Southern Sunshine Meets Oregon Wind: Interning with the GEMM Lab!

**GUEST POST**written by Cheyenne Coleman of Savannah State University

My first journey to the west coast, was spent on a six hour flight to Portland, Oregon in anticipation of my upcoming summer internship with the Geospatial Ecology and Marine Megafuana lab (GEMM Lab) at the Hatfield Marine Science Center (HMSC). I had never before been to the west coast, but luckily for me I did not have to make this long journey alone; my friend, Kamiliya Daniels, was also doing an internship at HMSC. After a long bus ride to Corvallis, Kamiliya and I, were warmly greeted by one of my GEMM lab members, Amanda Holdman. With her, was honorary GEMM lab member and Amanda’s dog, Boiler, who spent the greater part of the drive to Newport sleeping on my lap while I spent the drive asking Amanda several series of questions,

“Are there bears in these woods?”

“What do the dorms look like? How do I get around town? I hear it’s a small town, is there at least a Walmart?”

But without any answer to my curiosity, all of these questions were left with one reply:

“I’ll let you see for yourself.”

And then just as Amanda proposed, I did exactly that.

My name is Cheyenne and I am from Savannah State University in Georgia interning with LMRCSC (Living Marine Resources Cooperative Science Center) in Newport, Oregon. My expectations of the Oregon coast and the reality was vastly different than what I had pictured. I imagined the entire West Coast would match a California summer; Sunny and hot.

But on the contrary, upon arrival to Newport, I learned, it doesn’t. It is windy and chilly and hardly ever above 70 degrees. Thinking an Oregon summer would match a California summer, in my suitcase I possessed only three small sweaters and an abundant supply of shorts and tank tops. Needless, to say I was quickly off to buy an Oregon Coast sweatshirt that would double as warmth and a souvenir. Upon first entering Newport, I was mostly shocked at how small the town felt, and I noticed every structure was made of wood, and coming from Georgia this was strange to me. In Georgia, everything is made of bricks and cement. The dorms on first glance reminded me of summer camp for adults: slightly dated with bunk bed sleeping arrangements. Yikes!

However, my worries that come along with moving to a new place, were quickly diminished when I was welcomed to the GEMM lab; Florence greeted with a warm cup of tea, I was introduced to everyone who worked at HMSC, and even given my very own desk in the GEMM lab. After a day of transitions, and a much needed good night’s rest, I was introduced to my project on California Sea Lions (Zalophus californianus).

If you’ve been following along with all of the latest posts from GEMM lab students, you might think the lives of spatial ecologists revolve around glamorous fieldwork. We’ve got Amanda eavesdropping on porpoises, Florence surveying for foraging gray whales, and Leigh playing hide and seek with seabirds down in Yachats. I, however, am admittedly not spending my summer in the field this year and am learning that there is more to being a scientist than picturesque moments with charismatic study species in beautiful locations.

Prior to entering the GEMM lab, I had limited experience in computing and data analysis and spent my prior summer’s doing fieldwork on invertebrates, usually bagging sediment and collecting water samples. This internship was a new and unique opportunity for me to learn the next step of the scientific process. While I had always wondered, “What happens after data collection?” I was not given the experience to find out.  I quickly learned, that this includes a lot of sorting, categorizing, and modeling, all of which are very time consuming.

By using satellite tracking information of California sea lions collected by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) from 2005 and 2007, I am able to measure movements and habitat use of California sea lions. By analyzing their routes between their initial and final locations, we can study their distributions patterns.

To some people, sitting at a computer doing analysis may not seem as glamorous as working in the field. Some people might question why someone would chose to spend their career in front of a computer screen. But my internship this summer, really showed me the value of having experience working at all stages of the scientific process. Seeing all of my efforts in processing, sorting, and categorizing come together to create an end result really enhanced my love for science. By connecting the questions to the answers, and making contributions to the scientific community, I feel rewarded for my hard work.

My internship has come to an end, and given my initial hesitations, I’ve grown accustomed to Newport and the GEMM lab. I enjoy sitting at my desk running through a wild assortment of data and hearing the wonderful ding of the teapot. In the last days of my internship, I was able to escape my computer screen to assist Florence in data collection on beautiful gray whale surveys. Last Thursday, a lab meeting was held and my lab mates and I were able to update each other on our research. We shared ideas on how to enhance everyone’s project, and who might be able to answer questions we were struggling with in our own data sets. As my internship comes to a close, I have gained more knowledge and real life skill then I would ever hope to gain just through courses at Savannah State. I learned new software programs like R Statistical Package and sharpened my own skills in ArcGIS. I gained the experience of collaborating with a lab, and understanding how powerful working with your peers and colleagues can be. Gaining this much experience has, without a doubt, given me an edge in the competitive field I will enter after graduation. I have made connections, hopefully life long, with the nicest people; I know that in the future, which ever path I may choose, I’ll always be a part of the GEMM lab.

A Week-Full of Whales

Hello and greetings from the sort of sunny Oregon Coast! Sarah reporting in to offer an update on Florence’s Gray Whale study now that we’re about ten days into sampling. If you’re new to our blog you can read up on the preliminary field season right here.

This little gray was incredibly frustrating to follow due to its irregular surfacing and tiny spouts that were hard to see. We affectionately named it Ninja.
This little savior came through on the day all our technology failed and cheered us up with his rainbow spouts.  Thankfully, he’s a repeat visitor and though we may have missed him on the 14th, we were able to get a good focal follow on him today.

Before I get to the project though, let me introduce myself a bit further. As I said, my name’s Sarah – one of the three interns on our whale surveying team. I got my Bachelor of Science in Oceanography at the University of Washington a few years back and have since worked as a lab tech at UW’s Friday Harbor Labs and as an Americorps volunteer serving as a teacher’s aide. Eventually I plan to become a science teacher, but thought a little more field work this summer would be a nice break after two years of service.

Cricket and Justin pondering the challenges of whale watching.
Cricket and Justin pondering the challenges of whale watching.

Thus, I moved to Newport last week just in time to catch the first day of our main surveying season. And what a season it’s been. We’ve tracked 48 whales since I’ve arrived, averaging about six a day. Of course, those aren’t all 48 different whales. If we lose sight of a whale for longer than 20 minutes, we assume it has left our study area and pronounce it lost, and unless we can identify the next sighting as the same whale based on markings (which we’re getting pretty good at), we give it a new number to keep track. We also give whales we’ve already seen new numbers when we see them on a different day.

Table for two: these whales caused some confusion among the team as they began to forage together before we could tell the difference between the two.
Table for two: these whales caused some confusion among the team as they began to forage together before we could tell the difference between the two.

You might be wondering how we can tell gray whales apart when they’re mostly, well, gray and underwater. And the short answer is we have a pretty difficult time doing so at first sight. Gray whales aren’t like orcas, whose saddle patch just behind the dorsal fin serves as a fingerprint, nor are they humpbacks, whose patterned flukes are cataloged for easy matching. Gray whales have more of a dorsal hump than a fin, followed by five or six ridges we call knuckles. They aren’t famous for showing their flukes above water either, so unless you get several views of a particular whale’s sides, dorsal, and, if you’re lucky, fluke, it’s hard to have a positive ID for the whale. The good news is, that part of our sampling equipment is a camera with a massive zoom lens, so we can take photos of most of the whales we track with the theodolite (see the previous post to learn about theodolites). From those photos (at least 400 a day) we can look at scars from barnacles and killer whales, pigmentation spots that are part of the whales’ coloring, and parasites like barnacles and amphipods to recognize whales we’ve seen before. Eventually we’ll send all the photos we take to the Cascadia Research Group in Olympia, Washington, that keeps a database of all identified gray whales.

Sitting on a clifftop photographing whales might sound more like a vacation than science, so here's some (very peliminary) data of one whale. This is Mitosis on three different days. The first day is red, second is yellow, and the third is green.
Sitting on a clifftop photographing whales might sound more like a vacation than science, so here’s some (very peliminary) data of one whale. This is Mitosis on three different days. The first day is red, second is yellow, and the third is green.

Anyways, thanks for keeping with me to the bottom of the page. It’s been a fun first week-or-so and I’m excited to be heading to our second study site in Port Orford tomorrow after surveying. We’ll be there for 15 days, so next time you hear from us, we’ll be a bit further down the coast.

Yes, we named a whale after cell replication, because look at those overlapping spots!
Yes, we named a whale after cell replication, because look at those overlapping spots!

Best Fishes!

 

Sarah

Gray Whales of the Oregon Coast; Preliminary field season!

Hello all, Florence here with an update from the field!  Its high time that I tell you a little bit about the rather exciting project getting started here at the GEMM lab.  Concerning the foraging ecology of the Pacific Coast feeding aggregation of gray whales, and conveniently having a high potential to improve local conservation practices, my team and I are hoping to (1) document and describe fine-scale foraging behavior of gray whales, (2) assess the impact of vessel disturbance on foraging behavior, and (3) work with local communities, stakeholders, and whale watch operators to create sustainable, scientifically informed guidelines for vessel operations in the presence of gray whales.

As with many things, collaboration is the key to success, and for the past month, I have teamed up with Miche Fournet of the ORCAA lab to run a theodolite-for-marine-mammals training camp.  What is a theodolite you may ask?  A theodolite is a precision surveying instrument used to measure angles in the horizontal and vertical planes.  You may have seen one in use by a road crew or property surveyor. The instrument has also been adapted to marine mammal work because by knowing your own altitude and position, that of a secondary point, and using the telescopic sight to focus on a whale, one is able to calculate the exact location of that whale.   Do this every time the whale comes up to breathe, and pretty soon, you have a fine scale track-line of exactly where that whale has been, for how long, and what it was doing.  It was quite fun to learn the tricks of the trade with Miche and her Acoustic Spyglass crew, and we wish them a successful field season with the Humpbacks up in Glacier Bay, Alaska.

Justin spots a whale while Cricket waits her turn at an early practice session
Justin spots a whale while Cricket waits her turn at an early practice session
Justin and David practice with the Theodolite

Now we all know that a battle plan never survives the first engagement with the enemy, and a new scientific protocol is much the same.  Spring Quarter is finished, and two of my interns, Cricket and Justin arrived here at the GEMM lab on Monday. Together, we have been field testing our new equipment, getting used to working as a team day in and day out and most of all, finding all the little kinks in the survey plans and computer program we are using to log our data.  So far, we’ve seen 8 whales over the course of 4 days, improved our reflexes in scanning the horizon and “fixing” on our targets, managed to misplace a day’s worth of data in the confusion of computer programming, gotten faster at setting up all our equipment, talked with curious passer-bys and spent a lot of time staring at the blue horizon.  And you know what? It’s been brilliant.  This week was specifically set aside to figure out everything that could possible go wrong while there aren’t too many whales around yet.  Now, we’ll be ready to hit the ground running when the real fun starts in July!

Until next time, Fair Winds!

Testing the set up at the Depoe Bay Whale Watch Center with Cricket and Justin interns extraordinaire!
Testing the set up at the Depoe Bay Whale Watch Center with Cricket and Justin: interns extraordinaire!
Gray Whale in Depoe Bay
Gray Whale in Depoe Bay
Thar she blows!
Thar she blows!

Seabirds eat weird things

Chicken wings, toy dinosaurs, Easter eggs, driver’s licenses, ham, broccoli, and toy cars, to name a few things. I’ve even seen a gull try to eat a live, 2 ton elephant seal (and have got the pictures to prove it!).

Recently researchers from the GEMM lab, and the Seabird Oceanography lab (SOL) at Hatfield Marine Science Center, have been collaborating with Dr. Scott Shaffer’s Avian Physiology and Ecology laboratory at San Jose State University to investigate the causes and implications of these strange eating habits.

When they aren’t scavenging off of your plate of French fries, Western gulls (Larus occidentalis) are either foraging for fish and invertebrates out at sea, or visiting the local dump to pick up dinner for the little ones. Unfortunately, during the breeding season dinner at the dump comes with the risk of bringing harmful contaminants and pathogenic microbes back to the colony. In addition to littering colonies with refuse, gulls can serve as potential vectors of disease that may affect other nearby wildlife. Seabird ecologists at OSU and SJSU are using GPS tags in order to better understand how different colonies of Western gulls along the West coast are affected by access to landfills. Over the past month, a handful of gulls at colonies in California and Oregon have been outfitted with these light weight tracking devices. The data gained from these tags will allow researchers to study the foraging ecology and habitat use patterns of these individuals. When the tags are recovered, biological samples such as blood and feathers will be collected to determine how these habitat-use patterns (and potentially, trips to the local landfill) are affecting these birds in terms of microflora and contaminant loads.

Last week I (Erin Pickett) assisted the GEMM and SOL labs in capturing a few of these birds in order to outfit them with tags. The local field site is just south of Yachats on a guano-covered rock that a small colony of Western gulls call home. Like all great fieldwork and adventures, our day began at 4:00 am (and it was raining!). About an hour later we arrived at our field site, where we assessed the ocean conditions and determined that the treacherous crossing from the mainland to the colony was passable (it was low tide). There is some great GoPro footage of a crossing the week before that consisted mostly of a current rushing over rocks and the occasional flash of a wetsuit or a yellow dry bag while two hands reached out for something stable to hold onto. When I heard about this I became even more excited about the opportunity to join in on the fun.

We spent our morning focused on two tasks. The first was to recapture the two birds who we had put tags on the previous week. Since the tags have to be small and light-weight, they can only collect data for as long as their battery lasts. However, this is long enough to log a few foraging trips and get a good idea of where the gulls are concentrating their foraging effort. Our second goal was to put tags on eight more birds. We used a combination of capture techniques, including a very long pole with a small noose on the end of it, to recapture one of our birds from last week, along with seven new birds who we deployed new tags on. By the end of the second morning the weather was nice enough to enjoy changing into a wetsuit and jumping into the water for the crossing back to shore. Now we just need to get the rest of our tags back. Wish us luck!

P.S. It’s not often that you purposely put photos of gulls in photo galleries, so I’ve taken this opportunity to find my best shots. These are a couple more of the field sites where our collaborators are working- on Southeast Farallon Island, and Ano Nuevo Island, California

North to the land of liquid sunshine and red-legged kittiwakes – Linking individual foraging behaviour and physiology to survival and reproductive output

My name is Rachael Orben and I am a postdoctoral scholar affiliated with both the Seabird Oceanography Lab and the GEMM Lab here at Hatfield Marine Science Center. I am writing this from Anchorage, Alaska where Abram (a Master’s student at San Jose State University) and I are just finishing gear gathering and shopping before flying on to St George Island to spend the end of May and June observing, tracking, and sampling red-legged kittiwakes.

This video is taken looking down to the beach from the top of High Bluffs, St George Island.  Turn up the volume!

Just a little bit of background

Red-legged kittiwakes are endemic to the Bering Sea and most of their population nests on the cliffs on St George Island. St George is one of the Pribilof Islands located in the southeastern Bering Sea and is home to over a million nesting seabirds including auklets, cormorants, kittiwakes, murres, and puffins.  The Pribilofs are also known for the large rookeries of Northern Fur Seals (http://www.afsc.noaa.gov/nmml/education/pinnipeds/northfs.php).  St. George has a small Aleut community (http://www.apiai.org/tribes/st-george/) so we will be living in town and commuting by ATV and foot to the bird cliffs.

 

Click on the link below – Can you spot the red-legged kittiwake?

SeabirdsofPribilofs

Photo credits: Caitlin Kroeger

 

We would like to know how individual foraging behaviour and physiology influence reproductive success and then how these might carry over to wintering behaviour.

 

Tracking: We will be using GPS dataloggers (10g) and geolocation/wet-dry dataloggers (1g) to track movements and foraging behaviour of red-legged kittiwakes during incubation and overwinter.

GPS
GPS Logger from Rachel’s Kittiwake study

 

 

Physiology: When we catch birds we will take physiological samples to measure individual stress levels, mercury loads, and body condition that we can link to foraging behaviour.

 

Observations: We will observe the birds that we track so that we know when eggs are laid, chicks hatch and fledge so that foraging and physiology can be connected to these measures of breeding success.  And next year we will return and resight these birds to measure survival.

 

This study is funded by the North Pacific Research Board (http://www.nprb.org/) with additional support from OceanClassrooms (http://oceanclassrooms.com/) for pre-breeding tracking.  I also have been writing short blogs about project with the Seabird Youth Network aimed for middle schoolers that you can check out here:  (http://seabirdyouth.org/category/kittiwake-behavior/)

 

Internet access will be intermittent on St George, but I hope to periodically post updates via Twitter @RachaelOrben (#OCGrants), Instagram @raorben, and the Seabird Youth Network Blog.

CliffsofStGeorge
Cliffs of St. George

 

Sharing the Science! Outreach at the GEMM Lab

Hello Everyone,

My name is Florence, and I’m here to update you on all the amazing outreach activities that the GEMM lab has participated in this past month!

We started on April 11, with the HMSC-wide Marine Science Day celebrations.  This year was particularly exciting because the Hatfield Marine Science Center is turning 50 years old! Along with the rest of our colleagues at the Marine Mammal Institute, we presented posters detailing our projects, had a few hands on activities such as ‘spot the whale’ – a bit of a scavenger hunt designed to give people a taste of how difficult it can be to spot marine mammals, and answered questions about our work.  It was quite a success!

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Florence representing the GEMM lab and gray whale research in Port Orford
IMG_6939
The Redfish Rocks Community Team table!

On April 19, I went down to Port Orford, OR to participate in “Redfish Rocks on the Docks”  an outreach event showcasing all the exciting research being done in conjunction with the Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve near Port Orford.  I presented a poster about my thesis project: Assessment of vessel disturbance to foraging gray whales on the Oregon Coast to promote sustainable ecotourism, and answered questions while leading folks through our ‘stay warm like a whale’ blubber glove activity.  It was a beautiful sunny day, but so windy that at times we joked that our tables looked more like geology presentations than marine biology due to all the rocks holding everyone’s papers, photos, and flyers down! Many of the folks who I will be collaborating with over the course of this project also had their own informational booths; South Coast Tours, Redfish Rocks Community Team, and the Oregon Marine Reserves Program. The Surfrider Foundation and CoastWatch also had interesting activities and information to share about marine debris and conservation of our oceans.  My favorite moment of the day was when I was explaining to a little girl how gray whales need to eat a lot of mysid shrimp in order to maintain their blubber to stay warm in the frigid ocean – and she intuitively made the jump from the blubber glove to the wetsuit she uses to go swimming!  It was wonderful to see her thinking critically about the different strategies for heat retention in water.

 

Lab group photo
The Ladies of the GEMM Lab! Courtney, Amanda, Dr. Leigh, Florence, Solène
Solene Best presentation (1)
Solène received the Best Presentation Award!

Finally, yesterday, almost the entire lab gave presentations at the Northwest Student Society of Marine Mammals Annual Meeting.  The meeting was attended by ~80 interested students and researchers from a number of outstanding universities including; Western Washington University, University of Washington, Portland State, Stanford University and of course, Oregon State University.  The day began with an excellent introductory presentation by Dr. Ari Friedlander of our sister BTBEL Lab, and then it was on to student presentations.  Courtney and I presented in the ‘Human Dimensions’ forum on the possibilities of citizen science in marine mammal research and gray whale foraging ecology respectively.  At lunch, our valiant leader, Leigh, took part in a discussion panel and fielded questions from the audience concerning current advances in technology and possible applications to field work as well as giving professional development advice.  A few take away messages; Technology can provide wonderful insights, but one should not use a tool just to use a tool.  Rather, it is important to first ask your question, and then build your methodology and choose your tools in a manner most precisely able to answer the questions at hand.  In regards to professional development, do not discount the benefit of getting international experience – A broad perspective on possible solutions, and strong international collaborations will be necessary to solve many of the management issues facing our oceans today.  During the ‘Bioacoustics’ session, Amanda presented her work concerning harbor porpoise spatial distribution. Finally, Solène presented her work on Maui’s dolphins during the ‘Space and Time’ Session, and walked out having earned the ‘Best Presentation’ Award!!  Over the past few months that she has been visiting us, she has been a dedicated colleague and a wonderfully cheerful presence in the lab, and it was fantastic to see all her hard work being recognized in this public forum.  Overall, this NWSSMM conference was a great opportunity to see what other students in the Pacific Northwest region are working on, opened doors for future collaborations and gave us ideas for future projects.

 

Sunrise in Port Orford
Sunrise in Port Orford

International Collaborations: What do the Oregon Coast and Maui’s dolphins have in common?

My name is Solène Derville and I am a master’s student in the Department of Biology at the Ecole Normale Supérieure of Lyon, France. As part of my master’s, I am spending a few months in Newport, where I am working under Dr Leigh Torres’s supervision in the GEMM Lab. Hopefully, this will be the starting point for a longer term collaboration, for a PhD project about the spatial ecology of humpback whales in New-Caledonia (South Western Pacific Ocean) which I am currently preparing.

Solene at Crater lake

On an early morning of February 2015, I am waiting at the airport for my flight to PORTLAND/PDX. I’ve had only one day to pack but I feel confident that I’ve made the right choices as my 23kg luggage contains mainly jumpers, sweatshirts, thick socks, and a brand new umbrella. I’ve got everything I need to face my four months internship in rainy Newport, Oregon.

A few disillusionments await me when I finally land: 1) my “saucisson” (fancy sausage) can’t pass customs and ends up in a bin despite my attempts to negotiate with the customs official, and 2) as soon as I am out of the airport, it starts raining. At first sight this looks like the harmless kind of drizzle I’ve experienced in England, until I realize it’s raining sideways! So much for buying a new umbrella…

Luckily, these small inconveniences don’t affect my spirits for long as I get to discover the richnesses Oregon has to offer.

My mouth drops open the first time someone tells me that I can see elk around Newport and that gray whales are commonly observed next to the jetty at this time of year. It’s difficult to describe to someone who’s always been living in this environment how exciting it is to me. I am not used to all this wilderness and certainly not to living so close to it. It’s a thrill to think that I only need to ride my bike for a few miles to meet the amazing local fauna.

Oregon Coast by Solene
Oregon Coast by Solene

Of course, the beauty of Oregon’s landscapes and the richness of its wildlife is not the only thing that catches my attention. I am immediately touched by the kindness of people, the sense of sharing and the deeply rooted sense of community. I feel welcomed at HMSC, and by my colleagues in the GEMM lab and I am eager to start my internship.

So what is my work here exactly?

Well, believe it or not, I’ve crossed the Atlantic Ocean and came to the US to actually work on a species of dolphins endemic to New-Zealand! Dr Leigh Torres, and I are investigating the fine-scale distribution and habitat selection patterns of Maui’s dolphin (Cephalorhyncus hectori maui). This subspecies of the more common Hector’s dolphin (Cephalorhyncus hectori, also endemic to New-Zealand) is the smallest dolphin in the world and unfortunately among the most endangered (listed as “critically endangered” by the IUCN). The Maui’s dolphin population is thought to have decreased to under 100 individuals in the past decades.

Maui's dolphin credit: Will Rayment
Maui’s dolphin credit: Will Rayment

In practice, this means I am doing data analysis so I spend my days in front of my computer. This may sound a bit dull, but computer work is actually a great part of research in ecology (apart from awesome field work stage, but this is only the tip of the iceberg). Speaking for myself, I’ve always found it very exciting to put together all this hard-won data to answer important questions, especially when the conservation of species as emblematic as the Maui’s dolphin is at stake. To tell the truth, the nerdy code writing work is also a lot of fun!

My data set consists of boat-based observations of Maui dolphin groups made during the 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2015 summer surveys. Overall about a hundred groups were observed. Based on these observations we would like to know: WHERE are the Maui dolphins (distribution pattern)? And WHY (habitat preferences)?

New Zealand
New Zealand

My job is first to describe the spatial distribution patterns of these observations given the year, composition of groups, or group behaviour (whether animals were feeding, resting etc.). This can be done using kernel density estimates: a very good method for “smoothing” a distribution in 2 dimensions and highlighting its main characteristics (extent, core areas etc.). This allows us to answer (or try to answer) the “WHERE” question.

Kernel density maps
Kernel density maps

The second stage of my analysis is to describe the environmental conditions at each of the dolphin group locations and compare them with the environmental conditions in surveyed areas where Maui dolphins where not observed. This allows us to better understand the environmental cues that Maui dolphins might be following to find “suitable” places for their every-day activities and therefore try answer the “WHY” question. In statistical jargon, we are exploring the relationship between probability of presence of Maui dolphins and environmental predictors such as: sea surface temperature, turbidity of the water, distance to closest river mouths, distance to the coast and depth.

The resulting models will be used to predict seasonal variations in Maui’s dolphin distribution, notably in winter when direct surveying is difficult because of weather conditions. Based on the resulting dynamic distribution models, we finally aim to predict how Maui’s dolphins might interact with anthropogenic activities or react to changes in their environment.

So far, preliminary results are very promising and I am hoping to share these soon!

Surveying Harbor Porpoises on the Oregon Coast!

Hello Gemm lab readers!

Spring has officially made it to the Oregon coast.  The smells of blooming flowers are lingering in the air at the Hatfield Marine Science Center (HMSC), the seagulls are hovering around our afternoon BBQ’s, the local whale watching tour boats are zipping through the jetty’s to catch sight of all the whales still hovering in the area, and my team and I are right behind them as the field season is upon us in full force!

My name is Amanda Holdman and I am a master’s student in the Oregon State University’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and Marine Mammal Institute. Our lab, the geospatial ecology of marine megafuana, or GEMM lab for short, focuseharbor-porpoises_569_600x450s on the ecology, behavior and conservation of marine megafauna including cetaceans, pinnipeds, seabirds, and sharks. My research in particular is centered around the cetacean species that inhabit Oregon’s near coastal waters. While the cetacean order includes over 80 species, 30 of which can be found in Oregon, I am specifically targeting the small and charismatic harbor porpoise! I am hoping to answer questions about seasonal and diel patterns, and the drivers of these patterns to create a better understanding of the porpoise community off the coast of Newport.

To accomplish this, I have been using a couple different survey methods! Over the last year or so I have been conducting marine mammal visual surveys with a crew of observers, binoculars, cameras and lifejackets.  We’ve been very fortunate to work alongside and partner up with a number of labs and projects taking place at HMSC — including Sarah Henkel’s Benthic Ecology Lab, Jay Peterson’s Zooplankton Ecology Project, and Rob Suryan’s Seabird Oceanography Lab — who’ve invited us to share their boat time and join in on cruises to spot marine mammals. We had some motivating cruises with last year’s field season (bow riding pacific white sided dolphins and a possible fin whale sighting!) but now that the summer season is around the corner, It’s time to recruit additional observers and get everyone up to date on their safety certifications (at sea safety, first aid, etc.)

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Porpoise-1

While we currently have about 6-8 boat trips a month, I am not only just looking  for harbor porpoises, I’m also listening for them. To complement the visual surveys, I’ve added an acoustic component to my research, with the help of the Oregon State Research Collective for Applied Acoustics lab (ORCAA). This allows me to survey for harbor porpoises even under the worst sea conditions, when boat trips are unavailable. Odontocetes, such as the harbor porpoise use echolocation to navigate and forage and can be identified acoustically by their frequency range. While a full-depth analysis of last summer’s data hasn’t yet been accomplished, I was able to take a quick peek and MAN IT LOOKS GOOD! Both harbor porpoise and killer whale vocalizations were identified – you can check out the spectrogram below! This combination of using visual and acoustic surveys will help us answer when the porpoises are in our near waters, and where there primary hang-outs are!

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Visual representation of an echolocation clicks emitted by a feeding harbor porpoise

But springtime isn’t just for fieldwork, it’s also for course work! This quarter, my lab mate Erin Picket and I have enrolled into Julia Jones “Arcaholics anonymous” class, an introductory spatial statistics and GIS course that helps us piece together all the hard work we’ve put towards data collection to look for trends of animal distributions across space and time. This is the first time for both of us that we  get to upgrade our excel spreadsheets into a visual representation of our data! There will be more updates to come soon on how our projects are unfolding, but if you can’t wait til then, feel free to follow along with our class website!

Seabird Research on the Western Antarctic Peninsula

I’d venture to say that I’m not the first field biologist to stare into the distance past my computer for a long while before deciding that trying to describe the smell of a seabird colony in a blog was futile.

My name is Erin Pickett and I am a graduate student at OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute. I am affiliated with the Biotelemetry and Behavioral Ecology Laboratory, a sister-lab of GEMM, and am here to share my recent experience conducting field research in Antarctica.

I’ve recently returned from a field season at Palmer station on Anvers Island, along the Western Antarctic Peninsula. Throughout the month of January I was collecting data for my masters’ project, while partaking in an on-going study conducted by the Palmer Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) program. I was fortunate enough to join the seabird research team at Palmer, a group that has been monitoring the area’s breeding seabirds for over two decades. January is the team’s busiest Antarctic summer month as the seabirds are in the midst of their annual breeding season. Our primary focus was studying the foraging ecology and demography of Adelie penguins; however, we also monitored Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins, southern giant-petrels, brown and south polar skuas, and blue-eyed shags. Before I delve into a description of this research, I’ll tell you a bit more about what it’s like to work in Antarctica.

It became quickly apparent to me that working with a team of experienced field biologists who have spent a collective thirty or so seasons in Antarctica meant that I would be the only one distracted by the scenery. This situation was exacerbated by the fact that I had never witnessed snow falling before I had arrived in Antarctica. I tried to play it cool, but inevitably rolled down every snow-covered hill I came across, and I couldn’t help but stop and stare into the sky every time it snowed.

There might have been some misunderstanding when in an email to a friend I referred to the weather as balmy. By Antarctic standards this was true, the average daily temperature hovered around 35°F. By my Hawaii-born standards, it was only balmy once I donned three or four layers, slipped toe warmers in my boots, and sipped on hot coffee while I hiked up a hill. Still, I considered myself lucky to have escaped my first Oregon winter by travelling south.

At Palmer I quickly learned that birders don’t come in for lunch. I adjusted my rations accordingly, although I have to admit that my “emergency food” in my “emergency boat bag” got eaten despite the fact that no real (non-hunger related) emergencies occurred. Every day after packing lunch and suiting up, we would load a small zodiac with our gear and set off to work on the numerous islands surrounding the station where seabirds were nesting.

One of the main objectives of the Palmer LTER program is to research the effects of climate variability and change on the marine ecosystem surrounding Palmer station. As an apex predator, the Adelie penguin plays a focal role in this project by providing insight into ecosystem-wide changes in the marine environment and the surrounding coastal habitat. Over the last four decades, Adelie penguins on the Western Antarctic Peninsula have experienced a decline of over 85% of their population. During this same time period Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins, who were previously unknown in this area, established founder colonies and they have been increasing in number ever since.

These recent population trends have been alarming and have driven Palmer LTER research objectives aimed at understand the mechanisms behind these changes. The proximal cause behind these demographic shifts is a warming-induced loss of sea ice along the peninsula. Over the last 50 years, the average mid-winter temperature in this region has risen by 6°C (five times higher than rise of the average global temperature). By decreasing the extent, duration and concentration of winter sea-ice, this warming has altered marine primary productivity and transformed coastal habitat along the peninsula.

These transformations have caused the climate along the WAP to more closely resemble the warmer and moister sub-Antarctic, rather than the traditionally cold and arid Antarctic it once was. This has resulted in a southward expansion of the ranges of sub-polar, ice-avoiding species (e.g. the Gentoo penguin) and a contraction of the ranges of ice-obligate species (e.g. the Adelie penguin). The strong influence of sea ice on the ranges of these two species makes it difficult to determine whether sea ice driven marine variability has also influenced these trends. The life history of Antarctic krill, a primary prey item of both Adelie and Gentoo penguins, is intricately tied to the seasonality of sea ice. In regions north of Palmer, decreasing sea ice has resulted in declining krill stocks. In the future, trends at Palmer are predicted to mirror those seen in the northern WAP.

For my master’s research, I am working with the seabird biologists at Palmer station to gain a better understanding of how prey variability affects the foraging strategies of Gentoo and Adelie penguins in this area. Specifically, I will be investigating how the foraging behaviors of Adelie and Gentoo penguins change in relation to inter-annual krill recruitment variability. I will be utilizing a long time series of data collected at Palmer by outfitting Adelie and Gentoo penguins with satellite transmitters and time depth recorders. This data will allow me to describe the foraging behavior and effort expended by these penguins on the daily foraging trips they make to feed their chicks. Determining how each of these species responds to prey variability will help us better understand the current community structure of penguins at Palmer. This is important because it will leave us better informed to predict the effects of future ecosystem shifts on the reproductive success and geographic distributions of these two species.

I’m looking forward to sharing more of this research as time goes on. Until then, enjoy the photos!

Sharing the Coast Conference

GEMM lab recently attended the Sharing the Coast Conference 2015 at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon where graduate student Courtney Hann presented on a marine mammal citizen science project, called Whale mAPP.

The Sharing the Coast Conference was a wonderful opportunity for scientists, researchers, community members, and avid ocean enthusiasts alike to come together and discuss current research on the Oregon Coast, with a focus on citizen science research. Many of the presenters introduced Oregon Coast or online citizen science projects people could participate. Other hands-on activities included field trips to Moolack Beach, Devil’s Punchbowl, along with tutorials on how to monitor marine debris and sea star wasting.

Courtney Hann represented the GEMM lab with her Sunday presentation on Whale mAPP, an Android application that can be used by volunteers, whom we call citizen scientists, to record marine mammal sighting data. The audience was inquisitive and intrigued by this project, along with many of the other wonderful citizen science projects. The American Cetacean Society, Oregon Chapter, will be using the Whale mAPP website (www.whalemapp.org) this whale watching season to record shore-based marine mammal, focusing on grey whale, sightings.

Overall, the Sharing the Coast Conference was an ideal event that brought people from all around Oregon and from multiple organizations (Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition, Northwest Aquatic and Marine Educators, American Cetacean Society, CoastWatch, Hatfield Marine Science Center, GEMM lab, etc.) together to talk about relevant Oregon Coast topics. The focus on engaging volunteers with scientific research represents an exciting turn towards embracing citizen science research, and incorporating free-choice learning opportunities into citizen science projects.