Monthly Archives: February 2019

Feather collections and stressed-out owls

Ashlee Mikkelsen holding a juvenile northern spotted owl. Photo courtesy Ashlee Mikkelsen.

For six months out of every year, Ashlee Mikkelsen spends her days hiking for miles off-trail in the Ponderosa pine-filled forests of central Washington, hooting like an owl, and carefully listening for responses. These days, responses can be few and far between. You see, Ashlee isn’t just a wildlife enthusiast; she is a research assistant in a long-term US Forest Service monitoring program focused on the northern spotted owl.

Since being listed as threatened by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1990, populations of northern spotted owls have continued to decline. In some areas, the number of spotted owls has decreased by more than half in only 20 years (see (Dugger et al. (2016)). Northern spotted owls are inhabitants of old-growth forests. Although northern spotted owls historically could be found in almost every forest from northern California to British Columbia, as forests have shrunk in size through timber harvesting and through changing land use, the amount of suitable habitat has drastically decreased. A second major contributor to the decline of the northern spotted owl is arrival during the last century of the barred owl, which are native to northeastern North America. Barred owls competed with spotted owls for territory and resources, and have been observed fighting with spotted owls.  Ashlee’s master’s research at Oregon State aims to quantify the stress experienced by spotted owls.

Northern spotted owl. Photo courtesy Ashlee Mikkelsen.

When birds experience stress, their bodies respond by releasing larger-than-usual quantities of the hormone corticosterone. Similar to cortisol in humans, corticosterone is always present, but having levels that are very high or that are very low is associated with poor health outcomes. It used to be that in order to measure the physical stress response of a bird, researchers had to take a blood sample. The problem with this is that the process of taking a blood sample itself is a source of stress for the bird. Recently, however, a new technique was introduced based on the fact that corticosterone is also present in feathers. Being able to use feathers is a distinct advantage: birds are constantly dropping feathers, so collecting feathers is fairly non-invasive, and importantly, similar to the benefits of measuring cortisol in hair, feather corticosterone measurements show the average level of the hormone over a long period, rather than just the instant that the feather is collected.

Ashlee banding a juvenile northern spotted owl. Photo courtesy Ashlee Mikkelsen

Ashlee banding a juvenile northern spotted owl. Photo courtesy Ashlee Mikkelsen

Working with professor Katie Dugger (who, incidentally, was Ashlee’s supervisor in the owl-monitoring field crew for the two years prior to beginning graduate school), Ashlee is analyzing a collection of feathers that spans over a 30-year time period. Measuring corticosterone levels in feathers is a high-tech process involving organic chemistry and radioactive isotopes. Although there are many complications that need to be accounted for, tracking the levels of corticosterone in these feathers gives Ashlee insight into the impact of stressors such as environmental degradation and competition with barred owls. Because the data spans so many years, she is able to examine the average stress in spotted owls over periods of change in the populations of barred owls. Ashlee’s data shows a strong response in corticosterone in spotted owls when the number of barred owls in the neighborhood goes up. This supports the view that spotted owls’ woes are not just due to habitat loss, but also due to competition with barred owls.

To hear more about Ashlee’s path to OSU, experiences in research, and of course about northern spotted owls, tune in Sunday, February 16th at 7 PM on KBVR 88.7 FM, live stream the show at http://www.orangemedianetwork.com/kbvr_fm/, or download our
podcast on iTunes!

 

Saving the blue whales of the South Taranaki Bight

A blue whale engulfs a patch of krill. Drone piloted by Todd Chandler.

Until a worldwide ban took effect in 1986, whaling and the production whale products, were leading to a decline in whale populations. Despite a greater global awareness about the importance of protecting our oceans, conflicts still exist between conservation efforts and industry.

This week’s guest, Dawn Barlow, studies the anthropogenic effects on blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) – the largest known animal to have ever existed! Dawn is a first year PhD student in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife’s Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna (GEMM) Labwith Dr. Leigh Torres – the same lab where she completed her Master’s degree in 2018.

A blue whale mother and calf surface near Cape Farewell, New Zealand. Photo by Dawn Barlow.

Discovery of new whale population… and problem

Through her Master’s work, Dawn and her colleagues were able to document a genetically distinct population of about 700 blue whalesin the South Taranaki Bight (STB) – a region located between the north and south islands of New Zealand. The STB is not only an important region for the blue whales; however, it is also heavily used by industry, with active oil and gas extraction, seismic surveying, shipping traffic, and proposed seafloor mining. The need for a marine sanctuary in this area is eminent for the longevity of this whale population, but a compromise must be reached with the government and stakeholders. Furthermore, defining a sanctuary area in a dynamic system is not as simple as drawing a line in the sand.

Data collection Down Under

A pair of blue whales surface in New Zealand’s South Taranaki Bight region. Photo by Leigh Torres.

For her PhD research, Dawn will be continuing work with this same population of whales to get a better understanding of the ecological factors that influence where the blue whales are distributed. So far, three data collection trips have been conducted to gather some of this information. These ship-based trips have collected huge amounts of data using a myriad of equipment and techniques.

Echosounder data is collected using a transducer, which hangs off the boat and sends two pings per second producing measurements from the bounce back that can be used to map out krill aggregations – the blue whale’s primary food source. Conductivity, Temperature, Depth (CTD) casts are used to collect temperature and salinity pressure measurements to determine depth. Wind measurements are also recorded, as this generates upwelling. Photography and videography from the ship deck and via drones are used for identification of individuals whales with their skin providing the equivalent uniqueness as a human fingerprint. Satellite imaging is also used to record sea temperatures and chlorophyll levels. Lastly – and my personal favorite – darts shot from a smaller inflatable boat at close-range are used to collect skin and blubber samples for downstream genetic, stable isotope, and hormone analysis. Opportunistic sampling of fecal matter (i.e. if a whale poops) can also be used for genetic and hormone analysis.

Approaching a blue whale for photo-identification and biopsy sampling. Photo by Kristin Hodge.

Dawn participated in the 2017 field season and also went in July 2018 to disseminate findings to stakeholders. Now she is tasked with sifting through the data to correlate the oceanography with acoustic data, satellite imagery and presence of krill. Preliminary results suggest that the blue whales seem to appear where krill aggregate. Through habitat modeling on an ecosystem scale, Dawn hopes to be able to predict on a seasonal scale where the krill – and therefore, blue whales – will be, allowing for informed, science-based conservation and management decisions to be made.

Finding a passion for conservation biology

Dawn Barlow on the flying bridge of the research vessel during fieldwork in New Zealand. Photo by Kristin Hodge.

Growing up in Northern California near the ocean has always inspired Dawn to pursue a career in marine science. Dawn received dual bachelor’s degrees in Organismal Biology and Environmental Policy at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, where she recognized the need to build a bridge between biology and its translation to conservation policy. Knowing she wanted to get hands-on experience in marine mammal research, Dawn sought out and pursued opportunities through the MARMAM listserv, which landed her two undergraduate internships: one studying bottlenose dolphins in Australia and another in Alaska with humpback whales. These internships allowed Dawn to realize her desire to continue research through a graduate program at Oregon State University, where she has already completed her Master’s degree in Wildlife Science. After completing her PhD, Dawn plans to continue conducting conservation research.

Join us on Sunday, February 10 at 7 PM on KBVR Corvallis 88.7 FM or stream live to learn more about Dawn’s adventures Down Under, journey to graduate school, and answer to the age-old question: what does whale poop look like?

Exploring immigrant identity through poetry

As a 2nd year MFA student in the School of Writing, Literature, and Film, Tatiana Dolgushina is writing her history through poetry as a way to understand herself and the country she came from that no longer exists. Born in Soviet Russia, Tatiana and her family fled the country after it collapsed in 1991. Tatiana grew up in South America and came to the US when she was 12, settling in Ohio. She remarks, “so much cultural history of Soviet Russia is influencing who I am today.” Central to her work are ideas of identity formation and childhood displacement. Through writing, she is digging deeper into her experience as an immigrant growing up in multiple countries.

To better understand the root of her identity, Tatiana is reading about the history that led to the dissolution of Soviet Russia. Reading about the history has helped her to understand the events that led to her family’s displacement. She grew up with silence surrounding why they had left, explaining, “Soviet culture is based on a fear of talking about historical events.” She reflects on feeling shame associated with being an immigrant, and in “not belonging to the old place or the new place.” A fractured in-between place. “As a kid, when you’re displaced, you lose so much: language, traditions, and culture.” She further explains, “you seek assimilation as a kid, and either forget these things, or push them away.”

Tatiana explains that poetry is a catalyst for understanding herself and more broadly, for us to understand ourselves as humans. It’s about connecting the dots. Her family doesn’t speak about what transpired. But reading the history, it begins to make sense. “When you’re a kid, you’re focused on survival.” She reflects that she has been trying to compensate for certain things, and is now understanding how and why she is different. She realized, “the older I get, the more I feel it, my immigrant self emerging.” Her experience growing up in multiple countries has contributed to her identity formation, but she admits that she doesn’t have a space to talk about it. “I blend in, but still feel like an outsider. I am not of this culture, and I realize that I really have no home because my home is not a country.”

Tatiana is still trying to figure out what her writing is about, but articulates that writing is a process of not being able to say certain things in the beginning. It’s about writing through the memory and being able to see the things you need to see when you’re ready, peeling away each layer of experience. Approaching the writing process linearly, Tatiana began writing about early memories, then proceeded beyond to older memories, asking, for example, “why did I write about that nightmare I had when I was 4 years old?”

Originally trained as a wildlife biologist, Tatiana decided to change directions after spending time pursuing a Master’s degree. When she initially began the MFA program, she was shocked at the discussion of subjective ideas, which is so different from many areas of scientific discourse. In science, the focus is not so much on identity. But, she explains, “science and art are coming from the same place. It’s about observation, and understanding through observation.”

As a personal goal, Tatiana is working towards publishing a book. It has been something she has wanted to do for many years. “The hope is that a 15 year old immigrant kid in the library will read it and be able to relate to my story.”

Tatiana studies with Dr. Karen Holmberg and will be graduating this Spring. Tune in on Sunday, February 3rd at 7pm on KBVR 88.7 FM to hear more from Tatiana about her thesis work and experience as a graduate student at OSU. You can also stream the show or download our podcast on iTunes!