An update from the Antarctic Peninsula

By: Erin Pickett

Yesterday someone said to me, “I don’t know if it was sunrise or sunset, but it was beautiful”. So it goes on the R/V Lawrence M. Gould (LMG), the surrounding scenery is incredible but the work schedule on this research ship makes it difficult to remember what time of day it is.

Here on the Antarctic Peninsula, the sun never really sets and our daily schedules are dependent on things like the diel vertical migration of krill, the current wind speed and the amount of sea ice in between us and our study species, the humpback whale. For these reasons, we sometimes find ourselves starting our workday at odd hours, like 11:45 pm (or 4:00 am). As a reminder, I am currently working on research vessel on a project called the Palmer long term ecological research (LTER) project.  You can read my first blog post about that here. We are about one week into our journey and so far, so good!

Our journey began in Punta Arenas, Chile, where we spent two days loading our research supplies onto the LMG and getting outfitted with cold weather gear. From Punta Arenas we headed south through the straights of Magellan and then across the Drake Passage. Along the way we spotted a variety of cetaceans including minke, fin, sei and humpback whales, and Commerson’s and Peale’s dolphins. I spent as much of our time in transit as I could looking for seabirds, the most numerous being white-chinned and cape petrels, southern giant petrels, and black-browed albatrosses. Spotting either a royal or a wandering albatross was always exciting. An eleven foot wingspan allows these albatross to glide effortlessly above the water and this makes for a beautiful sight!

We have spent the last four days transiting between various sampling stations around Palmer deep, which is an underwater canyon just south of our home base at Palmer station. When conditions allowed, we loaded up our tagging and biopsy gear into a small boat and went to look for humpback whales. We’ve been incredibly successful with the limited amount of time we’ve had on the water and this morning we finished deploying our sixth tag.

We brought a few different types of satellite tags with us to deploy on humpback whales. One type is an implantable satellite tag that transmits location data over a long period of time. These data allow us to gain a better understanding of the large-scale movement and distribution patterns of these animals. The other tag we deploy is a suction cup tag, so called because four small suction cups attach the tag to the whale. These suction cup tags are multi-sensor tags that measure location as well as fine scale underwater movement (e.g. pitch, roll, and heading). They are also equipped with forward and backward facing cameras and most importantly, radio transmitters! This allows us to recover the tags once they fall off the animal and float to the surface (after about 24 hours). The data we get from these tags will allow us to quantify fine-scale foraging behavior in terms of underwater maneuverability, prey type and the frequency, depth and time of day that feeding occurs.

When we deployed each of these tags we also obtained a biopsy sample and fluke photos. Fluke photos and biopsy samples allow us to distinguish between individual animals, and the biopsy samples will also be used to study the demographics of this population through genetic analysis.

Now that we’ve deployed all of our satellite tags and have recovered the suction cup tag just in the nick of time (!), we are starting our first major transect line toward the continental shelf. We will be continuing south along these grid lines for the next week.

My lab mate Logan Pallin and I will be continuing to write about our trip over the next couple of months on another blog we created especially for this project. You can find it here: blogs.oregonstate.edu/LTERcetaceans

I’ll leave you with a few of my favorite photos of the trip so far!

Behind the scenes of modeling

By Olivia Hamilton, PhD Candidate, Institute of Marine Science,

University of Auckland

I am going to take you behind the scenes of modeling. No, I do not mean the kind of modeling where six-foot tall glamazons such as Cindy Crawford get paid exorbitant amounts of money to dress up in fabulous outfits, strike a pose, and attend A-list parties. I am talking about statistical modeling. This usually involves wearing sweatpants, sitting at your computer for extended periods of time, and occasionally turning to a block of chocolate for comfort.

Species distribution models (SDM), also known as habitat models, are a powerful tool for informing conservation and management of animal populations. They essentially enable us to identify important areas of habitat by describing the relationship between the spatial distribution pattern of a species and the attributes of their physical environment. It is logistically difficult to observe top marine predators such as whales, dolphins, sharks, and seabirds. This difficulty is because a) they move, and b) we only get to observe them during the small portion of their lives that they spend near or at the surface of the water. Environmental variables such as water depth and slope do not necessarily influence the habitat use patterns of top predators directly, but we can use them in our models as proxies for more important ecological determinants of habitat use that are more difficult to collect data for, such as the distribution of their prey.

Some SDM take this a step further by enabling us to make predictions about a species’ distribution in areas or time periods that we did not survey. This predictive capacity can provide us with a more holistic understanding of their how animals use their range, and the ability to anticipate distribution patterns under variable conditions (think climate change 100 years from now).

The idea of understanding how sharks, dolphins, whales, and seabirds are using the Hauraki Gulf in New Zealand is an extremely exciting prospect for a nosy biologist like me. I have always had a fascination with mega-fauna, and more specifically with large predators. To me, uncovering the reasons that drive their habitat use patterns is the equivalent to finding a pearl in an oyster. However, that’s just me being selfish. The best thing about creating predictive habitat models for mega-fauna in the Gulf is that we will gain a better understanding of how to manage and protect them. The SDM that I am using are called Boosted Regression Trees (BRT). They are a relatively new kid on the habitat modeling block, but are recognized as a powerful tool for making habitat predictions with. Dream result.

My Master’s thesis had a focus on abundance estimates and social structure analyses; everything I have learned about habitat modelling while in the GEMM Lab at Oregon State University was from scratch. One of the largest lessons that I learned was how much behind the scenes preparation is needed before you can even get to the actual modeling point. The length of the preparation stage is proportional to the size of the dataset. Needless to say, the years’ worth of multi-species aerial survey data that I have collected has kept me quite busy.

The first step was to create pseudo-absences.

Pseudo-what you say?

When we are out on the water, or in the plane, and we see animals of interest, we record their geographic location. As a result, our presence sightings are represented as points in space. However, in order to identify areas of preferred habitat we need to also describe the range of environmental conditions that are available to the population. To do this, we also need to obtain environmental data from where animals were not seen, otherwise known as absence data. As I mentioned earlier, observing marine animals is difficult. This makes it difficult to obtain confirmed absence data. Luckily, some savvy scientists came up with the idea of creating pseudo-absences. The idea is to basically use the area in which sightings were not made to generate randomly placed absence points.

As simple as that?

Of course not.

When generating pseudo-absences, we want to make sure that they are placed in areas that reflect true absences. Poor environmental conditions affect our ability to detect animals, especially when travelling along at 160km/h at 500ft in a small plane. After making some exploratory plots of the various environmental conditions relative to sighting frequencies, we identified what conditions hindered our ability to see animals (Fig. 1 & 2). Stretches of the track that we flew in poor conditions were then removed before generating the pseudo-absences.

oliviaolivia1

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fig. 1. Example of exploratory plots looking at the relationship between detection rates and the amount of glare coverage within our viewing area. Fig. 2. shows that very few detections of common dolphins were made when the glare coverage exceeded 60% and 3 shows that detection rates for gannets were acceptable up to 80% glare coverage. Any stretches of a particular survey that exceeded these values were excluded before pseudo-absences were generated.

The next step was to decide where to place the pseudo-absences along the track-lines. To do this, we used all sightings data for each species to create density plots (Fig. 2), and then distributed our pseudo-absences in an inverse proportion to their density (Fig. 3). That way, we were distributing a higher number of absences in areas of known lower density, and therefore obtaining a representative sample of environmental variables in areas that reflected true absences.olivia2Fig. 2: Density plot of all common dolphin sightings over 22 aerial surveys in the Hauraki Gulf. Red represents the highest density and blue represents the lowest density.

olivia3

Fig. 3:  Aerial track-lines flown in the Hauraki Gulf, New Zealand on 19 March 2014. Triangle symbols represent pseudo-absences and black circles represent presence sightings for that day.

Next what?

Step two involved creating environmental layers that would be included as predictor variables in our models. Instead of chucking any old variable in there, we needed to decide what physical or biological features of the environment would be ecologically relevant for explaining the different species distributions. For example, one of the variables we are using is tidal height/flow. Tidal movement pushes around potential food for marine animals and therefore influences how they use their space.  Some others environmental variables included in our models were proximity to potential prey patches (zooplankton and fish), sea surface temperature, and the type of substrate (sand, mud, gravel).

Finally, we are ready for the main event. Ladies and gentlemen, I introduce to you preliminary results for one of my study species, the Nationally Endangered Bryde’s whale (Fig. 4). These plots show us the relative influence of each the environmental variables on the distribution of Bryde’s whales in the Hauraki Gulf. The percentage value associated with each of the plots tells us how much influence each variable had in the model. We can see that the time of the year (month), the distribution of food (zooplankton and fish), and the difference in water temperature over the year have the most influence on the distribution of Bryde’s whales. This makes complete ecological sense. Prey distribution is one of the main ecological drivers of the distribution of predators both in time and space. Temperature is one of the main drivers for the distribution of prey species. As the water temperature changes throughout the year within the Gulf, so does the availability of the Bryde’s whales prey items. In turn, this influences how much time they spend in the Gulf. When prey is around, the Bryde’s whales are never far away. Eating is a very important part of the day for these 90,000 lbs whales; therefore it pays to stay close to their food supply.

Olivia4Fig. 4: Relative influence of environmental predictors on the distribution of Bryde’s whales within the Hauraki Gulf, New Zealand.

The show is not over yet, folks. While the code is all running smoothly, there is still a bit of fine-tuning to do. I am currently working on this, re-running these models over and over, trying to iron out the creases. At the moment, I am creating SDMs for four of my study species: Bryde’s whales, common dolphins, bronze whaler sharks, and gannets. Once we are satisfied with how things are running, I will start stage two of the modeling process: the prediction maps.

Next year, we will conduct several more aerial surveys in the Hauraki Gulf with the aim of validating our habitat models.

How is that for a cliffhanger?

Stay tuned to gain an insight into the habitat use of mega-fauna in the Hauraki Gulf, New Zealand.

Exciting news for the GEMM Lab: SMM conference and a twitter feed!

By Amanda Holdman (M.S Student)

At the end of the week, the GEMM Lab will be pilling into our fuel efficient Subaru’s and start heading south to San Francisco! The 21st Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals, hosted by the Society of Marine Mammalogy, kicks off this weekend and the GEMM Lab is all prepped and ready!

Workshops start on Saturday prior to the conference, and I will be attending the Harbor Porpoise Workshop, where I get to collaborate with several other researchers worldwide who study my favorite cryptic species. After morning introductions, we will have a series of talks, a lunch break, and then head to the Golden Gate Bridge to see the recently returned San Francisco harbor porpoise. Sounds fun right?!? But that’s just day one. A whole week of scientific fun is to be had! So let’s begin with Society’s mission:

smm-2015-logo

‘To promote the global advancement of marine mammal science and contribute to its relevance and impact in education, conservation and management’ 

And the GEMM Lab is all set to do just that! The conference will bring together approximately 2200 top marine mammal scientists and managers to investigate the theme of Marine Mammal Conservation in a Changing World. All GEMM Lab members will be presenting at this year’s conference, accompanied by other researchers from the Marine Mammal Institute, to total 34 researchers representing Oregon State University!

Here is our Lab line-up:

Our leader, Leigh will be starting us off strong with a speed talk on Moving from documentation to protection of a blue whale foraging ground in an industrial area of New Zealand

Tuesday morning I will be presenting a poster on the Spatio-temporal patterns and ecological drivers of harbor porpoises off of the central Oregon coast

Solène follows directly after me on Tuesday to give an oral presentation on the Environmental correlates of nearshore habitat distribution by the critically endangered Maui dolphin.

Florence helps us reconvene Thursday morning with a poster presentation on her work, Assessment of vessel response to foraging gray whales along the Oregon coast to promote sustainable ecotourism. 

And finally, Courtney, the most recent Master of Science, and the first graduate of the GEMM Lab will give an oral presentation to round us out on Citizen Science: Benefits and limitations for marine mammal research and education

However, while I am full of excitement and anticipation for the conference, I do regret to report that you will not be seeing a blog post from us next week. That’s because the GEMM Lab recently created a twitter feed and we will be “live tweeting” our conference experience with all of you! You can follow along the conference by searching #Marman15 and follow our Lab at @GemmLabOSU

Twitter is a great way to communicate our research, exchange ideas and network, and can be a great resource for scientific inspiration.

If you are new to twitter, like the GEMM Lab, or are considering pursuing graduate school, take some time to explore the scientific world of tweeting and following. I did and as it turns out there are tons of resources that are aimed for grad students to help other grad students.

For example:

Tweets by the thesis wisperer team (@thesiswisperer) offer advice and useful tips on writing and other grad related stuff. If you are having problems with statistics, there are lots of specialist groups such as R-package related hashtags like #rstats, or you could follow @Rbloggers and @statsforbios to name a few.

As always, thanks for following along, make sure to find us on twitter so you can follow along with the GEMM Labs scientific endeavors.

 

 

Recap: 2nd World Seabird Conference

By Rachael Orben, post-doc

I have just returned home from attending the 2nd World Seabird Conference held in Cape Town, South Africa. My bags are still only half unpacked as I roll back into the work world of emails, planning field-work, report writing and data analysis. I am still very jet-lagged and the cool crisp Oregon air feels strange after so recently being in the dry heat of Africa. And here comes the rain! (Oh, and should I mention that bit of sickness that always seems to creep up behind you when you travel?)

The conference was a 4-day affair that filled my days from 8:30 am until sometime after 8:30 pm. Talks, poster sessions, and a really great Early Career Scientist evening – the organizers did an excellent job squeezing so much in. Of course a conference also involves visiting with colleagues and networking….and with roughly 600 conference participants from 53 countries, I had my work cut out trying to catch up with friends and colleagues! It was amazing to have so many seabird researchers and so much seabird science in one place.

So with all the science going on, what did I learn? Well, seabird scientists have certainly embraced the use of small electronic devices in the form of GPS loggers and GLS loggers (geolocation loggers that use light levels to calculate approximate locations – think sailors and celestial navigation). To give you a taste, follow this link to a short article on BirdLife’s Global Seabird Tracking Database.

BirdLife International: 5 million data points for the world's seabirds provided by 120 research institutes (www.seabirdtracking.org)
BirdLife International: 5 million data points for the world’s seabirds provided by 120 research institutes (www.seabirdtracking.org)

This is really just the beginning, and the exciting thing is seabird scientists are getting into the more nuanced questions of seabird spatial ecology. How do birds navigate at sea? Where do non-breeding birds forage? Where do fledglings go? Do birds return to the same places to forage (spatial fidelity), both when they constrained to their breeding colonies and while on migrations? How does this change through an individual’s lifetime? Why do some individuals in a population return to the same foraging locations while others don’t? As it turns out, though the ocean might appear featureless to us, seabirds know where they are at-sea and are able to return to the same places to forage – which they do depending on all sorts of things including what species they are, predictability of prey, individual personality, and likely a few more things.

Seabird conservation was also a large and pervasive theme. However, I can’t really do the entire conference justice here. So check out #WSC2 on twitter for the posts. You can go back in time and get a flavor for many of the talks as there are 1000s of tweets!

You might ask – what is the value of traveling half way around the world to talk about seabirds? And indeed there is much discussion about the carbon cost of scientific conferences. I am not saying the WSC is the perfect model, but it does have one thing in its favour as a newly established conference: It’s infrequent occurrence. The first World Seabird Conference was held in Victoria, Canada in 2010 and the next one will happen in 2020. I wonder how seabird science will change over the next five years?!

To stay globally connected in the meantime Seabirders are experimenting with on-line conferences. I participated in the first one, held on Twitter, and I really enjoyed it and learned a lot. You too can check it out at #WSTC1 and stay tuned for #WSTC2.

After the conference I took a break from seabirds and went to explore the terrestrial world of South Africa with my parents. It was a wonderful trip and I am so glad my parents came and joined me!

IMG_5818 copy IMG_6020 copy notaseabird Lions IMG_5136 copy

“[We] have only one month to survey an inhospitable Antarctic wilderness, the size of Oklahoma, moving at the speed of a bicycle”

– Oscar Schofield, Professor Bio-Optical Oceanography

By: Erin Pickett

There is nothing like a feature film about an upcoming field research project to get you pumped. I’m talking about Antarctic Edge: 70˚ South (now available on DVD, iTunes and Netflix!). In two months a few of us from the Biotelemetry and Behavioral Ecology Laboratory (BTBEL) will be headed down south to participate in the research project that is documented in this film.

The project is called the Palmer Station Antarctica LTER. LTER stands for long term ecological research. The Palmer site is located along the Western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP) and is part of a network of LTER sites around the world that have been established over the last three decades or so for the purpose of long term ecological monitoring. The WAP is a particularly unique place to monitor the effects of climate change because it is one of the most rapidly warming areas in the world. Temperature increases in this region are six times greater than the global average. As a result of increasing temperatures, the peninsula has experience a decline in the extent, concentration and duration of winter sea ice.

After my first viewing of Antarctic Edge with its graphic scenes of calving glaciers I thought, well, that’s a little dramatic. If you watch the preview you’ll get a taste of what I’m talking about. However, in an ecosystem dependent on sea ice, the loss of three months-worth of ice a year is dramatic! The scientists leading the Palmer LTER project have watched the marine ecosystem at Palmer Station transform radically over the course of their careers. Coastal areas along the peninsula more closely resemble the warmer and moister sub-Antarctic rather than a traditionally cold and arid Antarctic climate. The most visible effect of this southward climate shift has been an expansion of sub-Antarctic, or ice-intolerant species, into areas where ice-dependent species are disappearing. Antarctic Edge attempts to convey the urgency and importance of understanding ecological changes like these.

In January, a team of researchers from all over the country will board the R/V Lawrence M. Gould (LMG) and depart Punta Arenas, Chile. From Chile we’ll cross the Drake Passage and continue south to Anvers Island, where our research station is located. Personnel and research gear will be exchanged and then the LMG will transit south along a pre-established sampling grid. This grid covers the entire Western Antarctic Peninsula, an area the size of Oklahoma (69, 498 square miles). Over the course of a month we will collect samples and data on nearly every possible component of the marine ecosystem, including everything from microbes and zooplankton to cetaceans.

I will be working with folks from OSU’s BTBEL lab and collaborators at Duke University to study the region’s whale populations. We will be focusing our efforts on humpback whales and we will be using methods such as photo identification, tagging and biopsy sampling to understand more about this species in this area and to learn more about the ecological roles that these large baleen whales play in this fragile marine ecosystem.  We are especially interested in learning more about the foraging ecology of this species and how their behavior is influenced by their primary prey, Antarctic krill. Many of the region’s top predators share this prey resource, which is declining as a result of sea ice loss. A central objective of our research is to understand how climate induced changes in this polar marine environment are affecting these top predators.

Over the next few months I’ll be keeping you updated on our preparations and journey south. Until then, I encourage you to watch Antarctic Edge: 70˚ South and get pumped!

 

Fishing with dolphins

By Leila Lemos, Ph.D. Student, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, OSU

Hello everybody! I am Leila Lemos, a new member of the GEMM Lab. I am from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and moved to Corvallis just 2 months ago where I am now taking classes at OSU. Although I have not yet travelled around Oregon to see my surroundings I am loving the fall colors! We don’t have all of this yellow/orange/red in our Brazilian trees; it’s amazing! The green of the pines also enchanted me. What a beautiful place! However, I confess that I do miss being close to the ocean, so I am looking forward to being based in Newport next year. So, since I cannot see the ocean for now, let’s talk a bit about it and the dynamic cetaceans that live there.

My thesis will explore the impact of ocean noise on the physiology of gray whales, but I have not started my fieldwork yet. So for my first blog post I will discuss a unique interaction between bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) and fisherman that occurs in the cities of Laguna, in the state of Santa Catarina, and Tramandaí and Imbé, in the state of Rio Grande so Sul, in southern Brazil. Unlike most relationships between fishermen and marine mammals, this interaction is mutually beneficial and both species appear to seek each other out. There are only three other places in the world where a similar interaction occurs: Mauritania, in the west coast of Africa; Myanmar, in the south coast of Asia; and in the east coast of Australia.

In the southern Brazil, dolphins and artisanal mullet fishermen have adapted their hunting strategies to perform a cooperative foraging strategy. Cast net fisherman wait for the dolphins to arrive and then observe their behavior. Only when a specific aggressive behavior pattern is observed do the fishermen enter the water with their nets. The dolphins move closer to the fishermen and begin rolling movements that trap fish close to the margin. The fishermen wait to throw their cast nets into the water until the dolphins perform specific and vigorous behaviors described by Simões-Lopes et al. (1998):

  • the dolphin shows an arched back;
  • the dolphin exposes its head and hits the surface with the throat;
  • the dolphin moves rapidly, showing just the dorsal fin, producing a whirl;
  • the dolphin slaps its tail against the surface.

 

Fishermen waiting for a signal to throw the cast net in Laguna, Santa Catarina, Brazil. Source: Diário Catarinense, 2013.
Fishermen waiting for a signal to throw the cast net in Laguna, Santa Catarina, Brazil. Source: Notícias UFSC, 2009.
Another shots of fishermen waiting to throw the cast net in Laguna, Santa Catarina, Brazil. Source: Notícias UFSC, 2009.

 

This partnership is mutually beneficial. Dolphins use the disturbance caused by the net to separate the mullet school and trap individual prey. This method allows the dolphins to reduce escapees, capture more prey, and ultimately increase their net energy gain.

For fishermen, this cooperative association leads to greatly increased captures of mullet. The water in the southern coast of Brazil is too murky for the fishermen to see the schools and therefore know where to throw their net. By watching the behavior of the dolphins, the fisherman is able to throw his net at the exact time and location of the passing mullet shoal.

While this symbiotic relationship is remarkable, it is also hereditary in both humans and dolphins. The calves follow their mothers during the foraging events and learn the movements used in this cooperative behavior. Likewise, the fishermen learn their techniques from their relatives through observation. This cross-species interaction has created cultural ties of great socioeconomic value for both humans and dolphins. Furthermore, this unique relationship demonstrates how clever and adaptive both taxa are when it comes to capturing prey. Wouldn’t it be great if more teamwork like this were possible?

 

Here is a video that captures this amazing relationship:

Until next time and thanks for reading!

 

 

Bibliographic References:

Diário Catarinense, 2013. Interação entre golfinhos e pescadores em Laguna chama a atenção de produtores da BBC. Retrieved from http://diariocatarinense.clicrbs.com.br/sc/geral/noticia/2013/05/interacao-entre-golfinhos-e-pescadores-em-laguna-chama-a-atencao-de-produtores-da-bbc-4151948.html

Notícias UFSC, 2009. Especial pesquisa: UFSC estuda pesca cooperativa entre golfinhos e pescadores em Laguna. Retrieved from http://noticias.ufsc.br/2009/08/especial-pesquisa-ufsc-estuda-pesca-cooperativa-entre-golfinhos-e-pescadores-em-laguna/

Simões-Lopes, P.C., Fabián, M.E., Menegheti, J.O., 1998. Dolphin Interactions with the mullet artisanal fishing on southern Brazil: a qualitative and quantitative approach. Revta bras. Zool. 15(3), 709-726.

 

 

On learning to Code…

By Amanda Holdman, MSc student, Dept. Fisheries and Wildlife, OSU

I’ve never sworn so much in my life. I stared at a computer screen for hours trying to fix a bug in my script. The cause of the error escaped me, pushing me into a cycle of tension, self-loathing, and keyboard smashing.

The cause of the error? A typo in the filename.

When I finally fixed the error in my filename and my code ran perfectly – my mood quickly changed. I felt invincible; like I had just won the World Cup. I did a quick victory dance in my kitchen and high-fived my roommate, and then sat down and moved on the next task that needed to be conquered with code. Just like that, programming has quickly become a drug that makes me come back for more despite the initial pain I endure.

I had never opened a computer programming software until my first year of graduate school. Before then Matlab was just the subject of a muttered complaint by my college engineering roommate. As a biology major, I blew it off as something (thank goodness!) I would never need to use. Needless to say, that set me up for a rude awakening just one year later.

The time has finally come for me to, *gulp*, learn how to code. I honestly think I went through all 5 stages of grief before I realized I was at the point where I could no longer put it off.

By now you are familiar with the GEMM Lab updating you with photos of our charismatic study species in our beautiful study areas. However, summer is over. My field work is complete, and I’m enrolled in my last course of my master’s career. So what does this mean? Winter. And with winter comes data analysis. So, instead of spending my days out on a boat in calm seas, watching humpbacks breach, or tagging along with Florence to watch gray whales forage along the Oregon coast, I’ve reached the point of my graduate career that we don’t often tell you about: Figuring out what story our data is telling us. This stage requires lots of coffee and patience.

However, in just two short weeks of learning how to code, I feel like I’ve climbed mountains. I tackle task after task, each allowing me to learn new things, revise old knowledge, and make it just a little bit closer to my goals. One of the most striking things about learning how to code is that it teaches you how to problem solve. It forces you to think in a strategic and conceptual way, and to be honest, I think I like it.

For example, this week I mapped the percent of my harbor porpoise detections over tidal cycles. One of the most important factors explaining the distribution and behavior of coastal marine mammals are tides. Tidal forces drive a number of preliminary and secondary oceanographic processes like changes in water depth, salinity, temperature, and the speed and direction of currents. It’s often difficult to unravel which part of the tidal process is most influential to a species due to the several covariates related to the change in tides , how inter-related those covariates are, and the elusive nature of the species (like the cryptic harbor porpoise). However, while the analysis is preliminary, if we map the acoustic detections of harbor porpoise over the tidal cycle, we can already start to see some interesting trends between the number of porpoise detections and the phases of the tide. Check it out!

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Now, I won’t promise that I’ll be an excellent coder by the end of the winter, but I think I might have a good chance at being able to mark the “proficient” box next to Matlab and R on my first job application. Yet, whatever your reason for learning code – whether you are an undergraduate hoping to get ahead for graduate school, a graduate student hoping to escape the inevitable (like me), or just someone who thinks getting a code to work properly is a fun game – my advice to you is this:

Google first. If that fails, take mental breaks. Revisit the problem later. Think through all possible sources of error. Ask around for help. Then, when you finally fix the bug or get the code to work the way you would like it to, throw a mini-party. After it’s all over, take a deep breath and go again. Remember, you are not alone!

Happy coding this winter GEMM Lab readers – and I wish you lots of celebratory dancing!

From Oregon to New Caledonia: Crossing latitudes

**GUEST POST** written by Solène Derville from the Institute of Research for Development, Nouméa, New Caledonia. Entropie Lab

Last term I posted about the analysis of Maui dolphin habitat selection I have undergone under Dr Leigh Torres’ supervision at OSU. The results of this work are now compiled in a manuscript which I hope to submit for publication very soon.

Since I last posted on this blog, many things have changed for me: I went back to France at the end of May (with a heavy heart from leaving Newport and my dear lab mates) and I have graduated from the Ecole Normale Supérieure of Lyon and successfully completed my Biology Master’s degree. In September, I will start a PhD on the spatial ecology of Humpback Whales in New Caledonia. I will work at the French ‘Institut de Recherche pour le Développement’ in Nouméa, New Caledonia, under the co-supervision of Dr Claude Payri, Dr Claire Garrigue, Dr Corina Iovan (IRD) and Dr Leigh Torres (GEMM Lab, OSU).

Before telling you a bit more about my project and this summer field season, I would like to introduce the beautiful place where I will be spending the next 3 years. New Caledonia is an archipelago located in the southwest Pacific Ocean, east of Australia. This special overseas French collectivity includes a main island (Grande Terre) and several other islands such as the Loyalty Islands. New Caledonia’s lagoon is the largest in the world and was added to the list of the UNESCO world heritage sites in 2008, because of its exceptional biodiversity including many emblematic species such as humpback whales, dugongs, marine turtles, manta rays…and many others.

).new+caledonia+mapNew Caledonia location in South Pacific Ocean (map: http://springtimeofnations.blogspot.jp

map_of_new-caledonialonelyplanet

Map of the New Caledonian Archipelago (map: http://crosbiew.wordpress.com).

Moreover, the ‘Natural Park of the Coral Sea’ was established very recently by the New Caledonian to protect this biodiversity hotspot. This monumental marine park spans 1.3 million square kilometres and is, to date, the largest protected area on the planet. As the detailed management plan for this park will be progressively established in the coming years, there is a local need for more information about marine mega-fauna space use in order to define key areas for wildlife conservation. Thus, the description of the humpback whales ecological niche in New Caledonian waters is the next logical step to initiate conservation planning. The effect of human activities needs to be investigated as the New Caledonian humpback whales population forms an isolated breeding sub-stock and is exposed to mining industry intensification, shipping, harbour construction and boat recreation associated to tourism development.

The general aim of my project is to investigate how humpback whales are using their habitat within and between reproductive areas of Oceania in order to facilitate their conservation at the scale of giant marine reserves (new generation of marine protected areas over vast surfaces exceeding hundreds of thousands of square kilometres). I will therefore focus on the spatial ecology of humpback whales in the New Caledonian Exclusive Economic Zone, with several specific aims:

1/ to quantify the spatio-temporal patterns and dynamics of humpback whale distribution in New Caledonian waters in order to identify key areas for the species and determine if these areas change over time or depending on social context.

2/ to assess the connectivity and movement patterns between areas of interest at individual scale.

3/ to document humpback whale use of habitat in relation to environmental factors and include these results in the broader-context of the South Pacific Ocean breeding areas.

4/ to provide a spatial and temporal assessment of the anthropogenic activities risks to humpback whales in New Caledonia.

I will rely on a large amount of data collected between 1991 and present, and provided by Opération Cétacés (an NGO involved in scientific research on humpback whales and other marine mammals in Oceania since 1996), including boat-based, land-based and aerial observations, satellite tracking and individual-based information (via Photo-Identification and genotyping).

This year, I am taking part in the summer field mission undergone by Opération Cétacés in the South Lagoon. I am currently living in Prony, a little village located along the southern coast of Grande Terre. No electricity, no internet, whale watching from 7am to 4pm on a daily basis: the real life!

In my next post I will tell you a bit more about this field trip with Opération Cétacés but for now, I will let you enjoy these few pictures!

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Prony Bay (© S. Derville)

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Rémi, Claire and Daisy standing next to the “Cap N’Dua” lighthouse from which land observations are made. Whales can be spotted up to 20 nautical miles offshore (© S. Derville) 

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View to the East of Cap N’Dua (© S. Derville)

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Breach observed a few days ago in the South Lagoon (© C. Garrigue)

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Inverted peduncle slap (the whale is lying upside down in the water and energetically slapping the surface with its fluke) (© S. Derville).

An insight into what Marine Mammal Observing is really like!

By Amanda Holdman

It’s August of 2015. That means I have exactly 2.5 months left until my field season and data collection for my masters comes to a close. At the end of October, I will have collected exactly 2 years of visual data on marine mammal distributions off of the coast of Newport, Oregon.

This is a bittersweet moment for me. Currently, I am on a 7 hour flight to Scotland to do some initial data analysis on my collected observations, with the help of a workshop offered by the University of St. Andrews. My first time abroad has me pretty restless with excitement on the plane, but with a 9 hour time change, some good rest will be key to being successful at the workshop. As I try to close my eyes, and picture what the next two weeks of what I like to call “Intensive Distance Sampling Summer School” will be like, the stranger next to me inevitably begins to make small talk, beginning with

“So what do you do?”

I usually tend to answer this question in two different ways. When I’m in my science community, I have no hesitation giving my 3 minute elevator speech on what I have been researching for the past year. However, when I’m making small talk with anyone I tend to just say

“I’m a master’s student studying marine mammals”

And that’s about all you need to say to get everyone’s attention around you! With a little more detail, I explain that I run transects to collect visual observation data of marine mammals to assist with understanding their patterns in distribution and habitat use. This explanation is always followed up with:

“Man, you’ve got the coolest job ever! What’s it like doing this all the time?”

Again most of the time I get this question, I’m usually conversing with people visiting the west coast hoping to see a large gray whale on vacation; or  young children who haven’t yet figured out that marine biology isn’t just about dolphins and pretty coral reefs – but it’s still good to inspire them! Just last week even, I ran into someone on the beach that told me his daughter thinks I’m a rock star for teaching her that you can research the sounds that whales, dolphins, and seals make. (His daughter attended Marine Science Day back in April, and I showed her some recordings of sounds – but I’ll carry this compliment with me for a long time)

But when people ask me how awesome my job is, I tend to keep the morale up and I usually answer

“yep, it’s pretty awesome. I love it! ”

But to be honest, sometimes… it isn’t.

For me, there are four components that equate to a great day of fieldwork: ocean conditions, marine mammals, the boat itself, and equipment (hydrophones, GPS, CTD, camera, etc.)

So in reality…

“The flow of research season goes a lot like this: whales are present, but ocean is impossible; or ocean is calm but the whales are gone; or both whales and ocean are good but the boat breaks down; or everything is working but the rain last night brought in some fog and ruined the visibility” (From Hawaii’s Humpbacks: Unveiling the Mysteries)

AND EVEN on the rare chance that everything goes right – observing marine mammals is hard and uncomfortable – 14 hours of standing with back pain, squinting into the sun until you see one part of the water that looks a little different than the others. I mean really there isn’t much on earth that’s more enormous than the ocean.

This sounds like a lot of negativity, but I am in Scotland currently to resolve some of these minor setbacks we encountered during field collection. Using a statistics program called DISTANCE, we can take into account environmental conditions, sea state, observer bias, etc. When we combine all of these factors together we create a detection function or a ratio of the animals we saw, compared to those we missed. Eventually we end up with an abundance estimate of how many animals are in our study area.

Analyzing the results of my observations this week has provided me with the realization that my time on a boat is coming to an end. In my two years of fieldwork collection, marine mammal observing has molded me into the type of person that has what it takes to do this kind of research: dedicated, tolerant to pain, boredom, and frustration, and most importantly passionate about what I am doing.

Passion is definitely a prerequisite for the life of a GEMM student. Graduate school gives you the chance to be reflective and the time to carefully wade through information. I’ve always had a strong desire to learn, and when I get to combine that with my personal interests, it turns out graduate school can be quite the rewarding initiative.

It’s easy to be discouraged sometimes, especially in an intense and competitive environment like scientific research. I can assure you though, even on our unlucky days, when we’ve swallowed all of the truths about the difficulties of what we do and we’re frustrated enough to give up, our luck turns – usually right when we need it to.

I think the BBC Zoologist, Mark Carwardine, knows just how I feel in saying, “There are few things more rewarding than seeing the worlds’s largest animal in its natural habitat!

Thanks for reading!

Following Tracks: A Summer of Research in Quantitative Ecology

**GUEST POST** written by Irina Tolkova from the University of Washington.

R, a programming language and software for statistical analysis, gives me an error message.

I mull it over. Revise my code. Run it again.

Hey, look! Two error messages.

I’m Irina, and I’m working on summer research in quantitative ecology with Dr. Leigh Torres in the GEMM Lab. Ironically, as much as I’m interested in the environment and the life inhabiting it, my background is actually in applied math, and a bit in computer science.

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(Also, my background is the sand dunes of Florence, OR, which are downright amazing.)

When I mention this in the context of marine research, I usually get a surprised look. But from firsthand experience, the mindsets and skills developed in those areas can actually be very useful for ecology. This is partly because both math and computer science develop a problem-solving approach that can apply to many interdisciplinary contexts, and partly because ecology itself is becoming increasingly influenced by technology.

Personally, I’m fascinated by the advancement in environmentally-oriented sensors and trackers, and admire the inventors’ cleverness in the way they extract useful information. I’ve heard about projects with unmanned ocean gliders that fly through the water, taking conductivity, temperature, depth measurements (Seaglider project by APL at the University of Washington), which can be used for oceanographic mapping. Arrays of hydrophones along the coast detect and recognize marine mammals through bioacoustics (OSU Animal Bioacoustics Lab), allowing for analysis of their population distributions and potentially movement. In the GEMM lab, I learned about light and small GPS loggers, which can be put on wildlife to learn about their movement, and even smaller lighter ones that determine the animal’s general position using the time of sunset and sunrise. Finally, scientists even made artificial nest mounds which hid a scale for recording the weight of breeding birds — looking at the data, I could see a distinctive sawtooth pattern, since the birds lost weight as they incubated the egg, and gained weight after coming home from a foraging trip…

On the whole, I’m really hopeful for the ecological opportunities opened up by technology. But the information coming in from sensors can be both a blessing and a curse, because — unlike manually collected data — the sample sizes tend to be massive. For statistical analysis, this is great! For actually working with the data… more difficult. For my project, this trade-off shows as R and Excel crash over the hundreds of thousands of points in my dataset… what dataset, you might ask? Albatross GPS tracking data.

In 2011, 2012, and 2013, a group of scientists (including Dr. Leigh!) tagged grey-headed albatrosses at Campbell Island, New Zealand, with small GPS loggers. This was done in the summer months, when the birds were breeding, so the GPS tracks represent the birds’ flights as they incubated and raised their chicks. A cool fact about albatrosses: they only raise one chick at a time! As a result, the survival of the population is very dependent on chick survival, which means that the health of the albatrosses during the breeding season, and in part their ability to find food, is critical for the population’s sustainability. So, my research question is: what environmental variables determine where these albatrosses choose to forage?

The project naturally breaks up into two main parts.

  • How can we quantify this “foraging effort” over a trajectory?
  • What is the statistical relationship between this “foraging effort metric” and environmental variables?

Luckily, R is pretty good for both data manipulation and statistical analysis, and that’s what I’m working on now. I’ve just about finished part (1), and will be moving on to part (2) in the coming week. For a start, here are some color-coded plots showing two different ways of measuring the “foraging value” over one GPS track:

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Most of my time goes into writing code, and, of course, debugging. This might sound a bit dull, but the anticipation of new results, graphs, and questions is definitely worth it. Occasionally, that anticipation is met with a result or plot that I wasn’t quite expecting. For example, I was recently attempting to draw the predicted spatial distribution of an albatross population. I fixed some bugs. The code ran. A plot window opened up. And showed this:

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I stared at my laptop for a moment, closed it, and got some hot tea from the lab’s electronic kettle, all the while wondering how R came up with this abstract art.

All in all, while I spend most of my time programming, my motivation comes from the wildlife I hope to work for. And as any other ecologist, I love being out there on the Oregon coast, with the sun, the rain, sand, waves, valleys and mountains, cliff swallows and grey whales, and the rest of our fantastic wild outdoors.

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