Whales are amazing, and also provide amazing benefits to our oceans and human society

By Alejandro Fernandez Ajo, PhD student at the Department of Biology, Northern Arizona University, Visiting scientist in the GEMM Lab working on the gray whale physiology and ecology project  

Whales are among the most amazing and enigmatic animals in the world. Whales are not only fascinating, they are also biologically special. Due to their key ecological role and unique biological traits (i.e., their large body size, long lifespans, and sizable home ranges), whales are extremely important in helping sustain the entire marine ecosystem.

Working towards the conservation of marine megafauna, and large charismatic animals in general, is often seen as a mere benevolent effort that conservationist groups, individuals, and governments do on behalf of the individual species. However, mounting evidence demonstrates that restoring populations of marine megafauna, including large whales, can help buffer marine ecosystems from destabilizing stresses like human driven CO2 emissions and global change due to their ability to sequester carbon in their bodies (Pershing et al. 2010). Furthermore, whales can enhance primary production in the ocean through their high consumption and defecation rates, which ultimately provides nutrients to the ecosystem and improves fishery yields (Roman-McCarthy, 2010; Morissette et al. 2012).

Relationships between humans and whales have a long history, however, these relationships have changed. For centuries, whales were valued in terms of the number of oil barrels they could yield, and the quality of their baleen and meat. In the North Atlantic, whaling started as early as 1000 AD with “shore whaling” of North Atlantic right whales by Basque whalers. This whaling was initially limited to the mother and calve pairs that were easy to target due to their coastal habits and the fact that calves are more vulnerable and slower (Reeves-Smith, 2006). Once the calving populations of near-shore waters off Europe were depleted, offshore whaling began developing. Whalers of multiple nations (including USA, British, French, Norwegian, Portuguese, and Dutch, among others), targeted whales around the world, mainly impacting the gray whale populations, and all three right whale species along with the related bowhead whale. Later, throughout the phase of modern whaling using industrialized methods, the main target species consisted of the blue, fin, humpback, minke, sei and sperm whale (Schneider- Pearce, 2004).

By the early twentieth century, many of the world´s whale populations where reduced to a small fraction of their historical numbers, and although pre-whaling abundance of whale stocks is a subject of debate, recent studies estimate that at least the 66%, and perhaps as high as 90% for some whale species and populations (Branch-Williams 2006; Christensen, 2006), where taken during this period. This systematic and serial depletion of whale papulations reduced the biomass and abundance of great whales around the world, which has likely altered the structure and function of the oceans (Balance et al. 2006; Roman et al. 2014; Croll, et al. 2006).

After centuries of unregulated whale hunting, commercial whaling was banned in the mid-twentieth century. This ban was the result of multiple factors including reduced whale stocks below the point where commercial whaling would be profitable, and a fortunate shift in public perception of whales and the emergence of conservation initiatives (Schneider- Pearce, 2004). Since this moratorium on whaling, several whale populations have recovered around the world, and some populations that were listed as endangered have been delisted (i.e., the Eastern North Pacific gray whale) and some populations are estimated to have re-bounced to their pre-whaling abundance.

Although, the recovery of some populations has motivate some communities or nations to obtain or extend their whaling quotas (see Blog Post by Lisa Hildebrand), it is important to acknowledge that the management of whale populations is arguably one of the most complicated tasks, and is distinguished from management of normal fisheries due to various biological aspects. Whales are long living mammals with slow reproduction rates, and on average a whale can only produce a calf every two or three years. Hence, the gross addition to the stock rarely would exceed 25% of the number of adults (Schneider- Pearce, 2004), which is a much lower recovery rate that any fish stock. Also, whales usually reach their age of sexual maturity at 6-10 years old, and for many species there are several uncertainties about their biology and natural history that make estimations of population abundance and growth rate even harder to estimate.

Fig 1: Human relationship with whales has changed through history. Once valued for their meat and oil, now they are a natural attraction that amaze and attract crowds to whale watching destinations all over the globe. Photo: Stephen Johnson, Península Valdés-Argentina.

Moreover, while today´s whales are generally not killed directly by hunting, they are exposed to a variety of other increasing human stressors (e.g., entanglement in fishing gear, vessel strikes, shipping noise, and climate change). Thus, scientists must develop novel tools to overcome the challenges of studying whales and distinguish the relative importance of the different impacts to help guide conservation actions that improve the recovery and restoration of whale stocks (Hunt et al. in press). With the restoration of great whale populations, we can expect positive changes in the structure and function of the world’s oceans (Chami et al. 2019; Roman et al. 2010).

So, why it is worth keeping whales healthy?

Whales facilitate the transfer of nutrients by (1) releasing nutrient-rich fecal plumes near the surface after they have feed at depth and (2) by moving nutrients from highly productive, polar and subpolar latitude feeding areas to the low latitude calving areas (Roman et al. 2010). In this way, whales help increase the productivity of phytoplankton that in turn support zooplankton production, and thus have a bottom up effect on the productivity of many species including fish, birds, and marine mammals, including whales. These fertilization events can also facilitate mitigation of the negative impacts of climate change. The amount of iron contained in the whales’ feces can be 10 million times greater than the level of iron in the marine environment, triggering important phytoplankton blooms, which in turn sequester thousands of tons of carbon from, and release oxygen to, the atmosphere annually (Roman et al. 2016; Smith et al. 2013; Willis, 2007). Furthermore, when whales die, their massive bodies fall to the seafloor, making them the largest and most nutritious source of food waste, which is capable of sustaining a succession of macro-fauna assemblages for several decades, including some invertebrate species that are endemic to whale carcasses (Smith et al. 2015).

Figure 2. The figure shows a conceptual model of the “whale pump”. From Roman-McCarthy, 2010.

Despite the several environmental services that whales provide, and the positive impact on local economies that depend on whale watching tourism, which has been valued in millions of dollars per year (Hoyt E., 2001), the return of whales and other marine mammals has often been implicated in declines in fish populations, resulting in conflicts with human fisheries (Lavigne, D.M. 2003). Yet there is insufficient direct evidence for such competition (Morissette et al. 2010). Indeed, there is evidence of the contrary: In ecosystem models where whale abundances are reduced, fish stocks show significant decreases, and in some cases the presence of whales in these models result in improved fishery yields. Consistent with these findings, several models have shown that alterations in marine ecosystems resulting from the removal of whales and other marine mammals do not lead to increases in human fishery yields (Morissette et al. 2010; 2012). Although the environmental services and benefits provided by great whales, which potentially includes the enhancement of fisheries yields, and enhancement on ocean oxygen production and capturing carbon, are evident and make a strong argument for improved whale conservation, it is overwhelming how little we know about many aspects of their lives, their biology, and particularly their physiology.

Figure 3: Whales are the most fascinating animals in the world, but they are not only amazing animals. They are also extremely important in sustaining the entire marine ecosystem. Photo: Alejandro Fernández Ajó -Instituto de Conservación de ballenas.

This lack of knowledge is because whales are really hard to study. For many years research was limited to the observation of the brief surfacing of the whales, yet most of their lives occurs beneath the surface and were completely unknown. Fortunately, new technologies and the creativity of whale researchers are helping us to better understand many aspects of their lives that were cryptic to us even a decade ago. I am committed to filling some of these knowledge gaps. My research examines how different environmental and anthropogenic impacts affect whale health, and particularly how these impacts may relate to cases of large whale mortalities and declines in whale populations. I am applying novel methods in conservation physiology for measuring hormone levels that promise to improve our understanding of the relationship between different (extrinsic and intrinsic) stressors and the physiological response of whales. Ultimately, this research will help address important conservation questions, such as the causes of unusual whale mortality events and declines in whale populations.


Ballance LT, Pitman RL, Hewitt R, et al. 2006. The removal of large whales from the Southern Ocean: evidence for long-term ecosystem effects. In: Estes JA, DeMaster DP, Doak DF, et al. (Eds). Whales, whaling and ocean ecosystems. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Branch TA and Williams TM. 2006. Legacy of industrial whaling. In: Estes JA, DeMaster DP, Doak DF, et al. (Eds). Whales, whaling and ocean ecosystems. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Chami, R. Cosimano, T. Fullenkamp, C. & Oztosun, S. (2019). Nature’s solution to climate change. Finance & Development, 56(4).

Christensen LB. 2006. Marine mammal populations: reconstructing historical abundances at the global scale. Vancouver, Canada: University of British Columbia.

Croll DA, Kudela R, Tershy BR (2006) Ecosystem impact of the decline of large whales in the North Pacific. In: Estes JA, DeMaster DP, Doak DF, Williams TM, BrownellJr RL, editors. Whales, Whaling, and Ocean Ecosystems. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 202–214.

Hoyt, E. 2001. Whale Watching 2001: Worldwide Tourism Numbers, Expenditures and Expanding Socioeconomic Benefits

Hunt, K.E., Fernández Ajó, A. Lowe, C. Burgess, E.A. Buck, C.L. In press. A tale of two whales: putting physiological tools to work for North Atlantic and southern right whales. In: “Conservation Physiology: Integrating Physiology Into Animal Conservation And Management”, ch. 12. Eds. Madliger CL, Franklin CE, Love OP, Cooke SJ. Oxford University press: Oxford, UK.

Lavigne, D.M. 2003. Marine mammals and fisheries: the role of science in the culling debate. In: Gales N, Hindell M, and Kirkwood R (Eds). Marine mammals: fisheries, tourism, and management issues. Melbourne, Australia: CSIRO.

Morissette L, Christensen V, and Pauly D. 2012. Marine mammal impacts in exploited ecosystems: would large scale culling benefit fisheries? PLoS ONE 7: e43966.

Morissette L, Kaschner K, and Gerber LR. 2010. “Whales eat fish”? Demystifying the myth in the Caribbean marine ecosystem. Fish Fish 11: 388–404.

Pershing AJ, Christensen LB, Record NR, Sherwood GD, Stetson PB (2010) The impact of whaling on the ocean carbon cycle: Why bigger was better. PLoS ONE 5(8): e12444.

Reeves, R. and Smith, T. (2006). A taxonomy of world whaling. In DeMaster, D. P., Doak, D. F., Williams, T. M., and Brownell Jr., R. L., eds. Whales, Whaling, and Ocean Ecosystems. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Roman, J. Altman I, Dunphy-Daly MM, et al. 2013. The Marine Mammal Protection Act at 40: status, recovery, and future of US marine mammals. Ann NY Acad Sci; doi:10.1111/nyas.12040.

Roman, J. and McCarthy, J.J. 2010. The whale pump: marine mammals enhance primary productivity in a coastal basin. PLoS ONE. 5(10): e13255.

Roman, J. Estes, J.A. Morissette, L. Smith, C. Costa, D. McCarthy, J. Nation, J.B. Nicol, S. Pershing, A.and Smetacek, V. 2014. Whales as marine ecosystem engineers. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 12(7). 377-385.

Roman, J. Nevins, J. Altabet, M. Koopman, H. and McCarthy, J. 2016. Endangered right whales enhance primary productivity in the Bay of Fundy. PLoS ONE. 11(6): e0156553.

Schneider, V. Pearce, D. What saved the whales? An economic analysis of 20th century whaling. Biodiversity and Conservation 13, 543–562 (2004). https://doi org.libproxy.nau.edu/10.1023/B:BIOC.0000009489.08502.1

Smith LV, McMinn A, Martin A, et al. 2013. Preliminary investigation into the stimulation of phyto- plankton photophysiology and growth by whale faeces. J Exp Mar Biol Ecol 446: 1–9.

Smith, C.R. Glover, A.G. Treude, T. Higgs, N.D. and Amon, D.J. 2015. Whale-fall ecosystems: Recent insights into ecology, paleoecology, and evolution. Annu. Rev. Marine. Sci. 7:571-596.

Willis, J. 2007. Could whales have maintained a high abundance of krill? Evol Ecol Res 9: 651–662.

The teamwork of conservation science

Dr. Leigh Torres
PI, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab, Marine Mammal Institute
Assistant Professor, Oregon Sea Grant, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Oregon State University

I have played on sports teams all my life – since I was four until present day. Mostly soccer teams, but a fair bit of Ultimate too. Teams are an interesting beast. They can be frustrating when communication breaks down, irritating when everyone is not on the same timeline, and disastrous if individuals do not complete their designated job. Yet, without the whole team we would never win. So, on top of the fun of competition, skill development, and exercise, playing on teams has always been part of the challenging and fulfilling process for me: everyone working toward the same goal – to win – by making the team fluid, complimentary, integrated, and ultimately successful.

I have come to learn that it is the same with conservation science.

A few of my teams through the ages, as player and coach. Some of my favorite people are on these teams, from 1981 to 2018.

Conservation efforts are often so complex, that it is practically impossible to achieve success alone. Forces driving the need for conservation typically include monetary needs/desires, social values, ecological processes, animal physiology, multi-jurisdictional policies, and human behavior. Each one of these forces alone is challenging to understand and takes expertise to comprehend the situation. Hence, building a well-functioning team is essential. Here’s a recent example from the GEMM Lab:

Since 2014 entanglements of blue, humpback and gray whales in fishing gear along the west coast of the USA have dramatically increased, particularly in Dungeness crab fishing gear. Many forces likely led to this increase, including increased whale population abundance, potential shifts in whale distributions, and changes in fishing fleet dynamics. While we cannot point a finger at one cause, many people and groups recognize that we cannot continue to let whales become entangled and killed at such high rates: whale populations would decline, fisheries would look bad in the public eye and potentially lose profits, whales have an intrinsic right to live in the ocean without being bycaught, and whales are an important part of the ecosystem that would deteriorate without them. In 2017, the Oregon Whale Entanglement Working Group was formed to bring stakeholders together that were concerned about this problem to discuss possible solutions and paths forward. I was lucky to be a part of this group, which also included members of the Dungeness crab fishery and commission, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), other marine mammal scientists, and representatives of the American Cetacean Society, The Nature Conservancy, and a local marine gear supplier.

We met regularly over 2.5 years, and despite some hesitation at first about walking into a room of potentially disgruntled fishermen (I would be lying if I did not admit to this), after the first meeting I looked forward to every gathering. I learned an immense amount about the Dungeness crab fishery and how it operates, how ODFW manages the fishery and why, and what people do, don’t and need to know about whales in Oregon. Everyone agreed that reducing whale entanglements is needed, and a frequent approach discussed was to reduce risk by not setting gear where and when we expect whales to be. Yet, this idea flagged a very critical knowledge gap: We do not have a good understanding of whale distribution patterns in Oregon. Thus leading to the development of a highly collaborative research effort to describe whale distribution patterns in Oregon and identify areas of co-occurrence between whales and fishing effort to reduce the risk of entanglements. Sounds great, but a tough task to accomplish in a few short years. So, let me introduce the great team I am working with to make it all happen.

While I may know a few things about whales and spatial ecology, I don’t know too much about fisheries in Oregon. My collaboration with folks at ODFW, particularly Kelly Corbett and Troy Buell, has enabled this project to develop and go forward, and ultimately will lead to success. These partners provide feedback about how and where the fishery operates so I know where and when to collect data, and importantly they will provide the information on fishing effort in Oregon waters to relate to our generated maps of whale distribution. This spatial comparison will produce what is needed by managers and fishermen to make informed and effective decisions about where to fish, and not to fish, so that we reduce whale entanglement risk while still harvesting successfully to ensure the health and sustainability of our coastal economies.

So, how can we collect standardized data on whale distribution in Oregon waters without breaking the bank? I tossed this question around for a long time, and then I looked up to the sky and wondered what that US Coast Guard (USCG) helicopter was flying around for all the time. I reached out to the USCG to enquire, and proposed that we have an observer fly in the helicopter with them along a set trackline during their training flights. Turns out the USCG Sector North Bend and Columbia River were eager to work with us and support our research. They have turned out to be truly excellent partners in this work. We had some kinks to work out at the beginning – lots of acronyms, protocols, and logistics for both sides to figure out – but everyone has been supportive and pleasant to work with. The pilots and crew are interested in our work and it is a joy to hear their questions and see them learn about the marine ecosystem. And our knowledge of helicopter navigation and USCG duties has grown astronomically.

On the left is a plot of the four tracklines we survey for whales each month for two years aboard a US Coast Guard helicopter. On the right are some photos of us in action with our Coast Guard partners.

Despite significant cost savings to the project through our partnership with the USCG, we still need funds to support time, gear and more. And full credit to the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission for recognizing the value and need for this project to support their industry, and stepping up to fund the first year of this project. Without their trust and support the project may not have got off the ground. With this support in our back pocket and proof of our capability, ODFW and I teamed up to approach the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric and Administration (NOAA) for funds to support the remaining years of the project. We found success through the NOAA Fisheries Endangered Species Act Section 6 Program, and we are now working toward providing the information needed to protect endangered and threatened whales in Oregon waters.

Despite our cost-effective and solid approach to data collection on whale occurrence, we cannot be everywhere all the time looking for whales. So we have also teamed up with Amanda Gladics at Oregon Sea Grant to help us with an important outreach and citizen science component of the project. With Amanda we have developed brochures and videos to inform mariners of all kinds about the project, objectives, and need for them to play a part. We are encouraging everyone to use the Whale Alert app to record their opportunistic sightings of whales in Oregon waters. These data will help us build and test our predictive models of whale distribution. Through this partnership we continue important conversations with fishermen from many fisheries about their concerns, where they are seeing whales, and what needs to be done to solve this complex conservation challenge.  

Of course I cannot collect, process, analyze, and interpret all this data on my own. I do not have the skills or capacity for that. My partner in the sky is Craig Hayslip, a Faculty Research Assistant in the Marine Mammal Institute. Craig has immense field experience collecting data on whales and is the primary observer on the survey flights. Together we have navigated the USCG world and developed methods to collect our data effectively and efficiently (all within a tiny space flying over the ocean). In a few months we will be ¾ of the way through our data collection phase, which means data analysis will take over. For this phase I am bringing back a GEMM Lab star, Solene Derville, who recently completed her PhD. As the post-doc on the project, Solene will take the lead on the species distribution modeling and fisheries overlap analysis. I am looking forward to partnering with Solene again to compile multiple data sources on whales and oceanography in Oregon to produce reliable and accurate predictions of whale occurrence and entanglement risk. Finally I want to acknowledge our great partners at the Cascadia Research Collective (Olympia, WA) and the Cetacean Conservation and Genomics Lab (OSU, Marine Mammal Institute) who help facilitate our data collection, and conduct the whale photo-identification or genetic analyses to determine population assignment.  

As you can see, even this one, smallish, conservation research project takes a diverse team of partners to proceed and ensure success. On this team, my position is sometimes a player, coach, or manager, but I am always grateful for these amazing collaborations and opportunities to learn. I am confident in our success and will report back on our accomplishments as we wrap up this important and exciting conservation science project.   

A fin whale observed off the Oregon coast during one of our surveys aboard a US Coast Guard helicopter.

What are the ecological impacts of gray whale benthic feeding?

Clara Bird, Masters Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Happy new year from the GEMM lab! Starting graduate school comes with a lot of learning. From skills, to learning about how much there is to learn, to learning about the system I will be studying in depth for the next few years. This last category has been the most exciting to me because digging into the literature on a system or a species always leads to the unearthing of some fascinating and surprising facts. So, for this blog I will write about one of the aspects of gray whale foraging that intrigues me most: benthic feeding and its impacts.

How do gray whales feed?

Gray whales are a unique species. Unlike other baleen whales, such as humpback and blue whales, gray whales regularly feed off the bottom of the ocean (Nerini, 1984). They roll to one side and swim along the bottom, they then suction up (by depressing their tongue) the sediment and prey, then the sediment and water is filtered out of the baleen. In fact, we use sediment streams, shown in Figure 1, as an indicator of benthic feeding behavior when analyzing drone footage (Torres et al. 2018).

Figure 1. Screenshot of drone video showing sediment streaming from mouth of a whale after benthic feeding. Video taken under NOAA/NMFS permit #21678

Locations of benthic feeding can be identified without directly observing a gray whale actively feeding because of the excavated pits that result from benthic feeding (Nerini 1984). These pits can be detected using side-scan sonar that is commonly used to map the seafloor. Oliver and Slattery (1985) found that the pits typically are from 2-20 m2. In some of the imagery, consecutive neighboring pits are visible, likely created by one whale in series during a feeding event. Figure 2 shows different arrangements of pits.

Figure 2. Different arrangements of pits created by feeding whales (Nerini 1984).

Aside from how fascinating the behavior is, benthic feeding is also interesting because it has a large impact on the environment. Coming from a background of studying baleen whales that primarily feed on krill, I had not really considered the potential impacts of whale foraging other than removing prey from the environment. However, when gray whales feed, they excavate large areas of the benthic substrate that disturb and impact the habitat.

The impacts of benthic feeding

Weitkamp et al. (1992) conducted a study on gray whale benthic foraging on ghost shrimp in Puget Sound, WA, USA. This study, conducted over two years, focused on measuring the impact of benthic foraging by its effect on prey abundance. They found that the standing stock of ghost shrimp within a recently excavated pit was two to five times less than that outside the pit, and that 3100 to 5700 grams of shrimp can be removed per pit. From aerial surveys they estimated that within one season feeding gray whales created between 2700 and 3200 pits. Using these values, they calculated that 55 to 79% of the standing stock of ghost shrimp was removed each season by foraging gray whales. Interestingly, they found that the shrimp biomass within an excavated pit recovered within about two months.

Oliver and Slattery (1985) also found a recovery period of about 2 months per pit in their study on the effect of gray whale benthic feeding on the prey community in the Bering Sea. They sampled prey within and outside feeding excavations, both actual whale pits and man-made, to test the response of the benthic community to the disturbance of a feeding event. They found that after the initial feeding disturbance, the excavated area was rapidly colonized by scavenging lysianassid amphipods, which are small (10 mm) crustaceans that typically eat dead organic material. These amphipods rushed in and attacked the organisms that were injured or dislodged by the whale feeding event, typically small crustaceans and polychaete worms. Within hours of the whale feeding event, these amphipods had dispersed and a different genre of scavenging lysianassid amphipods slowly invaded the excavated pit further and stayed much longer. After a few days or weeks these pits collected and trapped organic debris that attracted more colonists. Indeed, they found that the number of colonists remained elevated within the excavated areas for over two months.

Notably, these results on how the disturbance of gray whale benthic feeding changes sediment composition support the idea that this foraging behavior maintains the sand substrate and therefore helps to maintain balanced levels of benthic dwelling amphipods, their primary source of prey in this study area (Johnson and Nelson, 1984). Gray whales scour the sea floor when they feed and this process leads to the resuspension of lots of sediments and nutrients that would otherwise remain on the seafloor. Therefore, while this feeding may seem like a violent disturbance, it may in fact play a large role in benthic productivity (Johnson and Nelson, 1984; Oliver and Slattery, 1985).

These ecosystem impacts of gray whale benthic feeding I have described above demonstrate the various stages of invaders after a feeding disturbance, and the process of succession. Succession is the ecological process of how a community structure builds and grows. Primary succession is when the structure grows from truly nothing and secondary succession occurs after a disturbance, such as a fire. In secondary succession, there are typically pioneer species that first appear and then give way to other species and a more complex community eventually emerges. Succession is well documented in many terrestrial studies after disturbance events, and the processes of secondary succession is very important to community ecology and resilience.

Since gray whale benthic foraging does not impact an entire habitat all at once, the process is not perfectly comparable to secondary succession in terrestrial systems. Yet, when thinking about the smaller scale, another example of succession in the marine environment takes place at a whale fall. When a whale dies and sinks to the ocean floor, a small ecosystem emerges. Different organisms arrive at different stages to scavenge different parts of the carcass and a food web is created around it.

To me the impacts of gray whale benthic feeding are akin to both terrestrial disturbance events and whale falls. The excavation serves as a disturbance, and through secondary succession the habitat is refreshed via stages of different species colonization until the system eventually returns to the pre-disturbance levels. However, like a whale fall the feeding event leaves behind injured or displaced organisms that scavengers consume; in fact seabirds are known to take advantage of benthic invertebrates that are brought to the surface by a gray whale feeding event (Harrison, 1979). 

So much of our research is focused on questions about how the changing environment impacts our study species and not the other way around. This venture into the literature has provided me with an important reminder to think about flipping the question. I have enjoyed starting 2020 with a reminder of how cool gray whales are, and that while a disturbance can initially be thought of as negative, it may actually bring about important, and positive, change.


Nerini, Mary. 1984. “A Review of Gray Whale Feeding Ecology.” In The Gray Whale: Eschrichtius Robustus, 423–50. Elsevier Inc. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-092372-7.50024-8.

Oliver, J. S., and P. N. Slattery. 1985. “Destruction and Opportunity on the Sea Floor: Effects of Gray Whale Feeding.” Ecology 66 (6): 1965–75. https://doi.org/10.2307/2937392.

Torres, Leigh G., Sharon L. Nieukirk, Leila Lemos, and Todd E. Chandler. 2018. “Drone up! Quantifying Whale Behavior from a New Perspective Improves Observational Capacity.” Frontiers in Marine Science 5 (SEP). https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2018.00319.

Weitkamp, Laurie A, Robert C Wissmar, Charles A Simenstad, Kurt L Fresh, and Jay G Odell. 1992. “Gray Whale Foraging on Ghost Shrimp (Callianassa Californiensis) in Littoral Sand Flats of Puget Sound, USA.” Canadian Journal of Zoology 70 (11): 2275–80. https://doi.org/10.1139/z92-304.

Johnson, Kirk R., and C. Hans Nelson. 1984. “Side-Scan Sonar Assessment of Gray Whale Feeding in the Bering Sea.” Science 225 (4667): 1150–52.

Harrison, Craig S. 1979. “The Association of Marine Birds and Feeding Gray Whales.” The Condor 81 (1): 93. https://doi.org/10.2307/1367866.

Remote Sensing Applications

By Leila Lemos, PhD candidate

Fisheries and Wildlife Department, OSU


I am finally starting my 3rd and last year of my PhD. Just a year left and yet so many things to do. As per department requirements, I still need to take some class credits, but what classes could I take? In this short amount of time it is important to focus on my research project and on what could help me better understand the many branches of the project and what could improve my analyses. Thinking of that, both my advisor (Dr. Leigh G. Torres) and I agreed that it would be useful for me to take a class on remote sensing. So, I could learn more about this field, as well as try to include some remote sensing analyses in my project, such as sea surface temperature (SST) and chlorophyll (i.e., as a productivity indicator) conditions over the years we have collected data on gray whales off the Oregon coast.


Our photogrammetry data indicates that whales gradually increased their body condition over the feeding seasons of 2016 and 2018, while 2017 is different. Whales were still looking skinny in the middle of the season, and we were not collecting many fecal samples up to that point (indicating not much feeding). These findings made us wonder if this was related to delayed seasonal upwelling events and consequently low prey availability. These questions are what motivated me the most to join this class so that we might be able to link environmental correlates with our observations of gray whale body condition.

Figure 01: Skinny body condition state of the gray whale “Pancake” in August 2017.
Source: Leila S. Lemos


If we stop to think about what remote sensing is, we have already been implementing this method in our project since the beginning, as my favorite definition for remote sensing is “the art of collecting information of objects or phenomenon without touching it”. So, yes, the drone is a type of sensor that remotely collects information of objects (in this case, whales).

Figure 02: Drone remotely collecting information of a whale in September 2018. Drone in detail. Collected under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111.
Source: Leila Lemos


However, satellites, all the way up in the space, are also remotely sensing the Earth and its objects and phenomena. Even from thousands of km above Earth, these sensors are capable of generating a great amount of detailed data that is easily and freely accessible (i.e., NASA, NOAA), and can be used for multiple applications in different fields of study. Satellites are also able to collect data from remote areas like the Antarctica and the Arctic, as well as other areas that are not easily reached by humans. One important application of the use of satellite imagery is wildlife monitoring.

For example, satellite data was used to detect variation in the abundance of Weddell seals (Leptonychotes weddellii) in Erebus Bay, Antarctica (LaRue et al., 2011). Because this is a well-studied seal population, the object of this study was to test if satellite imagery could produce reliable abundance estimates. The authors used high-resolution (0.6 m) satellite imagery (from satellites Quick-Bird-2 and WorldView-1) to compare counts from the ground with counts from satellite images in the same locations at the same time. This study demonstrated a reliable methodology for further studies to replicate.

Figure 03: WorldView-1 image (0.6 m resolution) of Weddell seals hauled out east of Inaccessible Island, Erebus Bay, Antarctica.
Source: LaRue et al. (2011).


Satellite imagery was also applied to estimate colony sizes of Adélie penguins in Antarctica (LaRue et al., 2014). High-resolution (0.6 m) satellite imagery combined with spectral analysiswas used to estimate the sizes of the penguin breeding colonies. Ground counts were also used in order to check the reliability of the applied method. The authors then created a model to predict the abundance of breeding pairs as a function of the habitat, which was identified terrain slope as an important component of nesting density.

The identification of whales using satellite imagery is also possible. Fretwell et al. (2014)pioneered this method by successfully identifing Southern Right Whales (Eubalaena australis) in the Golfo Nuevo, Península Valdés, in Argentina in satellite images. By using very high-resolution satellite imagery (50 cm resolution) and a water penetrating coastal band that was able to see deeper into the water column, the researchers were able to successfully identify and count the whales (Fig. 04). The importance of this study was very significant, since this species was extensively hunted from the 17ththrough to the 20thcentury. Since then, the species has shown a strong recovery, but population estimates are still at <15% of historical estimates. Thus, being able to use new tools to identify, count and monitor individuals in this recovering population is a great development, especially in remote and hard to reach areas.

Figure 04: Identification of Southern Right Whales by using imagery from the WorldView2 satellite in the Golfo Nuevo Bay, Península Valdés, Argentina.
Source: Fretwell et al. (2014).


Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) have also been studied in the Foxe Basin, in Nunavut and Quebec, Canada (LaRue et al., 2015). Researchers used high-resolution satellite imagery in an attempt to identify and count the bears, but spectral signature differences between bears and other objects were insufficient to yield useful results. Therefore, researchers developed an automated image differencing, also known as change detection, that identifies differences between remotely sensed images collected at different times and “subtract of one image from another”. This method correctly identified nearly 90% of the bears. The technique also generated false positives, but this problem can be corrected by a manual review.

Figure 05 shows the difference in resolution of two types of satellite imagery, the panchromatic (0.6 m resolution) and the multispectral (2.4 m resolution). LaRue et al. (2015)decided not to use the multispectral imagery due to resolution constraints.

Figure 05: Polar Bears on panchromatic (0.6 m resolution) and multispectral (2.4 m resolution) imagery.
Source: LaRue et al. (2015).


A more recent study is being conducted by my fellow OSU Fisheries and Wildlife graduate student, Jane Dolliveron breeding colonies of three species of North Pacific albatrosses (Phoebastria immutabilis, Phoebastria nigripes, and Phoebastria albatrus)(Dolliver et al., 2017). Jane is using high-resolution multispectral satellite imagery (DigitalGlobe WorldView-2 and -3) and image processing techniques to enumerate the albatrosses. They are also using albatross species at multiple reference colonies in Hawaii and Japan (Fig. 06) to determine species identification accuracy and required correction factor(s). This will allow scientists to accurately count unknown populations on the Senkakus, which are uninhabited islands controlled by Japan in the East China Sea.

Figure 06: Satellite image of a colony of short-tailed albatrosses (Phoebastria albatrus) in Torishima, Japan, 2016.
Source: Satellite image provided by Jane Dolliver.


Using satellite imagery to count seals, penguins, whales, bears and albatrosses is just the start of this rapidly advancing technology. Techniques and resolutions are continuously improving. Methods can also be applied to many other endangered species, especially in remote areas, providing data on presence, abundance, annual productivity, population estimates and trends, changes in distribution, and breeding ground usage.

Other than directly monitoring wildlife, satellite images can also provide information on the environmental variables that can be related to wildlife presence, abundance, productivity and distribution.

Gentemann et al. (2017), for example, used satellite data from NASA to analyze SST variations along the west coast of the United States from 2002 to 2016. The NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory produces global, daily, 1 km, multiscale ultra-high resolution, motion-compensated analysis of SST, and incorporates SSTs from eight different satellites. Researchers were able to identify warmer than usual SSTs (also called anomalies) along the Washington, Oregon, and California coasts from January 2014 to August 2016 (Fig.07) relative to previous years. This marine heat wave started in the Gulf of Alaska and ended in Southern California, where SST reached a maximum temperature anomaly of 6.2°C, causing major disturbances and substantial economic impacts.

Figure 07: Monthly SST anomalies in the West Coast of United States, from January 2014 to August 2016.
Source: Gentemann et al. (2017).


Changes in SST and winds may alter events such as the coastal upwelling that supplies nutrients to sustain a whole food chain. A marine heat-wave event as described by Gentemann et al. (2017)could have significant impacts on the health of the marine ecosystem in the subsequent season (Gentemann et al., 2017).

These findings may even relate to our questions regarding the poor gray whale body condition we noticed in 2017: this marine heat wave that lasted until August 2016 along the US west coast could have impacted the ecosystem in the subsequent season. However, I must conduct a more detailed study to determine if this heat wave was related or if another oceanographic process was involved.

So, whether remotely sensed data is generated by satellites, drones, thermal imagery, robots (as I previously wrote about), or another type of technology, it can have important  and informative applications to monitor wildlife or environmental variables associated with their ecology and biology. We can take advantage of remotely sensed technology to aid wildlife conservation efforts.



Dolliver, J., et al., Multispectral processing of high resolution satellite imagery to determine the abundance of nesting albatross. Ecological Society of America, Portland, OR, United States., 2017.

Fretwell, P. T., et al., 2014. Whales from Space: Counting Southern Right Whales by Satellite. Plos One. 9,e88655.

Gentemann, C. L., et al., 2017. Satellite sea surface temperatures along the West Coast of the United States during the 2014–2016 northeast Pacific marine heat wave. Geophysical Research Letters. 44,312-319.

LaRue, M. A., et al., 2014. A method for estimating colony sizes of Adélie penguins using remote sensing imagery. Polar Biology. 37,507-517.

LaRue, M. A., et al., 2011. Satellite imagery can be used to detect variation in abundance of Weddell seals (Leptonychotes weddellii) in Erebus Bay, Antarctica. Polar Biology. 34,1727–1737.

LaRue, M. A., et al., 2015. Testing Methods for Using High-Resolution Satellite Imagery to Monitor Polar Bear Abundance and Distribution. Wildlife Society Bulletin. 39,772-779.






Over the Ocean and Under the Bridges: STEM Cruise on the R/V Oceanus

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

From September 22nd through 30th, the GEMM Lab participated in a STEM research cruise aboard the R/V Oceanus, Oregon State University’s (OSU) largest research vessel, which served as a fully-functioning, floating, research laboratory and field station. The STEM cruise focused on integrating science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) into hands-on teaching experiences alongside professionals in the marine sciences. The official science crew consisted of high school teachers and students, community college students, and Oregon State University graduate students and professors. As with a usual research cruise, there was ample set-up, data collection, data entry, experimentation, successes, and failures. And because everyone in the science party actively participated in the research process, everyone also experienced these successes, failures, and moments of inspiration.

The science party enjoying the sunset from the aft deck with the Astoria-Megler bridge in the background. (Image source: Alexa Kownacki)

Dr. Leigh Torres, Dr. Rachael Orben, and I were all primarily stationed on flybridge—one deck above the bridge—fully exposed to the elements, at the highest possible location on the ship for best viewing. We scanned the seas in hopes of spotting a blow, a splash, or any sign of a marine mammal or seabird. Beside us, students and teachers donned binoculars and positioned themselves around the mast, with Leigh and I taking a 90-degree swath from the mast—either to starboard or to port. For those who had not been part of marine mammal observations previously, it was a crash course into the peaks and troughs—of both the waves and of the sightings. We emphasized the importance of absence data: knowledge of what is not “there” is equally as important as what is. Fortunately, Leigh chose a course that proved to have surprisingly excellent environmental conditions and amazing sightings. Therefore, we collected a large amount of presence data: data collected when marine mammals or seabirds are present.

High school student, Chris Quashnick Holloway, records a seabird sighting for observer, Dr. Rachael Orben. (Image source: Alexa Kownacki).

When someone sighted a whale that surfaced regularly, we assessed the conditions: the sea state, the animal’s behavior, the wind conditions, etc. If we deemed them as “good to fly”, our licensed drone pilot and Orange Coast Community College student, Jason, prepared his Phantom 4 drone. While he and Leigh set up drone operations, I and the other science team members maintained a visual on the whale and stayed in constant communication with the bridge via radio. When the drone was ready, and the bridge gave the “all clear”, Jason launched his drone from the aft deck. Then, someone tossed an unassuming, meter-long, wood plank overboard—keeping it attached to the ship with a line. This wood board serves as a calibration tool; the drone flies over it at varying heights as determined by its built-in altimeter. Later, we analyze how many pixels one meter occupied at different heights and can thereby determine the body length of the whale from still images by converting pixel length to a metric unit.

High school student, Alishia Keller, uses binoculars to observe a whale, while PhD student, Alexa Kownacki, radios updates on the whale’s location to the bridge and the aft deck. (Image source: Tracy Crews)

Finally, when the drone is calibrated, I radio the most recent location of our animal. For example, “Blow at 9 o’clock, 250 meters away”. Then, the bridge and I constantly adjust the ship’s speed and location. If the whale “flukes” (dives and exposes the ventral side of its tail), and later resurfaced 500 meters away at our 10 o’clock, I might radio to the bridge to, “turn 60 degrees to port and increase speed to 5 knots”. (See the Hidden Math Lesson below). Jason then positions the drone over the whale, adjusting the camera angle as necessary, and recording high-quality video footage for later analysis. The aerial viewpoint provides major advantages. Whales usually expose about 10 percent of their body above the water’s surface. However, with an aerial vantage point, we can see more of the whale and its surroundings. From here, we can observe behaviors that are otherwise obscured (Torres et al. 2018), and record footage that to help quantify body condition (i.e. lengths and girths). Prior to the batteries running low, Jason returns the drone back to the aft deck, the vessel comes to an idle, and Leigh catches the drone. Throughout these operations, those of us on the flybridge photograph flukes for identification and document any behaviors we observe. Later, we match the whale we sighted to the whale that the drone flew over, and then to prior sightings of this same individual—adding information like body condition or the presence of a calf. I like to think of it as whale detective work. Moreover, it is a team effort; everyone has a critical role in the mission. When it’s all said and done, this noninvasive approach provides life history context to the health and behaviors of the animal.

Drone pilot, Jason Miranda, flying his drone using his handheld ground station on the aft deck. (Photo source: Tracy Crews)

Hidden Math Lesson: The location of 10 o’clock and 60 degrees to port refer to the exact same direction. The bow of the ship is our 12 o’clock with the stern at our 6 o’clock; you always orient yourself in this manner when giving directions. The same goes for a compass measurement in degrees when relating the direction to the boat: the bow is 360/0. An angle measure between two consecutive numbers on a clock is: 360 degrees divided by 12-“hour” markers = 30 degrees. Therefore, 10 o’clock was 0 degrees – (2 “hours”)= 0 degrees- (2*30 degrees)= -60 degrees. A negative degree less than 180 refers to the port side (left).

Killer whale traveling northbound.

Our trip was chalked full of science and graced with cooperative weather conditions. There were more highlights than I could list in a single sitting. We towed zooplankton nets under the night sky while eating ice cream bars; we sang together at sunset and watched the atmospheric phenomena: the green flash; we witnessed a humpback lunge-feeding beside the ship’s bow; and we saw a sperm whale traveling across calm seas.

Sperm whale surfacing before a long dive.

On this cruise, our lab focused on the marine mammal observations—which proved excellent during the cruise. In only four days of surveying, we had 43 marine mammal sightings containing 362 individuals representing 9 species (See figure 1). As you can see from figure 2, we traveled over shallow, coastal and deep waters, in both Washington and Oregon before inland to Portland, OR. Because we ventured to areas with different bathymetric and oceanographic conditions, we increased our likelihood of seeing a higher diversity of species than we would if we stayed in a single depth or area.

Humpback whale lunge feeding off the bow.

Number of sightings Total number of individuals
Humpback whale 22 40
Pacific white-sided dolphin 3 249
Northern right whale dolphin 1 9
Killer whale 1 3
Dall’s porpoise 5 49
Sperm whale 1 1
Gray whale 1 1
Harbor seal 1 1
California sea lion 8 9
Total 43 362

Figure 1. Summary table of all species sightings during cruise while the science team observed from the flybridge.

Pacific white-sided dolphins swimming towards the vessel.

Figure 2. Map with inset displaying study area and sightings observed by species during the cruise, made in ArcMap. (Image source: Alexa Kownacki).

Even after two days of STEM outreach events in Portland, we were excited to incorporate more science. For the transit from Portland, OR to Newport, OR, the entire science team consisted two people: me and Jason. But even with poor weather conditions, we still used science to answer questions and help us along our journey—only with different goals than on our main leg. With the help of the marine technician, we set up a camera on the bow of the ship, facing aft to watch the vessel maneuver through the famous Portland bridges.

Video 1. Time-lapse footage of the R/V Oceanus maneuvering the Portland Bridges from a GoPro. Compiled by Alexa Kownacki, assisted by Jason Miranda and Kristin Beem.

Prior to the crossing the Columbia River bar and re-entering the Pacific Ocean, the R/V Oceanus maneuvered up the picturesque Columbia River. We used our geospatial skills to locate our fellow science team member and high school student, Chris, who was located on land. We tracked each other using GPS technology in our cell phones, until the ship got close enough to use natural landmarks as reference points, and finally we could use our binoculars to see Chris shining a light from shore. As the ship powered forward and passed under the famous Astoria-Megler bridge that connects Oregon to Washington, Chris drove over it; he directed us “100 degrees to port”. And, thanks to clear directions, bright visual aids, and spatiotemporal analysis, we managed to find our team member waving from shore. This is only one of many examples that show how in a few days at sea, students utilized new skills, such as marine mammal observational techniques, and honed them for additional applications.

On the bow, Alexa and Jason use binoculars to find Chris–over 4 miles–on the Washington side of the Columbia River. (Image source: Kristin Beem)

Great science is the result of teamwork, passion, and ingenuity. Working alongside students, teachers, and other, more-experienced scientists, provided everyone with opportunities to learn from each other. We created great science because we asked questions, we passed on our knowledge to the next person, and we did so with enthusiasm.

High school students, Jason and Chris, alongside Dr. Leigh Torres, all try to get a glimpse at the zooplankton under Dr. Kim Bernard’s microscope. (Image source: Tracy Crews).

Check out other blog posts written by the science team about the trip here.

Are bacteria important? What do we get by analyzing microbiomes?

By Leila Lemos, PhD candidate, Fisheries and Wildlife Department, OSU

As previously mentioned in one of Florence’s blog posts, the GEMM Lab holds monthly lab meetings, where we share updates about our research and discuss articles and advances in our field, among other activities.

In a past lab meeting we were asked to bring an article to discuss that had inspired us in the past to conduct research in the marine field or in our current position. I brought to the meeting a literature review regarding methodologies to overcome the challenges of studying conservation physiology in large whales [1]. This article discusses different non-invasive or minimally invasive matrices (e.g., feces, blow, skin/blubber) that can be gathered from whales, and what types of analyses could be carried out, as well as their pros and cons.

One of the possible analyses that can be performed with fecal samples that was discussed in the article is the gut microflora (i.e., bacterial gut community) via genetic analysis. Since my PhD project analyzes fecal samples to determine/quantify stress responses in gray whales, we have since discussed the possibility of integrating this extra parameter to our analysis.

But… what is the importance of analyzing the gut microflora of a whale? What is the relationship between microflora and stress responses? Should we really use our limited sample size, time and money to work on this extra analysis? In order to be able to answer all of these questions, I began reading some articles of the field to better understand its importance and what kind of research questions this analysis can answer.

The gut of a mammal comprises a natural habitat for a large and dynamic community of bacteria [2] that is first developed in early life. Colonization of facultative bacteria (i.e., aerobic bacteria) begins at birth [3], and later, anaerobic bacteria also colonizes the gut. In humans, at the age of 1 year old, the microbiome should have a stable adult-like signature (Fig. 1).

Figure 01: Development of the microbiome in early life.
Source: [3]

The gut bacterial community is important for the physiology and pathology of its host and plays an important role in mammal digestion and health [2], responsible for many metabolic activities, including:

  • fermentation of non-digestible dietary residue and endogenous mucus [2];
  • recovery of energy [2];
  • recovery of absorbable nutrients [2];
  • cellulose digestion [4];
  • vitamin K synthesis [4];
  • important trophic effects on intestinal epithelia (cell proliferation and differentiation) [2];
  • angiogenesis promotion [4];
  • enteric nerve function [4];
  • immune structure [2];
  • immune function [2];
  • protection of the colonized host against invasion by alien microbes (barrier effect) [2];

Despite all the benefits, the bacterial community might also be potentially harmful when changes in the community composition (i.e., dysbiosis) occur due to the use of antibiotics, illness, stress, aging, lifestyle, bad dietary habits [4], and prolonged food and water deprivation [5]. Thus, potential pathological disorders might emerge when the microbiome community changes, such as allergy, obesity, diabetes, autism, multisystem organ failure, gastrointestinal and prostate cancers, inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), and cardiovascular diseases [2, 4].

Changes in gut bacterial composition may also alter the brain-gut axis and the central nervous system (CNS) signaling [3]. More specifically, the core pathway affected is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is activated by physical/psychological stressors. According to a previous study [6], the microbial community in the gut is critical for the development of an appropriate stress response. In addition, the microbial colonization in early life should occur within a certain time window, otherwise an abnormal development of the HPA axis might happen.

However, the gut microbiome can not only affect the HPA axis, but the opposite can also occur [3]. Signaling molecules released by the axis can alter the gastrointestinal (GIT) environment (i.e., motility, secretion, and permeability) [7]. Stress responses, as well as diseases, may also alter the gut permeability, causing the bacteria to cross the epithelial barrier (reducing the overall numbers of bacteria in the gut), activating immune responses that also alter the composition of the bacterial community in the gut [8, 9].

Figure 02: Communication between the brain, gut and microbiome in a healthily and in a stressed or diseased (mucosal inflammation) mammal.
Source: [3]

Thus, when thinking about whales, monitoring of the gut microflora might allow us to detect changes caused by factors such as aging, illness, prolonged food deprivation, and stressful events [2, 5]. However, since these are two-way factors, it is important to find an association between bacterial composition alterations and stressful events, such as the presence of predators (e.g., killer whales), illness (e.g., bad body condition), prolonged food deprivation (e.g., low prey availability and high competition), noise (e.g., noisy vessel traffic, fisheries opening and seismic surveys), and stressful reproductive status (e.g., pregnancy and lactating period). Examination of possible shifts in the gut microflora may be able to detect and be linked to many of these events, and also forecast possible chronic events within the population. In addition, the bacterial community monitoring study could aid in validating the hormone data (i.e., cortisol) we have been working with.

Therefore, the main research questions that arise in this context that can aid in elucidating the stress physiology in gray whales are:

  1. What is the microflora community content in guts of gray whales along the Oregon coast?
  2. Is it possible to detect shifts in the gut microflora from our gray fecal samples over time?
  3. How do gut microflora and cortisol levels correlate?
  4. Am I able to correlate shifts in gut microflora with any of the stressful events listed above?

We can answer so many other questions by analyzing the microbiome of baleen whales. Microbiomes are mainly correlated with host diet [10], so the composition of a microbiome can be associated with specific diets and functional gut capacity, and consequently, be linked to other animal populations, which helps to decode evolutionary questions. Results of a previous study on baleen whale microbiomes [10] point out that whales harbor unique gut microbiomes that are actually similar to those of terrestrial herbivores. Baleen whales and terrestrial herbivores have a shared physical structure of the GIT tract itself (i.e., multichambered foregut) and a shared hole for fermentative metabolisms. The multichambered foregut of baleen whales fosters the maintenance of the gut microbiome that is capable of extracting relatively unavailable nutrients from zooplankton (i.e., chitin, “sea cellulose”).

Figure 03: The similarities between whale and other terrestrial herbivore gut microbiomes: sea and land ruminants.
Source: [11]

Thus, the importance of studying the gut microbiome of a baleen whale is clear. Monitoring of the bacterial community and possible shifts can help us elucidate many questions regarding diet, overall health, stress physiology and evolution. Thinking about my PhD project, it may also help in validating our cortisol level results. I am confident that a microbiome analysis would significantly enhance my studies on the health and ecology of gray whales.



  1. Hunt, K.E., et al., Overcoming the challenges of studying conservation physiology in large whales: a review of available methods.Conservation Physiology, 2013. 1: p. 1-24.
  2. Guarner, F. and J.-R. Malagelada, Gut flora in health and disease.The Lancet, 2003. 360: p. 512–519.
  3. Grenham, S., et al., Brain–gut–microbe communication in health and disease.Frontiers in Physiology, 2011. 2: p. 1-15.
  4. Zhang, Y., et al., Impacts of Gut Bacteria on Human Health and Diseases.International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 2015. 16: p. 7493-7519.
  5. Bailey, M.T., et al., Stressor exposure disrupts commensal microbial populations in the intestines and leads to increased colonization by Citrobacter rodentium.Infection and Immunity, 2010. 78: p. 1509–1519.
  6. Sudo, N., et al., Postnatal microbial colonization programs the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system for stress response in mice.The Journal of Physiology, 2004. 558: p. 263–275.
  7. Rhee, S.H., C. Pothoulakis, and E.A. Mayer, Principles and clinical implications of the brain–gut–enteric microbiota axis Nature Reviews Gastroenterology & Hepatology, 2009. 6: p. 306–314.
  8. Kiliaan, A.J., et al., Stress stimulates transepithelial macromolecular uptake in rat jejunum.American Journal of Physiology, 1998. 275: p. G1037–G1044.
  9. Dinan, T.G. and J.F. Cryan, Regulation of the stress response by the gut microbiota: Implications for psychoneuroendocrinology.Psychoneuroendocrinology 2012. 37: p. 1369—1378.
  10. Sanders, J.G., et al., Baleen whales host a unique gut microbiome with similarities to both carnivores and herbivores.Nature Communications, 2015. 6(8285): p. 1-8.
  11. El Gamal, A. Of whales and cows: the baleen whale microbiome revealed. Oceanbites 2016[cited 2018 07/31/2018]; Available from: https://oceanbites.org/of-whales-and-cows-the-baleen-whale-microbiome-revealed/.


What REALLY is a Wildlife Biologist?

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

The first lecture slide. Source: Lecture1_Population Dynamics_Lou Botsford

This was the very first lecture slide in my population dynamics course at UC Davis. Population dynamics was infamous in our department for being an ultimate rite of passage due to its notoriously challenging curriculum. So, when Professor Lou Botsford pointed to his slide, all 120 of us Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology majors, didn’t know how to react. Finally, he announced, “This [pointing to the slide] is all of you”. The class laughed. Lou smirked. Lou knew.

Lou knew that there is more truth to this meme than words could express. I can’t tell you how many times friends and acquaintances have asked me if I was going to be a park ranger. Incredibly, not all—or even most—wildlife biologists are park rangers. I’m sure that at one point, my parents had hoped I’d be holding a tiger cub as part of a conservation project—that has never happened. Society may think that all wildlife biologists want to walk in the footsteps of the famous Steven Irwin and say thinks like “Crikey!”—but I can’t remember the last time I uttered that exclamation with the exception of doing a Steve Irwin impression. Hollywood may think we hug trees—and, don’t get me wrong, I love a good tie-dyed shirt—but most of us believe in the principles of conservation and wise-use A.K.A. we know that some trees must be cut down to support our needs. Helicoptering into a remote location to dart and take samples from wild bear populations…HA. Good one. I tell myself this is what I do sometimes, and then the chopper crashes and I wake up from my dream. But, actually, a scientist staring at a computer with stacks of papers spread across every surface, is me and almost every wildlife biologist that I know.

The “dry lab” on the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer en route to Antarctica. This room full of technology is where the majority of the science takes place. Drake Passage, International Waters in August 2015. Source: Alexa Kownacki

There is an illusion that wildlife biologists are constantly in the field doing all the cool, science-y, outdoors-y things while being followed by a National Geographic photojournalist. Well, let me break it to you, we’re not. Yes, we do have some incredible opportunities. For example, I happen to know that one lab member (eh-hem, Todd), has gotten up close and personal with wild polar bear cubs in the Arctic, and that all of us have taken part in some work that is worthy of a cover image on NatGeo. We love that stuff. For many of us, it’s those few, memorable moments when we are out in the field, wearing pants that we haven’t washed in days, and we finally see our study species AND gather the necessary data, that the stars align. Those are the shining lights in a dark sea of papers, grant-writing, teaching, data management, data analysis, and coding. I’m not saying that we don’t find our desk work enjoyable; we jump for joy when our R script finally runs and we do a little dance when our paper is accepted and we definitely shed a tear of relief when funding comes through (or maybe that’s just me).

A picturesque moment of being a wildlife biologist: Alexa and her coworker, Jim, surveying migrating gray whales. Piedras Blancas Light Station, San Simeon, CA in May 2017. Source: Alexa Kownacki.

What I’m trying to get at is that we accepted our fates as the “scientists in front of computers surrounded by papers” long ago and we embrace it. It’s been almost five years since I was a senior in undergrad and saw this meme for the first time. Five years ago, I wanted to be that scientist surrounded by papers, because I knew that’s where the difference is made. Most people have heard the quote by Mahatma Gandhi, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” In my mind, it is that scientist combing through relevant, peer-reviewed scientific papers while writing a compelling and well-researched article, that has the potential to make positive changes. For me, that scientist at the desk is being the change that he/she wish to see in the world.

Scientists aboard the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer using the time in between net tows to draft papers and analyze data…note the facial expressions. Antarctic Peninsula in August 2015. Source: Alexa Kownacki.

One of my favorite people to colloquially reference in the wildlife biology field is Milton Love, a research biologist at the University of California Santa Barbara, because he tells it how it is. In his oh-so-true-it-hurts website, he has a page titled, “So You Want To Be A Marine Biologist?” that highlights what he refers to as, “Three really, really bad reasons to want to be a marine biologist” and “Two really, really good reasons to want to be a marine biologist”. I HIGHLY suggest you read them verbatim on his site, whether you think you want to be a marine biologist or not because they’re downright hilarious. However, I will paraphrase if you just can’t be bothered to open up a new tab and go down a laugh-filled wormhole.

Really, Really Bad Reasons to Want to be a Marine Biologist:

  1. To talk to dolphins. Hint: They don’t want to talk to you…and you probably like your face.
  2. You like Jacques Cousteau. Hint: I like cheese…doesn’t mean I want to be cheese.
  3. Hint: Lack thereof.

Really, Really Good Reasons to Want to be a Marine Biologist:

  1. Work attire/attitude. Hint: Dress for the job you want finally translates to board shorts and tank tops.
  2. You like it. *BINGO*

Alexa with colleagues showing the “cool” part of the job is working the zooplankton net tows. This DOES have required attire: steel-toed boots, hard hat, and float coat. R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer, Antarctic Peninsula in August 2015. Source: Alexa Kownacki.

In summary, as wildlife or marine biologists we’ve taken a vow of poverty, and in doing so, we’ve committed ourselves to fulfilling lives with incredible experiences and being the change we wish to see in the world. To those of you who want to pursue a career in wildlife or marine biology—even after reading this—then do it. And to those who don’t, hopefully you have a better understanding of why wearing jeans is our version of “business formal”.

A fieldwork version of a lab meeting with Leigh Torres, Tom Calvanese (Field Station Manager), Florence Sullivan, and Leila Lemos. Port Orford, OR in August 2017. Source: Alexa Kownacki.