Signs you’re an ecologist – you don’t spend nearly enough time geeking out about your study species…

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

This past week has been very busy for me as I gave three quite important, yet very different, presentations. The first was on Tuesday at the Pacific High School in Port Orford, near my study site. The aim of the game was recruitment – my quest for two eager local high schoolers to be my interns for this 2019 summer field season has begun (read blogs written by our 2017 HS interns Nathan Malamud and Quince Nye)! I was lucky enough to be given an entire class period to talk to the students and so I hope that the picture I painted of kayaks, gray whales and sun will be enough to entice students to apply to the internship.

The second was a short presentation in one of the classes I took this term, GEOG 561: GIScience II Analysis and Applications. The class focuses on developing and conducting geospatial analyses in R and throughout the term each student develops a small independent research project using some of their own data. For my research project, I decided to do a small cluster analysis of the zooplankton community data that we have collected from the kayak net samples.

The third and final presentation of the week happened on Thursday and marked one of the big milestones on my Master’s journey: my research review. The research review is a mandatory (and extremely helpful) process in the Department of Fisheries & Wildlife where the student (in this case me), the committee (Dr Leigh Torres, Dr Rachael Orben, Dr Kim Bernard and Dr Susanne Brander) and a department representative (Dr Brian Sidlauskas) all assemble to discuss the student’s research proposal, which lays out the intended work, chapters, analysis and timeline for the students’ thesis. My proposal (which currently bears the title: “Tonight’s specials include mysids, gammarids and more: An examination of the zooplankton prey of Oregon gray whales and its impact on individual foraging patterns”) proposes a two-chapter thesis where the first examines the quality of zooplankton prey, while the second looks at potential individual foraging specialization of gray whales along the Oregon coast. While my entire committee agreed that what I have set forth to do in the next two or so years is ambitious, they provided me with excellent feedback and confidence that I would be able to achieve what I have planned.

Now that it’s the weekend and I’ve had some time to sit back and think about the week, I realized one major commonality between all three presentations I gave. None of the Powerpoints featured more than one image of a gray whale. How could this be?! It is after all my study species and I spend so much of my summer looking at them – how could it be that so little of what I showed and talked about was the thing that I am most passionate about and is so central to my research?

In the course of doing research, it’s easy to get wound up in the nitty gritty and forget about the big picture. While the nitty gritty is also imperative to conducting the research (and ultimately getting results), I sometimes forget about why I do what I do, which is that gray whales are AWESOME. Looking into the past, it seems that some of my lab mates have had the same realizations about their study species before too: see here and here. So for this blog, I want to bring it back to basics and share some of the things that I think are most fascinating about gray whales.

  1. Gray whales are the only baleen whale that feeds benthically. This behavior is facilitated by the shorter and tougher baleen that gray whales possess in comparison to other baleen whale species (Pivorunas 1979). The majority of the Eastern North Pacific (ENP) gray whale population feeds benthically in the Bering Sea where they eat ampeliscid amphipods, which are a type of benthic invertebrates (Nerini 1984). It is estimated that gray whales must regain 11-29% of critical body mass during the feeding season (Villegas-Amtmann et al. 2015) in order to obtain the energy stores they require for the entire year. Besides the personal benefit of sea floor foraging, by using this feeding tactic gray whales create depressions in the soft sediment that benefit other species besides themselves. The highly disruptive nature of this action can increase the biodiversity of the seafloor and initiate scavenging events by lysiannassid amphipods on other infauna (Oliver & Slattery 1985). Furthermore, Grebmeier & Harrison (1992) documented that a variety of seabirds including northern fulmars, black-legged kittiwakes and thick-billed murres feed on benthic amphipods brought to the surface by this unique foraging behavior performed by gray whales.
  1. Gray whales are essentially acrobats. A preference for benthic prey goes hand in hand with a preference for shallow, coastal waters, as for example Pacific Coast Feeding Group gray whales tend to forage within the 5-15 m depth range (Weller et al. 1999). With female adults ranging between 13-15 m in length (females tend to be slightly larger than adult males) and weighing anywhere between 15-33 tons (Jones et al. 1984), I am continuously fascinated by how gracefully and slowly gray whales can navigate extremely shallow waters.

    However, it is more than just simple navigation – the behaviors and moves that some gray whales display while in the shallows is phenomenal too. Last year Torres et al. (2018) documented this agility through unmanned aerial systems (UAS) footage that provided evidence for some novel foraging tactics including headstands, side-swimming, and jaw snapping and flexing.

  1. They sure are resilient. Commercial whaling of gray whales began in 1846 after two commercial whaling vessels first discovered the winter breeding grounds in Baja California, Mexico (Henderson 1984). Following this discovery, the ENP were targeted for roughly a century before receiving full protection under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling in 1946 (Reeves 1984). Through genetic analyses, it has been estimated that the pre-whaling abundance of the ENP population was between 76,000 – 118,000 individuals (Alter et al. 2012), which is roughly three to five times larger than current estimates (24,000 – 26,000; Scordino et al. 2018). While the gray whale populations that once existed in the Atlantic Ocean were not as fortunate as those in the Pacific (Atlantic gray whales were declared extinct in the 18thcentury due to extensive whaling; Bryant 1995), the ENP has definitely made a strong comeback. Additionally, gray whale resilience is not only evident on this long temporal scale but it can also be seen annually when gray whale mothers fight relentlessly to keep their calves alive when under attack from killer whales. A study on predation of gray whales by transient killer whales in Alaska reported that attacks were quickly abandoned if calves were aggressively defended by their mothers or if gray whales succeeded in reaching depths of 3 m or less (Barrett-Lennard et al. 2011).
  1. For some unimaginable reason, gray whales appear to feel a strong connection to us. For many, gray whales might be best known for actively seeking out human contact during their breeding season in the Mexican lagoons. I find this actuality particularly interesting because of the bloody history we share with Pacific gray whales.

Those are just some of the things about gray whales that make them so fascinating to me. I look forward to potentially discovering one or two more things that we don’t know about them yet through my research. Even if that doesn’t turn out to be the case, I feel so lucky that I at least get to spend so much time with them during their feeding season here along the Oregon coast.

 

References

Alter, E.S., et al., Pre-whaling genetic diversity and population ecology in Eastern Pacific gray whales: Insights from ancient DNA and stable isotopes.PLoS ONE, 2012. doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0035039.

Barrett-Lennard, L.G., et al., Predation on gray whales and prolonged feeding on submerged carcasses by transient killer whales at Unimak Island, Alaska. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 2011. 421: 229-241.

Bryant, P.J., Dating remains of gray whales from the Eastern North Atlantic. Journal of Mammalogy, 1995. 76(3): 857-861.

Grebmeier, J.M., & Harrison, N.M., Seabird feeding on benthic amphipods facilitated by gray whale feeding activity in the northern Bering Sea. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 1992. 80: 125-133.

Henderson, D.A., Nineteenth century gray whaling: Grounds, catches and kills, practices and depletion of the whale population.Pages 159-186 inJones, M.L. et al., eds. The gray whale: Eschrichtius robustus, 1984. Academic Press, Orlando.

Jones, M.L., et al., The gray whale: Eschrichtius robustus. 1984. Academic Press, Orlando.

Nerini, M., A review of the gray whale feeding ecology. Pages 423-448 inJones, M.L. et al., eds. The gray whale: Eschrichtius robustus, 1984. Academic Press, Orlando.

Oliver, J.S., & Slattery, P.N., Destruction and obstruction on the sea floor: effects of gray whale feeding.Ecology, 1985. 66: 1965-1975.

Pivorunas, A., The feeding mechanisms of baleen whales.American Scientist, 1979. 67(4): 432-440.

Reeves, R.R., Modern commercial pelagic whaling for gray whales. Pages 187-200 inJones, M.L. et al., eds. The gray whale: Eschrichtius robustus, 1984. Academic Press, Orlando.

Scordino, J., et al., Report of gray whale implementation review coordination call on 5 December 2018.

Torres, L.G., et al., Drone up! Quantifying whale behavior from a new perspective improves observational capacity.Frontiers in Marine Science, 2018. 5: doi:10.3389/fmars.2018.00319.

Villegas-Amtmann, S., et al., A bioenergetics model to evaluate demographic consequences of disturbance in marine mammals applied to gray whales. Ecosphere, 2015. 6(10): 1-19.

Weller, D.W., et al., Gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) off Sakhalin Island, Russia: Seasonal and annual patterns of occurrence. Marine Mammal Science, 1999. 15(4): 1208-1227.

Plastics truly are ubiquitous in the marine environment

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

As I enter my second term at OSU as a Master’s student, the ideas and structure of my thesis are slowly coming together. As of right now, my plan is to have two data chapters: The first chapter will assess the quality of zooplankton prey gray whales have access to along the Oregon coast, by looking at energetic value and microplastic content. I will contemplate about how my results potentially affect gray whale health. The second chapter will investigate fine-scale foraging and space use of gray whales in the Port Orford area to determine whether individual specialisation exists.

Fig 1. What it feels like when you start a literature review. Source: Harvard Blogs.

When I first started digging into the scientific literature to prepare for writing my thesis proposal (which is still underway but I’m getting close to the end of a first draft…), one sentence that I seemed to stumble across more often than not was “Marine plastics are ubiquitous” or “Plastics have become ubiquitous in the marine environment” or some other, very similar, iteration of that statement (e.g. Machovsky-Capuska et al. 2019; Eriksen et al. 2014; Fendall & Sewell 2009).

Many of the papers I first read were review papers on microplastics that mostly discussed general concepts like dispersal mechanisms, trophic transfer, or how microplastics become degraded. While I often think of review papers as treasure chests, since they neatly and succinctly summarise an often complicated and busy area of research into just a few pages, sometimes the fine-scale detail can go missing. Therefore, when reading these review papers, I wasn’t learning the in depth details about specific studies where microplastics had been detected in a group of individuals, population or species. So I felt the statement “Plastics are ubiquitous” was just a good (and pretty dramatic) opening line for a paper. However, once I delved into the studies on single species, I was overwhelmed by the amount of results that GoogleScholar spit out at me. If you type “microplastics marine” into the search bar, you’ll get about 7,650 results. This amount might not sound like a lot, especially if you compare it to say “gray whale”, which generates 96,600 results. Yet, the microplastic extraction method typically used was only developed in 2004 (Thompson et al. 2004). Hence, in a span of just 15 years, over 7,000 studies have detected microplastics in over 660 marine organisms (Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity 2012) – a fact I find extremely troubling.

Fig 2. Graphic explaining how plastics don’t go away. Source: Biotecnika.

Microplastics are most commonly viewed as particles <5 mm in size (though there is some contention on this size classification, e.g. Claessens et al. 2013). Microplastics arise from several sources, including fragmentation of larger plastics by UV photo-degradation, wave action and physical abrasion, loss of pre-production pellets (nurdles) and polystyrene beads from shipping vessels, waste water discharge containing microbeads used in cosmetics and microfibers released during the washing of textiles and run-off from land (Nelms et al. 2018). Their small size makes these persistent particles bioavailable to ingestion by a variety of marine taxa, ranging from small prey organisms such as zooplankton, to large megafauna such as whales.

Zooplankton are at the base of marine food webs and are therefore consumed in large quantities by a large number of consumers. The propensity of zooplankton to feed in surface waters makes them highly susceptible to encountering and ingesting microplastics as this is where these synthetic particles are highly abundant (Botterell et al. 2018). Microplastics have been detected in zooplankton from the Northeast Pacific Ocean (Desforges et al. 2015), northern South China Sea (Sun et al. 2017), and Portuguese coast (Frias et al. 2014). Additionally, there is documented overlap between microplastic and zooplankton occurrence at many more locations (e.g. North Western Mediterranean Sea, Collignon et al. 2012; Baltic Sea, Gorokhova 2015; Arctic Ocean, Lusher et al. 2015a). As microplastics research is still in its relative infancy, the extent to which microplastics are ingested by zooplankton and the consequences of this behaviour are uncertain. Nevertheless, exposure to microplastics could lead to entanglement of particles within feeding appendages and/or block internal organs, which may result in reduced feeding, poor overall health, injury and death (Desforges et al. 2015). Though a lab study has found that microplastics are expelled by zooplankton after ingestion, the gut-retention times varied between species, and there is the potential risk of exposure to toxins that leech off of particles while in the body (Cole et al. 2013; the below video is from the afore-mentioned study showing how plankton eat plastics, which are illuminated in fluorescent green).

The large knowledge gap regarding the health implications indicates a strong need for more laboratory studies that investigate the long-term effects of persistent exposure to microplastics on lower trophic organisms, as well as continued short-term experiments that examine whether different zooplankton species are affected differently, since morphologies and life-histories vary widely.

Let’s take a step back and re-focus our lens onto a marine taxa that is much, much bigger in size than a zooplankton: cetaceans. Plastic debris has been documented in the stomachs of stranded individuals of several cetacean species (See Baulch & Perry 2014 for a review), however findings of microplastics in cetaceans are less common. Since cetaceans consume large amounts of prey a day, up to several tons daily for some baleen whales, the likelihood that they are ingesting microplastics through their prey is relatively high (Nelms et al. 2018). Therefore the low number of reported cases is again likely due to the relative novelty of microplastic detection methods. Despite the paucity of studies, microplastics have been found in a True’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon mirus, Lusher et al. 2015b), a humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae, Besseling et al. 2015) and an Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin (Sousa chinensis, Zhu et al. 2018), showing that microplastic ingestion by cetaceans does occur. Whether these individuals actively (i.e. active feeding) or passively (i.e. uptake through prey consumption) consumed the microplastics, or inhaled them at the water-air interface, is unknown. As with zooplankton, the short- and long-term impacts of ingesting microplastics by marine mammals is also unknown, though impacts on survival, feeding and uptake of toxins are all possibilities.

Fig 3. Example of a light trap sample collected off the Newport coast. Source: L. Torres.

The data collection and analysis I am doing for my thesis will hopefully fill small pockets in these large knowledge gaps. I hope to be able to quantify the extent of microplastic pollution among zooplankton species in nearshore Oregon waters. By comparing samples from several years, months and locations, I will determine whether microplastic loads vary spatially and temporally. Since their abundance and presence have been described as being patchy due to the influence of oceanographic and weather conditions (GESAMP 2016), it would seem reasonable to assume that there will be variation. But, results are a ways away as we have not even started our microplastic extraction techniques, which involves digesting samples in potassium hydroxide solution, incubating them at 50ºC for 48-72 hours, sorting through the dissolved material to identify potential plastics and sending them away for analysis. We first have to work our way through jars upon jars of unopened zooplankton light trap samplesthat need to be sorted by species. I am thankfully joined by undergraduate Robyn Norman who has already assisted this project immensely over the last two years with her zooplankton sorting prowess. So in case anyone wants to come looking for us over the next few weeks, you’ll find both Robyn and me sitting in front of a laminar flow hood in the lab of ecotoxicologist Dr. Susanne Brander, with whom we are collaborating on the microplastics portion of my thesis.

 

References

Baulch, S., & Perry, C., Evaluating the impacts of marine debris on cetaceans. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2014. 80(1-2): 210-221.

Besseling, E., et al., Microplastic in a macro filter feeder: humpback whale Megaptera novaeangliae. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2015. 95: 248-252.

Botterell, Z.L.R., et al., Bioavailability and effects of microplastics on marine zooplankton: a review. Environmental Pollution, 2018. 245: 98-110.

Claessens, M., et al., New techniques for the detection of microplastics in sediments and field collected organisms. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2013. 70(1-2): 227-233.

Cole, M., et al., Microplastic ingestion by zooplankton. Environmental Science & Technology, 2013. 47(12): 6646-6655.

Collignon, A., et al., Neustonic microplastic and zooplankton in the North Western Mediterranean Sea. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2012. 64(4): 861-864.

Desforges, JP.W., et al., Ingestion of microplastics by zooplankton in the Northeast Pacific Ocean. Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, 2015. 69(3): 320-330.

Eriksen, M., et al., Plastic pollution in the world’s oceans: more than 5 trillion plastic pieces weighing over 250,000 tons afloat at sea. PLoS ONE, 2014. doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0111913.

Fendall, L.S., & Sewell, M.A., Contributing to marine pollution by washing your face: microplastics in facial cleansers. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2009. 58(8): 1225-1228.

Frias, J.P.G.L., et al., Evidence of microplastics in samples of zooplankton from Portuguese coastal waters. Marine Environmental Research, 2014. 95: 89-95.

GESAMP, Sources, fates and effects of microplastics in the marine environment: part 2 of a global assessment. Second United Nations Environment Assembly, 2016. http://www.gesamp.org/site/assets/files/1720/rs93e.pdf

Gorokhova, E., Screening for microplastic particles in plankton samples: how to integrate marine litter assessment into existing monitoring programs? Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2015. 99(1-2): 271-275.

Lusher, A.L., et al., Microplastics in Arctic polar waters: the first reported values of particles in surface and sub-surface samples. Scientific Reports, 2015a. 5: 14947.

Lusher, A.L., et al., Microplastic and macroplastic ingestion by a deep diving, oceanic cetacean: the True’s beaked whales Mesoplodon mirus. Environmental Pollution, 2015b. 199: 185-191.

Machovsky-Capuska, G.E., et al., A nutritional perspective on plastic ingestion in wildlife. Science of the Total Environment, 2019. 656: 789-796.

Nelms, S.E., et al., Investigating microplastic trophic transfer in marine top predators. Environmental Pollution, 2018. 238: 999-1007.

Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel – GEF (2012), Impacts of marine debris on biodiversity: current status and potential solutions. Montreal, Technical Series. 67: 1-61.

Sun, X., et al., Ingestion of microplastics by natural zooplankton groups in the northern South China Sea. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2017. 115(1-2): 217-224.

Thompson, R.C., et al., Lost at sea: where is all the plastic? Science, 2004. 304(5672): 838.

Zhu, J., et al., Cetaceans and microplastics: First report of microplastic ingestion by a coastal delphinid, Sousa chinensis. Science of the Total Environment, 2018. 659: 649-654.

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.

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).

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.