Racing blues

By Dr. Leigh Torres, Assistant Professor, Oregon State University, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

A week ago we observed two racing blue whales.

Please read my blog about this amazing sighting that was recently posted on The National Geographic Explores webpage. You can also watch these videos:

 

Marine Megafauna Ecology Fund

 

Blues Clues

Although blue whales are big, the South Taranaki Bight is bigger. So finding them is not straight forward. In fact, with little prior research in this area, the main focus of our project is to gain a better understanding of blue whale distribution patterns in the region. So, while bouncing around on the sea, we are collecting habitat data that we relate to whale occurrence data to learn what makes preferred whale habitat.

We conduct CTD casts. CTD stands for Conductivity, Temperature and Depth. This is an instrument we lower down to the bottom of the ocean on a line and along the w ay it records temperature and salinity (conductivity) data at all depths. This data describes the water structure at that location, such as the depth of the thermocline. The ocean is often layered with warm, low-salt water on top, and cooler and salty water at the bottom. This thermocline can act as a boundary above which prey aggregate.

Todd and Andrew deploy the CTD off the R/V Ikatere.
Todd and Andrew deploy the CTD off the R/V Ikatere. (Photo by Callum Lilley)
CTD cast
Example data retrieved from a CTD cast showing how temperature (green line) decreases and salinity (red line) increases as it descends through the water column (depth on y-axis).

We also have a transducer on board that we use to record the presence of biological material in the ocean, like krill (blue whale prey). This transducer emits pings of sound through the water column and the echoes bounce back, either off the seafloor, krill or fish. This glorified echosounder records where blue whale prey is, and is not.

Example display image from our echosounder (EK60) showing patches of prey (likely krill) in the upper surface layer.
Example display image from our echosounder (EK60) showing patches of prey (likely krill) in the upper surface layer.

Additionally, the research vessel is always recording surface temperature (SST). I monitor this SST readout somewhat obsessively while at-sea as well as study the latest SST satellite images. Using these two bits of data as my “blues clues”, we search for blue whales.

After a bumpy ride across the Cook Strait we had a good spell of weather last week. We covered a lot of ground, deploying our 5 hydrophones across the Bight and keeping our eyes peeled for blows. Our first day out we found three whales. Fantastic sightings. But, as we continued to survey through warm, low productivity water we found no signs of blue whales. The third day out was a beauty – the type of day I wish for: low swell and low winds – perfect for whale finding. We covered 220 nautical miles this day (deploying 2 hydrophones) and we searched and searched. But no whales. I could see from the SST satellite image that the whole Bight was really warm: about 20 ⁰C. I could also see a strip of cold water down south, toward Farewell Spit. I said “Let’s go there”.

Sea surface temperature (SST) satellite image of the South Taranaki Bight region in New Zealand that shows mostly warm water with a plume of colder water down south.
Sea surface temperature (SST) satellite image of the South Taranaki Bight region in New Zealand that shows mostly warm water with a plume of colder water down south.

After twelve and a half hours of survey effort through clear, blue, warm water, we finally saw the water temperature drop (to about 18 ⁰C) and the water color turn green. We started to see gannets, petrels, shearwaters, and common dolphins feeding. Then I heard the magic words come from Todd’s mouth: “Blow!” So began our sunset sighting. From 7:30 to 10 pm we worked with four blue whales capturing photographs and biopsy samples, and echosounder prey data.

Diving blue whale in the South Taranaki Bight, NZ (photo by Leigh Torres)
Diving blue whale in the South Taranaki Bight, NZ (photo by Leigh Torres)

This is an example of a species-habitat relationship that marine ecologists like me seek to document. We observe and record patterns like this so that we can better understand and predict the distribution of blue whales. Such information is critical for environmental managers to have in order to effectively regulate where and when human activities that may impact blue whales can occur. Over the next two weeks we will continue to document blue whale habitat in the South Taranaki Bight region of New Zealand.

Blown out.

By Dr. Leigh Torres, Assistant Professor, Oregon State University, Marine Mammal Institute, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Hurry up and wait. Can’t control the weather. All set and nowhere to go.

However you want to say it, despite our best efforts to be ready to sail today, the weather has not agreed with our best-laid plans. It’s blowing 20-30 knots in the South Taranaki Bight, which makes it very difficult to spot a whale from our small (but sturdy) research vessel (NIWA’s R/V Ikatere), and practically impossible to take good photos of the whales or to deploy our hydrophones. So, we wait.

Over the last few days we have been busy tracking down gear, assembling the hydrophones, discussing project logistics, preparing equipment (Fig. 1), provisioning the vessel, getting the crew in place, and practicing vessel operations. We have flown to the other side of the world. We have prepared. We are ready. And we wait. Such is field work. I know this. I’ve been through this many times. But it is always hard to take when you feel the clock ticking on your timeline, the funds flowing from your budget, and your people waiting for action. Fortunately, I have built in contingency time so we will still accomplish our goals. We just have to wait a bit longer. As the Kiwis say, ‘Bugger!’

kristin and hydrophones small
Figure 1. Kristin Brooke Hodge of The Bioacoustics Research Program at Cornell University performs a global sound check on the hydrophones (loud bang of hammer to pipe) so that times can all be synced and any clock drift accounted for.

Below is a wind and rain forecast for New Zealand (provide by the MetService). The box in red is our study region of the South Taranaki Bight. We are currently in Wellington where the green star is, but we want to be in Pohara where the yellow star is – this will be our base during the field project, if we can just get there.

NZ wind

Wind strength and direction in these types of maps is depicted by the wind indicator lines: the wind is coming from the tail toward the flag end of the symbol, and the strength is symbolized by the number and size of the barbs on the flag end.

wind barbs

Notice how inside the red box there are lots of barbs on the indicator lines (most saying about 20 knots), but just to the west and north there are few barbs – about 5 to 10 knots. These are great survey conditions, but not where we want to be! A bit heartbreaking. But that’s how it goes, and I know we will get our weather window soon. Until then, we sit tight and watch the wind blow through the pohutukawas and cabbage trees in beautiful Wellington.

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!

“This is what I would do if I weren’t afraid” – New Zealand blue whale field season 2016

By Dr. Leigh Torres, Assistant Professor, Oregon State University, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Two years ago I documented a blue whale foraging ground in an area of New Zealand called the South Taranaki Bight (STB) – the country’s most industrially active marine area with intense oil and gas exploration and extraction since the 1970’s, elevated vessel traffic, and potential seabed mining (Figure 1). Over just five days of survey effort we observed 50 blue whales and documented foraging behavior. But we still know next to nothing about where and when blue whales are in the STB, how many whales use this area, how important this area is as a feeding area, or to what population the whales belong. Without answers to these questions effective management of human activities in the region to protect the whales and their habitat is unfeasible.

I am now heading back to New Zealand to collect the data needed to answer these questions that will enable successful management. That’s my goal.

Figure 1. Illustration of a space-use conflict between industry activity and blue whales in the South Taranaki Bight, which lies between the north and south islands of New Zealand. Blue whale sightings and strandings recorded between 1970 and 2012.
Figure 1. Illustration of a space-use conflict between industry activity and blue whales in the South Taranaki Bight, which lies between the north and south islands of New Zealand. Blue whale sightings and strandings recorded between 1970 and 2012.

Such research costs money. In collaboration with the Bioacoustic Research Program at Cornell University (birds.cornell.edu/brp), we are deploying five hydrophones to listen for blue whales across the region for 2 years. We will conduct vessel surveys for 1 month in each year to find whales and collect data on their habitat, behavior, and individual occurrence patterns. As far as field research projects go, this work is not very expensive, but we still need to pay for vessel time, equipment, and personnel time to collect and analyze the data. This is an ugly truth of scientific research – it costs money and there is not a lot out there.

For two years I’ve had my fund raising hat on (Not my favorite hat. I much prefer my research hat). I believe that industry groups active in the STB should take an active role in supporting the necessary research. They exploit the natural resources in the region and should therefore take responsibility for ensuring the ecosystem’s sustainability and health. Right? They did not agree.

I emphasized to these groups that by supporting the project they would demonstrate their environmental responsibility and ultimately be engaged in discussions of management options based on project findings. Despite hundreds of emails, phone calls and discussions, all the oil and gas companies, the seabed mining group, and the maritime traffic organization declined to fund the project, claiming lack of funds or lack of relevance to their interests. Meanwhile, other groups who prioritize conservation management are supporting the project. I am grateful to The Aotearoa Foundation, The National Geographic Society Waitt Foundation, The New Zealand Department of Conservation, Greenpeace New Zealand, OceanCare, Kiwis Against Seabed Mining, and an anonymous donor.

Lately I have been reading Sheryl Sandberg’s poignant book, Lean In, which I feel is a call to women to take responsibility for our equality and leadership. Those familiar with this book will recognize the opening of my blog title from her valid push for women to take more risks and push ourselves beyond our comfort zones. In many ways I feel I am doing this now. It would be much easier for me to withdraw from this project, say I tried, and let things carry on until someone else takes the challenge. Funding is short, last minute contract issues abound, equipment logistics are running late, I fear political pushback, and I have a sore throat. But it’s time for this project to happen. It’s time to recognize biodiversity’s innate right to healthy habitat. It’s time for industry groups to acknowledge their potential impacts on blue whales through elevated ocean noise, vessel strikes, and habitat degradation and displacement. It’s time for management to have the tools to act.

Figure 2. A blue whale surfaces in front of an oil rig in the South Taranaki Bight, New Zealand. Photo by Deanna Elvines.
Figure 2. A blue whale surfaces in front of an oil rig in the South Taranaki Bight, New Zealand. Photo by Deanna Elvines.

I remain hopeful that industry groups will engage in this research effort. Through diplomacy, transparency and robust science I want to bring together industry, NGOs, and management groups to develop effective conservation strategies to protect blue whales and their habitat in the STB. Collaboratively we can balance industry activity and biodiversity protection.

Since reading Lean In, I’ve been wondering if the conservation movement suffers because of women’s reluctance to challenge, take risks, and ‘sit at the table’ as Sandberg says. The conservation field is heavily dominated by women. For progress to happen we must be willing to force issues, be perceived as aggressive, and not be nice all the time. Just like men are expected to be.

Over the next four weeks colleagues and I will conduct research in the STB on blue whales. Stay tuned to this blog for updates.

Entering in the world of Photogrammetry

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

 

Hello everybody with the first post of the year from the GEMM Lab!!

The year of 2016 has just begun and with that comes new projects and great expectations about my PhD project.

During this week I am going to learn how to measure gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) using aerial images that were captured during last summer’s pilot field season along the Oregon Coast led by my advisor Dr. Leigh Torres.

Dr. Torres aimed to test the methodology for our project that will combine these whales’ measurements data with hormonal analysis to assess the overall health of gray whales.

The aerial videos and images were taken through an unmanned aerial system (UAS) that is composed of a flying unit and an on-board camera. An example of this system can be seen below, in Figure 1.

Lt%20recaptures%20drone

Figure 1: Dr. Leigh Torres re-captures the UAS (DJI Phantom 3) while at sea after an over flight of a gray whale.

Source: Leigh Torres, 2015.

 

The measurement of the whales through aerial images is known as “photogrammetry” and this method can give us important information about the whales through this unique overhead perspective, such as individual identification using natural markings, sex and reproductive condition based on size estimation, and individual-based changes in growth, health and body condition (nutritive condition) over time through replicate samples.

Perryman and Lynn (2002) used images captured from planes and adopted four different measurements for each photographed whale: the total length (Lt), the width of the whale at its widest point (Wm), the distance from the tip of the rostrum to the widest point (RWm), and the width of the flukes (Fw), as shown in the Figure 2. Using these methods, this study was able to identify pregnant females and found that southbound migrating gray whales were significantly wider than northbound whales.

Captura de Tela 2016-01-08 às 4.49.47 PM

Figure 2: Features measured on vertical photographs in gray whales

Source: Perryman and Lynn, 2002.

 

We plan to build upon this established method by measuring width at multiple points along the whale’s body, in addition to the total length.

Images taken of the same individuals during different temporal periods can reveal variations in their body condition.

We aim to collect images of the same individuals at the beginning and end of a foraging season and hypothesize that due to weight gain and increased blubber mass the width of animals will increase. Additionally, when images of indiviudals are compared between years we hypothesize that body condition changes due to major events such as pregnancy, entanglements, skin lesions, and predation events, will be linked to changes in body condition.

We will relate these photogrammetry data to hormonal data on stress and reproductive status in order to describe individual stress variation as it relates to size, health, location, year, reproductive status and ocean noise levels.

During the pilot field season, six gray whale fecal samples were collected and hormonal levels in these samples were analyzed showing positive results. Based on the success of the pilot field season, I believe my PhD project will produce exciting and informative data about gray whale ecology by linking physiology and morphometrics.

I am excited to begin my thesis research and, until my field season starts next summer, you can find me measuring gray whales!

To illustrate, below are a few aerial images taken of gray whales off Newport, Oregon, using a UAS, which we will use to conduct photogrammetry (all photos taken under NMFS permit 16111 issued to John Calambokidis).

Captura de Tela 2016-01-03 às 1.29.00 PM Captura de Tela 2016-01-03 às 1.28.43 PM Captura de Tela 2016-01-03 às 1.28.25 PM

And, just for fun, here is a UAS clip of a foraging gray whale in a kelp bed off the coast of Oregon to give a sense of the unique perspective we can get on animal behavior.

* Taken under NMFS permit 16111 issued to John Calambokidis.

This research is facilitated through the collaboration with OSU’s Aerial Imaging Systems Lab (http://ais.forestry.oregonstate.edu/), and Cascadia Research Collective (http://www.cascadiaresearch.org/).

Until next time and thanks for reading!

 

Bibliographic Reference:

Perryman WL, Lynn MS. 2002. Evaluation of nutritive condition and reproductive status of migrating gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) based on analysis of photogrammetric data. J. Cetacean Res. Manage. 4(2):155-164.

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.

 

 

Successfully a Master, or at Least a Bit More Enlightened

By Courtney Hann (M.S. Marine Resource Management)

A week ago, I successfully defended my Masters of Science thesis on “Citizen Science Research: A Focus on Historical Whaling Data and a Current Citizen Science Project, Whale mAPP”, which included a 60 minute presentation to my committee, colleagues, friends, and family. Although a bit nervous at the start, my two weeks of revisions and practice prepared me to enjoy the experience once it started, and be thankful for all of the guidance and knowledge I have gained while at Oregon State University and with the Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab.

PresentationM.S. pic

My thesis focused on the value of collaboration and creativity in developing new methods for gathering and analyzing marine mammal data; and was driven by the overall question of

How do we study marine mammals over vast spatial and temporal scales without breaking the bank, while still being scientifically rigorous?

This is important because marine mammal data collected over large spatial and temporal scales is relatively rare, and requires extensive collaboration and funding (Calambokidis et al. 2008; Dahlheim et al. 2009). A majority of marine mammal research is conducted over limited time frames (weeks to months) and on local spatial scales, requiring the data to be extrapolated out in order to understand regional patterns (Baker et al. 1985; Rosa et al. 2012). As a result, ecological modeling and other analyses are limited by geographic and temporal scale (Hamazaki 2002; Redfern et al. 2006).

I presented two potential approaches to the use of citizen science data to cost-effectively study marine mammal distributions across vast spatial and temporal scales. The first method is described below:

(1) Use the oldest form of large cetacean citizen science data, historical whaling records, to analyze species trends across extensive spatial and temporal scales. Amazingly, these 200-year-old records provide some of the most informative data for highlighting regional and global marine mammal distributions and abundance estimates (Gregr and Trites 2001; Torres et al. 2013). This information is vital for adapting management strategies as populations recover, change their distribution due to climate changes, or undergo various interactions with humans (net entanglements, ship strikes, competition for commercially important fish and invertebrate species, etc.).

Replicating such datasets today is not fiscally feasible with traditional research methods, but distribution data is still vital for understanding how populations have changed over time and how they are responding to large-scale climate and anthropogenic changes. Modern day citizen science research may be the solution to collecting such baseline data. Therefore, the following second method was evaluated:

(2) Data collected by 39 volunteers using the marine mammal citizen science app, Whale mAPP (www.whalemapp.org), over the summer of 2014 was examined to interpret various spatial, users, and species biases present in the dataset. In addition, the educational benefits, user motivations, and suggestions for revisions to the citizen science project were investigated with two user surveys. Results were used to revise Whale mAPP and highlight both the potential and limitations of citizen science data collected with Whale mAPP.

While I believe in the power of citizen science research for expanding our knowledge of large-scale marine mammal distributions, it is important to continue to interpret the biases in the dataset and truly examine how we can use the results for research. For, although collecting an abundance of data may be fun and exciting, careful examination of the methods and analyses techniques are vital if we hope to one day use the data to inform management and conservation decisions. I hope that my research contributes not only to this knowledge, but also to opening our eyes to the value of embracing a new method of data collection. Such a method relies on collaboration across various disciplines including biologists, managers, educators, app developers, volunteers, and statisticians. Maybe someday a current citizen science project, such as Whale mAPP, will provide a dataset as vast, abundant, and valuable as historical whaling records. Even the possibility of accomplishing such a goal is worth fighting for.

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Literature Cited

Baker, C. S., L.M. Herman, A. Perry, et al. 1985. Population characteristics and migration of summer and late-season humpback whales (Megaptera novaengliae) in Southeastern Alaska. Marine Mammal Science 1:304–323.

Calambokidis, J., E.A. Falcone, T.J. Quinn, et al. 2008. SPLASH: Structure of Populations, Levels of Abundance and Status of Hump- back Whales in the North Pacific. Final Report for Contract AB133F-03-RP- 00078 prepared by Cascadia Research for U.S. Department of Commerce.

Dahlheim, M. E., P.A. White and J.M. Waite. 2009. Cetaceans of Southeast Alaska: distribution and seasonal occurrence. J. Biogeogr 36:410–426

Gregr, E.J., A.W. Trites. 2001. Predictions of critical habitat for five whale species in the waters of coastal British Columbia. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 58:1265–1285

Hamazaki, T. 2002. Spatiotemporal prediction models of cetacean habitats in the mid-western North Atlantic Ocean (from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, USA to Nova Scotia, Canada). Marine Mammal Science 18:920–939.

Redfern, J.V., M.C. Ferguson, E.A. Becker, et al. 2006. Techniques for cetacean-habitat modeling. Marine Ecology Progress Series 310: 271–295.

Rosa, L. D., J.K. Ford and A.W. Trites. 2012. Distribution and relative abundance of humpback whales in relation to environmental variables in coastal British Columbia and adjacent waters. Cont. Shelf Res. 36:89–104.

Torres, L. G., T. D. Smith, P. Sutton, A. MacDiarmid, J. Bannister, and T. Miyashita. 2013. From exploitation to conservation: habitat models using whaling data predict distribution patterns and threat exposure of an endangered whale. Diversity and Distributions 19:1138-1152.

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!

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