Inference, and the intersection of ecology and statistics

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

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the International Statistical Ecology Conference (ISEC), a biennial meeting of researchers at the interface of ecology and statistics. I am a marine ecologist, fascinated by the interactions between animals and the dynamic ocean environment they inhabit. If you had asked me five years ago whether I thought I would ever consider myself a statistician or a computer programmer, my answer would certainly have been “no”. Now, I find myself studying the ecology of blue whales in New Zealand using a variety of data streams and methodologies, but a central theme for my dissertation is species distribution modeling. Species distribution models (SDMs) are mathematical algorithms that correlate observations of a species with environmental conditions at their observed locations to gain ecological insight and predict spatial distributions of the species (Fig. 1; Elith and Leathwick 2009). I still can’t say I would identify as a statistician, but I have a growing appreciation for the role of statistics to gain inference in ecology.

Figure 1. A schematic of a species distribution model (SDM) illustrating how the relationship between mapped species and environmental data (left) is compared to describe “environmental space” (center), and then map predictions from a model using only environmental predictors (right). Note that inter-site distances in geographic space might be quite different from those in environmental space—a and c are close geographically, but not environmentally. The patterning in the predictions reflects the spatial autocorrelation of the environmental predictors. Figure reproduced from Elith and Leathwick (2009).

Before I continue, let’s take a look at just a few definitions from Merriam-Webster’s dictionary:

Statistics: a branch of mathematics dealing with the collection, analysis, interpretation, and presentation of masses of numerical data

Ecology: a branch of science concerned with the interrelationship of organisms and their environments

Inference: a conclusion or opinion that is formed because of known facts or evidence

Ecological data are notoriously noisy, messy, and complex. Statistical tests are meant to help us understand whether a pattern in the data is different from what we would expect through random chance. When we study how organisms interact with one another and their environment, it is impossible to completely capture all elements of the ecosystem. Therefore, ecology is a field ripe with challenges for statisticians. How do we quantify a meaningful biological signal amidst all the noise? How can we gain inference from ecological data to enhance knowledge, and how can we use that knowledge to make informed predictions? Marine mammals are notoriously difficult to study. They inhabit an environment that is relatively inaccessible and inhospitable to humans, they occur in low numbers, they are highly mobile, and they are rarely visible. All ecological data are difficult and noisy and riddled with small sample sizes, but counting trees presents fewer logistical challenges than counting moving whales in an ever-changing open-ocean setting. Therefore, new methodologies in areas like species distribution modeling are often developed using large, terrestrial datasets and eventually migrate to applications in the marine environment (Robinson et al. 2011).

Many presentations I attended at the conference were geared toward moving beyond correlative SDMs. SDMs were developed to correlate species occurrence patterns with features of the environment they inhabit (e.g. temperature, precipitation, terrain, etc.). However, those relationships do not actually explain the underlying mechanism of why a species is more likely to occur in one environment compared to another. Therefore, ecological statisticians are now using additional information and modeling approaches within SDMs to incorporate information such as species co-occurrence patterns, population demographic information, and physiological constraints. Building SDMs to include such process-explicit information allows us to make steps toward understanding not just when and where a species occurs, but why.

Machine learning is an area that continues to advance and open doors to new applications in ecology. Machine learning approaches differ fundamentally from classical statistics. In statistics, we formulate a hypothesis, select the appropriate model to test that hypothesis (for example, linear regression), then test how well the data fit the model (“Is the relationship linear?”), and test the strength of that inference (“Is the linear pattern different from what we would expect due to random chance?”). Machine learning, on the other hand, does not use a predetermined notion of relationships between variables. Rather, it tries to create an algorithm that fits the patterns in the data. Statistics asks how well the data fit a model, and machine learning asks how well a model fits the data.

Machine learning approaches allow for very complex relationships to be included in models and can be excellent for making predictions. However, sometimes the relationships fitted by a machine learning algorithm are so complex that it is not possible to infer any ecological meaning from them. As one ISEC presenter put it, in machine learning “the computer learns but the scientist does not”. The most important thing when selecting your methodology is to remember your question and your goal. Do you want to understand the mechanism of why an animal is where it is? Or do you not need to understand the driver, but rather want to make the best predictions of where an animal will be? In my case, the answer to that question differs from one of my PhD chapters to the next. We want to understand the functional relationships between oceanography, krill availability, and blue whale distribution (Barlow et al. 2020), and subsequently we want to develop forecasting models that can reliably predict blue whale distribution to inform conservation efforts (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. An example predictive map of where we expect blue whales to be distributed based on environmental conditions. Warmer colors represent areas with a higher probability of blue whale occurrence, and the blue crosses represent locations where blue whales were observed.

ISEC was an excellent opportunity for me to break out of my usual marine mammal-centered bubble and get a taste of what is happening on the leading edge of statistical ecology. I learned about the latest approaches and innovations in species distribution modeling, and in the process I also learned about trees, koalas, birds, and many other organisms from around the world. A fun bonus of attending a methods-focused conference is learning about completely new study species and systems. There are many ways of approaching an ecological question, gaining inference, and making predictions. I look forward to incorporating the knowledge I gained through ISEC into my own research, both in my doctoral work and in applications of new methods to future research projects.

Figure 3. The virtual conference photo of all who attended the biennial International Statistical Ecology Conference. Thank you to the organizers, who made it a truly excellent and engaging conference experience!

References

Barlow, D.R., Bernard, K.S., Escobar-Flores, P., Palacios, D.M., and Torres, L.G. 2020. Links in the trophic chain: Modeling functional relationships between in situ oceanography, krill, and blue whale distribution under different oceanographic regimes. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. doi:https://doi.org/10.3354/meps13339.

Elith, J., and Leathwick, J.R. 2009. Species Distribution Models: Ecological Explanation and Prediction Across Space and Time. Annu. Rev. Ecol. Evol. Syst. 40(1): 677–697. doi:10.1146/annurev.ecolsys.110308.120159.

Robinson, L.M., Elith, J., Hobday, A.J., Pearson, R.G., Kendall, B.E., Possingham, H.P., and Richardson, A.J. 2011. Pushing the limits in marine species distribution modelling: Lessons from the land present challenges and opportunities. doi:10.1111/j.1466-8238.2010.00636.x.

What we know now about New Zealand blue whales

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

For my PhD, I am using a variety of data sources and analytical tools to study the ecology and distribution of blue whales in New Zealand. I live on the Oregon Coast, across the world and in another season from the whales I study. I love where I live and I am passionate about my work, but I do sometimes feel removed from the whales and the ecosystem that are the focus of my research.

A pair of blue whales surface in the South Taranaki Bight region of New Zealand. Drone piloted by Todd Chandler during the 2017 field season.

Recently, I have turned my attention to processing acoustic data recorded in our study region in New Zealand between 2016 and 2018. In the fall, I developed detector algorithms to identify possible blue whale vocalizations in the recording period, and now I am going through each of the detections to validate whether it is indeed a blue whale call or not. Looking closely at spectrograms for hours and hours is a change of pace from the analysis and writing I have been doing recently. Namely, I am looking at biological signals – not lines of code and numbers on a screen, but depictions of sounds that blue whales produced. I have to say, it is the “closest” I have felt to these whales in a long time. Scrolling through thousands of spectrograms of blue whale calls leaves room for my mind to wander, and I recently had the realization that those whales have absolutely no idea that on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, there are a few scientists dedicating years of their lives to understand and protect them. Which led me to another realization: we know so much more about blue whales in New Zealand now than we did 10 years ago. In fact, we know so much more than we did even a year ago.

Screenshot of the process of reviewing blue whale D call detections in the acoustic analysis program Raven.

Nine years ago, Dr. Leigh Torres had a cup of coffee with a colleague who recounted observer reports of several blue whales during a seismic survey of the South Taranaki Bight region (STB) of New Zealand. This conversation sparked her curiosity, and led to the formulation of a hypothesis that the STB was in fact an unrecognized feeding ground for blue whales in the southern hemisphere (Torres 2013).

A blue whale surfaces in front of an oil rig in the South Taranaki Bight. Compiling opportunistic sightings like this one was an important step in realizing the importance of the region for blue whales. Photo by Deanna Elvines.

After three field seasons and several years of dedicated work, the hypothesis that the STB region is important for blue whales was validated. By drawing together multiple data streams and lines of evidence, we now know that New Zealand is home to a unique population of blue whales, which are genetically distinct from all other documented populations in the Southern Hemisphere. Furthermore, they use the STB for multiple critical life history functions such as feeding, nursing and calf raising, and they are present there year-round (Barlow et al. 2018).

Once we documented the New Zealand population, we were left with perhaps even more questions than we started with. Where do they feed, and why? Are they feeding and breeding there? Does their distribution change seasonally? What is the health of the population? Are they being impacted by industrial activity and human impacts such as noise in the region? We certainly do not have all the answers, but we have been piecing together an increasingly comprehensive story about these whales and their ecology.

For example, we now know that blue whales in New Zealand average around 19 meters in length, which we calculated by measuring images taken via drones and using an analysis program developed in the GEMM Lab (Burnett et al. 2018). The use of drones has opened up a whole new world for studying health and behavior in whales, and we recently used video footage to better understand the movement and kinematics of how blue whales engulf their krill prey. Furthermore, we know that blue whales may preferentially feed on dense krill aggregations at the surface, and that this surface feeding strategy may be an energetically favorable strategy in this part of the world (Torres et al. 2020).

We have also assessed one aspect of the health of blue whales by describing their skin condition. By analyzing thousands of photographs, we now know that nearly all blue whales in New Zealand bear the scars of cookie cutter shark bites, which they seem more likely to acquire at more northerly latitudes, and that 80% are affected by blister lesions (Barlow et al. 2019). Next, we are beginning to draw together multiple data streams such as body condition and hormone analysis, paired with skin condition, to form a detailed understanding about the health of this population.

Most recently we have produced a study describing how oceanography, prey and blue whales are connected within this region of New Zealand. The STB region is home to a wind-driven upwelling system that drives productivity and leads to aggregations of krill, which in turn provide sustenance for blue whales to feed on. By compiling data on oceanography and water column structure, krill availability, and blue whale distribution, we now have a solid understanding of this trophic pathway: how oceanography structures prey, and how blue whales respond to both prey and oceanography (Barlow et al. 2020). Furthermore, we are beginning to understand how those relationships may look under changing ocean conditions, with global sea temperatures rising and the increasing frequency and intensity of marine heatwaves.

The knowledge we have accumulated better enables managers to make informed decisions for the conservation of these blue whales and the ecosystem they inhabit. To me, there are several take-away messages from the story that continues to unfold about these blue whales. One is the importance of following a hunch, and then gathering the necessary tools and team to explore and tackle challenging questions. An idea that started over a cup of coffee and many years of hard work and dedication have led to a whole new body of knowledge. Another message is that the more questions you ask and the more questions you try to answer, the more questions you are often left with. That is a beautiful truth about scientific inquiry – the questions we ask drive the knowledge we uncover, but that process is never complete because new questions continue to emerge. Finally, it is easy to get swept up in details, outputs, timelines, and minutia, and every now and then it is important to take a step back. I have appreciated taking a step back and musing on the state of our knowledge about these whales, about how much we have learned in less than 10 years, and mostly about how many answers and new questions are still waiting to be uncovered.

A victorious field team celebrates a successful end to the 2017 field season with an at-sea sunset dance party. A good reminder of sunny, salty days on the water and where the data come from!

References

Barlow DR, Bernard KS, Escobar-Flores P, Palacios DM, Torres LG (2020) Links in the trophic chain: Modeling functional relationships between in situ oceanography, krill, and blue whale distribution under different oceanographic regimes. Mar Ecol Prog Ser.

Barlow DR, Pepper AL, Torres LG (2019) Skin Deep: An Assessment of New Zealand Blue Whale Skin Condition. Front Mar Sci.

Barlow DR, Torres LG, Hodge KB, Steel D, Baker CS, Chandler TE, Bott N, Constantine R, Double MC, Gill P, Glasgow D, Hamner RM, Lilley C, Ogle M, Olson PA, Peters C, Stockin KA, Tessaglia-hymes CT, Klinck H (2018) Documentation of a New Zealand blue whale population based on multiple lines of evidence. Endanger Species Res 36:27–40.

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.

Torres LG (2013) Evidence for an unrecognised blue whale foraging ground in New Zealand. New Zeal J Mar Freshw Res 47:235–248.

Torres LG, Barlow DR, Chandler TE, Burnett JD (2020) Insight into the kinematics of blue whale surface foraging through drone observations and prey data. PeerJ.

Snacks at the surface: New GEMM Lab publication reveals insights into blue whale surface foraging through drone observations and prey data

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

As the largest animals on the planet, blue whales have massive prey requirements to meet energy demands. Despite their enormity, blue whales feed on a tiny but energy-rich prey source: krill. Furthermore, they are air-breathing mammals searching for aggregations of prey in the expansive and deep ocean, and must therefore budget breath-holding and oxygen consumption, the travel time it takes to reach prey patches at depth, the physiological constraints of diving, and the necessary recuperation time at the surface. Additionally, blue whales employ an energetically demanding foraging strategy known as lunge feeding, which is only efficient if they can locate and target dense prey aggregations that compensate for the energetic costs of diving and lunging. In our recent paper, published today in PeerJ, we examine how blue whales in New Zealand optimize their energy use through preferentially feeding on dense krill aggregations near the water’s surface.

Figure 1. A blue whale lunges on a dense aggregation of krill at the surface. Note the krill jumping away from the mouth of the onrushing whale. UAS piloted by Todd Chandler.
Figure 2. Survey tracklines in 2017 in the South Taranaki Bight (STB) with locations of blue whale sightings, and where surface lunge feeding was observed, denoted. Inset map shows location of the STB within New Zealand. Figure reprinted from Torres et al. 2020.

To understand how predators such as blue whales optimize foraging strategies, knowledge of predator behavior and prey distribution is needed. In 2017, we surveyed for blue whales in New Zealand’s South Taranaki Bight region (STB, Fig. 2) while simultaneously collecting prey distribution data using an echosounder, which allowed us to identify the location, depth, and density of krill aggregations throughout the region. When blue whales were located, we observed their behavior from the research vessel, recorded their dive times, and used an unmanned aerial system (UAS; “drone”) to assess their body condition and behavior.

Much of what is known about blue whale foraging behavior and energetics comes from extensive studies off the coast of California, USA using accelerometer tags to track fine-scale kinematics (i.e., body movements) of the whales. In the California Current, the krill species targeted by blue whales are denser at depth, and therefore blue whales regularly dive to depths of 300 meters to lunge on the most energy-rich prey aggregations. However, given the reduced energetic costs of feeding closer to the surface, optimal foraging theory predicts that blue whales should only forage at depth when the energetic gain outweighs the cost. In New Zealand, we found that blue whales foraged where krill aggregations were relatively shallow and dense compared to the availability of krill across the whole study area (Fig. 3). Their dive times were quite short (~2.5 minutes, compared to ~10 minutes in California), and became even shorter in locations where foraging behavior and surface lunge feeding were observed.

Figure 3. Density contours comparing the depth and density (Sv) of krill aggregations at blue whale foraging sightings (red shading) and in absence of blue whales (gray shading). Density contours: 25% = darkest shade, 755 = medium shade, 95% = light shade. Blue circles indicate krill aggregations detected within 2 km of the sighting of the UAS filmed surface foraging whale analyzed in this study. Figure reprinted from Torres et al. 2020.
Figure 4. Kinematics of a blue whale foraging dive derived from a suction cup tag. Upper panel shows the dive profile (yellow line), with lunges highlighted (green circles), superimposed on a prey field map showing qualitative changes in krill density (white, low; blue, medium; red, high). The lower panels show the detailed kinematics during lunges at depth. Here, the dive profile is shown by a black line. The orange line shows fluking strokes derived from the accelerometer data, the green line represents speed estimated from flow noise, and the grey circles indicate the speed calculated from the vertical velocity of the body divided by the sine of the body pitch angle, which is shown by the red line. Figure and caption reprinted from Goldbogen et al. 2011.

Describing whale foraging behavior and prey in the surface waters has been difficult due to logistical limitations of conventional data collection methods, such as challenges inferring surface behavior from tag data and quantifying echosounder backscatter data in surface waters. To compliment these existing methods and fill the knowledge gap surrounding surface behavior, we highlight the utility of a different technological tool: UAS. By analyzing video footage of a surface lunge feeding sequence, we obtained estimates of the whale’s speed, acceleration, roll angle, and head inclination, producing a figure comparable to what is typically obtained from accelerometer tag data (Fig. 4, Fig. 5). Furthermore, the aerial perspective provided by the UAS provides an unprecedented look at predator-prey interactions between blue whales and krill. As the whale approaches the krill patch, she first observes the patch with her right eye, then turns and lines up her attack angle to engulf almost the entire prey patch through her lunge. Furthermore, we can pinpoint the moment when the krill recognize the impending danger of the oncoming predator—at a distance of 2 meters, and 0.8 seconds before the whale strikes the patch, the krill show a flee response where they leap away from the whale’s mouth (see video, below).

Figure 5. Body kinematics during blue whale surface lunge feeding event derived from Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) image analysis. (A) Mean head inclination and roll (with CV in shaded areas), (B) relative speed and acceleration, and (C) distance from the tip of the whale’s rostrum to the nearest edge of krill patch. Blue line on plots indicate when krill first respond to the predation event, and the purple dashed lines indicate strike at time = 0. The orange lines indicate the time at which the whale’s gape is widest, head inclination is maximum, and deceleration is greatest. Figure reprinted from Torres et al. 2020

In this study, we demonstrate that surface waters provide important foraging opportunities and play a key role in the ecology of New Zealand blue whales. The use of UAS technology could be a valuable and complimentary tool to other technological approaches, such as tagging, to gain a comprehensive understanding of foraging behavior in whales.

To see the spectacle of a blue whale surface lunge feeding, we invite you to take a look at the video footage, below:

The publication is led by GEMM Lab Principal Investigator Dr. Leigh Torres. I led the prey data analysis portion of the study, and co-authors include our drone pilot extraordinaire Todd Chandler and UAS analysis guru Dr. Jonathan Burnett. We are grateful to all who assisted with fieldwork and data collection, including Kristin Hodge, Callum Lilley, Mike Ogle, and the crew of the R/V Star Keys (Western Workboats, Ltd.). Funding for this research was provided by The Aotearoa Foundation, The New Zealand Department of Conservation, The Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University, Greenpeace New Zealand, OceanCare, Kiwis Against Seabed Mining, The International Fund for Animal Welfare, and The Thorpe Foundation.

Read Oregon State University’s press release about the publication here.

Marine heatwaves and their impact on marine mammals

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

In recent years, anomalously warm ocean temperatures known as “marine heatwaves” have sparked considerable attention and concern around the world. Marine heatwaves (MHW) occur when seawater temperatures rise above a seasonal threshold (greater than the 90th percentile) for five consecutive days or longer (Hobday et al. 2016; Fig. 1). With global ocean temperatures continuing to rise, we are likely to see more frequent and more intense MHW conditions in the future. Indeed, the global prevalence of MHWs is increasing, with a 34% rise in frequency, a 17%  increase in duration, and a 54% increase in annual MHW days globally since 1925 (Oliver et al. 2018). With sustained anomalously warm water temperatures come a range of ecological, sociological, and economic consequences. These impacts include changes in water column structure, primary production, species composition, marine life distribution and health, and fisheries management including closures and quota changes (Oliver et al. 2018).

Figure 1. Illustration of how marine heatwaves are defined. Source: marineheatwaves.org

The notorious “warm blob” was an MHW event that plagued the northeast Pacific Ocean from 2014-2016. Some of the most notable consequences of this MHW were extremely high levels of domoic acid, extreme changes in the biodiversity of pelagic species, and an unprecedented delay in the opening of the Dungeness crab fishery, which is an important and lucrative fishery for the West Coast of the United States (Santora et al. 2020). The “warm blob” directly impacted the California Current ecosystem, which is typically a highly productive coastal area driven by seasonal upwelling. Yet, as a consequence of the 2014-2016 MHW, upwelling habitat was compressed and constricted to the coastal boundary, resulting in a contraction in available habitat for humpback whales and a shift in their prey (Santora et al. 2020; Fig. 2).

Figure 2. A figure from Santora et al. 2020 illustrating the compression in available upwelling habitat, defined by areas with SST<12°C (delineated by the black line), during the 2014-2016 marine heatwave in the California Current ecosystem.

Shifting to an example from another part of the world, the austral summer of 2015-2016 coincided with a strong regional MHW in the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand, which lasted for 251 days and had a maximum intensity of 2.9°C above the climatological average (Oliver et al. 2017). Subsequently, the conditions were linked to a significant shift in zooplankton species composition and abundance in Australia (Evans et al. 2020). Ocean warming, including MHWs, also appears to decrease primary production in the Tasman Sea and large portions of New Zealand’s marine ecosystem (Chiswell & Sutton 2020). In New Zealand’s South Taranaki Bight region, where we study the ecology of blue whales, we observed a shift in blue whale distribution in the MWH conditions of February 2016 relative to more typical ocean conditions in 2014 and 2017 (Fig. 3). The first chapter of my dissertation includes a detailed analysis of the impacts of the 2016 MHW on New Zealand oceanography, krill, and blue whales, documenting how the warm, stratified water column of 2016 led to consequences across multiple trophic levels, from phytoplankton, to zooplankton, to whales.

Figure 3. Maps showing monthly sea surface temperature (SST) in the South Taranaki Bight region of New Zealand during our three years of survey effort to document blue whale distribution (February 2014, 2016, and 2017). Vessel tracklines are shown in black, with blue whale sighting locations shown in dark red. Red circles are scaled by the number of blue whales observed at each sighting. The color ramp of SST values is consistent across the three maps, making the dramatically warmer ocean conditions of 2016 evident.

The response of marine mammals is tightly linked to shifts in their environment and prey (Silber et al. 2017). With MHWs and changing ocean conditions, there will likely be “winners” and “losers” among marine predators including large whales. Blue whales are highly selective krill specialists (Nickels et al. 2019), whereas other species of whales, such as humpback whales, have evolved flexible feeding tactics that allow them to switch target prey species when needed (Cade et al. 2020). In California, humpback whales have been shown to switch their primary prey from krill to fish during warm years (Fossette et al. 2017, Santora et al. 2020). By contrast, blue whales shift their distribution in response to changing krill availability during warm years (Fossette et al. 2017), however this strategy comes with increased risk and energetic cost associated with searching for prey in new areas. Furthermore, in instances when a prey resource such as krill becomes increasingly scarce for a multi-year period (Santora et al. 2020), krill specialist predators such as blue whales are at a considerable disadvantage. It is also important to acknowledge that although the humpbacks in California may at first seem to have a winning strategy for adaptation by switching their food source, this tactic may come with unforeseen consequences. Their distribution overlapped substantially with Dungeness crab fishing gear during MHW conditions in the warm blob years, resulting in record numbers of entanglements that may have population-level repercussions (Santora et al. 2020).

While this is certainly not the most light-hearted blog topic, I believe it is an important one. As warming ocean temperatures contribute to the increase in frequency, intensity, and duration of extreme conditions such as MHW events, it is paramount that we understand their impacts and take informed management actions to mitigate consequences, such as lethal entanglements as a result of compressed whale habitat. But perhaps more importantly, even as we do our best to manage consequences, it is critical that we as individuals realize the role we have to play in reducing the root cause of warming oceans, by being conscious consumers and being mindful of the impact our actions have on the climate. 

References

Cade DE, Carey N, Domenici P, Potvin J, Goldbogen JA (2020) Predator-informed looming stimulus experiments reveal how large filter feeding whales capture highly maneuverable forage fish. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA.

Chiswell SM, Sutton PJH (2020) Relationships between long-term ocean warming, marine heat waves and primary production in the New Zealand region. New Zeal J Mar Freshw Res.

Evans R, Lea MA, Hindell MA, Swadling KM (2020) Significant shifts in coastal zooplankton populations through the 2015/16 Tasman Sea marine heatwave. Estuar Coast Shelf Sci.

Fossette S, Abrahms B, Hazen EL, Bograd SJ, Zilliacus KM, Calambokidis J, Burrows JA, Goldbogen JA, Harvey JT, Marinovic B, Tershy B, Croll DA (2017) Resource partitioning facilitates coexistence in sympatric cetaceans in the California Current. Ecol Evol.

Hobday AJ, Alexander L V., Perkins SE, Smale DA, Straub SC, Oliver ECJ, Benthuysen JA, Burrows MT, Donat MG, Feng M, Holbrook NJ, Moore PJ, Scannell HA, Sen Gupta A, Wernberg T (2016) A hierarchical approach to defining marine heatwaves. Prog Oceanogr.

Nickels CF, Sala LM, Ohman MD (2019) The euphausiid prey field for blue whales around a steep bathymetric feature in the southern California current system. Limnol Oceanogr.

Oliver ECJ, Benthuysen JA, Bindoff NL, Hobday AJ, Holbrook NJ, Mundy CN, Perkins-Kirkpatrick SE (2017) The unprecedented 2015/16 Tasman Sea marine heatwave. Nat Commun.

Oliver ECJ, Donat MG, Burrows MT, Moore PJ, Smale DA, Alexander L V., Benthuysen JA, Feng M, Sen Gupta A, Hobday AJ, Holbrook NJ, Perkins-Kirkpatrick SE, Scannell HA, Straub SC, Wernberg T (2018) Longer and more frequent marine heatwaves over the past century. Nat Commun.

Santora JA, Mantua NJ, Schroeder ID, Field JC, Hazen EL, Bograd SJ, Sydeman WJ, Wells BK, Calambokidis J, Saez L, Lawson D, Forney KA (2020) Habitat compression and ecosystem shifts as potential links between marine heatwave and record whale entanglements. Nat Commun.

Silber GK, Lettrich MD, Thomas PO, Baker JD, Baumgartner M, Becker EA, Boveng P, Dick DM, Fiechter J, Forcada J, Forney KA, Griffis RB, Hare JA, Hobday AJ, Howell D, Laidre KL, Mantua N, Quakenbush L, Santora JA, Stafford KM, Spencer P, Stock C, Sydeman W, Van Houtan K, Waples RS (2017) Projecting marine mammal distribution in a changing climate. Front Mar Sci.

It all starts with the wind: The importance of upwelling

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

The focus of my PhD research is on the ecology and distribution of blue whales in New Zealand. However, it has been a long time since I’ve seen a blue whale, and much of my time recently has been spent thinking about wind. What does wind matter to a blue whale? It actually matters a whole lot, because the wind drives an important biological process in many coastal oceans called upwelling. Wind blowing along shore, paired with the rotation of the earth, leads to a net movement of surface waters offshore (Fig. 1). As the surface water is pushed away, it is replaced by cold, nutrient-rich water from much deeper. When those nutrients become exposed to sunlight, they provide sustenance for the little planktonic lifeforms in the ocean, which in turn provide food for much larger predators including marine mammals such as blue whales. This “wind-to-whales” trophic pathway was coined by Croll et al. (2005), who demonstrated that off the West Coast of the United States, aggregations of whales could be expected downstream of upwelling centers, in concert with high productivity and abundant krill prey.

Figure 1. Graphic of the upwelling process, illustrating that when the wind blows along shore, surface waters are replaced by deeper water that is cold and nutrient rich. Source: NOAA
Figure 2. Map of New Zealand, with the South Taranaki Bight region (STB) denoted by the black box.

Much of what is understood today about upwelling comes from decades of research on the California Current ecosystem off the West Coast of the United States. Yet, the focus of my research is on an upwelling system on the other side of the world, in the South Taranaki Bight region (STB) of New Zealand (Fig. 2). In the case of the STB, westerly winds over Kahurangi Shoals lead to decreased sea level nearshore, forcing cold, nutrient rich waters to rise to the surface. The wind, along with the persistence of the Westland Current, then pushes a cold and productive plume of upwelled waters around Cape Farewell and into the STB (Fig. 3; Shirtcliffe et al. 1990).

Figure 3. Satellite image of the cold water plume in the South Taranaki Bight, indicative of upwelling. The origin of the upwelling at Kahurangi Shoals, Cape Farewell, and the typical path of the upwelling plume are denoted.

Through research conducted by the GEMM Lab over the years, we have demonstrated that blue whales utilize the STB region for foraging (Torres 2013, Barlow et al. 2018). Recent research on the oceanography of the STB region has further illuminated the mechanisms of this upwelling system, including the path and persistence of the upwelling plume in the STB across years and seasons (Chiswell et al. 2017, Stevens et al. 2019). However, the wind-to-whales pathway has not yet been described for this part of the world, and that is where the next section of my PhD research comes in. The whole system does not respond instantaneously to wind; the pathway from wind to whales takes time. But how much time is required for each step? How long after a strong wind event can we expect aggregations of feeding blue whales? These are some of the questions I am trying to tackle. For example, we hypothesize that some of the mechanisms and their respective lag times can be sketched out as follows:

Figure 4. The wind-to-whales trophic pathway, and hypothesized lags between steps.

All of these questions involve integrating oceanography, satellite imagery, wind data, and lag times, leading me to delve into many different analytical approaches including time series analysis and predictive modeling. If we are able to understand the lag times along this series of events leading to blue whale feeding opportunities, then we may be able to forecast blue whale occurrence in the STB based on the current wind and upwelling conditions. Forecasting with some amount of lead time could be a very powerful management tool, allowing for protection measures that are dynamic in space and time and therefore more effective in conserving this blue whale population and balancing human impacts.

Figure 5. A blue whale lunges on a patch of krill. The end of the wind-to-whales pathway. Drone piloted by Todd Chandler.

References:

Barlow DR, Torres LG, Hodge KB, Steel D, Baker CS, Chandler TE, Bott N, Constantine R, Double MC, Gill P, Glasgow D, Hamner RM, Lilley C, Ogle M, Olson PA, Peters C, Stockin KA, Tessaglia-hymes CT, Klinck H (2018) Documentation of a New Zealand blue whale population based on multiple lines of evidence. Endanger Species Res 36:27–40.

Chiswell SM, Zeldis JR, Hadfield MG, Pinkerton MH (2017) Wind-driven upwelling and surface chlorophyll blooms in Greater Cook Strait. New Zeal J Mar Freshw Res.

Croll DA, Marinovic B, Benson S, Chavez FP, Black N, Ternullo R, Tershy BR (2005) From wind to whales: Trophic links in a coastal upwelling system. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 289:117–130.

Shirtcliffe TGL, Moore MI, Cole AG, Viner AB, Baldwin R, Chapman B (1990) Dynamics of the Cape Farewell upwelling plume, New Zealand. New Zeal J Mar Freshw Res 24:555–568.

Stevens CL, O’Callaghan JM, Chiswell SM, Hadfield MG (2019) Physical oceanography of New Zealand/Aotearoa shelf seas–a review. New Zeal J Mar Freshw Res.

Torres LG (2013) Evidence for an unrecognised blue whale foraging ground in New Zealand. New Zeal J Mar Freshw Res 47:235–248.

Barcelona-bound! The GEMM Lab heads to the World Marine Mammal Conference

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

Every two years, an international community of scientists, managers, policy-makers, educators, and students gather to share the most current research and most pressing conservation issues facing marine mammals. This year, the World Marine Mammal Conference will take place in Barcelona, Spain from December 7-12, and the whole GEMM Lab will make their way across the Atlantic to present their latest work. The meeting is an international gathering of scientists ranging from longtime researchers who have shaped the field throughout the course of their careers to students who are just beginning to carve out a niche of their own. This year’s conference has 2,500 registered attendees from 95 different countries, 1,960 abstract submissions, and 700 accepted oral and speed talks and 1,200 posters. Needless to say, it is an incredible platform for learning, networking, and putting our work in the context of research taking place around the globe.

This will be my third time at this conference. I attended in San Francisco in 2015 as a wide-eyed undergraduate and met with Leigh, who I hoped would soon become my graduate advisor. I also presented my Masters research at the conference in Halifax in 2017. This time around, I will be presenting findings from the first two chapters of my PhD. Looking ahead to the Barcelona 2019 meeting and having some sense of what to expect, I feel butterflies rising in my stomach—a perfect mixture of the nerves that come with putting your hard work out in the world, eagerness to learn and absorb new information, and excitement to reconnect with friends and colleagues from around the world. In short, I can’t wait!

For those of you reading this blog that are unable to attend, I’d like to share an overview of what the GEMM Lab will be presenting at the conference. If you will be in Barcelona, we warmly invite you to the following posters, speed talks, and oral presentations! In order of appearance:

Lisa Hildebrand, MS Student

What do Oregon gray whales like to eat? Do individual whales have individual foraging habits? To learn more visit Lisa Hildebrand’s poster “Investigating potential gray whale individual foraging specializations within the Pacific Coast Feeding Group”. (Poster presentation, Session: Foraging Ecology – Group A, Time: Monday, 1:30-3:00pm)

Todd Chandler, Faculty Research Assistant

Did you know it is possible to measure the mechanics of how a blue whale feeds using a drone? The GEMM Lab’s all-star drone pilot Todd Chandler will present a poster titled “More than snacks: An analysis of drone observed blue whale surface lunge feeding linked with prey data”. (Poster presentation, Session: Foraging Ecology – Group A, Time: Monday, 1:30-3:00pm)

Clara Bird, MS Student

The GEMM Lab’s newest student Clara Bird will present a poster on work she conducted with the Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing lab at Duke University using new technologies and approaches to investigate scarring patterns on humpbacks. Her poster is titled “A comparison of percent dorsal scar cover between populations of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) off California and the Western Antarctic Peninsula”. (Poster presentation, Session: New Technology  – Group B, Time: Tuesday, 8:30-9:45am)

Dr. Leigh Torres, Principal Investigator

GEMM Lab PI Leigh Torres will synthesize some exciting new analyses from the GEMM Lab’s gray whale physiology and ecology research off the Oregon Coast. Is it stressful to feed in a noisy coastal environment? Leigh will discuss the latest findings in her talk, “Sounds of stress: Evaluating the relationships between variable soundscapes and gray whale stress hormones”. (Oral presentation, Session: Physiology, Time: Tuesday, 11:30-11:45am)

Leila Lemos, PhD Student

Carrying on with exciting new findings about Oregon gray whales, Leila Lemos will present a speed talk titled “Stressed and slim or relaxed and chubby? A simultaneous assessment of gray whale body condition and hormone variability”, in which she will summarize three years of analysis of how gray whale health can be quantified, and how physiology is influenced by ocean conditions. (Speed talk, Session: Physiology, Time: Tuesday, 11:55am-12:m)

Dawn Barlow, PhD Student

Can we predict where blue whales will be using our understanding of their environment and prey? Can this knowledge be used for effective conservation? I (Dawn Barlow) will give a presentation titled “Cloudy with a chance of whales: Forecasting blue whale occurrence based on tiered, bottom-up models to mitigate industrial impacts”, which will share our latest findings on how functional ecological relationships can be modeled in changing ocean conditions. (Oral presentation, Session: Habitat and Distribution I, Time: Wednesday, 10:15-10:30am)

Dr. Solene Derville, Post-Doctoral Scholar

The GEMM Lab’s most recent graduate Solene Derville will present work she has conducted in New Caledonia regarding humpback whale diving and movement patterns around breeding grounds. Her speed talk is titled “Whales of the deep: Horizontal and vertical movements shed light on humpback whale use of critical pelagic habitats in the western South Pacific” (Speed talk, Session: Behavioral Ecology II, Time: Wednesday, 11:35-11:40am)

Dominique Kone, MS Student

Can sea otters make a comeback in Oregon after a long absence? Dom Kone takes a comprehensive look at how Oregon coast habitat could support a reintroduced sea otter population in his speed talk, “An evaluation of the ecological needs and effects of a potential sea otter reintroduction to Oregon, USA”. (Speed talk, Session: Conservation II, Time: Wednesday, 2:45-2:50pm)

Alexa Kownacki, PhD Student

Alexa Kownacki will share her latest findings on dolphin distribution relative to static and dynamic oceanographic variables in her speed talk titled “The biogeography of common bottlenose dolphins (T. truncatus) of the southwestern USA and Mexico”. (Speed talk, Session: Habitat and Distribution II, Time: Wednesday, 3:35-3:40pm)

Other members of the Marine Mammal Mnstitute who will present their work include: Scott Baker, Debbie Steel, Angie Sremba, Karen Lohman, Daniel Palacios, Bruce Mate, Ladd Irvine, and Robert Pitman. For anyone planning to attend, we look forward to seeing you there! For those who wish to stay tuned from home, keep your eye on the GEMM Lab twitter page for our updates during the conference and follow the conference hashtag #WMMC19, and look forward to future blog posts recapping the experience.

Detecting blue whales from acoustic data

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

In January of 2016, five underwater recording units were dropped to the seafloor in New Zealand to listen for blue whales (Fig. 1). These hydrophones sat listening for two years, brought to the surface only briefly every six months to swap out batteries and offload the data. Through all seasons and conditions when scientists couldn’t be on the water, they recorded the soundscape, generating a wealth of acoustic data with the potential to greatly expand our knowledge of blue whale ecology

Figure 1. Locations of the five Marine Autonomous Recording Units (MARUs) in the South Taranaki Bight region of New Zealand.

We have established that blue whales are present in New Zealand waters year-round 1. However, many questions remain regarding their distribution across daily, seasonal, and yearly scales. Our two-year acoustic dataset from five hydrophones throughout the STB region is a goldmine of information on blue whale occurrence patterns and the soundscape they inhabit. Having year-round occurrence data will allow us to examine what environmental and anthropogenic factors may influence blue whale distribution patterns. The hydrophones were listening for whales around the clock, every day, while we were on the other side of the world awaiting the recovery of the data to answer our questions.

Before any questions of seasonal distribution or anthropogenic impacts and noise can be addressed, however, we need to know something far more basic: when and where did we record blue whale vocalizations? This may seem like a simple, stepping-stone question, but it is actually quite involved, and the reason I spent the last month working with a team of acousticians at Cornell University’s Center for Conservation Bioacoustics. The expert research group here at Cornell, led by Dr. Holger Klinck, have been instrumental in our New Zealand blue whale research, including developing and building the recording units, hydrophone deployment and recovery, data processing, analysis, and advice. I am thrilled to work with all of them, and had an incredibly productive month of learning about acoustics from the best.

Blue whales produce multiple vocalizations that we are interested in documenting. The New Zealand song (Fig. 2A) is highly stereotyped and unique to the Southwest Pacific Ocean 2,3. Low-frequency downsweeps, or “D calls” (Fig. 2B), are far more variable and produced by blue whale populations around the world 4. Furthermore, Antarctic blue whales produce a highly-stereotyped “Z call” (Fig. 2C) and are known to be present in New Zealand waters occasionally 5.

Figure 2. Spectrograms of (A) the New Zealand blue whale song, (B), D calls, and (C) Antarctic Z calls.

One way to determine when blue whales were vocalizing is for an analyst to manually review the entirety of the two years of sound recordings for each of the five hydrophones by hand to scan for and select individual vocalizations. An alternative approach is to develop a detector algorithm to locate calls in the data based on their stereotypical characteristics. Over the past month I built, tested, and ran detectors for each blue whale call type using what is called a data template detector. This technique uses example signals from the data that the analyst selects as templates. The templates should be clear signals, and representative of the variation in calls contained in the dataset. Then, by comparing pixel characteristics between the template spectrograms and the spectrogram of the recording of interest using certain matching criteria (e.g. threshold for spectrogram correlation, detection frequency range), the algorithm searches for other signals like the templates in the full dataset. For example, in Fig. 3 you can see units of blue whale song I selected as templates for my detector.

Figure 3. Spectrogram of selected sound clips of New Zealand blue whale song, with units used as templates for a detector shown inside the teal boxes.

Testing the performance of a detector algorithm is critical. Therefore, a dataset is needed where calls were identified by an analyst and then used as the “ground truth”, to which the detector results are compared. For my ground truth dataset, I took a subset of 52 days and hand-browsed the spectrograms to identify and log New Zealand blue whale song, D calls, and Antarctic Z calls. In evaluating detector performance, there are three important metrics that need to be weighed: precision (the proportion of detections that are true), recall (the proportion of true calls identified by the detector), and false alarm rate (the number of false positive detections per hour). Ideally, the detector should be optimized to maximize precision and recall and minimize the false positives.

The STB region is highly industrial, and our two-year acoustic dataset contains periods of pervasive seismic airgun noise from oil and gas exploration. Ideally, a detector would be able to identify blue whale vocalizations even in the presence of airgun operations that dominate the soundscape for months. For blue whale song, the detector did quite well! With a precision of 0.91 and recall of 0.93, the detector could pick out song units over airgun noise (Fig. 4). A false alarm rate of 8 false positives per hour is a sacrifice worth making to identify song during seismic operations (and the false positives will be removed in a subsequent step). For D calls, seismic survey activity presented a different challenge. While the detector did well at identifying D calls during airgun operation, the first several detector attempts also logged every single airgun blast as a blue whale vocalization—clearly problematic. Through an iterative process of selecting template signals, and adjusting the number of templates used and the correlation threshold, I was able to come up with a detector which selected D calls and missed most airgun blasts. This success felt like a victory.

Figure 4. An example of spectrograms of simultaneous recordings from the five hydrophones illustrating seismic airgun noise (strong broadband signals that appear as repetitive black, vertical lines) overlapping New Zealand blue whale song. The red boxes are detection events selected by the detector, demonstrating its ability to capture song even during airgun operation.

After this detector development and validation process, I ran each detector on the full two-year acoustic dataset for all five recording units. This step was a good exercise in patience as I eagerly awaited the outputs for the many hours they took to run. The next step in the process will be for me to go through and validate each detector event to eliminate any false positives. However, running the detectors on the full dataset has allowed for exciting preliminary examinations of seasonal blue whale acoustic patterns, which need to be refined and expanded upon as the analysis continues. For example, sometimes the New Zealand song dominates the recordings on all hydrophones (Fig. 5), whereas other times of year song is less common. Similarly, there appear to be seasonal patterns in D calls and Antarctic Z calls, with peaks and dips in detections during different times of year.

Figure 5. An example spectrogram of simultaneous recordings from all five hydrophones during a time when New Zealand blue whale song dominated the recordings, with numerous, overlapping calls.

As with many things, the more questions you ask, the more questions you come up with. From preliminary explorations of the acoustic data my head is buzzing with ideas for further analysis and with new questions I hadn’t thought to ask of the data before. My curiosity has been fueled by scrolling through spectrograms, looking, and listening, and I am as excited as ever to continue researching blue whale ecology. I would like to thank the team at the Center for Conservation Bioacoustics for their support and guidance over the past month, and I look forward to digging deeper into the stories being told in the acoustic data!

Figure 6. A pair of blue whales observed in February 2017 in the South Taranaki Bight. Photo: L. Torres.

References

1.          Barlow, D. R. et al. Documentation of a New Zealand blue whale population based on multiple lines of evidence. Endanger. Species Res. 36, 27–40 (2018).

2.          McDonald, M. A., Mesnick, S. L. & Hildebrand, J. A. Biogeographic characterisation of blue whale song worldwide: using song to identify populations. J. Cetacean Res. Manag. 8, 55–65 (2006).

3.          Balcazar, N. E. et al. Calls reveal population structure of blue whales across the Southeast Indian Ocean and the Southwest Pacific Ocean. J. Mammal. 96, 1184–1193 (2015).

4.          Oleson, E. M. et al. Behavioral context of call production by eastern North Pacific blue whales. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 330, 269–284 (2007).

5.          McDonald, M. A. An acoustic survey of baleen whales off Great Barrier Island, New Zealand. New Zeal. J. Mar. Freshw. Res. 40, 519–529 (2006).


Surveying for marine mammals in the Northern California Current

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

There is something wonderful about time at sea, where your primary obligation is to observe the ocean from sunrise to sunset, day after day, scanning for signs of life. After hours of seemingly empty blue with only an occasional albatross gliding over the swells on broad wings, it is easy to question whether there is life in the expansive, blue, offshore desert. Splashes on the horizon catch your eye, and a group of dolphins rapidly approaches the ship in a flurry of activity. They play in the ship’s bow and wake, leaping out of the swells. Then, just as quickly as they came, they move on. Back to blue, for hours on end… until the next stirring on the horizon. A puff of exhaled air from a whale that first might seem like a whitecap or a smudge of sunscreen or salt spray on your sunglasses. It catches your eye again, and this time you see the dark body and distinctive dorsal fin of a humpback whale.

I have just returned from 10 days aboard the NOAA ship Bell M. Shimada, where I was the marine mammal observer on the Northern California Current (NCC) Cruise. These research cruises have sampled the NCC in the winter, spring, and fall for decades. As a result, a wealth of knowledge on the oceanography and plankton community in this dynamic ocean ecosystem has been assimilated by a dedicated team of scientists (find out more via the Newportal Blog). Members of the GEMM Lab have joined this research effort in the past two years, conducting marine mammal surveys during the transits between sampling stations (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Northern California Current cruise sampling locations, where oceanography and plankton data are collected. Marine mammal surveys were conducted on the transits between stations.

The fall 2019 NCC cruise was a resounding success. We were able to survey a large swath of the ecosystem between Crescent City, CA and La Push, WA, from inshore to 200 miles offshore. During that time, I observed nine different species of marine mammals (Table 1). As often as I use some version of the phrase “the marine environment is patchy and dynamic”, it never fails to sink in a little bit more every time I go to sea. On the map in Fig. 3, note how clustered the marine mammal sightings are. After nearly a full day of observing nothing but blue water, I would find myself scrambling to keep up with recording all the whales and dolphins we were suddenly in the midst of. What drives these clusters of sightings? What is it about the oceanography and prey community that makes any particular area a hotspot for marine mammals? We hope to get at these questions by utilizing the oceanographic data collected throughout the surveys to better understand environmental drivers of these distribution patterns.

 Table 1. Summary of marine mammal sightings from the September 2019 NCC Cruise.

Species # sightings Total # individuals
Northern Elephant Seal 1 1
Northern Fur Seal 2 2
Common Dolphin 2 8
Pacific White-sided Dolphin 8 143
Dall’s Porpoise 4 19
Harbor Porpoise 1 3
Sperm Whale 1 1
Fin Whale 1 1
Humpback Whale 22 36
Unidentified Baleen Whale 14 16
Figure 3. Map of marine mammal sighting locations from the September NCC cruise.

It was an auspicious time to survey the Northern California Current. Perhaps you have read recent news reports warning about the formation of another impending marine heatwave, much like the “warm blob” that plagued the North Pacific in 2015. We experienced it first-hand during the NCC cruise, with very warm surface waters off Newport extending out to 200 miles offshore (Fig. 4). A lot of energy input from strong winds would be required to mix that thick, warm layer and allow cool, nutrient-rich water to upwell along the coast. But it is already late September, and as the season shifts from summer to fall we are at the end of our typical upwelling season, and the north winds that would typically drive that mixing are less likely. Time will tell what is in store for the NCC ecosystem as we face the onset of another marine heatwave.

Figure 4. Temperature contours over the upper 150 m from 1-200 miles off Newport, Oregon from Fall 2014-2019. During Fall 2014, the Warm Blob inundated the Oregon shelf. Surface temperatures during that survey were 17°- 18°C along the entire transect. During 2015 and 2016 the warm water (16°C) layer had deepened and occupied the upper 50 m. During 2018, the temperature was 16°C in the upper 20 m and cooler on the shelf, indicative of residual upwelling. During this survey in 2019, we again saw very warm (18°C) temperatures in the upper water column over the entire transect. Image and caption credit: Jennifer Fisher.

It was a joy to spend 10 days at sea with this team of scientists. Insight, collaboration, and innovation are born from interdisciplinary efforts like the NCC cruises. Beyond science, what a privilege it is to be on the ocean with a group of people you can work with and laugh with, from the dock to 200 miles offshore, south to north and back again.

Dawn Barlow on the flying bridge of NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada, heading out to sea with the Newport bridge in the background. Photo: Anna Bolm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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

Is there life after graduate school?

By Amanda Holdman, MS, GEMM Lab Alumni 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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