen science projects. The American Cetacean Society, Oregon Chapter, will be using the Whale mAPP website ( this whale watching season to record shore-based marine mammal, focusing on grey whale, sightings.

Overall, the Sharing the Coast Conference was an ideal event that brought people from all around Oregon and from multiple organizations (Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition, Northwest Aquatic and Marine Educators, American Cetacean Society, CoastWatch, Hatfield Marine Science Center, GEMM lab, etc.) together to talk about relevant Oregon Coast topics. The focus on engaging volunteers with scientific research represents an exciting turn towards embracing citizen science research, and incorporating free-choice learning opportunities into citizen science projects.