Who Am I? Exploring the theory of individualisation among marine mammals

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

“Just be yourself!” is a phrase that everyone has probably heard at least once in their lives. The idea of being an individual who is distinctly different from other individuals is a concept that is focal to the society we live in today. While historically it may have been frowned upon to be the “black sheep in the crowd”, nowadays that seems to be the goal.

Source: Go Comics.

This quest for uniqueness has resulted in different styles of fashion, speech, profession, interest in art, music, literature, automobile types – the list is endless. The American Psychological Association defines personality as the “individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving”1. So, all of the choices we make on a daily basis shape our behaviour, and our behaviour in turn shapes our personality.

Since personality is something that is so engrained within human society, it isn’t surprising that ecologists have explored this concept among non-humans. Decades of research have resulted in an abundance of literature detailing personality in many different taxa and species, ranging from chimpanzees to mice to ants2. Naturally, the definition of personality for animals differs from that for humans since the assessment of animal thoughts and feelings is still somewhat of a locked box to us. Nevertheless, the behavioural aspect of the two definitions remains consistent whereby animal personality is broadly defined as “consistent variation in behavioural traits between individuals”3.

Although I am an early career marine mammal ecologist finding my footing in this rapidly expanding field, I have a keen interest in teasing apart possible cases of individual specialisation within marine mammal populations. So, before getting straight into the nitty gritty of individual specialisation, it is important for me to take a small step back and consider the concept of specialisation as applied to small subgroups or populations of marine mammals.

Specialisations are mostly related to foraging or feeding behaviour whereby a subgroup of individuals will develop a novel method to locate and capture prey. These behaviours have been reported for several marine mammal species, and are strongly coupled to intra and inter-specific competition with other predators for prey and habitat characteristics. Furthermore, it is posited that factors such as resource benefits (e.g. energy content of prey), prey escape rates, and handling times can be minimised if specialisation for a particular prey type or habitat occurs4.

In Florida Bay, Torres & Readdocumented two distinct foraging strategies employed by two bottlenose dolphin ecotypes. One dolphin ecotype was found to forage using deep diving with erratic surfacings, whereas the second ecotype chose to forage through mud ring feeding and were mostly seen in shallow habitats. The latter ecotype is in fact so adapted to shallow depths that dolphins were typically observed foraging in waters <2 m deep. In this example, the foraging tactics of the two ecotypes are strongly driven by habitat conditions, specifically depth. The video below is aerial footage of bottlenose dolphins performing mud ring feeding.

Such group specialisations have been identified not only in several other bottlenose dolphin populations around the world6,7, but also in other cetacean species, including killer whales (distinct differences in target prey between transients and residents8), Guiana dolphins (mud-plume feeding9), humpback dolphins (strand feeding10), and several others. Noticeable here is that these records concern Odontocete species, which is not surprising since these toothed whales are vastly different to baleen whales in that they often live in structured groups with bonds between individuals sometimes lasting for decades11. Long-term relationships are conducive to developing specialised group hunting strategies as individuals will spend considerable time with one another and the success of obtaining prey depends on the cooperation and coordination of the group.

For baleen whales and other marine mammals, such as pinnipeds, where life history and social organisation is more geared toward a solitary life, examples of group specialisations are relatively rare (with the exception of the well-documented bubble-net feeding exhibited by humpback whales12). While group specialisation may not be as prevalent in Mysticetes, the same problems of inter and intra-specific competition persists among these more solitary species too, which would suggest that individuals should develop their own unique foraging tactics and preferences. Evidence for individualisation is hard to obtain since it requires repeated observations of the same individuals over time with good knowledge of the prey type being consumed and/or the habitat being used to forage in.

Nevertheless, examples do exist. Perhaps the most well-documented case of individualisation within a population for marine mammals is of the sea otter. Estes et al. (2003) describe 10 female sea otters in Monterey Bay that had high inter-individual variation in diet, which they investigated over a scale of 8 years13. Most females specialised on 1-4 types of prey, with marked differences between the diets chosen by each female, despite habitat overlap. This individualisation of diet was not attributable to variation in prey availability; hence, authors concluded that this extreme specialisation occurred to reduce intra-population competition for prey.

Ecologists have historically (and probably still to this day) disagreed on whether individualisation actually matters in the grand scheme of things. There are generally three schools of thought on the matter: (1) individual specialisation is rare and/or weakly influences population dynamics and so is not very important; (2) while individual specialisation does occur and may in fact be commonplace, it does not affect ecological processes at the large population scale; and (3) individual specialisation is widespread and can significantly impact population dynamics and/or ecosystem function.

As you might have guessed by this point, I find myself in the third school of thought. There are many arguments supporting this theory, and what I believe to be very good arguments against statements 1 and 2. While I have only provided one specific named example for individual specialisation in a marine mammal, there are several documented cases of such occurrences among other marine taxa (e.g., pinnipeds14, sharks15, fish16) and a much larger number of studies for terrestrial species4. Thus, the claim that it is rare or weak, seems implausible to me.

Statement 2 is a little more complicated to tackle as it involves understanding how actions on a relatively small scale affect a whole population or even an ecosystem. For instance, consider two female sea otters living in a small coastal area where one sea otter prefers to eat turban snails and the other exclusively feeds on abalone. The sudden decline in abundance of either of these prey could lead to serious health and reproductive issues for those females. Should the low prey abundance persist, then poor health and reproduction of several females in a population that specialise on that prey item can rapidly lead to genetic loss and an overall population decline. Particularly if an individual’s or species’ home range is rather restricted or small. In the case of the sea otter, which are often touted as a keystone species due to its presence preventing sea urchin barren formation that is known to wreak havoc on kelp forests, knock-on effects of such a population decline could result in poor overall ecosystem health.

It may be easy to assume that one individual dolphin, otter, seal or whale cannot possibly make a difference to a whole population or ecosystem. This assumption strikes me as a little odd since humans are always told to ‘be the change they wish to see in the world’ and that ‘every person can make a difference’. Why then should these sentiments not be applicable to non-humans? While a gray whale may not hold a sign at a protest or run for president (actions commonly considered to cause change in the human world), perhaps the choice that a gray whale makes every day to only consume one species of zooplankton, can influence other gray whales in the area, predators from other taxa, habitat structure, other prey availability, and/or cause trophic cascades.

Through my research, I aim to elucidate whether the gray whales display some level of foraging individualisation while feeding in Port Orford, Oregon. I will use data from four years to compare tracks of individual whales with zooplankton samples collected in the area to correlate each individual’s movement patterns with prey availability. I will assess the quality of prey through bomb calorimetry and microplastic analysis of the zooplankton samples to determine energetic content and pollutant levels, respectively. This prey assessment will describe the potential effects of prey specialization on whales, which is fundamental to assessing overall population health. Individualisation can strongly affect fitness of individuals, either positively or negatively depending on several factors, which will undoubtedly have an impact at the population level.

(The videos below are examples of two different tactics we see the gray whales display while foraging along the Oregon coast in the summer months. The first video shows a whale foraging among kelp with some very acrobatic moves, while the second is of a whale employing the ‘sharking’ method where the whale is feeding benthically in such shallow depths that both the pectoral fin and the fluke stick out of the water, making the whale look like a ‘shark’.)

References

  1. American Psychological Association, Personality. Retrieved from: https://www.apa.org/topics/personality/.
  2. Carere C., & Locurto, C., Interaction between animal personality and animal cognition. Current Zoology, 2015. 57(4): 491-498.
  3. Gosling, S.D., From mice to men: what can we learn about personality from animal research?Psychological Bulletin, 2001. 127(1): 45-86.
  4. Bolnick, D.I., et al., The ecology of individuals: incidence and implications of individual specialisation. The American Naturalist, 2003. 161(1): 1-28.
  5. Torres, L.G., & Read, A. J., Where to catch a fish? The influence of foraging tactics on the ecology of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in Florida Bay, Florida. Marine Mammal Science, 2009. 25(4): 797-815.
  6. Gisburne, T.J., & Connor, R.C., Group size and feeding success in strand-feeding bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in Bull Creek, South Carolina. Marine Mammal Science, 2015. 31(3): 1252-1257.
  7. Gazda, S.K., et al., A division of labour with role specialization in group-hunting bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) off Cedar Keys, Florida.Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences, 2005. 272(1559): 135-140.
  8. Ford, J.K.B., et al., Dietary specialization in two sympatric populations of killer whales (Orcinus orca) in coastal British Columbia and adjacent waters. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 1998. 76(8): 1456-1471.
  9. Rossi-Santos, M.R., & Wedekin, L.L., Evidence of bottom contact behaviour by estuarine dolphins (Sotalia guianensis) on the Eastern Coast of Brazil.Aquatic Mammals, 2006. 32(2): 140-144.
  10. Peddemors, V.M., & Thompson, G., Beaching behaviour during shallow water feeding by humpback dolphins (Sousa plumbea). Aquatic Mammals, 1994. 20(2): 65-67.
  11. Tyack, P., Population biology, social behavior and communication in whales and dolphins. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 1986. 1(6): 144-150.
  12. Wiley, D., et al., Underwater components of humpback whale bubble-net feeding behaviour.Behaviour, 2011. 148(5/6): 575-602.
  13. Estes, J.A., et al., Individual variation in prey selection by sea otters: patterns, causes and implications. Journal of Animal Ecology, 2003. 72(1): 144-155.
  14. Cherel, Y., et al., Stable isotopes document seasonal changes in trophic niches and winter foraging individual specialization in diving predators from the Southern Ocean. Journal of Animal Ecology, 2007. 76(4): 826-836.
  15. Matich, P., et al., Contrasting patterns of individual specialization and trophic coupling in two marine apex predators. Journal of Animal Ecology, 2010. 80(1): 294-305.
  16. Svanbäck, R., & Persson, L., Individual diet specialization, niche width and population dynamics: implications for trophic polymorphisms. Journal of Animal Ecology, 2004. 73(5): 973-982.

Why Feeling Stupid is Great: How stupidity fuels scientific progress and discovery

By Alexa Kownacki, Ph.D. Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

It all started with a paper. On Halloween, I sat at my desk, searching for papers that could answer my questions about bottlenose dolphin metabolism and realized I had forgotten to check my email earlier. In my inbox, there was a new message with an attachment from Dr. Leigh Torres to the GEMM Lab members, saying this was a “must-read” article. The suggested paper was Martin A. Schwartz’s 2008 essay, “The importance of stupidity in scientific research”, published in the Journal of Cell Science, highlighted universal themes across science. In a single, powerful page, Schwartz captured my feelings—and those of many scientists: the feeling of being stupid.

For the next few minutes, I stood at the printer and absorbed the article, while commenting out loud, “YES!”, “So true!”, and “This person can see into my soul”. Meanwhile, colleagues entered my office to see me, dressed in my Halloween costume—as “Amazon’s Alexa”, talking aloud to myself. Coincidently, I was feeling pretty stupid at that moment after just returning from a weekly meeting, where everyone asked me questions that I clearly did not have the answers to (all because of my costume). This paper seemed too relevant; the timing was uncanny. In the past few weeks, I have been writing my PhD research proposal —a requirement for our department— and my goodness, have I felt stupid. The proposal outlines my dissertation objectives, puts my work into context, and provides background research on common bottlenose dolphin health. There is so much to know that I don’t know!

Alexa dressed as “Amazon Alexa” on Halloween at her office in San Diego, CA.

When I read Schwartz’s 2008 paper, there were a few takeaway messages that stood out:

  1. People take different paths. One path is not necessarily right nor wrong. Simply, different. I compared that to how I split my time between OSU and San Diego, CA. Spending half of the year away from my lab and my department is incredibly challenging; I constantly feel behind and I miss the support that physically being with other students provides. However, I recognize the opportunities I have in San Diego where I work directly with collaborators who teach and challenge me in new ways that bring new skills and perspective.

    Image result for different ways
    (Image source: St. Albert’s Place)
  2. Feeling stupid is not bad. It can be a good feeling—or at least we should treat it as being a positive thing. It shows we have more to learn. It means that we have not reached our maximum potential for learning (who ever does?). While writing my proposal I realized just how little I know about ecotoxicology, chemistry, and statistics. I re-read papers that are critical to understanding my own research, like “Nontargeted biomonitoring of halogenated organic compounds in two ecotypes of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) from the Southern California bight” (2014) by Shaul et al. and “Bottlenose dolphins as indicators of persistent organic pollutants in the western north Atlantic ocean and northern gulf of Mexico” (2011) by Kucklick et al. These articles took me down what I thought were wormholes that ended up being important rivers of information. Because I recognized my knowledge gap, I can now articulate the purpose and methods of analysis for specific compounds that I will conduct using blubber samples of common bottlenose dolphins

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    Image source: memegenerator.net
  3. Drawing upon experts—albeit intimidating—is beneficial for scientific consulting as well as for our mental health; no one person knows everything. That statement can bring us together because when people work together, everyone benefits. I am also reminded that we are our own harshest critics; sometimes our colleagues are the best champions of our own successes. It is also why historical articles are foundational. In the hunt for the newest technology and the latest and greatest in research, it is important to acknowledge the basis for discoveries. My data begins in 1981, when the first of many researchers began surveying the California coastline for common bottlenose dolphins. Geographic information systems (GIS) were different back then. The data requires conversions and investigative work. I had to learn how the data were collected and how to interpret that information. Therefore, it should be no surprise that I cite literature from the 1970s, such as “Results of attempts to tag Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins, (Tursiops truncatus)” by Irvine and Wells. Although published in 1972, the questions the authors tried to answer are very similar to what I am looking at now: how are site fidelity and home ranges impacted by natural and anthropogenic processes. While Irvine and Wells used large bolt tags to identify individuals, my project utilizes much less invasive techniques (photo-identification and blubber biopsies) to track animals, their health, and their exposures to contaminants.

    Image result for that is why you fail yoda
    (Image source: imgflip.com)
  4. Struggling is part of the solution. Science is about discovery and without the feeling of stupidity, discovery would not be possible. Feeling stupid is the first step in the discovery process: the spark that fuels wanting to explore the unknown. Feeling stupid can lead to the feeling of accomplishment when we find answers to those very questions that made us feel stupid. Part of being a student and a scientist is identifying those weaknesses and not letting them stop me. Pausing, reflecting, course correcting, and researching are all productive in the end, but stopping is not. Coursework is the easy part of a PhD. The hard part is constantly diving deeper into the great unknown that is research. The great unknown is simultaneously alluring and frightening. Still, it must be faced head on. Schwartz describes “productive stupidity [as] being ignorant by choice.” I picture this as essentially blindly walking into the future with confidence. Although a bit of an oxymoron, it resonates the importance of perseverance and conviction in the midst of uncertainty.

    Image result for funny t rex
    (Image source: Redbubble)

Now I think back to my childhood when stupid was one of the forbidden “s-words” and I question whether society had it all wrong. Maybe we should teach children to acknowledge ignorance and pursue the unknown. Stupid is a feeling, not a character flaw. Stupidity is important in science and in life. Fascination and emotional desires to discover new things are healthy. Next time you feel stupid, try running with it, because more often than not, you will learn something.

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Alexa teaching about marine mammals to students ages 2-6 and learning from educators about new ways to engage young students. San Diego, CA in 2016. (Photo source: Lori Lowder)

Oregon Sea Otter Status of Knowledge Symposium

By Dominique Kone, Masters Student in Marine Resource Management

Over the past year, the GEMM Lab has been investigating the ecological factors associated with a potential sea otter reintroduction to Oregon. A potential reintroduction is not only of great interest to our lab, but also to several other researchers, managers, tribes, and organizations in the state. With growing interest, this idea is really starting to gain momentum. However, the best path forward to making this idea a reality is somewhat unknown, and will no doubt take a lot of time and effort from multiple groups.

In an effort to catalyze this process, the Elakha Alliance – led by Bob Bailey – organized the Oregon Sea Otter Status of Knowledge Symposium earlier this month in Newport, OR. The purpose of this symposium was to share information, research, and lessons learned about sea otters in other regions. Speakers – primarily scientists, managers, and graduate students – flew in from all over the U.S. and the Canadian west coast to share their expertise and discuss various factors that must be considered before any reintroduction efforts begin. Here, I review some of the key takeaways from those discussions.

Source: The Elakha Alliance

To start the meeting, Dr. Anne Salomon – an associate professor from Simon Fraser University – and Kii’iljuus Barbara Wilson – a Haida Elder – gave an overview of the role of sea otters in nearshore ecosystems and their significance to First Nations in British Columbia. Hearing these perspectives not only demonstrated the various ecological effects – both direct and indirect – of sea otters, but it also illustrated their cultural connection to indigenous people and the role tribes can play (and currently do play in British Columbia) in co-managing sea otters. In Oregon, we need to be aware of all the possible effects sea otters may have on our ecosystems and acknowledge the opportunity we have to restore these cultural connections to Oregon’s indigenous people, such as the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians.

Source: The Elakha Alliance and the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians.

The symposium also involved several talks on the recovery of sea otter populations in other regions, as well as current limitations to their population growth. Dr. Lilian Carswell and Dr. Deanna Lynch – sea otter and marine conservation coordinators with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service – and Dr. Jim Bodkin – a sea otter ecologist – provided these perspectives. Interestingly, not all stocks are recovering at the same rate and each population faces slightly different threats. In California, otter recovery is slowed by lack of available food and mortality due to investigative shark bites, which prevents range expansion. In other regions, such as Washington, the population appears to be growing rapidly and lack of prey and shark bite-related mortality appear to be less important. However, this population does suffer from parasitic-related mortality. The major takeaway from these recovery talks is that threats can be localized and site-specific. In considering a reintroduction to Oregon, it may be prudent to investigate if any of these threats and population growth limitations exist along our coastline as they could decrease the potential for sea otters to reestablish.

Source: The Seattle Aquarium and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Dr. Shawn Larson – a geneticist and ecologist from the Seattle Aquarium – gave a great overview of the genetic research that has been conducted for historical (pre-fur trade) Oregon sea otter populations. She explained that historical Oregon populations were genetically-similar to both southern and northern populations, but there appeared to be a “genetic gradient” where sea otters near the northern Oregon coast were more similar to northern populations – ranging to Alaska – and otters from the southern Oregon coast were more similar to southern populations – ranging to California. Given this historic genetic gradient, reintroducing a mixture of sea otters – subsets from contemporary northern and southern stocks – should be considered in a future Oregon reintroduction effort. Source-mixing could increase genetic diversity and may more-closely resemble genetic diversity levels found in the original Oregon population.

At the end of the meeting, an expert panel – including Dr. Larson, Dr. Bodkins, Dr. Lynch, and Dr. Carswell – provided their recommendations on ways to better inform this process. To keep this brief, I’ll discuss the top three recommendations I found most intriguing and important.

  1. Gain a better understanding of sea otter social behavior. Sea otters have strong social bonds, and previous reintroductions have failed because relocated individuals returned to their capture sites to rejoin their source populations. While this site fidelity behavior is relatively understood, we know less about the driving mechanisms – such as age or sex – of those behaviors. Having a sound understanding of these behaviors and their mechanisms could help to identify those which may hinder reestablishment following a reintroduction.
  2. When anticipating the impacts of sea otters on ecosystems, investigate the benefits too. When we think of impacts, we typically think of costs. However, there are documented benefits of sea otters, such as increasing species diversity (Estes & Duggins 1995, Lee et al. 2016). Identifying these benefits – as well as to people – would more completely demonstrate their importance.
  3. Investigate the human social factors and culture in Oregon relative to sea otters, such as perceptions of marine predators. Having a clear understanding of people’s attitudes toward marine predators – particularly marine mammals – could help managers better anticipate and mitigate potential conflicts and foster co-existence between otters and people.
Source: Paul Malcolm

While much of the symposium was focused on learning from experts in other regions, I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize the great talks given by a few researchers in Oregon – including Sara Hamilton (OSU doctoral student), Dr. Roberta Hall (OSU emeritus professor), Hannah Wellman (University of Oregon doctoral student), and myself. Individually, we spoke about the work that has already been done and is currently being done on this issue – including understanding bull kelp ecology, studying sea otter archaeological artifacts, and a synthesis of the first Oregon translocation attempt. Collectively, our talks provided some important context for everyone else in the room and demonstrated that we are working to make this process as informed as possible for managers. Oregon has yet to determine if they will move forward with a sea otter reintroduction and what that path forward will look like. However, given this early interest – as demonstrated by the symposium – we, as researchers, have a great opportunity to help guide this process and provide informative science.

References:

Estes, J. A. and D. O. Duggins. 1995. Sea otters and kelp forests in Alaska: generality and variation in a community ecological paradigm. Ecological Monographs. 65: 75-100.

Lee, L. C., Watson, J. C., Trebilco, R., and A. K. Salomon. 2016. Indirect effects and prey behavior mediate interactions between an endangered prey and recovering predator. Ecosphere. 7(12).

The Beauty of Scientific Conferences

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

Science is truly meaningful because it is shared amongst colleagues and propagated to the wider public. There are many mediums through which information dissemination can occur. A common and most rigorous form is the peer-review scientific publication of papers. The paper approval process is vigorous, can last a long time – sometimes on the scale of several years – and is therefore an excellent way of vetting science that is occurring all over the world in many different disciplines. New studies build upon the results and downfalls of others, and therefore the process of research and communication of knowledge is continuous.

However, scientific journals and the publications within them can be quite exclusive; they are often only accessible to certain members of the scientific community or of an educational institution. For a budding scientist who is not affiliated with an institution, it can be very hard to get your hands on current research. Having said that, this issue is slowly becoming inconsequential since open access and free journals, such as PeerJ, are becoming more prevalent.

How some students feel after reading scientific publications. Source: Know Your Meme.

Something that is perhaps more restrictive is the amount of topic-specific jargon used in publications. While a certain degree of jargon is to be expected, it can sometimes overwhelm a reader to the point where the main findings of the research become lost. This typically tends to be the case for those just at the beginning of their scientific journeys, however I have also known professors to comment on confusing sections of publications due to the heavy use of specific jargon.

Conferences on the other hand offer an opportunity to disseminate meaningful science in a more open and (sometimes) more laid-back setting (this may not always be true depending on the field of science and the calibre of the conference). Researchers of a particular field congregate for a few days to learn about current research efforts, ponder potential collaborations, peruse posters of new studies, and argue over which soccer team is going to win the next World Cup. That is the beauty of conferences – it is very possible to get to know each other on a personal level. These face-to-face opportunities are especially beneficial to students as this relaxed atmosphere lends itself to asking questions and engaging with scientists that are leaders in their fields.

Logo for the Marine Technology Summit. Source: MTS.

Just over a week ago, the GEMM Lab had the opportunity to do all of the above-mentioned things. PI Dr Leigh Torres and I participated in the Marine Technology Summit (MTS) in Newport, OR, a “mini-conference” at which shiny, new technologies for use in marine applications were introduced by leading, and many local, tech companies. While Leigh and I are not technologists, we are ecologists that have greatly benefitted from recent, rapid advances in technology. Both of our gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) research projects use different technologies to unveil hitherto unknown ecological aspects of these marine mammals.

Leigh presented her research that involves flying drones over gray whales that grace the Oregon coastal waters in the spring and summer. Through these flights, many previously undocumented gray whale behaviours have been captured and quantified1, such as headstands, nursing and jaw snapping (check out the video below). Furthermore, still images from the videos have been used to perform photogrammetry to assess health and body condition of the whales2. These drone flights have added a wealth of valuable data to the life histories of individual whales that previously were assessed mainly through photo-identification and genetics. This still fairly new approach to assess health by using drones can be relatively cost-effective, which has always been one of Leigh’s key aims throughout her research so that methods are accessible to many scientists. These productive drones used by the GEMM Lab are commercially available (yup, just like the ones you see on the shelves at your local Best Buy!).

The use of cost-effective technologies is a common theme in the GEMM Lab and is also central to my research. The estimation of zooplankton density is vital to my project to determine whether gray whales in Port Orford select areas of high prey density over areas with less dense prey. However, the traditional technology used to quantify prey densities in the water column are often bulky or expensive. Instead, we developed a relatively cheap method of measuring relative zooplankton density using a GoPro camera that we reel down through the water column from a downrigger attached to our research kayak. While we are unable to exactly quantify the mass of zooplankton in the water column, we have been successful in assessing changes in relative prey density by scoring screenshots of the footage.

Screenshot of a GoPro video from this summer’s field season in Port Orford, OR revealing a thick layer of zooplankton. Source: GEMM Lab.

While our drones and GoPro technology is not without error, technology rarely is. In truth, we lost our GoPro for several days after it became stuck in a rock crevice and Leigh’s team regrettably lost a drone to the depths of the ocean this summer. This technology reality was part of the reason I presented at the MTS as I wanted to involve technologists to find solutions to some of the problems I have experienced. Needless to say, I got a lot of excellent input from many different people, for which I am very grateful. In addition to developing new opportunities to collaborate, I was very content to sit in the audience and hear about the ground-breaking new marine technologies that are in development. Below are short descriptions of two new technologies I learned about that are revolutionising the marine world.

ASV Unmanned Marine Systems develop autonomous surface vehicles that are powered by renewable energies (solar panels and wind turbines). These vessels are particularly useful for oceanographic monitoring as they are more capable than weather buoys and much more cost effective than manned weather ships or research vessels. Additionally, they can be used for a lot of different marine science applications including active acoustic fisheries monitoring, water quality monitoring, and cetacean tracking. Some models even have integrated drones that are launched and retrieved autonomously.

The Ocean Cleanup is a company that develops technologies to clean garbage out of our oceans. There is presently a large mission underway by The Ocean Cleanup to combat the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP). The GPGP is essentially a large island in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean comprised of diverse plastic particles – wrappers, polystyrene, fishing line, plastic bags, the list is endless3. A recent study estimates the amount of plastic in the GPGP to be at least 79 thousand tonnes of ocean plastic4. Unfortunately, the GPGP is not the only one of its kind. The Ocean Cleanup hopes to reduce this massive plastic accumulation with the development of a system made up of a 600-m long floater that sits on the ocean’s surface with a 3-m deep skirt attached below it. The skirt will collect debris while the float will prevent plastic from flowing over it, as well as keep the whole system afloat. The system arrived at the GPGP last Wednesday and the team of over 80 engineers, researchers, scientists and computational modellers have successfully installed the system. The team posts frequent updates on their Twitter and I would highly recommend you follow this possibly revolutionary technology.

While attending the MTS, it felt like there are no bounds for the types of marine technology that will be developed in the future. I am excited to see what ecologists working with technicians can develop to keep applying technology to address challenging questions and conservation issues.

 

References

  1. Torres, L., et al., Drone up! Quantifying whale behaviour from a new perspective improves observational capacity.Frontiers in Marine Science, 2018. 5, DOI:10.3389/fmars.2018.00319.
  2. Burnett, J.D., et al., Estimating morphometric attributes on baleen whales using small UAS photogrammetry: A case study with blue and gray whales, 2018.Marine Mammal Science. DOI:10.1111/mms.12527.
  3. Kaiser, J., The dirt on the ocean garbage patches. Science, 2018. 328(5985): p. 1506.
  4. Lebreton, L., et al., Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly accumulating plastic. Scientific Reports, 2018. 8(4666).

Over the Ocean and Under the Bridges: STEM Cruise on the R/V Oceanus

By Alexa Kownacki, Ph.D. Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

From September 22nd through 30th, the GEMM Lab participated in a STEM research cruise aboard the R/V Oceanus, Oregon State University’s (OSU) largest research vessel, which served as a fully-functioning, floating, research laboratory and field station. The STEM cruise focused on integrating science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) into hands-on teaching experiences alongside professionals in the marine sciences. The official science crew consisted of high school teachers and students, community college students, and Oregon State University graduate students and professors. As with a usual research cruise, there was ample set-up, data collection, data entry, experimentation, successes, and failures. And because everyone in the science party actively participated in the research process, everyone also experienced these successes, failures, and moments of inspiration.

The science party enjoying the sunset from the aft deck with the Astoria-Megler bridge in the background. (Image source: Alexa Kownacki)

Dr. Leigh Torres, Dr. Rachael Orben, and I were all primarily stationed on flybridge—one deck above the bridge—fully exposed to the elements, at the highest possible location on the ship for best viewing. We scanned the seas in hopes of spotting a blow, a splash, or any sign of a marine mammal or seabird. Beside us, students and teachers donned binoculars and positioned themselves around the mast, with Leigh and I taking a 90-degree swath from the mast—either to starboard or to port. For those who had not been part of marine mammal observations previously, it was a crash course into the peaks and troughs—of both the waves and of the sightings. We emphasized the importance of absence data: knowledge of what is not “there” is equally as important as what is. Fortunately, Leigh chose a course that proved to have surprisingly excellent environmental conditions and amazing sightings. Therefore, we collected a large amount of presence data: data collected when marine mammals or seabirds are present.

High school student, Chris Quashnick Holloway, records a seabird sighting for observer, Dr. Rachael Orben. (Image source: Alexa Kownacki).

When someone sighted a whale that surfaced regularly, we assessed the conditions: the sea state, the animal’s behavior, the wind conditions, etc. If we deemed them as “good to fly”, our licensed drone pilot and Orange Coast Community College student, Jason, prepared his Phantom 4 drone. While he and Leigh set up drone operations, I and the other science team members maintained a visual on the whale and stayed in constant communication with the bridge via radio. When the drone was ready, and the bridge gave the “all clear”, Jason launched his drone from the aft deck. Then, someone tossed an unassuming, meter-long, wood plank overboard—keeping it attached to the ship with a line. This wood board serves as a calibration tool; the drone flies over it at varying heights as determined by its built-in altimeter. Later, we analyze how many pixels one meter occupied at different heights and can thereby determine the body length of the whale from still images by converting pixel length to a metric unit.

High school student, Alishia Keller, uses binoculars to observe a whale, while PhD student, Alexa Kownacki, radios updates on the whale’s location to the bridge and the aft deck. (Image source: Tracy Crews)

Finally, when the drone is calibrated, I radio the most recent location of our animal. For example, “Blow at 9 o’clock, 250 meters away”. Then, the bridge and I constantly adjust the ship’s speed and location. If the whale “flukes” (dives and exposes the ventral side of its tail), and later resurfaced 500 meters away at our 10 o’clock, I might radio to the bridge to, “turn 60 degrees to port and increase speed to 5 knots”. (See the Hidden Math Lesson below). Jason then positions the drone over the whale, adjusting the camera angle as necessary, and recording high-quality video footage for later analysis. The aerial viewpoint provides major advantages. Whales usually expose about 10 percent of their body above the water’s surface. However, with an aerial vantage point, we can see more of the whale and its surroundings. From here, we can observe behaviors that are otherwise obscured (Torres et al. 2018), and record footage that to help quantify body condition (i.e. lengths and girths). Prior to the batteries running low, Jason returns the drone back to the aft deck, the vessel comes to an idle, and Leigh catches the drone. Throughout these operations, those of us on the flybridge photograph flukes for identification and document any behaviors we observe. Later, we match the whale we sighted to the whale that the drone flew over, and then to prior sightings of this same individual—adding information like body condition or the presence of a calf. I like to think of it as whale detective work. Moreover, it is a team effort; everyone has a critical role in the mission. When it’s all said and done, this noninvasive approach provides life history context to the health and behaviors of the animal.

Drone pilot, Jason Miranda, flying his drone using his handheld ground station on the aft deck. (Photo source: Tracy Crews)

Hidden Math Lesson: The location of 10 o’clock and 60 degrees to port refer to the exact same direction. The bow of the ship is our 12 o’clock with the stern at our 6 o’clock; you always orient yourself in this manner when giving directions. The same goes for a compass measurement in degrees when relating the direction to the boat: the bow is 360/0. An angle measure between two consecutive numbers on a clock is: 360 degrees divided by 12-“hour” markers = 30 degrees. Therefore, 10 o’clock was 0 degrees – (2 “hours”)= 0 degrees- (2*30 degrees)= -60 degrees. A negative degree less than 180 refers to the port side (left).

Killer whale traveling northbound.

Our trip was chalked full of science and graced with cooperative weather conditions. There were more highlights than I could list in a single sitting. We towed zooplankton nets under the night sky while eating ice cream bars; we sang together at sunset and watched the atmospheric phenomena: the green flash; we witnessed a humpback lunge-feeding beside the ship’s bow; and we saw a sperm whale traveling across calm seas.

Sperm whale surfacing before a long dive.

On this cruise, our lab focused on the marine mammal observations—which proved excellent during the cruise. In only four days of surveying, we had 43 marine mammal sightings containing 362 individuals representing 9 species (See figure 1). As you can see from figure 2, we traveled over shallow, coastal and deep waters, in both Washington and Oregon before inland to Portland, OR. Because we ventured to areas with different bathymetric and oceanographic conditions, we increased our likelihood of seeing a higher diversity of species than we would if we stayed in a single depth or area.

Humpback whale lunge feeding off the bow.
Number of sightings Total number of individuals
Humpback whale 22 40
Pacific white-sided dolphin 3 249
Northern right whale dolphin 1 9
Killer whale 1 3
Dall’s porpoise 5 49
Sperm whale 1 1
Gray whale 1 1
Harbor seal 1 1
California sea lion 8 9
Total 43 362

Figure 1. Summary table of all species sightings during cruise while the science team observed from the flybridge.

Pacific white-sided dolphins swimming towards the vessel.

Figure 2. Map with inset displaying study area and sightings observed by species during the cruise, made in ArcMap. (Image source: Alexa Kownacki).

Even after two days of STEM outreach events in Portland, we were excited to incorporate more science. For the transit from Portland, OR to Newport, OR, the entire science team consisted two people: me and Jason. But even with poor weather conditions, we still used science to answer questions and help us along our journey—only with different goals than on our main leg. With the help of the marine technician, we set up a camera on the bow of the ship, facing aft to watch the vessel maneuver through the famous Portland bridges.

Video 1. Time-lapse footage of the R/V Oceanus maneuvering the Portland Bridges from a GoPro. Compiled by Alexa Kownacki, assisted by Jason Miranda and Kristin Beem.

Prior to the crossing the Columbia River bar and re-entering the Pacific Ocean, the R/V Oceanus maneuvered up the picturesque Columbia River. We used our geospatial skills to locate our fellow science team member and high school student, Chris, who was located on land. We tracked each other using GPS technology in our cell phones, until the ship got close enough to use natural landmarks as reference points, and finally we could use our binoculars to see Chris shining a light from shore. As the ship powered forward and passed under the famous Astoria-Megler bridge that connects Oregon to Washington, Chris drove over it; he directed us “100 degrees to port”. And, thanks to clear directions, bright visual aids, and spatiotemporal analysis, we managed to find our team member waving from shore. This is only one of many examples that show how in a few days at sea, students utilized new skills, such as marine mammal observational techniques, and honed them for additional applications.

On the bow, Alexa and Jason use binoculars to find Chris–over 4 miles–on the Washington side of the Columbia River. (Image source: Kristin Beem)

Great science is the result of teamwork, passion, and ingenuity. Working alongside students, teachers, and other, more-experienced scientists, provided everyone with opportunities to learn from each other. We created great science because we asked questions, we passed on our knowledge to the next person, and we did so with enthusiasm.

High school students, Jason and Chris, alongside Dr. Leigh Torres, all try to get a glimpse at the zooplankton under Dr. Kim Bernard’s microscope. (Image source: Tracy Crews).

Check out other blog posts written by the science team about the trip here.

A Summer of “Firsts” for Team Whale Storm

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

To many people, six weeks may seem like a long time. Counting down six weeks until your favourite TV show airs can feel like time dragging on slowly (did anyone else feel that way waiting for Blue Planet II to be released?). Or crossing off the days on your calendar toward that much-needed holiday that is still six weeks away can feel like an eternity. It makes sense that six weeks should feel like a long time. After all, six weeks are approximately a ninth of an entire year. Yet, I can assure you that if you asked anyone on my research team this summer whether six weeks was a long time, they would all say no.

As I watched each of my interns present our research to a room of 50 engaged community members (Fig. 1) after our six week research effort, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of pride for all of them at how far they had come during the course of the field season.

Figure 1. Our audience at the community presentation on August 31. Photo by Leigh Torres.

On the very first day of our two-week training back in July, I gave my team an introductory presentation covering gray whales, their ecology, what the next six weeks would look like, how this project had developed and its results to date (Quick side-note here: I want to give a huge shout out to Florence and Leigh as this project would not be what it is today without their hard work and dedication as they laid the groundwork for it three years ago and have continued to improve and expand it). I remember the looks on my interns’ faces and the phrase that comes to mind is ‘deer in headlights’. It isn’t surprising that this was the case as this internship was the first time any of them had done marine mammal field work, or any kind of field work for that matter. It makes me think back to my first taste of field work. I was a fresh high school graduate and volunteering with a bottlenose dolphin research group. I remember feeling out of place and unsure of myself, both in terms of data collection skills but also having to live with the same people I had worked with all day. But as the first few days turned into the first few weeks, I grew into my role and by the end of my time there, I felt like an expert in what I was doing. Based on the confidence with which my interns presented our gray whale foraging ecology research to an audience just over a week ago, I know that they too had become experts in these short six weeks. Experts in levelling a theodolite, in sighting a blow several kilometres out from our cliff site, in kayaking in foggy conditions, in communicating effectively in high stress situations – the list goes on and on.

While you may have read the previous blog posts written by each of my interns in the last four weeks and thus have a sense of who they are, I want to tell you a little more about each of these hardworking undergraduates that played a large role in making this year’s Port Orford gray whale season so effective. Although we did not have any local high school interns this year, the whole team hails from Oregon, specifically from Florence, Sweet Home and Portland.

Figure 2. Haley on the cliff equipped with the camera waiting for a whale to surface. Photo by Cynthia Leonard.

Haley Kent (Fig. 2), my co-captain and Marine Studies Initiative (MSI) intern, an Environmental Science major, is going into her senior year at OSU this fall. She is focused and driven, which I know will enable her to pursue her dream of becoming a shark researcher (I can’t even begin to describe her excitement when we saw the thresher shark on our GoPro video). I couldn’t have asked for a better right hand person for my first year taking over this project and I am excited to see what results she will reveal through her project of individual gray whale foraging preferences. Also, Haley has a big obsession for board games and provided the team with many evenings of entertainment thanks to Munchkin and King of Tokyo.

Figure 3. Dylan in the stern of the kayak on a foggy day reeling down the GoPro stick on the downrigger. Photo by Haley Kent.

Dylan Gregory (Fig. 3) is transferring from Portland Community College and is going to be an OSU junior this fall. Not only was Dylan always extremely helpful in working with me to come up with ways to troubleshoot or fix gear, but his portable speaker and long list of eclectic podcasts always made him a very good cliff team partner. He was also Team Whale Storm’s main chef in the kitchen, and while some of his dishes caused tears & sweat among some team members (Dylan is a big fan of spices), there were never any leftovers, indicating how delicious the food was.

Figure 4. Robyn on one of our day’s off visiting the gigantic Redwoods in California. Photo by Haley Kent.

Robyn Norman (Fig. 4) will be a sophomore at OSU this fall and her commitment to zooplankton identification has been invaluable to the project. Last year when she was a freshman, Robyn was given our zooplankton samples from 2017, a few identification guides and instructions on how to use the dissecting microscope, before she was left to her own devices. Her level of independence and dedication as a freshman was incredible and I am very grateful for the time and skills she has given to this work. Besides this though, Robyn always brought an element of happiness to the room and I can speak on behalf of the rest of the team, that when she was gone for a week on a dive trip, the house did not feel the same without her.

Figure 5. Hayleigh Middleton at the community presentation. Her dry humour and quips earned her a lot of laughter from the audience keeping them entertained. Photo by Tom Calvanese.

Hayleigh Middleton (Fig. 5), a fresh high school graduate and freshly turned 18 during the project, is starting as a freshman at OSU this fall. She is extremely perceptive and would (thankfully) often remind others of tasks that they had forgotten to do (like take the batteries out of the theodolite or to mention the Secchi depth on the GoPro videos). I was very impressed by Hayleigh’s determination to continue working on the kayak despite her propensity for sea sickness (though after a few days we did remedy this by giving her raw ginger to chew on – not her favourite flavour or texture but definitely very, very effective!). She is inquisitive about almost everything and I know she will do very well in her first year at OSU.

Thank you, Team Whale Storm (Fig. 6), for giving me six weeks of your summer and for making my first year as project leader as seamless as it could have been! Without each and every one of you, I would not have been able to survey for 149.2 hours on the cliff, collect over 300 zooplankton samples, identify 31 gray whales, or launch a tandem kayak at 6:30 am every morning.

Figure 6. Team Whale Storm. Back row, from left to right: Haley Kent, Robyn Norman, Hayleigh Middleton, Dylan Gregory. Front row, from left to right: Tom Calvanese, Dr. Leigh Torres, Lisa Hildebrand. Photo by Mike Baran.

My interns were not the only ones to experience many “firsts” during this field season. I learned many new things for the first time right alongside them. While taking leadership is not a foreign concept to me, these six weeks were my first real experience of leading a project and a team for a sustained period of time. Managing teams, delegating tasks and compiling data felt gratifying because I felt like I was exactly where I should be (Fig. 7).

Figure 7. From left to right: Tom, myself, Hayleigh & Dylan on the cliff site looking for whales. Photo by Leigh Torres.
Figure 8. Haley & I on a cold evening out on the water but very excited to have gotten back the GoPro stick retrieved by divers after it had been stuck in a crevice for over 5 days. Photo by Lisa Hildebrand.

I dealt with many daunting tasks, yet thanks to the support of my interns, as well as Tom (Port Orford field station’s incredible station manager), Florence and Leigh, I learned how to resolve my problems: I fixed and replaced broken or lost gear (I am not a very mechanically inclined person; Fig. 8), budgeted food for five hungry people doing tiring field work (I’ve only ever budgeted for one person previously), and taught people how to use gear that I had not often used before (I can say now that the theodolite and I are friends, but this wasn’t the case for the first few weeks…).

 

Figure 9. Me with all the gear packed into the truck ready to leave Port Orford after the end of the field season. Photo by Haley Kent.

In the lead up to the summer field season this year, Leigh said to me, in one of the many emails we exchanged, that leading the project was a big task but that it was just six weeks long. She suggested that I rest up and get organised as much as I could ahead of time because, after all, the data collected this summer was going to be my thesis data, so I would want it to be as good as possible. Looking back, she couldn’t have been more right – the six weeks simply flew by, I did need the rest she had advised, and it definitely was a big task. I can’t wait for it to happen all over again next summer.

Looking through the scope: A world of small marine bugs

By Robyn Norman, GEMM Lab summer 2018 intern, OSU undergraduate

Although the average human may think all zooplankton are the same, to a whale, not all zooplankton are created equal. Just like us, different whales tend to favor different types of food over others. Thus, creating a meal perfect for each individual preference. Using a plankton net off the side of our kayak, each day we take different samples, hoping to figure out more about prey and what species the whales, we see, like best. These samples are then transported back to the lab for analysis and identification. After almost a year of identifying zooplankton and countless hours of looking through the microscope you would think I would have seen everything these tiny organisms have to offer.  Identifying mysid shrimp and other zooplankton to species level can be extremely difficult and time consuming, but equally rewarding. Many zooplankton studies often stop counting at 300 or 400 organisms, however in one very long day in July, I counted over 2,000 individuals. Zooplankton tend to be more difficult to work with due to their small size, fragility, and large quantity.

Figure 1. A sample fresh off the kayak in the beginning stages of identification. Photo by Robyn Norman.

A sample that looks quick and easy can turn into a never-ending search for the smallest of mysids. Most of the mysids that I have sorted can be as small as 5 mm in length. Being difficult to identify is an understatement. Figure 1 shows a sample in the beginning stages of analysis, with a wide range of mysids and other zooplankton. Different species of mysid shrimp generally have the same body shape, structure, size, eyes and everything else you can think of. The only way to easily tell them apart is by their telson, which is a unique structure of their tail. Their telsons cannot be seen with the naked eye and it can also be hard to find with a microscope if you do not know exactly what you are looking for.

 

Throughout my time identifying these tiny creatures I have found 9 different species of mysid from this gray whale foraging ecology project in Port Orford from the 2017 summer. But in 2018 three mysid species have been particularly abundant, Holmesimysis sculpta, Neomysis rayii, and Neomysis mercedis.

Figure 2. Picture taken with microscope of a Holmesimysis sculpta telson. Photo by Robyn Norman.

H. sculpta has a unique telson with about 18 lateral spines that stop as they reach the end of the telson (Figure 2). The end of the telson has 4 large spines that slightly curve to make a fork or scoop-like shape. From my own observations I have also noticed that H. sculpta has darker coloring throughout their bodies and are often heavily pregnant (or at least during the month of August). Neomysis rayii and Neomysis mercedis have been extremely difficult to identify and work with. While N. rayii can grow up to 65 mm, they can also often be the same small size as N. mercedis. The telsons of these two species are very similar, making them too similar to compare and differentiate. However, N. rayii can grow substantially bigger than N. mercedis, making the bigger shrimp easier to identify. Unfortunately, the small N. rayii still give birth to even smaller mysid babies, which can be confused as large N. mercedis. Identifying them in a timely manner is almost impossible. After a long discussion, we decided it would be easier to group these two species of Neomysis together and then sub-group by size. Our three categories were 1-10 mm, 11-15 mm, 16+ mm. According to the literature, N. mercedis are typically 11-15 mm meaning that anything over this size should be a N. rayii (McLaughlin 1980).

Figure 3. Microscopic photo of a gammarid. Photo source: WikiMedia.
Figure 4. Caprellidae found in sample with unique coloration. Photo by Robyn Norman.

While mysids comprise the majority of our samples, they are not the only zooplankton that I see. Amphipods are often caught along with the shrimp. Gammarids look like the terrestrial potato bug and can grow larger than some species of mysid (Fig. 3).

As well as, Caprellidae (Fig. 4) that remind me of little tiny aliens as they have large claws compared to their body size, making it hard to get them out of our plankton net. These impressive creatures are surprisingly hardy and can withstand long times in the freezer or being poked with tweezers under a microscope without dying.

In 2017, there was a high abundance of amphipods found in both of our study sites, Mill Rocks and Tichenor Cove. Mill Rocks surprisingly had 4 times the number of amphipods than Tichenor Cove. This result could be one of the possible reasons gray whales were observed more in Mill Rocks last year. Mill Rocks also has a substantial amount of kelp, a popular place for mysid swarms and amphipods. The occurrence of mysids at each of these sites was almost equal, whereas amphipods were almost exclusively found at Mill Rocks. Mill Rocks also had a higher average number of organisms than Tichenor Cove per samples, potentially creating better feeding grounds for gray whales here in Port Orford.

Analyzing the 2018 data I can already see some differences between the two years. In 2018 the main species of mysid that we are finding in both sites are Neomysis sp. and Holmesimysis sculpta, whereas in 2017 Alienacanthomysis macropsis, a species of mysid identified by their long eye stalks and blunt telson, made up the majority of samples from Tichenor Cove. There has also been a large decrease in amphipods from both locations compared to last year. Two samples from Mill Rocks in 2017 had over 300 amphipods, however this year less than 100 have been counted in total. All these differences in zooplankton prey availability may influence whale behavior and movement patterns. Further data analysis aims to uncover this possibility.

Figure 5. 2017 zooplankton community analysis from Tichenor Cove. There was a higher percentage and abundance of Neomysis rayii (yellow) and Alienacanthomysis macropsis (orange) than in Mill Rocks.
Figure 6. 2017 zooplankton community analysis from Mill Rocks. There was a higher abundance and percentage of amphipods (blue) and Holmesimysis sculpta (brown) than in Tichenor cove. Caprellidae (red) increased during the middle of the season, and decreased substantially towards the end.

The past 6 weeks working as part of the 2018 gray whale foraging ecology research team in Port Orford have been nothing short of amazing. We have seen over 50 whales, identified hundreds of zooplankton, and have spent almost every morning on the water in the kayak. An experience like this is a once in a lifetime opportunity that we were fortunate to be a part of. For the past few years, I have been creating videos to document important and exciting times in my life. I have put together a short video that highlights the amazing things we did every day in Port Orford, as well as the creatures that live just below the surface. I hope you enjoy our Gray Whale Foraging Ecology 2018 video with music by Myd – The Sun. 

[B]reaching New Discoveries about Gray Whales in Oregon

By Haley Kent, Marine Studies Initiative (MSI) & summer GEMM Lab intern, OSU senior

“BLOW!”, yells a team “Whale Storm” member, as mist remains above the water from an exhaling gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus). While based at the Port Orford Field Station for 6 weeks of my final summer as an undergrad at Oregon State University my heart has only grown fonder for marine wildlife. I am still in awe of this amazing opportunity of researching the foraging ecology of gray whales as a Marine Studies Initiative and GEMM Lab intern. From this field work I have already learned so much about gray whales and their zooplankton prey, and now it’s time to analyze the data we have collected and see what ecological stories we can uncover.

Figure 1. Robyn and Haley enjoy their time in the research kayak. Photo by Lisa Hildebrand.

WORK IN THE FIELD

This internship is my first field work experience and I have learned many skills and demands needed to study marine wildlife: waking up before the sun (every day begins with screaming alarms), being engulfed by nature (Port Orford is a jaw-dropping location with rich biodiversity), packing up damp gear and equipment to only get my feet wet in the morning ocean waves again, and of course waiting on the weather to cooperate (fog, wind, swell). I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Figure 2. Smokey sunrise from the research kayak. Photo by Haley Kent.

Whether it is standing above the ocean on the ‘Cliff Site’ or sitting in our two-man kayak, every day of this internship has been full of new learning experiences. Using various field work techniques, such as using a theodolite (surveying equipment to track whale location and behavior), Secchi disks (to measure water clarity), GoPro data collection, taking photos of wildlife, and many more tools, have given me a new bank of valuable skills that will stick with me into my future career.

Figure 3. Haley drops Secchi disk from the research kayak. Photo by Dylan Gregory.

Data Analysis

To maximize my amazing internship experience, I am conducting a small data analysis project using the data we have collected these past weeks and in previous summers.  There are so many questions that can be asked of these data, but I am particularly interested in how many times individual gray whales return to our study area to forage seasonally or annually, and if these individual whales forage preferentially where certain zooplankton prey are available.

Photo Identification

After many hours of data collection in the field either in the kayak or on the cliff, we get to take a breather in the lab to work on various projects we are each assigned. Some job tasks include processing data, identifying zooplankton, and looking through the photos taken that day to potentially identify a known whale. Once photos are processed and saved onto the rugged laptop, they are ready for some serious one on one. Looking through each of the 300 photos captured each day can be very tedious, but it is worthwhile when a match is found. Within the photos of each individual whale I first determine whether it is the left or right side of the whale – if we are lucky we get both! – and maybe even a fluke (tail) photo!

Figure 4. Buttons’ left side. Photo taken by Gray Whale Team of 2018.
Figure 5. Buttons’ left side. Photo taken by Gray Whale Team of 2017.

The angles of these photos (Fig. 4 & 5) are very different, so it could be difficult to tell these are the same whale. But, have a closer look at the pigmentation patterns on this whale. Focus on a single spot or area of spots, and see how patterns line up. Does that match in the same area in the next photo? If yes, you could have yourself a match!

Buttons, one of the identified gray whales (Fig. 4 & 5), was seen in 2016, 17, and 18. I was so excited to identify Buttons for the 3rd year in a row as this result demonstrates this whale’s preference for foraging in Port Orford.

Zooplankton and whale foraging behavior

By using the theodolite we track the whale’s position from the cliff location. I have plugged these coordinates into Google Earth, and compared the coordinates to our zooplankton sample stations from that same day. These methods allow me to assess where the whale spent time, and where it did not, which I can then relate to the zooplankton species and abundance we caught in our sample tows (we use a net from the research kayak to collect samples throughout the water column).

Figure 6. Holmesimysis sculpta. This species can range between 4-12mm. The size of this zooplankton relative to the large gray whales foraging on it shows the whale’s incredible senses for prey preference. Photo source: Scripps Institute of Oceanography.

Results (preliminary)

‘Eyeball’ is one of our resident whales that we have identified regularly throughout this season here in Port Orford. I have compared the amount of time Eyeball has spent near zooplankton stations to the prey community we captured at each station.

There is a positive trend in the amount of time the whale spent in an area with the percent abundance of Holmesimysis sculpta (Fig. 7: blue trend line).

Figure 7. Comparative plot between the amount of time the whale “Eyeball” spent within 50m of each zooplankton sampling station and the relative amount of zooplankton species caught at each station. Note the positive trend between time and Holmesimysis sculpta, and the negative trend relative to Neomysis sp. or Caprellidae.

Conversely, there is an inverse trend with two other zooplankton species:  Neomysis sp. (grey trend line) and Caprellidae (orange trend line). These results suggest that Eyeball has a foraging preference for areas where Holmesimysis sculpta (Fig. 6) is more abundant. Who would have known a whale could be so picky? Once the season comes to an end, I plan to use more of our data to continue to make discoveries about the foraging preferences of gray whales in Oregon.

Where the Wild Things Are

By Dylan Gregory, GEMM Lab summer 2018 intern, OSU undergraduate transfer

In ecology, biodiversity is a term often touted for its key importance in stable ecosystems. Every organism plays its role in the constant struggle of nature, competing and cooperating with each other for survival. The sun provides the initial energy to primary producers, herbivores eat those producers, and predators then eat the consumers. The food chain is a simplistic way to look at how ecosystems work, and of course, it is more like an intricate web of interactions. Fungus and plants work together to trade nutrients and create a vast network of fertile soils; kelp forests provide habitats and food for a variety of prey that marine predators feed on. There are checks and balances between all these organisms that give breath into the beauty and color we see in ecosystems around the world. And, here in Port Orford is no exception. Coming to the project I expected to see some whales, of course. However only three weeks in and I’ve been absolutely astounded with the amount of marine biodiversity we’ve experienced. These past three weeks have been nothing if, well, wild.

Eschrichtius robustus, The Gray Whale

There was no doubt we would see gray whales, that is what we are here for after all, and studying them in the field has been an incredibly enlightening experience. Watching an animal every day for weeks really gets you into their head. You start to connect with them and think about their behaviors in different ways. You begin to realize that the individuals have unique quirks, habits and tendencies. For example, one whale would feed quickly for a time, and then seem to run out of energy and “log” itself, floating on the surface, taking multiple breaths in succession to recover before diving back down. Many whales come from the south, to feed in Mill Rocks before moving to Tichenor Cove, and then leave our study region through “Hell’s Gate” to the North, often resting a moment, taking multiple breaths and then launching into the open sea. Still, when you think you know these whales, they surprise you with an alarming unpredictability, making tracking them a new experience every day.

Figure 1 A gray whale surprised us by surfacing right next to our kayak during a routine zooplankton sampling. The site has shown to have a significant amount of zooplankton and it must have been very interested in the prey available, completely ignoring our presence. Photo by Haley Kent.

The whale in Fig. 1 surprised us, and honestly, being so close to it was as humbling as it was awesome. I expected to see whales, but never expected such a close encounter. These gentle giants are one of our not so distant relatives in the ocean. Many of us do this kind of research for more than just the science and the data. Many of us do it for the connection we feel to our mammal family.

Phoca vitulina richardii, The Pacific Harbor Seal

I absolutely adore these harbor seals! They’re well known for their friendliness towards humans as their dopey little heads pop up out of the water to greet you with a curious look in their eyes. They like to bob in the surf and stare at us while we’re out sampling in the kayak. At first, we got quite excited seeing one, often startling them as we’d squeal “seal!” to each other and they’d dip back under and scurry away. Now though, they seem more comfortable being around our kayak (Fig. 2).

Figure 2 This harbor seal surfaced next to Haley and me shortly before the whale in Fig 1. We named him Courage, as he stuck around and kept us company during the whole encounter. Photo by Haley Kent.

One day a seal followed Lisa and Hayleigh around the jetty on their way back from sampling, swimming around the kayak and investigating them. Out in Mill Rocks, we often see them stretching on top of the rocks, seemingly doing a little yoga session while basking in the morning sun. Despite their cute and cuddly appearance, they are still predators. With plenty of fish to eat and make them happy, these harbor seals are quite plentiful themselves, and I’d like to think we’ve become quite good friends with the little guys.

Tursiops truncatus, The Bottlenose Dolphin

Figure 3 A shot of the dorsal fin seen on August 9th in Mill Rocks. Photo by Dylan Gregory.

One morning we were in Mill Rocks and a large cloud of fog moved in, so we decided to wait it out before making our passage to Tichenor Cove. While sitting there, enjoying a snack, we noticed some dorsal fins popping up about 100 meters from us. Caught by surprise, Haley and I scrambled for our cameras and lo and behold, we noticed they were a small pod of dolphins! Two adults and a calf. Unfortunately, as you can see from our pictures, it is difficult to identify what species they were exactly.

Figure 4 The head and rostrum of the dolphin seen in Mill Rocks on August 9th. Photo by Dylan Gregory.

After communicating with Lisa and Leigh, we have decided that their dorsal fins were far too big and curved to be harbor porpoises (Fig. 3), and the intersection of the head and rostrum seem to have the classic look of a bottlenose dolphin (Fig. 4).

If these were in fact bottlenose dolphins, why are they here in Port Orford, Oregon? It’s uncommon for them to be so far north in our colder waters. Were they foraging for food? Finding refuge from predators? Is it because our waters are becoming warmer? A sighting like this gives more weight to how climate change is affecting our oceans and how marine animals are responding by adapting their migratory and feeding behaviors.

Pisaster and Pycnopodia, The Common Sea Star and the Sunflower Star

Figure 5 Pisaster sea stars and anemones on a rock in Mill Rocks. No Pycnopodia (often called sunflower stars for their many legs) have been spotted in our study zone. Photo by Haley Kent.

One of the coolest aspects of living at the Port Orford Field Station is the fact that we have access to a lot of engagement with other scientists. For instance, we were able to attend a webinar about Sea Star Wasting Disease (SSWD) research currently happening at OSU by Post Doc Sarah Gravem. In a nutshell, a bacterial disease has been infecting sea stars along the west coast, causing a rapid plummet in their populations. Pisaster and Pycnopodia (Fig. 5) have been particularly affected. They are keystone predators, and as such, hold an important role in intertidal ecosystems. Feeding on snails, urchins, other sea stars and various mollusks, these sea stars maintain species populations and allow for a diverse and stable intertidal zone, which then supports many other near shore marine species. While SSWD’s cause is relatively unknown, Pisaster seems to be recovering while Pycnopodia is still struggling. I’ve even heard some anecdotal reports that fishermen here in Port Orford have noticed the lack of Pycnopodia as well, but they are rather pleased that these “ragmops” have stopped mucking up their lines and crab pots.

Below the Surface

There is a charm to the deep, a mystery and wonder that has captured the imagination of humans ad nauseam. Stories, movies, music and masterpieces of art have been inspired by The Abyss. Below the surface lies a diverse world teeming with life, full of questions and answers to be found. While marine mammals are why we’re here, there’s an entirely different environment under the water that is unseen from the safety of our dry, oxygen rich air. Our research doesn’t involve any diving, and so our eyes under the water are a GoPro camera attached to a downrigger on our kayak. Although designed to measure zooplankton community density, we’ve seen quite a bit more than itty bitty sea bugs in the depths of our little harbor here in Port Orford.

Strongylocentrotus purpuratus, The Purple Sea Urchin

Urchins are known for their bright colors and spiny ball like exterior. Close relatives to the sea stars, urchins inhabit the intertidal zones and also take residence within kelp beds. During our kayak training, we passed by some rocks near the cliffs and it was an awesome sight seeing the diversity of intertidal critters such as anemones, sea stars and sea urchins. However, a week into data collection, we have noticed something startling: a large quantity of the urchins cover the seafloor and the kelp, or at least what was left of the kelp (Fig. 6).

Figure 6 Sea Urchins decimating a kelp bed in Tichenor Cove. Photo captured from GoPro footage.

Sea urchins are important members in their communities. They graze on algae and control it from overwhelming the waters, but when left unchecked urchins can completely decimate kelp beds. This pattern is often referred to as “urchin barrens”. Sea otters and sea stars are the urchin’s main predator, and due to the absence of otters and the emergence of SSWD, the occurrence of urchin barrens has risen. An assessment of the reintroduction of the sea otters to Oregon by Dominique Kone, a GEMM Lab graduate student, is underway, and there is a lot of new research on SSWD, both of which could support the ‘ecosystem control’ of urchin populations. We’ve already spotted the urchins wreaking their havoc on the kelp in two separate sites in Tichenor Cove. Since gray whales primarily feed within these kelp beds, this increase in urchin populations is something that we are monitoring. An urchin barren can happen quickly and causes significant ecosystem damage, so this is not something to ignore. If we lose the kelp, it’s easy to imagine that we may lose the whales.

Alopias vulpinus, The Thresher Shark

Figure 7 A thresher shark spotted in Tichenor Cove in Port Orford, OR. Photo captured by GoPro footage.

By far, the most exciting thing I’ve seen so far has been this lovely creature (Fig. 7). The thresher shark usually inhabits the oceanic and coastal zones in tropical and temperate waters. They feed on pelagic schooling fish, squid and sometimes even shorebirds. They attack by whipping their tails (which grow to be the size of their body!) at their prey to stun them. Threshers are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as “Vulnerable” due to their declining populations. They are often hunted for shark fin soup, or by trophy hunters due to their elegant and unique tails.

Haley, our resident shark enthusiast, was able to tell that this shark was a female by the lack of claspers (male appendages) on her pelvic fin. Why was she here though? During the summer, threshers will migrate to colder yet productive northern waters to feed, and on some rare occasions, such as this one, they will come closer to shore. Perhaps she was chasing prey into the harbor and found it to be full of yummy food, or she is a juvenile, which often stay near the continental shelf.

Either way, we were all surprised and excited to see such an exotic and beautiful species of shark caught on camera in our study zone. She even does a little strut in front of the GoPro camera, showing off her beautiful caudal fin!

Protecting our Wilds      

These are only a few examples of the many different animals at work in Port Orford’s ecosystem. Perhaps the biodiversity here is why this is such a hot spot for our whale friends. The productive and lively waters have shown us so many critters, and likely many more we have yet to see. But alas, we have three more weeks of data collection and new discoveries, and I couldn’t be more excited.

“It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist; the threat is rather to life itself.”

– Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us

This experience only drives me further into my pursuit of ecological research. I believe it’s incredibly important to understand the world and how it functions, and to do so before it’s too late. All too often we have breakthrough discoveries in science because something has already fallen apart. Ecosystems are fragile, and climate change, pollution, and other anthropogenic disturbances all have an impact which damage and alter ecosystems and the services they provide. However, it’s an impact we can control with a fundamental understanding of how nature works. With a little hope, some integrity, and a whole lot of passion, I believe we have the power to truly make a difference.

Cold Fingers and Carabiners

By Hayleigh Middleton, GEMM Lab summer 2018 intern, entering OSU undergrad 

Cold Fingers and Carabiners: that’s what most of the past three weeks have been about. We’ve progressively been getting up earlier—with many thanks to the coffee pot and multiple alarms— in order to be on the water collecting data before the wind and fog decide to kick in. Working on the ocean at 7 am with wet hands, metal equipment, a tight suit, and a “refreshing” breeze while trying to keep an eight-foot sit-on-top kayak from tipping over is challenging to say the least. Making sure the Theodolite is perfectly level on its tripod resting on sand-covered ground at the top of a cliff? Not much easier. The air is cold, the wind is cold, the equipment is cold, I’m cold, and now, everything is wet.

Rugged laptop on the cliff site. Photo by Hayleigh Middleton.

I absolutely love it.

Of all the ways I could have chosen to spend my summer before starting college at OSU, I’m so glad I took a chance and asked to spend it here. The official goals of our research project are to monitor and record the foraging habits of the Pacific Coast Feeding Group of gray whales, attempt to find out if specific individuals tend to have site fidelity and forage here year after year, and why or how they choose certain spots to feed over others. What does that mean for me? I get to kayak and take pictures of whales for six weeks! Of course, there’s a bunch of technical stuff and expensive equipment that took us two weeks to learn, but now we’re off to a great start and ready to learn more about these amazing creatures.

We have such a short amount of time to collect all this data to try and fill in the puzzle that is gray whale behavior, and we’re only a few weeks in, but I feel like I’ve already connected with this group of 60,000-pound mammals. That, in essence, is really what we’re doing here. We’re on top of a 33-meter-high cliff watching empty water for hours on the chance that we’ll be able to see a whale, identify it through photo-ID, track it with the theodolite to figure out its behavior, and use our kayak data to figure out its diet and feeding choices. Even though the whales forage up to two kilometers away from our tracking spot, it feels like they know we’re watching them. Sometimes it feels like they’re teasing us—we’ll see one, and once we get the sights fixed on it, it dives down and doesn’t come back up until we’ve turned our attention. One whale got into a very predictable pattern: three blows and then a deep dive, forage for five minutes, pop up half a viewfinder away, three more blows. We set our sights on the third blow and waited for her to resurface.

…and waited.

…and waited.

She swam away and didn’t show herself again.

Other times it’s like they conspire against us. Earlier this week, we spent most of the morning tracking the same whale. A couple hours into the track, another whale popped up right next to the first. Since we use a computerized tracking program, each whale is assigned a group number. That way, we can track each individual’s path and later match it to the photo identification database and sometimes a nickname. The two whales surfaced at just the right frequency and distance apart that deciding which number was currently up was guesswork for a good 15 minutes, but we gave them new track numbers and were able to sort it out later after reviewing our photos.

Searching for whales. Photo by Haley Kent.

On another day, we surveyed for whales until quitting time, which is 3:00 pm. About 2:30 pm, one was finally spotted. I named her Princess because she couldn’t be bothered to bring her body out of the water enough so we could mark her location or take a picture except for when her pectoral fin, the tip of which was “gloved” in white, came out and made a motion like a princess in a parade. When there are whales around, we can’t just say “oh look, 3:00 pm time to go” because this is important data to collect. So, we decided to wait until 3:30 pm to see if she surfaced again within visual range. 3:30 pm came and still no sign of her, so I packed up the theodolite and tripod. As soon as the box was closed, she blew, and another whale surfaced right in front of the cliff. We got some pictures of the closer one for a bit and decided that was enough. As the camera was being lowered into its case, another whale surfaced in the cove. It felt like the first went and told all the whales heading south “hey, these guys want to leave at 3, so show up right around then.” That day we got back to the lab around 5. Even though this meant being on the cliff for almost 10 hours that day, it was thrilling to have seen so many whales in one day.

Then there are times when the whales seem to beg for attention. On our third day on the cliff, we saw what we believe to be a juvenile come swimming into view. We assume that he was a juvenile because he was “small” and quite blank in terms of pigmentation and scarring. He was adorable. He stayed over at Mill Rocks for a while foraging, all of which we “fixed” into the tracking program via the Theodolite, and then he came toward us into the little kelp patch just in front of our cliff site. He would dive down, scoop up some zooplankton to eat, and resurface right in the middle of the kelp. The cutest part is that he would then proceed to roll around in the kelp and further drape himself in it.

Kelp whale. Photo by Lisa Hildebrand.

Having such a young whale come and forage made us wonder if mothers who have site fidelity then teach their young “hey, you don’t have to go all the way north, there’s a ton of good food here in Port Orford.”  Hopefully that’s one of the things we’ll be able to figure out with the data collected with this longterm study. But in the meantime, I still have three weeks of data to collect and a bunch more whales to meet.