Eyes from Space: Using Remote Sensing as a Tool to Study the Ecology of Blue Whales

By Christina Garvey, University of Maryland, GEMM Lab REU Intern

It is July 8th and it is my 4th week here in Hatfield as an REU intern for Dr. Leigh Torres. My name is Christina Garvey and this summer I am studying the spatial ecology of blue whales in the South Taranaki Bight, New Zealand. Coming from the east coast, Oregon has given me an experience of a lifetime – the rugged shorelines continue to take my breath away and watching sea lions in Yaquina Bay never gets old. However, working on my first research project has by far been the greatest opportunity and I have learned so much in so little time. When Dr. Torres asked me to contribute to this blog I was unsure of how I would write about my work thus far but I am excited to have the opportunity to share the knowledge I have gained with whoever reads this blog post.

The research project that I will be conducting this summer will use remotely sensed environmental data (information collected from satellites) to predict blue whale distribution in the South Taranaki Bight (STB), New Zealand. Those that have read previous blogs about this research may remember that the STB study area is created by a large indentation or “bight” on the southern end of the Northern Island. Based on multiple lines of evidence, Dr. Leigh Torres hypothesized the presence of an unrecognized blue whale foraging ground in the STB (Torres 2013). Dr. Torres and her team have since proved that blue whales frequent this region year-round; however, the STB is also very industrial making this space-use overlap a conservation concern (Barlow et al. 2018). The increasing presence of marine industrial activity in the STB is expected to put more pressure on blue whales in this region, whom are already vulnerable from the effects of past commercial whaling (Barlow et al. 2018) If you want to read more about blue whales in the STB check out previous blog posts that talk all about it!

Figure 1. A blue whale surfaces in front of a floating production storage and offloading vessel servicing the oil rigs in the South Taranaki Bight. Photo by D. Barlow.
Figure 2. South Taranaki Bight, New Zealand, our study site outlined by the red box. Kahurangi Point (black star) is the site of wind-driven upwelling system.

The possibility of the STB as an important foraging ground for a resident population of blue whales poses management concerns as New Zealand will have to balance industrial growth with the protection and conservation of a critically endangered species. As a result of strong public support, there are political plans to implement a marine protected area (MPA) in the STB for the blue whales. The purpose of our research is to provide scientific knowledge and recommendations that will assist the New Zealand government in the creation of an effective MPA.

In order to create an MPA that would help conserve the blue whale population in the STB, we need to gather a deeper understanding of the relationship between blue whales and this marine environment. One way to gain knowledge of the oceanographic and ecological processes of the ocean is through remote sensing by satellites, which provides accessible and easy to use environmental data. In our study we propose remote sensing as a tool that can be used by managers for the design of MPAs (through spatial and temporal boundaries). Satellite imagery can provide information on sea surface temperature (SST), SST anomaly, as well as net primary productivity (NPP) – which are all measurements that can help describe oceanographic upwelling, a phenomena that is believed to be correlated to the presence of blue whales in the STB region.

Figure 3. The stars of the show: blue whales. A photograph captured from the small boat of one animal fluking up to dive down as another whale surfaces close by. (Photo credit: L. Torres)

Past studies in the STB showed evidence of a large upwelling event that occurs off the coast of Kahurangi Point (Fig. 2), on the northwest tip of the South Island (Shirtcliffe et al. 1990). In order to study the relationship of this upwelling to the distribution of blue whales, I plan to extract remotely sensed data (SST, SST anomaly, & NPP) off the coast of Kahurangi and compare it to data gathered from a centrally located site within the STB, which is close to oil rigs and so is of management interest. I will first study how decreases in sea surface temperature at the site of upwelling (Kahurangi) are related to changes in sea surface temperature at this central site in the STB, while accounting for any time differences between each occurrence. I expect that this relationship will be influenced by the wind patterns, and that there will be changes based on the season. I also predict that drops in temperature will be strongly related to increases in primary productivity, since upwelling brings nutrients important for photosynthesis up to the surface. These dips in SST are also expected to be correlated to blue whale occurrence within the bight, since blue whale prey (krill) eat the phytoplankton produced by the productivity.

Figure 4. A blue whale lunges on an aggregation of krill. UAS piloted by Todd Chandler.

To test the relationships I determine between remotely sensed data at different locations in the STB, I plan to use blue whale observations from marine mammal observers during a seismic survey conducted in 2013, as well as sightings recorded from the 2014, 2016, and 2017 field studies led by Dr. Leigh Torres. By studying the statistical relationships between all of these variables I hope to prove that remote sensing can be used as a tool to study and understand blue whale distribution.

I am very excited about this research, especially because the end goal of creating an MPA really gives me purpose. I feel very lucky to be part of a project that could make a positive impact on the world, if only in just a little corner of New Zealand. In the mean time I’ll be here in Hatfield doing the best I can to help make that happen.

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.

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.

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

A Weekend of Inspiration in Marine Science: NWSSMM and Dr. Sylvia Earle!

By Karen Lohman, Masters Student in Wildlife Science, Cetacean Conservation and Genomics Lab, Oregon State University

My name is Karen Lohman, and I’m a first-year student in Dr. Scott Baker’s Cetacean Conservation and Genomics Lab at OSU. Dr. Leigh Torres is serving on my committee and has asked me to contribute to the GEMM lab blog from time to time. For my master’s project, I’ll be applying population genetics and genomics techniques to better understand the degree of population mixing and breeding ground assignment of feeding humpback whales in the eastern North Pacific. In other words, I’ll be trying to determine where the humpback whales off the U.S. West Coast are migrating from, and at what frequency.

Earlier this month I joined the GEMM lab members in attending the Northwest Student Society of Marine Mammalogy Conference in Seattle. The GEMM lab members and I made the trip up to the University of Washington to present our work to our peers from across the Pacific Northwest. All five GEMM lab graduate students, plus GEMM lab intern Acacia Pepper, and myself gave talks presenting our research to our peers. I was able to present preliminary results on the population structure of feeding humpback whales across shared feeding habitat by multiple breeding groups in the eastern North Pacific using mitochondria DNA haplotype frequencies. In the end GEMM lab’s Dawn Barlow took home the “Best Oral Presentation” prize. Way to go Dawn!

A few of the GEMM lab members and me presenting our research at the NWSSMM conference in May 2019 at the University of Washington.

While conferences have a strong networking component, this one feels unique.  It is a chance to network with our peers, who are working through the same challenges in graduate school and will hopefully be our future research collaborators in marine mammal research when we finish our degrees. It’s also one of the few groups of people that understand the challenges of studying marine mammals. Not every day is full of dolphins and rainbows; for me, it’s mostly labwork or writing code to overcome small and/or patchy sample size problems.

All of the CCGL and GEMM Lab members excited to hear Dr. Sylvia Earle’s presentation at Portland State University in May 2019 (from L to R: Karen L., Lisa H., Alexa K., Leila L., Dawn B., and Dom K.) . Photo Source: Alexa Kownacki

On the way back from Seattle we stopped to hear the one and only Dr. Sylvia Earle, talk in Portland. With 27 honorary doctorates and over 200 publications, Dr. Sylvia Earle is a legend in marine science. Hearing a distinguished marine researcher talk about her journey in research and to present such an inspiring message of ocean advocacy was a great way to end our weekend away from normal grad school responsibilities. While the entirety of her talk was moving, one of her final comments really stood out. Near the end of her talk she called the audience to action by saying “Look at your abilities and have confidence that you can and must make a difference. Do whatever you’ve got.” As a first-year graduate student trying to figure out my path forward in research and conservation, I couldn’t think of better advice to end the weekend on.

 

Looking Back: Three Years After Grad School

By Courtney Hann (NOAA Fisheries, West Coast Sustainable Fisheries Division)

Thinking back, as Leigh’s first M.Sc. student for the GEMM Lab, I wonder what poignant insight could have prepared me for my future endeavors. And having faced years of perseverance and dedication in the face of professional unknowns, perhaps the answer is none at all; fore maybe it was the many unknown challenges met that led me to where I am today.

I graduated in December of 2015, with my Masters in Marine Resource Management, and stamped completion of my research with the GEMM Lab. While my research focused on marine mammals, my broader love for the Earth’s oceans and lands guided my determination to help keep our planet’s precious ecosystem resources wild and free. So when I landed a position in terrestrial ecology after graduating, I chose to embrace the challenging decision of jumping away from theoretical research and moving back towards applied research. Consequently, I fell in love with botany, moth identification, birding, and explored the unknowns of a whole new world of conservation biology in Scotland with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Not only was this work incredibly fun, interesting, and spontaneous, it offered me an opportunity to take my knowledge of developing research projects and apply it to nature reserve management. Every survey I completed and dataset I analyzed provided information required to determine the next land management steps for maximizing the conservation of rare and diverse species. From the GEMM Lab, I brought skills on: how to work through what, at times, seemed like an impassible barrier, complete tasks efficiently under a tight deadline, juggle multiple activities and obligations, and still make time to ponder the importance of seeing the bigger picture, while having fun learning new things.

Above: Botanizing and birding in Scotland with the best botanist I have ever known and my boss, Jeff Waddell, with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

For me, the long game of seeing the bigger picture has always been key. And at the end of the day, I remained steadfast in answering the questioned I posed myself: Why do all of this work if not to make a truly positive impact? With that in mind, and with an expiring visa, I moved back to the West Coast of the U.S. and landed a contracting position with NOAA Fisheries. Where I met my second female mentor, Heidi Taylor, who inspired me beyond words and introduced me to the amazing world of fisheries management. All the while, I kept working my second part-time job with the West Coast Regional Planning Body (now called the West Coast Ocean Alliance, WCOA). Working two jobs allowed me to not only accelerate my learning capacity through more opportunities, but also allowed me to extend the reach of growing a positive impact.  For example, I learned about coordinating region-wide ocean management, facilitation of diverse groups, and working with tribes, states, and federal agencies while working for the WCOA. While there were moments that I struggled with overworking and fatigue, my training in graduate school to persevere really kicked in. Driven by the desire to attain a permanent position that complimented my talents and determination to provide sustained help for our Earth’s ecosystems, I worked for what sometimes felt endlessly to reach my goal. Getting there was tough, but well worth it!

One of the most challenging aspects for me was finishing my last publication for the GEMM Lab. I was no longer motivated by the research, since my career path had taken a different turn, and I was already burnt out form working overtime every week. Therefore, if it was not for Leigh’s encouraging words, the promise I made to her to complete the publication, and my other co-author’s invitation to submit a paper for a particular journal, then I likely would have thrown in the towel. I had to re-do the analysis several times, had the paper rejected once, and then ended up re-writing and re-structuring the entire paper for the final publication. In total, it took me two and half years and 100s of hours to complete this paper after graduating. Of course, there was no funding, so I felt a bit like an ongoing graduate student until the paper was finally accepted and the work complete. But the final acceptance of the paper was so sweet, and after years of uncertain challenges, a heavy weight had finally been lifted. So perhaps, if there is one piece of advice I would say to young graduate students, it is to get your work published before you graduate! I had one paper and one book chapter published before I graduated, and that made my life much easier. While I am proud for finishing the final third publication, I would have much preferred to have just taken one extra semester and finished that publication while in school. But regardless, it was completed. And in a catharsis moment, maybe the challenge of completing it taught me the determination I needed to persevere through difficult situations.

Above: Elephant seal expressing my joy of finishing that last publication! Wooohoooooo!

With that publication out of the way, I was able to focus more time on my career. While I no longer use R on a daily basis and do not miss the hours of searching for that one pesky bug, I do analyze, critique, and use scientific literature everyday. Moreover, the critical thinking, creative, and collaborative skills I honed in the GEMM Lab, have been and will be useful for the rest of my life. Those hours of working through complicated statistical analyses and results in Leigh’s office pay off everyday. Reading outside of work, volunteering and working second jobs, all of this I learned from graduate school. Carrying this motivation, hard work, determination, and perseverance on past graduate school was undeniably what led me to where I am today. I have landed my dream job, working for NOAA Fisheries Sustainable Fisheries Division on salmon management and policy, in my dream location, the Pacific Northwest.  My work now ties directly into ongoing management and policy that shapes our oceans, conservation efforts, and fisheries management. I am grateful for all the people who have supported me along the way, with this blog post focusing on the GEMM Lab and Leigh Torres as my advisor. I hope to be a mentor and guide for others along their path, as so many have helped me along mine. Good luck to any grad student reading this now! But more than luck, carry passion and determination forward because that is what will propel you onward on your own path. Thank you GEMM Lab, it is now time for me to enjoy my new job.

Above: Enjoying in my new home in the Pacific Northwest.

 

 

 

Finding the right fit: a journey into cetacean distribution models

Solène Derville, Entropie Lab, French National Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD – UMR Entropie), Nouméa, New Caledonia

 Ph.D. student under the co-supervision of Dr. Leigh Torres

Species Distribution Models (SDM), also referred to as ecological niche models, may be defined as “a model that relates species distribution data (occurrence or abundance at known locations) with information on the environmental and/or spatial characteristics of those locations” (Elith & Leathwick, 2009)⁠. In the last couple decades, SDMs have become an indispensable part of the ecologists’ and conservationists’ toolbox. What scientist has not dreamed of being able to summarize a species’ environmental requirements and predict where and when it will occur, all in one tiny statistical model? It sounds like magic… but the short acronym “SDM” is the pretty front window of an intricate and gigantic research field that may extend way beyond the skills of a typical ecologist (even so for a graduate student like myself).

As part of my PhD thesis about the spatial ecology of humpback whales in New Caledonia, South Pacific, I was planning on producing a model to predict their distribution in the region and help spatial planning within the Natural Park of the Coral Sea. An innocent and seemingly perfectly feasible plan for a second year PhD student. To conduct this task, I had at my disposal more than 1,000 sightings recorded during dedicated surveys at sea conducted over 14 years. These numbers seem quite sufficient, considering the rarity of cetaceans and the technical challenges of studying them at sea. And there was more! The NGO Opération Cétacés  also recorded over 600 sightings reported by the general public in the same time period and deployed more than 40 satellite tracking tags to follow individual whale movements. In a field where it is so hard to acquire data, it felt like I had to use it all, though I was not sure how to combine all these types of data, with their respective biases, scales and assumptions.

One important thing about SDM to remember: it is like a cracker section in a US grocery shop, there is sooooo much choice! As I reviewed the possibilities and tested various modeling approaches on my data I realized that this study might be a good opportunity to contribute to the SDM field, by conducting a comparison of various algorithms using cetacean occurrence data from multiple sources. The results of this work was just published  in Diversity and Distributions:

Derville S, Torres LG, Iovan C, Garrigue C. (2018) Finding the right fit: Comparative cetacean distribution models using multiple data sources and statistical approaches. Divers Distrib. 2018;00:1–17. https://doi. org/10.1111/ddi.12782

There are simply too many! Anonymous grocery shops, Corvallis, OR
Credit: Dawn Barlow

If you are a new-comer to the SDM world, and specifically its application to the marine environment, I hope you find this interesting. If you are a seasoned SDM user, I would be very grateful to read your thoughts in the comment section! Feel free to disagree!

So what is the take-home message from this work?

  • There is no such thing as a “best model”; it all depends on what you want your model to be good at (the descriptive vs predictive dichotomy), and what criteria you use to define the quality of your models.

The predictive vs descriptive goal of the model: This is a tricky choice to make, yet it should be clearly identified upfront. Most times, I feel like we want our models to be decently good at both tasks… It is a risky approach to blindly follow the predictions of a complex model without questioning the meaning of the ecological relationships it fitted. On the other hand, conservation applications of models often require the production of predicted maps of species’ probability of presence or habitat suitability.

The criteria for model selection: How could we imagine that the complexity of animal behavior could be summarized in a single metric, such as the famous Akaike Information criterion (AIC) or the Area under the ROC Curve (AUC)? My study, and that of others (e.g. Elith & Graham  H., 2009),⁠ emphasize the importance of looking at multiple aspects of model outputs: raw performance through various evaluation metrics (e.g. see AUCdiff; (Warren & Seifert, 2010)⁠, contribution of the variables to the model, shape of the fitted relationships through Partial Dependence Plots (PDP, Friedman, 2001),⁠ and maps of predicted habitat suitability and associated error. Spread all these lines of evidence in front of you, summarize all the metrics, add a touch of critical ecological thinking to decide on the best approach for your modeling question, and Abracadabra! You end up a bit lost in a pile of folders… But at least you assessed the quality of your work from every angle!

  • Cetacean SDMs often serve a conservation goal. Hence, their capacity to predict to areas / times that were not recorded in the data (which is often scarce) is paramount. This extrapolation performance may be restricted when the model relationships are overfitted, which is when you made your model fit the data so closely that you are unknowingly modeling noise rather than a real trend. Using cross-validation is a good method to prevent overfitting from happening (for a thorough review: Roberts et al., 2017)⁠. Also, my study underlines that certain algorithms inherently have a tendency to overfit. We found that Generalized Additive Models and MAXENT provided a valuable complexity trade-off to promote the best predictive performance, while minimizing overfitting. In the case of GAMs, I would like to point out the excellent documentation that exist on their use (Wood, 2017)⁠, and specifically their application to cetacean spatial ecology (Mannocci, Roberts, Miller, & Halpin, 2017; Miller, Burt, Rexstad, & Thomas, 2013; Redfern et al., 2017).⁠
  • Citizen science is a promising tool to describe cetacean habitat. Indeed, we found that models of habitat suitability based on citizen science largely converged with those based on our research surveys. The main issue encountered when modeling this type of data is the absence of “effort”. Basically, we know where people observed whales, but we do not know where they haven’t… or at least not with the accuracy obtained from research survey data. However, with some information about our citizen scientists and a little deduction, there is actually a lot you can infer about opportunistic data. For instance, in New Caledonia most of the sightings were reported by professional whale-watching operators or by the general public during fishing/diving/boating day trips. Hence, citizen scientists rarely stray far from harbors and spend most of their time in the sheltered waters of the New Caledonian lagoon. This reasoning provides the sort of information that we integrated in our modeling approach to account for spatial sampling bias of citizen science data and improve the model’s predictive performance.

Many more technical aspects of SDM are brushed over in this paper (for detailed and annotated R codes of the modeling approaches, see supplementary information of our paper). There are a few that are not central to the paper, but that I think are worth sharing:

  • Collinearity of predictors: Have you ever found that the significance of your predictors completely changed every time you removed a variable? I have progressively come to discover how unstable a model can be because of predictor collinearity (and the uneasy feeling that comes with it …). My new motto is to ALWAYS check cross-correlation between my predictors, and do it THOROUGHLY. A few aspects that may make a big difference in the estimation of collinearity patterns are to: (1) calculate Pearson vs Spearman coefficients, (2) check correlations between the values recorded at the presence points vs over the whole study area, and (3) assess the correlations between raw environmental variables vs between transformed variables (log-transformed, etc). Though selecting variables with Pearson coefficients < 0.7 is usually a good rule (Dormann et al., 2013), I would worry of anything above 0.5, or at least keep it in mind during model interpretation.
  • Cross-validation: If removing 10% of my dataset greatly impacts the model results, I feel like cross-validation is critical. The concept is based on a simple assumption, if I had sampled a given population/phenomenon/system slightly differently, would I have come to the same conclusion? Cross-validation comes in many different methods, but the basic concept is to run the same model several times (number of times may depend on the size of your data set, hierarchical structure of your data, computation power of your computer, etc.) over different chunks of your data. Model performance metrics (e.g., AUC) and outputs (e.g., partial dependence plots) are than summarized on the many runs, using mean/median and standard deviation/quantiles. It is up to you how to pick these chunks, but before doing this at random I highly recommend reading Roberts et al. (2017).

The evil of the R2: I am probably not the first student to feel like what I have learned in my statistical classes at school is in practice, at best, not very useful, and at worst, dangerously misleading. Of course, I do understand that we must start somewhere, and that learning the basics of inferential statistics is a necessary step to, one day, be able to answer your one research questions. Yet, I feel like I have been carrying the “weight of the R2” for far too long before actually realizing that this metric of model performance (R2 among others) is simply not  enough to trust my results. You might think that your model is robust because among the 1000 alternative models you tested, it is the one with the “best” performance (deviance explained, AIC, you name it), but the model with the best R2 will not always be the most ecologically meaningful one, or the most practical for spatial management perspectives. Overfitting is like a sword of Damocles hanging over you every time you create a statistical model All together, I sometimes trust my supervisor’s expertise and my own judgment more than an R2.

Source: internet

A few good websites/presentations that have helped me through my SDM journey:

General website about spatial analysis (including SDM): http://rspatial.org/index.html

Cool presentation by Adam Smith about SDM:

http://www.earthskysea.org/!ecology/sdmShortCourseKState2012/sdmShortCourse_kState.pdf

Handling spatial data in R: http://www.maths.lancs.ac.uk/~rowlings/Teaching/UseR2012/introductionTalk.html

“The magical world of mgcv”, a great presentation by Noam Ross: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q4_t8jXcQgc

 

Literature cited

Dormann, C. F., Elith, J., Bacher, S., Buchmann, C., Carl, G., Carré, G., … Lautenbach, S. (2013). Collinearity: A review of methods to deal with it and a simulation study evaluating their performance. Ecography, 36(1), 027–046. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1600-0587.2012.07348.x

Elith, J., & Graham  H., C. (2009). Do they? How do they? WHY do they differ? On finding reasons for differing performances of species distribution models . Ecography, 32(Table 1), 66–77. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1600-0587.2008.05505.x

Elith, J., & Leathwick, J. R. (2009). Species Distribution Models: Ecological Explanation and Prediction Across Space and Time. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, 40(1), 677–697. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.ecolsys.110308.120159

Friedman, J. H. (2001). Greedy Function Approximation: A gradient boosting machine. The Annals of Statistics, 29(5), 1189–1232. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2699986

Mannocci, L., Roberts, J. J., Miller, D. L., & Halpin, P. N. (2017). Extrapolating cetacean densities to quantitatively assess human impacts on populations in the high seas. Conservation Biology, 31(3), 601–614. https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.12856.This

Miller, D. L., Burt, M. L., Rexstad, E. A., & Thomas, L. (2013). Spatial models for distance sampling data: Recent developments and future directions. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, 4(11), 1001–1010. https://doi.org/10.1111/2041-210X.12105

Redfern, J. V., Moore, T. J., Fiedler, P. C., de Vos, A., Brownell, R. L., Forney, K. A., … Ballance, L. T. (2017). Predicting cetacean distributions in data-poor marine ecosystems. Diversity and Distributions, 23(4), 394–408. https://doi.org/10.1111/ddi.12537

Roberts, D. R., Bahn, V., Ciuti, S., Boyce, M. S., Elith, J., Guillera-Arroita, G., … Dormann, C. F. (2017). Cross-validation strategies for data with temporal, spatial, hierarchical or phylogenetic structure. Ecography, 0, 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1111/ecog.02881

Warren, D. L., & Seifert, S. N. (2010). Ecological niche modeling in Maxent: the importance of model complexity and the performance of model selection criteria. Ecological Applications, 21(2), 335–342. https://doi.org/10.1890/10-1171.1

Wood, S. N. (2017). Generalized additive models: an introduction with R (second edi). CRC press.

Observing humpback whales through the clear New Caledonian waters

Solène Derville, Entropie Lab, French National Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD – UMR Entropie), Nouméa, New Caledonia

Ph.D. student under the co-supervision of Dr. Leigh Torres

Drone technology has illustrated itself as particularly useful to the study of cetacean in the GEMM Lab (see previous post by Dawn and Leila) and in the marine mammal research community in general. The last Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals in Halifax staged several talks and posters describing the great potential of drones for observing animal behaviors, collecting blow samples, estimating the size and health of animals, or estimating densities. The GEMM Lab has been conducting leading research in this field, from capturing exceptional footages of lunge feeding blue whales in New Zealand, to measuring gray whale health on the Oregon coast.

Using drones in New Caledonia

In September 2017 I participated in a scientific cruise undertaken by Opération Cétacés /IRD to study New Caledonian humpback whales, and we were lucky to be joined by Nicolas Job, a professional diver, photographer and drone pilot. It was one of those last minute decisions: one of our crewmates canceled the week before the survey and we thought “who could we bring on instead?”. We barely knew the man but figured it would be good to get a few humpback whale drone images… We invited him to join us on the research expedition only a few days before the trip but this is not the kind of opportunity that a photographer would pass on!

Far from trying to acquire scientific data in the way the GEMM Lab does with blue whales and gray whales, we were only hoping to take “pretty pictures”… we were not disappointed.

Once we got past a few unexpected issues (YES you need to wear gloves to protect your fingers when trying to catch a flying drone (Fig 1), and NO frigate birds will not attack drones as long as they don’t smell like fish), Nicolas managed to fly the drone above our small research boat and capture footage of several humpback whale groups, including mothers with calf and competitive groups.

Figure 1: Frigate birds are known to attack birds in flight to steal their meal straight from their beak…luckily they did not attack our drone! On the contrary, it seems like they could help scientists one day as it has been suggested that UAV builders could learn from their exceptional soaring behavior that allows months-long transoceanic flights (photo credit: Henri Zemerskirch CEBC CNRS) .

As I said, no groundbreaking science here, but this experience convinced me that drones can bring a new perspective to the way we observe and interpret animal behavior. As a known statistics/R-lover in the lab, I often get so excited by the intricacies of data analysis that I forget I am studying these giant, elegant, agile, and intelligent sea creatures (Fig 2). And the video clips that Nicolas put together just reminded me of that.

The clear waters of the Natural Park of the Coral Sea allowed us to see whales as far as 30 meters deep in some areas! This perspective turned our usual surface observations into 3D. We could see escorts guarding maternal females and preventing other males from approaching by producing bubble trails. Escorts also extended their pectoral fins on either side of their body, a behavior supposed to make them look more imposing in the presence of a challenger. Competitive groups were also very impressive from above. During the breeding season, competitive groups form when several males aggregate around a female and compete for it. These groups typically travel at high speed and are characterized by active surface behaviors such as tail slaps, head lunges, and bubble trails.

Figure 2: This female humpback whale was encountered in 2016 and 2017. Her white flanks make her particularly easy to recognize. On both occasions it put on a show and kept circling the Amborella oceanographic vessel for more than an hour. To provide a sense of scale, the vessel on this drone footage is 24 m long (photo credit: Nicolas Job).

Drones and seamounts

Since the discovery of humpback whale offshore breeding areas in Antigonia seamount in 2007 and Orne bank in 2016, a lot of research has been conducted to better understand habitat preferences, distributions and connectivity in oceanic waters of New Caledonia (see previous post). Surveys have always been strongly multidisciplinary, including boat-based observation, biopsy sampling, and photo-identification, satellite tracking, in situ oceanographic measurements and acoustics. Will drones soon become an essential component of this toolbox?

One potential application I could imagine for my personal research questions would be to use aerial photogrammetry to measure the size of newborn calves. Indeed, we have found that offshore seamounts are used by a relatively great number of mothers with calf (Derville, Torres & Garrigue, In Press JMAMM). This finding is counter intuitive to the paradigm that maternal females prefer sheltered, shallow and coastal waters as shown in many breeding grounds around the world. Yet, we believe unsheltered oceanic areas might become more attractive to maternal females as the calf grows bigger and more robust to harsh sea states and encounters with competitive adult males. Drone photogrammetry of calves could likely help us confirm this hypothesis.

But for now, I will leave the science behind for a bit and let you enjoy the sheer beauty of this footage!

Film directed by Nicolas Job (Heos Marine) with images collected during the MARACAS3 survey (Marine Mammals of the Coral Sea: IRD/ UMR Entropie/Opération Cétacés/ Gouv.nc/ WWF/ Ministère de la Transition écologique et solidaire).

Exploring the Coral Sea in Search of Humpbacks

By: Solène Derville, Entropie Lab, Institute of Research for Development, Nouméa, New Caledonia (Ph.D. student under the co-supervision of Dr. Leigh Torres)

Once again the austral winter is ending, and with it ends the field season for the scientific team studying humpback whales in New Caledonia. Through my PhD, I have become as migratory as my study species so this is also the time for me to fly back to Oregon for an intense 3 months of data analysis at the GEMM Lab. But before packing, it is time for a sum-up!

In 2014, the government of New Caledonia has declared all waters of the Economic Exclusive Zone to be part of a giant marine protected area: the Natural Park of the Coral Sea. These waters are seasonally visited by a small and endangered population of humpback whales whose habitat use patterns are poorly known. Indeed, the park spans more than 1.3 million km2 and its most remote and pristine areas therefore remained pretty much unexplored in terms of cetacean presence… until recently.

In 2016, the project WHERE “Humpback Whale Habitat Exploration to improve spatial management in the natural park of the CoRal Sea” was launch by my PhD supervisor, Dr. Garrigue, and I, to conduct surveys in remote reefs, seamounts and shallow banks surrounding New Caledonia mainland. The aim of the project is to increase our understanding of habitat use and movements of humpback whales in breeding grounds over a large spatial scale and predict priority conservation areas for the park.

Fig. 1. A humpback whale with our research vessel, the oceanographic vessel Alis, in the background.

This season, three specific areas were targeted for survey during the MARACAS expeditions (Marine Mammals of the Coral Sea):

– Chesterfield and Bellona reefs that surround two huge 30- to 60m-deep plateaus and are located halfway between New Caledonia and Australia (Fig. 4). Considered as part of the most pristine reefs in the Coral Sea, these areas were actually identified as one of the main hotspots targeted by the 19th century commercial whaling of humpback whales in the South Pacific (Oremus and Garrigue 2014). Last year’s surveys revealed that humpback whales still visit the area, but the abundance of the population and its connection to the neighboring breeding grounds of New Caledonia and Australia is yet to establish.

Fig. 2. The tiny islands along the Chesterfield and Bellona reefs also happen to host nesting sites for several species of boobies and terns. Here, a red-footed booby (Sula sula).

– Walpole Island and Orne bank are part of the shallow areas East of the mainland of New Caledonia (Fig. 4), where several previously tagged whales were found to spend a significant amount of time. This area was explored by our survey team for the first time last year, revealing an unexpected density of humpback whales displaying signs of breeding (male songs, competitive groups) and nursing activity (females with their newborn calf).

Fig. 3. The beautiful cliffs of Walpole Island rising from the Pacific Ocean.

Antigonia seamount, an offshore breeding site located South of the mainland (Fig. 4) and known for its amazingly dense congregations of humpback whales.  The seamount rises from the abyssal seabed to a depth of 60 m, with no surfacing island or reef to shelter either the whales or the scientists from rough seas.

Fig. 4. Map of the New Caledonia Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) and the project WHERE study areas (MARACAS expeditions).

During our three cruises, we spent 37 days at-sea while a second team continued monitoring the South Lagoon breeding ground. Working with two teams at the same time, one covering the offshore breeding areas and the other monitoring the coastal long-term study site of the South Lagoon, allowed us to assess large scale movements of humpback whales within the breeding season using photo-ID matches. This piece of information is particularly important to managers, in order to efficiently protect whales both within their breeding spots, and the potential corridors between them.

So how would you study whales over such a large scale?

Well first, find a ship. A LARGE ship. It takes more than 48 hours to reach the Chesterfield reefs. The vessel needs to carry enough gas necessary to survey such an extensive region, plus the space for a dinghy big enough to conduct satellite tagging of whales. All of this could not have been possible without the Amborella, the New Caledonian governement’s vessel, and the Alis, a French oceanographic research vessel.

Second, a team needs to be multidisciplinary. Surveying remote waters is logistically challenging and financially costly, so we had to make it worth our time. This season, we combined 1) photo-identification and biopsy samplings to estimate population connectivity, 2) acoustic monitoring using moored hydrophone (one of which recorded in Antigonia for more than two months, Fig. 5), 3) transect lines to record encounter rates of humpback whales, 4) in situ oceanographic measurements, and finally 5) satellite tracking of whales using the recent SPLASH10 tags (Wildlife Computers) capable of recording dive depths in addition to geographic positions (Fig. 6).

Fig. 5. Claire, Romain and Christophe standing next to our moored hydrophone, ready for immersion.

Satellite tracks and photo-identification have already revealed some interesting results in terms of connectivity within the park and with neighboring wintering grounds.

Preliminary matching of the caudal fluke pictures captured this season and in 2016 with existing catalogues showed that the same individuals may be resighted in different regions of the Park. For instance, some of the individuals photographed in Chesterfield – Bellona, had been observed around New Caledonia mainland in previous years! This match strengthens our hypothesis of a connection between Chesterfield reef complex and New Caledonia.

Yet, because the study of whale behavior is never straightforward, one tagged whale also indicated a potential connection between Chesterfield-Bellona and Australia East coast (Fig. 6). This is the first time a humpback whale is tracked moving between New Caledonia and East Australia within a breeding season. Previous matches of fluke catalogues had shown a few exchanges between these two areas but these comparisons did not include Chesterfield. Is it possible that the Chesterfield-Bellona coral reef complex form a connecting platform between Australia and New Caledonia? The matching of our photos with those captured by our Australian colleagues who collected data at the Great Barrier Reef  in 2016 and 2017 should help answer this question…

Fig. 6. “Splash” was tagged in Chesterfield in August and after spending some time in Bellona it initiated a migration south. Seamounts seem to play an important role for humpback whales in the region, as “Splash” stopped on Kelso and Capel seamount during its trip. It reached the Australian coast a couple of days ago and we are looking forward to discover the rest of its route!

While humpback whales often appear like one of the most well documented cetacean species, it seems that there is yet a lot to discover about them!

Acknowledgements:

These expeditions would not have been possible without the financial and technical support of the French Institute of Research for Development, the New Caledonian government, the French  Ministère de la Transition Ecologique et Solidaire, and the World Wide Fund for Nature. And of course, many thanks to the Alis and Amborella crews, and to our great fieldwork teammates: Jennifer Allen, Claire Bonneville, Hugo Bourgogne, Guillaume Chero, Rémi Dodémont, Claire Garrigue, Nicolas Job, Romain Le Gendre, Marc Oremus, Véronique Pérard, Leena Riekkola, and Mike Williamson.

Fig. 7A. The teams of the three 2017 MARACAS expeditions (Marine Mammals of the Coral Sea).
Fig. 7B. The teams of the three 2017 MARACAS expeditions (Marine Mammals of the Coral Sea).
Fig. 7C. The teams of the three 2017 MARACAS expeditions (Marine Mammals of the Coral Sea).

Getting my Feet Wet: My first Dive into Marine Science

Guest Writer: Alyssa Gomez, GEMM Lab summer intern, University of Idaho, Doris Duke Conservation Scholar

 

Upon my arrival in Newport, OR, the sand greeted my toes, the sun my skin, and the ocean my heart. I’m an Idahoan and have yearned for the ocean my whole life, only getting glimpses of it here and there while on vacation. I have savored these memories, but for the summer of 2017, I no longer need to rely on the past. I’m only a hop, skip, and a jump away from tides and salty air until August 5th. Despite how distracting the scenery here may be, there is a lot of work to be done, as I am interning in the GEMM Lab, under the supervision of Dr. Leigh Torres, in collaboration with Craig Hayslip (Whale Telemetry Group) and Kaety Jacobson (Oregon Sea Grant).

 

In the short time I am here, my goal is to find out how probable it is for a gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) to be injured to the point of scarring, and what is causing this scarring. In order to do this, I’m analyzing thousands of photos of gray whales capture in Oregon waters, which span from 2012-2016. In these thousands of images, I am identifying both anthropogenic (i.e., from fishing gear or a vessel propeller) and natural (i.e., killer whale teeth rake marks) scarring, with most focus on the anthropogenic scars. This project is collaborative, not only in terms of the data we are looking at, but in terms of who will be looking at the data. Once I’ve compiled all of the scarred whale photos, we hope to have fishermen asses the photos as well, in order to identify causes of the scars. If they believe the scars are from entanglements in fishing gear, we will ask for their opinion on the type of fishing gear that caused the scar. Hopefully, with this type of collaboration, we will be able to better understand the complex relationship between fisheries and gray whales.

Kaety Jacobson explaining the many types of gear present on vessels docked in Newport, OR.

While whale entanglement events are rare, Dungeness crab fishing gear is often involved. Dungeness crab is a very important fishery for this region, both economically and culturally, with a large commercial fleet and many recreational fishers. Dungeness crab pots are stationary on the sea floor, often placed in near shore waters and left out for many days in between drop off and pickup, and sometimes even abandoned altogether. Because gray whales, specifically the Pacific Coast Feeding Group of gray whales, feed in the same habitat as many Oregon commercial and recreational crab gear, they sometimes get entangled in the lines. Recently, there has been a great deal of discussion on this entanglement issue and how to maintain fishery profits while reducing entanglements. A working group of scientists, crab fishers, and gear experts met in Portland in March of 2017 to discuss this issue. Dr. Leigh Torres was in attendance, and thus, my project was born. Our goal is to identify the body regions most often involved, describe gear types if possible, and quantify healing rates of scars. We are hoping that this information will fill in some knowledge gaps and help us come up with effective solutions to this entanglement issue.

Kaety showing me the ins and outs of crab pots on some abandoned gear.

This seems like a big undertaking for me, as I’ve never been exposed to marine science, let alone marine mammals and all of the analysis programs, protocols, etc., that I am now using daily. There is certainly a learning curve; however, I have exactly the support and the freedom needed in order to prosper and learn in the GEMM Lab. Leigh, Florence, Dawn, Leila, and some honorary guests of this lab have been exceptionally welcoming and inviting, not to mention all others here at Hatfield.  Each day is filled with countless new opportunities, such as dock walks, necropsies, field work, meetings, and seminars.  Although I haven’t been here long, I already know that this lab is a real GEMM. I’m excited for all that is yet to come.

Leigh and I collecting a gray whale fecal sample aboard Ruby.

Reporting back on the Whales in a Changing Ocean Conference

Solène Derville, Entropie Lab, Institute of Research for Development, Nouméa, New Caledonia (Ph.D. student under the co-supervision of Dr. Leigh Torres)

My flight back to New Caledonia gives me time to think and process all that I have experienced in the last few days. From April 4th to 6th, I had the great opportunity to attend the “Whales in a Changing Ocean” conference held in Nuku’alofa, in the Kingdom of Tonga. This conference organized by SPREP (Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme) as part of the “Protect Pacific Whales – Ocean Voyagers” campaign brought together members of the Pacific Island governments, whale-watching operators, NGOs, IGOS and scientists.

Opening ceremony

As a relatively novice PhD student studying humpback whale spatial ecology in New Caledonia this was my first experience attending a conservation and management focused conference. To be completely honest, when I was asked to attend the conference as part of the work I am conducting on the effect of environmental changes on humpbacks of the South Pacific breeding grounds, I gladly accepted the offer, as an opportunity for me to learn more about the political mechanisms underlying international conservation plans. However, I was a little sceptical as to what tangible outputs could come out of such event. How would the science be integrated into this rather political event? How many delegations would be able to make it? Would they manage to agree on strong objectives regarding the conservation of cetaceans in the region?

Leena Riekkola, a PhD student at University of Auckland, and I with traditional flower necklaces offered by the organizers

On the first day of the conference, we sat through several hours of formal opening ceremony and comments from the governmental delegations that had travelled to Tonga from all over the Pacific: Samoa, Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu, Niue, French Polynesia, New Zealand, Australia, the Cook Islands, Palau, Fiji and many others. These comments mainly consisted of a succession of (well deserved) acknowledgments to the Tongan government for hosting the event and the enumeration of the endless list of threats faced by cetaceans in the region. Despite the tedious nature of this inevitable display of etiquette, I was impressed by the sight of all these governmental and non-governmental delegations sitting around the same table to discuss the future of whales. I was surprised to hear a note of emotion in several of the speeches that day. I clearly had not realized how valuable whales are to the Pacific islanders. Valuable economically of course, as whale watching is one of the most important drivers of tourism to several of these islands, most of all to Tonga. But also importantly, whales and dolphins bear a strong cultural value to the people of the Pacific. Many of the attendees shared stories and legends about whales, and I quickly realized that these animals were indeed a “cultural heritage” that people were eager to protect and preserve.

The next two days of the conference were built around a series of plenaries and workshops surrounding 3 themes: sustainable whale-watching, scientific research and emerging threats. While I was initially a bit lost and did not quite understand where all of this was going, I progressively saw several recommendations and objectives emerging from the discussions. By the end of the conference, I realized how much had been accomplished in only three days and that these achievements were more than just words. Four main outcomes resulted from this conference:

  • The commitment to adopt and sign a Pacific Island Year of the Whale Declaration by 11 nations/territories of the region (out of 21), namely: Australia, the Cook Islands, Fiji, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga, Tokelau and Tuvalu. Not all of the governmental representatives were able to sign but it is likely that some will join later.

  • The agreement to a voluntary commitment to “Protect, conserve and restore whale populations in the Pacific islands, which will be presented at the UN Oceans conference in June 2017.
  • A technical and scientific input from international working groups to help establish the next SPREP Whale and Dolphin Action Plan for 2018-2023

  • Tonga’s announcement of a whale sanctuary in their waters.

    Governmental representatives group photo after signing the Pacific Island Year of the Whale Declaration

Whether these declarations of intentions and recommendations will actually lead to tangible actions in the short term, I could not tell. But I am glad I got the opportunity to witness the very first regional conference on whales in the Pacific Islands, and the celebration of these beautiful creatures and their place in Pacific cultures.

GEMM Lab 2016: A Year in the Life

By Dawn Barlow, MSc Student, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Oregon State University

The year is rapidly coming to a close, and what a busy year it has been in the Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab! In 2016, our members have traveled to six continents for work (all seven if we can carry Rachael’s South African conference over from the end of 2015…), led field seasons in polar, temperate, and tropical waters, presented at international conferences, processed and analyzed data, and published results. Now winter finds us holed up in our offices in Newport, and various projects are ramping up and winding down. With all of the recent turmoil 2016 has brought, it is a nice to reflect on the good work that was accomplished over the last 12 months. In writing this, I am reminded of how grateful I am to work with this talented group of people!

The year started with a flurry of field activity from our southern hemisphere projects! Erin spent her second season on the Antarctic peninsula, where she contributed to the Palmer Station Long Term Ecological Research Project.

Erin collecting a crabeater seal scat sample.
Erin in action collecting a crabeater seal scat sample along the West Antarctic Peninsula.

 

Aerial image of the research vessel and a pair of blue whales during the 2016 New Zealand survey.
Aerial image of the research vessel and a pair of blue whales during the 2016 New Zealand survey.

The New Zealand blue whale project launched a comprehensive field effort in January and February, and it was a fruitful season to say the least. The team deployed hydrophones, collected tissue biopsy and fecal samples, and observed whales feeding, racing and nursing. The data collected by the blue whale team is currently being analyzed to aid in conservation efforts of these endangered animals living in the constant presence of the oil and gas industry.

Midway atoll is home to one of the largest albatross colony in the world, and Rachael visited during the winter breeding season. In addition to deploying tracking devices to study flight heights and potential conflict with wind energy development, she became acutely aware of the hazards facing these birds, including egg predation by mice and the consumption of plastic debris.

Laysan albatross equipped with a GPS data logger.
Laysan albatross equipped with a GPS data logger.
Fledgling from last year with a stomach full of plastic.
Fledgling from last year with a stomach full of plastic.

Early summertime brought red-legged kittiwakes to the remote Pribilof Islands in Alaska to nest, and Rachael met them there to study their physiology and behavior.

Rachael with a noosepole on St. George Island, Alaska
Rachael with a noosepole on St. George Island, Alaska
Solene with Dr. Claire Garrigue during fieldwork at the Chesterfield Reefs, New Caledonia.
Solene with Dr. Claire Garrigue during fieldwork at the Chesterfield Reefs, New Caledonia.

As the weather warmed for us in the northern hemisphere, Solene spent the austral winter with the humpback whales on their breeding grounds in New Caledonia. Her team traveled to the Chesterfield Reefs, where they collected tissue biopsy samples and photo-IDs, and recorded the whale’s songs. But Solene studies far more than just these whales! She is thoroughly examining every piece of environmental, physical, and oceanographic data she can get her hands on in an effort to build a thorough model of humpback whale distribution and habitat use.

A humpback whale in New Caledonia's South Lagoon.
A humpback whale in New Caledonia’s South Lagoon.

Summertime came to Oregon, and the gray whales returned to these coastal waters. Leigh, Leila, and Todd launched into fieldwork on the gray whale stress physiology project. The poop-scooping, drone-flying team has gotten a fair bit of press recently, follow this link to listen to more!

The overhead drone captures a pair of gray whales surfacing between kelp beds off Cape Blanco, Oregon, with the research vessel nearby. Take under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111 given to John Calambokidis.
The overhead drone captures a pair of gray whales surfacing between kelp beds off Cape Blanco, Oregon, with the research vessel nearby. Take under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111 given to John Calambokidis.

And while Leigh, Leila, and Todd followed the grays from the water, Florence and her team watched them from shore in Port Orford, tracking their movement and behavior. In an effort to gain a better understanding of the foraging ecology of these whales, Florence and crew also sampled their mysid prey from a trusty research kayak.

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Florence and the summer 2016 gray whale field team.
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Kelli Iddings sampling mysid near Port Orford.

With the influx of gray whales came an influx of new and visiting GEMM Lab members, as Florence’s team of interns joined for the summer season. I was lucky enough to join this group as the lab’s newest graduate student!

All summer 2016 GEMM Lab members.
All of the summer 2016 GEMM Lab members.

Our members have presented their work to audiences far and wide. This summer Leigh, Amanda, and Florence attended the International Marine Conservation Congress, and Amanda was awarded runner-up for the best student presentation award! Erin traveled to Malaysia for the Scientific Convention on Antarctic Research, and Rachael and Leigh presented at the International Albatross and Petrel Conference in Barcelona. With assistance from Florence and Amanda, Leigh led an offshore expedition on OSU’s research vessel R/V Oceanus to teach high school students and teachers about the marine environment.

Amanda with her award!
Amanda with her award!
Science Party musters in the dry lab for safety debrief aboard R/V Oceanus.
Science Party musters in the dry lab for safety debrief aboard R/V Oceanus.

Courtney fledged from the GEMM Lab nest before 2016 began, but the work she did while here was published in Marine Mammal Science this year. Congrats Courtney! And speaking of publications, additional congratulations to Solene for her publication in Marine Ecology Progress Series, Rachael for her four publications this year in PLOS ONE, Marine Ecology Progress Series, Marine Ornithology, and the Journal of Experimental Biology, and Leigh for her five publications this year in Polar Biology, Diversity and Distributions, Marine Ecology Progress Series, and Marine Mammal Science!

Wintertime in Newport has us tucked away indoors with our computers, cranking through analyses and writing, and dreaming about boats, islands, seabirds, and whales… Solene visited from the South Pacific this fall, and graced us with her presence and her coding expertise. It is a wonderful thing to have labmates to share ideas, frustrations, and accomplishments with.

No heat in the lab can't stop us from solving a coding problem together on a wintery evening!
Solving a coding problem together on a wintery evening.

As the year comes to a close, we have two newly-minted Masters of Science! Congratulations to Amanda and Erin on successfully defending their theses, and stay tuned for their upcoming publications!

Amanda's post-defense celebration!
Amanda’s post-defense celebration!
Erin's post-defense celebration!
Erin’s post-defense celebration!

We are looking forward to what 2017 brings for this team of marine megafauna enthusiasts. Happy holidays from the GEMM Lab!

Happy GEMM Lab members.
Happy GEMM Lab members, enjoying one another’s company and playing Evolution.

Feed from the scientific network: the digital library of a millennial student

Solène Derville, Entropie Lab, Institute of Research for Development, Nouméa, New Caledonia (Ph.D. student under the co-supervision of Dr. Leigh Torres)

If you are a follower of our blog, you may have noticed that bioinformatics and statistics hold a very important role in the everyday life of the GEMM Lab. As good-old field observations remain essential to the study of animal behaviour and ecosystems, the ecology field has greatly benefited from advances in information technologies. In fact, data analysis is now a discipline in itself, as innovative solutions must continuously be developed to cope with the challenges of ever increasing dataset size and complexity.

communications-jpg-800x600_q96Artist’s impression of a complex network. ©iStock.com/Vertigo3d

So how does a poor biology student find her/his way in this digital and mathematical world? Most ecology departments will provide classes to learn the basics of statistical modelling and data analysis, but there is only so much you can learn through formal education. In practice, we ultimately always run into a problem, an exception that we have never heard of, and we have to figure it out on our own. As my initial training was in fundamental biology, self-teaching of other disciplines (statistics and bioinformatics) has taken a lot of my time as a Master’s student and now as a PhD student. This has made me feel lonely and a bit lost at times when I run into challenges that always seemed too big for me. But in the end, there is nothing more rewarding then solving problems by yourself after long hours of mind-scrambling.

Oh, sorry, did I say by myself? Nothing could be more wrong and more true at the same time! Because the place where I find all the answers to my questions, is in fact born from the contribution of thousands of scientists, which, despite not actually knowing each other, all work together to develop innovative solutions to modern world scientific challenges. The internet scientific network has been my best colleague over these past years and here I would like to share my enthusiasm for some of its best features that have helped me in my research.

If you look at my Firefox toolbar you will find two types of websites: let’s call them the “practical” and the “reflectional”.

The practical websites:

These are the websites I consult if I have a specific and practical question. Many forums exist where people exchange their experiences solving a great variety of problems. But sometimes conversations get lost in never-ending exchanges of opinions, some of which are not always scientifically well-founded. On the contrary, the StackExchange platform launched in 2009 has a strict policy on how questions should be asked (as precise and focused as possible) and should be answered (in an objective, opinion-free way). This makes it a very powerful tool to find quick and practical solutions to your everyday problems. This platform includes 136 different websites, each dedicated to a different topic. In my field, I mostly use: CrossValidated for statistical issues (e.g., Why does including latitude and longitude in a GAM account for spatial autocorrelation?) and StackOverflow for programming (e.g., plotting pie graphs on map in ggplot).

The latter will usually provide you with codes in the programming language of your choice (R, python, java, sql, etc.). Interestingly, even with more queries regarding Python to StackOverflow in 2015, R was the fastest-growing language between 2013 and 2015 on this same platform. If you haven’t decided on the language you want to “speak” yet, check out this fun infographic. But always remember that these tools keep evolving

4a9d355949d9cb77f8128dd517395405Academia can also be useful for questions regarding publications. For instance: How to reference multiple authors of a chapter from a book [APA]? Why might a journal editor reject a submission, but suggest submission to a sister journal? Or, how to best kill a manuscript as a peer reviewer?

And finally, if you’ve always wondered, “Why don’t we remove door handles and let doors open both ways (inwards, outwards)?, you’ll be pleased to know that other out-of-the-box-thinking people are sharing their opinion on the web…

Coming back to serious matters, it is important to recognize that you need the right key-word to access this gold-mine of website knowledge and sharing. The accuracy of your search answer will only be proportional to the quality of your question. In R for instance, if you keep googling “table” instead of “dataframe”, “list” instead of “vector”, or “size” instead of “dimensions”, you will likely get quickly drowned in the google-limbo. One way to be more efficient at your search strategy is to make sure you know your basics. Most of the programming languages used in ecology (e.g., R, Python, Matlab) share a similar vocabulary and structure, but before you start to run all sorts of crazy statistical analysis it is important to know what types of objects you are working with and how you want to format them. In R, I have found Hadley Wickham’s book, Advanced R, particularly useful to understand what happens back-stage.

Another good reference in the spatial ecology field is ZevRoss “Technical Tidbits From Spatial Analysis & Data Science. This website is a particularly up-to-date blog for data processing and visualization in R.

More generally, I regularly check R-bloggers or simply the Comprehensive R Archive Network. A note on the latter: I know it doesn’t look pretty and the reference manuals for R packages are rather intimidating but it is still the number one reference to check when encountering a problem with a given function. Some authors make a special effort to write more user-friendly tutorials to their packages. Check for those by looking at the CRAN page of a given package, in the “downloads” section, “vignettes” subsection (e.g., for the adehabitatLT package vignette).

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 The reflectional websites:

The web is also an amazing media to reflect on our scientific practices, learn about current ecological theories, and acquire general knowledge across disciplines. In the scientific network, many blogs and forums exist where scientists can converse and debate ideas without the pressure of publication requirements. As a student trying to find my way in the great world of statistical modelling, I find these discussions and blogposts most useful to put my methodological choices in perspective and progressively build myself an opinion (still rather vague I’ll admit). Some of my most recent findings are: Dynamic Ecology Multa novit vulpes and From the bottom of the heap, the musings of a geographer. I am sure each of you has your own “rock star of the web”, so please share your favorite sites with us in the comments below.

Science not longer needs to wait for publication to be shared between peers and with the general public. The web offers us a new space to communicate, not only on that small part of our work that led to positive results, but also our negative results, frustrations and failures, which can at times be as informative and useful to the scientific community than our successes. So, wherever you stand, tell us about your ideas, and tell us about the challenges you have encountered, where you failed and where you succeeded. Because, this is what ecology is all about. Sharing knowledge across borders and cultures to understand the planet we live on and together take better care of it.