More data, more questions, more projects: There’s always more to learn

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

As you may have read in previous blog posts, my research focuses on the ecology of blue whales in New Zealand. Through my MS research and years of work by a dedicated team, we were able to document and describe a population of around 700 blue whales that are unique to New Zealand, present year-round, and genetically distinct from all other known populations [1]. While this is a very exciting discovery, documenting this population has also unlocked a myriad of further questions about these whales. Can we predict when and where the whales are most likely to be? How does their distribution change seasonally? How often do they overlap with anthropogenic activity? My PhD research will aim to answer these questions through models of blue whale distribution patterns relative to their environment at multiple spatial and temporal scales.

Because time at sea for vessel-based surveys is cost-limited and difficult to come by, it is in any scientist’s best interest to collect as many concurrent streams of data as possible while in the field. When Dr. Leigh Torres designed our blue whale surveys that were conducted in 2014, 2016, and 2017, she really did a miraculous job of maximizing time on the water. With more data, more questions can be asked. These complimentary datasets have led to the pursuit of many “side projects”. I am lucky enough to work on these questions in parallel with what will form the bulk of my PhD, and collaborate with a number of people in the process. In this blog post, I’ll give you some short teasers of these “side projects”!

Surface lunge feeding as a foraging strategy for New Zealand blue whales

Most of what we know about blue whale foraging behavior comes from studies conducted off the coast of Southern California[2,3] using suction cup accelerometer tags. While these studies in the California Current ecosystem have led to insights and breakthroughs in our understanding of these elusive marine predators and their prey, they have also led us to adopt the paradigm that krill patches are denser at depth, and blue whales are most likely to target these deep prey patches when they feed. We have combined our prey data with blue whale behavioral data observed via a drone to investigate blue whale foraging in New Zealand, with a particular emphasis on surface feeding as a strategy. In our recent analyses, we are finding that in New Zealand, lunge feeding at the surface may be more than just “snacking”. Rather, it may be an energetically efficient strategy that blue whales have evolved in the region with unique implications for conservation.

Figure 1. A blue whale lunges on an aggregation of krill. UAS piloted by Todd Chandler.

Combining multiple data streams for a comprehensive health assessment

In the field, we collected photographs, blubber biopsy samples, fecal samples, and conducted unmanned aerial system (UAS, a.k.a. “drone”) flights over blue whales. The blubber and fecal samples can be analyzed for stress and reproductive hormone levels; UAS imagery allows us to quantify a whale’s body condition[4]; and photographs can be used to evaluate skin condition for abnormalities. By pulling together these multiple data streams, this project aims to establish a baseline understanding of the variability in stress and reproductive hormone levels, body condition, and skin condition for the population. Because our study period spans multiple years, we also have the ability to look at temporal patterns and individual changes over time. From our preliminary results, we have evidence for multiple pregnant females from elevated pregnancy and stress hormones, as well as apparent pregnancy from the body condition analysis. Additionally, a large proportion of the population appear to be affected by blistering and cookie cutter shark bites.

Figure 2. An example aerial drone image of a blue whale that will be used to asses body condition, i.e. how healthy or malnourished the whale is. (Drone piloted by Todd Chandler).
Figure 3. Images of blue whale skin condition, affected by A) blistering and B) cookie cutter shark bites.

Comparing body shape and morphology between species

The GEMM Lab uses UAS to quantitatively study behavior[5] and health of large whales. From various projects in different parts of the world we have now assimilated UAS data on blue, gray, and humpback whales. We will measure these images to investigate differences in body shape and morphology among these species. We plan to explore how form follows function across baleen whales, based on their different  life histories, foraging strategies, and ecological roles.

Figure 4 . Aerial images of A) a blue whale in New Zealand’s South Taranaki Bight, B) a gray whale off the coast of Oregon, and C) a humpback whale off the coast of Washington. Drone piloted by Todd Chandler (A and B) and Jason Miranda (C). 

So it goes—my dissertation will contain a series of chapters that build on one another to explore blue whale distribution patterns at increasing scales, as well as a growing number of appendices for these “side projects”. Explorations and collaborations like I’ve described here allow me to broaden my perspectives and diversify my analytical skills, as well as work with many excellent teams of scientists. The more data we collect, the more questions we are able to ask. The more questions we ask, the more we seem to uncover that is yet to be understood. So stay tuned for some exciting forthcoming results from all of these analyses, as well as plenty of new questions, waiting to be posed.


  1. Barlow DR et al. 2018 Documentation of a New Zealand blue whale population based on multiple lines of evidence. Endanger. Species Res. 36, 27–40. (doi:
  2. Hazen EL, Friedlaender AS, Goldbogen JA. 2015 Blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) optimize foraging efficiency by balancing oxygen use and energy gain as a function of prey density. Sci. Adv. 1, e1500469–e1500469. (doi:10.1126/sciadv.1500469)
  3. Goldbogen JA, Calambokidis J, Oleson E, Potvin J, Pyenson ND, Schorr G, Shadwick RE. 2011 Mechanics, hydrodynamics and energetics of blue whale lunge feeding: efficiency dependence on krill density. J. Exp. Biol. 214, 131–146. (doi:10.1242/jeb.048157)
  4. Burnett JD, Lemos L, Barlow DR, Wing MG, Chandler TE, Torres LG. 2018 Estimating morphometric attributes on baleen whales using small UAS photogrammetry: A case study with blue and gray whales. Mar. Mammal Sci. (doi:10.1111/mms.12527)
  5. Torres LG, Nieukirk SL, Lemos L, Chandler TE. 2018 Drone Up! Quantifying Whale Behavior From a New Perspective Improves Observational Capacity. Front. Mar. Sci. 5. (doi:10.3389/fmars.2018.00319)
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