Humans Hide and Wildlife Thrive: Human-mediated ecosystem changes during a pandemic

By: Alexa Kownacki, Ph.D. Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

We live in an interesting time. Many of us academic scientists sit in the confines of our homes, reading scientific papers, analyzing years-worth of data, working through a years-worth of house projects, or simply watching Netflix. While we are confined to a much smaller area, wildlife is not.  

During this challenging situation we have unique opportunities to study what happens when people are not outside for recreation. All of us who feel trapped inside our homes are not only saving human lives, we are changing ecosystems. Humans are constantly molding our ecosystems on fine and grand scales, from xeriscaping our lawns with native, drought-resistant plants to developing large plots of land for new homes. We manipulate nature, for better or for worse.

So, what happens when we change our behavior? Rather than driving, we’re gardening, instead of playing at parks, we’re playing board games at our kitchen tables; we as a society are completely changing our habitat-use patterns. When any top predator changes its habitat-use, switches niches, or drastically changes its behaviors, there are top-down ecosystem effects. When one species changes its behavior, there are major downstream impacts on predation, foraging, diet, and habitat use. For example, when bluegill sunfish underwent large shifts in both diet and habitat, major predator-mediated habitat use changes in other species occurred (Mittelbach 1986). There are multiple studies describing the impacts of human-mediated drivers on ecosystems worldwide. In coastal environments, anthropogenic activities, specifically shipping, industry, and urban development, dramatically change both the coastal and marine ecosystems (Mead et al. 2013).

The highly developed coastline along Los Angeles, CA is a prime example of urban development. (Image source: LA Magazine.)

By far the most pronounced example of how an international halt on travel can alter ecosystems comes from the tragic terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Prior to this current, viral pandemic, the events following 9/11 were the first time that nearly all major transit stopped in the USA—including airplanes and major shipping traffic. This halt created a unique opportunity to study some of the secondary impacts, such as a reduction in shipping traffic noise, on cetaceans. Following 9/11, there was a six decibel decrease in underwater noise that co-occurred with a decrease in stress hormones of endangered North Atlantic right whales (Rolland et al. 2012). When I first read about this study, my first thought was “leave it to scientists to make the best out of a terrible situation.” Truly, learning from nature, even in the darkest of days, is an incredible skillset. Research like this inspires me to ask questions about what changes are happening in ecosystems now because of recent events. For example, the entire port of San Diego, its beaches and bays, are closed for all recreational activity and I wonder how this reduction in traffic is similar to the post-9/11 study but on bottlenose dolphins, gray whales, and pinnipeds that are coast-associated. Are urban and suburban neighborhoods slowly becoming more rural and making space for wildlife again?

My dad lives in a suburban neighborhood of San Diego, CA. In the past few weeks, his “Ring doorbell camera” captured a bobcat walking along the raised brick path multiple times. (Media source: Eric Kownacki)

There is increasing news coverage on wild animals “taking over” cities. Dr. Leila Lemos touched on this earlier with her blog post centering on how academics are changing their means of teaching, conferencing, and learning. There are photos of wild goats running through the streets of Wales, UK, coyotes roaming the streets of San Francisco, CA, USA, monkeys swarming the streets in Thailand, pumas wandering the streets of Santiago, Chile, and Sika deer peering into empty restaurants in Nara, Japan (Colarossi 2020). In reality, this wildlife was likely part of the ecosystem prior to the formation of these cities but was forced out of the more urban centers. As we sit in our homes, rather than looking bleakly onto empty streets, we can search for wildlife, create a backyard birding competition with your friends, guess which flowers will bloom first, and ask questions of our changing ecosystems.

Coyote at a park in northern California with the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge in the background. (Image source: u/beccatravels via Reddit)

Citations:

Colarossi, Natalie. “Photos Show Wild Animals Roaming Empty Streets as Coronavirus Lockdowns Keep Humans Inside.” Insider, Insider, 2 Apr. 2020, www.insider.com/photos-show-animals-roaming-empty-streets-during-coronavirus-lockdowns-2020-4#in-santiago-chile-a-wild-puma-was-seen-pacing-through-the-quiet-streets-according-to-the-chilean-agricultural-and-livestock-service-the-puma-came-down-from-the-mountains-after-seeing-the-streets-were-largely-empty-6.

Mead, A., Griffiths, C.L., Branch, G.M., McQuaid, C.D., Blamey, L.K., Bolton, J.J., Anderson, R.J., Dufois, F., Rouault, M., Froneman, P.W. and Whitfield, A.K., 2013. Human-mediated drivers of change—impacts on coastal ecosystems and marine biota of South Africa. African Journal of Marine Science35(3), pp.403-425.

Mittelbach, Gary. 1986. Predator-mediated habitat use: some consequences for species interactions. Environ Biol Fish 16, 159–169. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00005168

Rolland, R.M., Parks, S.E., Hunt, K.E., Castellote, M., Corkeron, P.J., Nowacek, D.P., Wasser, S.K. and Kraus, S.D., 2012. Evidence that ship noise increases stress in right whales. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences279(1737), pp.2363-2368.

Robots are taking over the oceans

By Leila Lemos, PhD Student

In the past few weeks I read an article on the use of aquatic robots in the ocean for research. Since my PhD project uses technology, such as drones and GoPros, to monitor body condition of gray whales and availability of prey along the Oregon coast, I became really interested by the new perspective these robots could provide. Drones produce aerial images while GoPros generate an underwater-scape snapshot. The possible new perspective provided by a robot under the water could be amazing and potentially be used in many different applications.

The article was published on March 21st by The New York Times, and described a new finned robot named “SoFi” or “Sophie”, short for Soft Robotic Fish (Figure 1; The New York Times 2018). The aquatic robot was designed by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, with the purpose of studying marine life in their natural habitats.

Figure 1: “SoFi”, a robotic fish designed by MIT scientists.
Source: The New York Times 2018.

 

SoFi’s  first swim trial occurred in a coral reef in Fiji, and the footage recorded can be seen in the following video:

 

SoFi can swim at depths up to 18 meters and at speeds up to half-its-body-length a second (average of 23.5 cm/s in a straight path; Katzschmann et al. 2018). Sofi can swim for up to ~40 minutes, as limited by battery time. The robot is also well-equipped (Figure 2). It has a compact buoyancy control mechanism and includes a wide-view video camera, a hydrophone, a battery, environmental sensors, and operating and communication systems. The operating and communication systems allow a diver to issue commands by using a controller that operates through sound waves.

Figure 2: “SoFi” system subcomponents overview.
Source: Katzschmann et al. 2018.

 

The robot designers highlight that while SoFi was swimming, fish didn’t seem to be bothered or get scared by SoFi’s presence. Some fish were seen swimming nearby the robot, suggesting that SoFi has the potential to integrate into the natural underwater environment and therefore record undisturbed behaviors. However, a limitation of this invention is that SoFi needs a diver on scene to control the robot. Therefore, SoFi’s study of marine life without human interference may be compromised until technology develops further.

Another potential impact of SoFi we might be concerned about is noise. Does this device produce noise levels that marine fauna can sense or maybe be stress by? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. Even if fish don’t seem to be bothered by SoFi’s presence, it might bother other animals with hearing sensitivity in the same frequency range of SoFi. Katzschmann and colleagues (2018) explained that they chose a frequency to operate SoFi that would minimally impact marine fauna. They studied the frequencies used by the aquatic animals and, since the hearing ranges of most aquatic species decays significantly above 10 KHz, they selected a frequency above this range (i.e., 36 KHz). However, this high frequency range can be sensed by some species of cetaceans and pinnipeds, but negative affects on these animals will be dependent on the sound amplitude that is produced.

Although not perfect (but what tool is?), SoFi can be seen as a great first step toward a future of underwater robots to assist research efforts.  Battery life, human disturbance, and noise disturbance are limitations, but through thoughtful application and continued innovation this fishy tool can be the start of something great.

The use of aquatic robots, such as SoFi, can help us advance our knowledge in underwater ecosystems. These robots could promote a better understanding of marine life in their natural habitat by studying behaviors, interactions and responses to threats. These robots may offer important new tools in the protection of animals against the effects caused by anthropogenic activities. Additionally, the use of aquatic robots in scientific research may substitute remote operated vehicles and submersibles in some circumstances, such as how drones are substituting for airplanes sometimes, thus providing a less expensive and better-tolerated way of monitoring wildlife.

Through continued multidisciplinary collaboration by robot designers, biologists, meteorologists, and more, innovation will continue allowing data collection with minimal to non-disturbance to the wildlife, providing lower costs and higher safety for the researchers.

It is impressive to see how technology efforts are expanding into the oceans. As drones are conquering our skies today and bringing so much valuable information on wildlife monitoring, I believe that the same will occur in our oceans in a near future, assisting in marine life conservation.

 

 

References:

Katzschmann RK, DelPreto J, MacCurdy R, Rus D. 2018. Exploration of Underwater Life with an Acoustically Controlled Soft Robotic Fish. Sci. Robot. 3, eaar3449. DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.aar3449.

The New York Times. 2018. Robotic Fish to Keep a Fishy Eye on the Health of the Oceans. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/21/science/robot-fish.html.

The five senses of fieldwork

By Leila Lemos, PhD student

 

This summer was full of emotions for me: I finally started my first fieldwork season after almost a year of classes and saw my first gray whale (love at first sight!).

During the fieldwork we use a small research vessel (we call it “Red Rocket”) along the Oregon coast to collect data for my PhD project. We are collecting gray whale fecal samples to analyze hormone variations; acoustic data to assess ambient noise changes at different locations and also variations before, during and after events like the “Halibut opener”; GoPro recordings to evaluate prey availability; photographs in order to identify each individual whale and assess body and skin condition; and video recordings through UAS (aka “drone”) flights, so we can measure the whales and classify them as skinny/fat, calf/juvenile/adult and pregnant/non-pregnant.

However, in order to collect all of these data, we need to first find the whales. This is when we use our first sense: vision. We are always looking at the horizon searching for a blow to come up and once we see it, we safely approach the animal and start watching the individual’s behavior and taking photographs.

If the animal is surfacing regularly to allow a successful drone overflight, we stay with the whale and launch the UAS in order to collect photogrammetry and behavior data.

Each team member performs different functions on the boat, as seen in the figure below.

Figure 1: UAS image showing each team members’ functions in the boat at the moment just after the UAS launch.
Figure 1: UAS image showing each team members’ functions in the boat at the moment just after the UAS launch.

 

While one member pilots the boat, another operates the UAS. Another team member is responsible for taking photos of the whales so we can match individuals with the UAS videos. And the last team member puts the calibration board of known length in the water, so that we can later calculate the exact size of each pixel at various UAS altitudes, which allows us to accurately measure whale lengths. Team members also alternate between these and other functions.

Sometimes we put the UAS in the air and no whales are at the surface, or we can’t find any. These animals only stay at the surface for a short period of time, so working with whales can be really challenging. UAS batteries only last for 15-20 minutes and we need to make the most of that time as we can. All of the members need to help the UAS pilot in finding whales, and that is when, besides vision, we need to use hearing too. The sound of the whale’s respiration (blow) can be very loud, especially when whales are closer. Once we find the whale, we give the location to the UAS pilot: “whale at 2 o’clock at 30 meters from the boat!” and the pilot finds the whale for an overflight.

The opposite – too many whales around – can also happen. While we are observing one individual or searching for it in one direction, we may hear a blow from another whale right behind us, and that’s the signal for us to look for other individuals too.

But now you might be asking yourself: “ok, I agree with vision and hearing, but what about the other three senses? Smell? Taste? Touch?” Believe it or not, this happens. Sometimes whales surface pretty close to the boat and blow. If the wind is in our direction – ARGHHHH – we smell it and even taste it (after the first time you learn to close your mouth!). Not a smell I recommend.

Fecal samples are responsible for the 5th sense: touch!

Once we identify that the whale pooped, we approach the fecal plume in order to collect as much fecal matter as possible (Fig.2).

Figure 2: A: the poop is identified; B: the boat approaches the feces that are floating at the surface (~30 seconds); C: one of the team members remains at the bow of the boat to indicate where the feces are; D: another team member collects it with a fine-mesh net. Filmed under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111 to John Calambokidis).
Figure 2: A: the poop is identified; B: the boat approaches the feces that are floating at the surface (~30 seconds); C: one of the team members remains at the bow of the boat to indicate where the feces are; D: another team member collects it with a fine-mesh net. Filmed under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111 to John Calambokidis).

 

After collecting the poop we transfer all of it from the net to a small jar that we then keep cool in an ice chest until we arrive back at the lab and put it in the freezer. So, how do we transfer the poop to the jar? By touching it! We put the jar inside the net and transfer each poop spot to the jar with the help of water pressure from a squeeze bottle full of ambient salt water.

Figure 3: Two gray whale individuals swimming around kelp forests. Filmed under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111 to John Calambokidis).
Figure 3: Two gray whale individuals swimming around kelp forests. Filmed under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111 to John Calambokidis).

 

That’s how we use our senses to study the whales, and we also use an underwater sensory system (a GoPro) to see what the whales were feeding on.

GoPro video of mysid swarms that we recorded near feeding gray whales in Port Orford in August 2016:

Our fieldwork is wrapping up this week, and I can already say that it has been a success. The challenging Oregon weather allowed us to work on 25 days: 6 days in Port Orford and 19 days in the Newport and Depoe Bay region, totaling 141 hours and 50 minutes of effort. We saw 195 whales during 97 different sightings and collected 49 fecal samples. We also performed 67 UAS flights, 34 drifter deployments (to collect acoustic data), and 34 GoPro deployments.

It is incredible to see how much data we obtained! Now starts the second part of the challenge: how to put all of this data together and find the results. My next steps are:

– photo-identification analysis;

– body and skin condition scoring of individuals;

– photogrammetry analysis;

– analysis of the GoPro videos to characterize prey;

– hormone analysis laboratory training in November at the Seattle Aquarium

 

For now, enjoy some pictures and a video we collected during the fieldwork this summer. It was hard to choose my favorite pictures from 11,061 photos and a video from 13 hours and 29 minutes of recording, but I finally did! Enjoy!

Figure 4: Gray whale breaching in Port Orford on August 27th. (Photo by Leila Lemos; Taken under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111 to John Calambokidis).
Figure 4: Gray whale breaching in Port Orford on August 27th. (Photo by Leila Lemos; Taken under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111 to John Calambokidis).

 

Figure 5: Rainbow formation through sunlight refraction on the water droplets of a gray whale individual's blow in Newport on September 15th. (Photo by Leila Lemos; Taken under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111 to John Calambokidis).
Figure 5: Rainbow formation through sunlight refraction on the water droplets of a gray whale individual’s blow in Newport on September 15th. (Photo by Leila Lemos; Taken under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111 to John Calambokidis).

 

Likely gray whale nursing behavior (Taken under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111 to John Calambokidis):