The ecologist and the economist: Exploring parallels between disciplines

By Dawn Barlow1 and Johanna Rayl2

1PhD Candidate, Oregon State University Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

2PhD Student, Northwestern University Department of Economics

The Greek word “oikos” refers to the household and serves as the root of the words ecology and economics. Although perhaps surprising, the common origin reflects a shared set of basic questions and some shared theoretical foundations related to the study of how lifeforms on earth use scarce resources and find equilibrium in their respective “households”. Early ecological and economic theoretical texts drew inspiration from one another in many instances. Paul Samuelson, fondly referred to as “the father of modern economics,” observed in his defining work Foundations of Economic Analysis that the moving equilibrium in a market with supply and demand is “essentially identical with the moving equilibrium of a biological or chemical system undergoing slow change.” Likewise, early theoretical ecologists recognized the strength of drawing on theories previously established in economics (Real et al. 1991). Similar broad questions are central to researchers in both fields; in a large and dynamic system (termed “macro” in economics) scale, ecologists and economists alike work to understand where competitive forces find equilibrium, and an in individual (or micro) scale, they ask how individuals make behavior choices to maximize success given constraints like time, energy, wealth, or physical resources.

The central model economists have in mind when trying to understand human choices involves “constrained optimization”: what decision will maximize a person, family, firm, or other agent’s objectives given their limitations? For example, someone that enjoys relaxing but also seeks a livable income must choose how much time to devote to working versus relaxing, given the constraint of having just 24 hours in the day, and given the wage they receive from working. An economist studying this decision may want to learn about how changes in the wage will affect that person’s choice of working hours, or how much they dislike working relative to relaxing. Along similar lines, early ecologists theorized that organisms could be selected for one of two optimization strategies: minimizing the time spent acquiring a given amount of energy (i.e., calories from food), or maximizing total energy acquisition per unit of time (Real et al. 1991). Foundational work in the field of economics clarified numerous technical details about formulating and solving such optimization problems. Returning to the example of the leisure time decision, economic theory asks: does it matter if we model this decision as maximizing income given wages and limited time, or as minimizing hours spent working given a desired lifetime income?; can we formulate a “utility function” that  describes how well-off someone is with a given income and amount of leisure?; can we solve for the optimal amount of leisure with pen and paper? The toolkit arising from this work serves as a jumping off point for all contemporary economic research, and the kinds of choices understood under this framework is vast, from, where should a child attend school?; to, how should a government allocate its budget across public resources?

Early work in ecology drew from foundational concepts in economics, following the realization that the strategies by which organisms exploit resources most efficiently also involve optimization. This parallel was articulated by MacArthur and Pianka in their foundational 1966 paper Optimal Use of a Patchy Environment, in which they state: “In this paper we undertake to determine in which patches a species would feed and which items would form its diet if the species acted in the most economical fashion. Hopefully, natural selection will often have achieved such optimal allocation of time and energy expenditures.” Subsequently, this idea was refined into what is known in ecology as the marginal value theorem, which states that an animal should remain in a prey patch until the rate of energy gain drops below the expected energy gain in all remaining available patches (Charnov 1976). In other words, if it is more profitable to switch prey patches than to stay, an animal should move on. These optimization models therefore allow ecologists to pose specific evolutionary and behavioral hypotheses, such as examining energy acquisition over time to understand selective forces on foraging behavior.

As the largest animals on the planet, blue whales have massive prey requirements to meet energy demands. However, they must balance their need to feed with costs such as oxygen consumption during breath-holding, the travel time it takes to reach prey patches at depth, the physiological constraints of diving, and the necessary recuperation time at the surface. It has been demonstrated that blue whales forage selectively to optimize this energetic budget. Therefore, blue whales should only feed on krill aggregations when the energetic gain outweighs the cost (Fig. 1), and this pattern has been empirically demonstrated for blue whale populations in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada (Doniol-Valcroze et al. 2011), in the California Current, (Hazen et al. 2015) and in New Zealand (Torres et al. 2020).

Figure 1. Figure reprinted from Hazen et al. 2015, illustrating how a blue whale should theoretically optimize foraging success in two scenarios. Energy gained from feeding is shown by the blue lines, whereas the cost of foraging in terms of declining oxygen stores during a dive is illustrated by the red lines. On the left (panel B), the whale maximizes its energy gain by increasing the number of feeding lunges (shown by black circles) at the expense of declining oxygen stores when prey density is high. On the right (panel C), the whale minimizes oxygen use by reducing the number of feeding lunges when prey density is low.

The notion of the marginal value theorem is likewise at work in countless economic settings. Economic theory predicts that a farmer cultivating two crops would allocate resources into each crop such that the returns to adding more resources into each crop are the same. If not, she should move resources from the less productive crop to the one where marginal gains are larger. A fisherman, according to this notion, continues to fish longer into the season until the marginal value of one additional day at sea equals the marginal cost of their time, effort, and expenses. These predictions are intuitive by the same logic as the blue whale choosing where to forage, and derive from the mathematics of constrained and unconstrained optimization. Reassuringly, empirical work finds evidence of such profit-maximizing behavior in many settings. In a recent working paper, Burlig, Preonas, and Woerman explore how farmers’ water use in California responds to changes in the price of electricity, which effectively makes groundwater irrigation more expensive due to electric pumping. They find that farmers are very responsive to these changes in marginal cost. Farmers achieve this reduction in water use predominantly by switching to less water-intensive crops and fallowing their land (Burlig, Preonas, and Woerman 2020).

Undoubtedly there are fundamental differences between an ecosystem with interacting biotic and abiotic components and the human-economic environment with its many social and political structures. But for certain types of questions, the parallels across the shared optimization problems are striking. The foundational theories discussed here have paved the way for subsequent advances in both disciplines. For example, the field of behavioral ecology explores how competition and cooperation between and within species affects fitness of populations. Reflecting on early seminal work lends some perspective on how an area of research has evolved. Likewise, exploring parallels between disciplines sheds light on common threads, in turn revealing insights into each discipline individually.

References:

Burlig, Fiona, Louis Preonas, and Matt Woerman (2020). Groundwater, energy, and crop choice. Working Paper.

Charnov EL (1976) Optimal foraging: The marginal value theorem. Theoretical Population Biology 9:129–136.

Doniol-Valcroze T, Lesage V, Giard J, Michaud R (2011) Optimal foraging theory predicts diving and feeding strategies of the largest marine predator. Behavioral Ecology 22:880–888.

Hazen EL, Friedlaender AS, Goldbogen JA (2015) Blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) optimize foraging efficiency by balancing oxygen use and energy gain as a function of prey density. Science Advces 1:e1500469–e1500469.

MacArthur RH, Pianka ER (1966) On optimal use of a patchy environment. The American Naturalist 100:603–609.

Real LA, Levin SA, Brown JH (1991) Part 2: Theoretical advances: the role of theory in the rise of modern ecology. In: Foundations of ecology: classic papers with commentaries.

Samuelson, Paul (1947). Foundations of Economic Analysis. Harvard University Press.

Torres LG, Barlow DR, Chandler TE, Burnett JD (2020) Insight into the kinematics of blue whale surface foraging through drone observations and prey data. PeerJ 8:e8906.

Are there picky eaters in the PCFG?

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

As anyone who has ever been, or raised, a picky eater knows, humans have a wide range of food preferences. The diversity of available cuisines is a testament to the fact that we have individual food preferences. While taste is certainly a primary influence, nutritional benefits and accessibility are other major factors that affect our eating choices. But we are not the only species to have food preferences. In cetacean research, it is common to study the prey types consumed by a population as a whole. Narrowing these prey preferences down to the individual level is rare. While the individual component is challenging to study and to incorporate into population models, it is important to consider what the effects of individual foraging specialization might be.

To understand the role and drivers of individual specialization in population ecology, it is important to first understand the concepts of niche variation and partitioning. An animal’s ecological niche describes its role in the ecosystem it inhabits (Hutchinson, 1957). A niche is multidimensional, with dimensions for different environmental conditions and resources that a species requires. One focus of my research pertains to the dimensions of the niche related to foraging. As discussed in a previous blog, niche partitioning occurs when ecological space is shared between competitors through access to resources varies across different dimensions such as prey type, foraging location, and time of day when foraging takes place. Niche partitioning is usually discussed on the scale of different species coexisting in an ecosystem. Pianka’s theory stating that niche partitioning will increase as prey availability decreases uses competing lizard species as the example (Pianka, 1974). Typically, niche partitioning theory considers inter-specific competition (competition between species), but niche partitioning can take place within a species in response to intra-specific competition (competition between individuals of the same species) through individual niche variation.

A species that consumes a multitude of prey types is considered a generalist while one with a specific prey type is considered a specialist. Gray whales are considered generalists (Nerini, 1984). However, we do not know if each individual gray whale is a generalist or if the generalist population is actually composed of individual specialists with different preferences. One way to test for the presence of individual specialization is to compare the niche width of the population to the niche width of each individual (Figure 1, Bolnick et al., 2003).  For example, if a population eats five different types of prey and each individual consumed those prey types, those individuals would be generalists. However, if each individual only consumed one of the prey types, then those individuals would be specialists within a generalist population.

Figure 1. Figure from Bolnick et al. 2003. The thick curve represents the total niche of the population and the thin curves represent individual niches. Note that in both panels the population has the same total niche. In panel A, the individual curves overlap and are all pretty wide. These curves represent individual generalists that make up a generalist population. In panel B, the thin curves are narrower and do not overlap as much as those in panel A. These curves represent individual specialists that make up a generalist population.

If individual specialization is present in a population the natural follow-up question is why? To answer this, we look for common characteristics between the individuals that are similarly specialized. What do all the individuals that feed on the same prey type have in common? Common characterizations that may be found include age, sex, or distinct morphology (such as different beak or body shapes) (Bolnick et al., 2003).

Woo et al. (2008) studied individual specialization in Brünnich’s guillemot, a generalist sea bird species, using diet and tagging data. They found individual specialization in both diet (prey type) and behavior (dive depth, shape, and flight time). Specialization occurred across multiple timescales but was higher over short-time scales. The authors found that it was more common for an individual to specialize in a prey-type/foraging tactic for a few days than for that specialization to continue across years, although a few individuals were specialists for the full 15-year period of the study. Based on reproductive success of the studies birds, the authors concluded that the generalist and specialist strategies were largely equivalent in terms of fitness and survival. The authors searched for common characteristics in the individuals with similar specialization and they found that the differences between sexes or age classes were so small that neither grouping explained the observed individual specialization. This is an interesting result because it suggests that there is some missing attribute, that of the authors did not examine, that might explain why individual specialists were present in the population.

Hoelzel et al. (1989) studied minke whale foraging specialization by observing the foraging behaviors of 23 minke whales over five years from a small boat. They identified two foraging tactics: lunge feeding and bird-associated feeding. Lunge feeding involved lunging up through the water with an open mouth to engulf a group of fish, while bird-associated feeding took advantage of a group of fish being preyed on by sea birds to attack the fish from below while they were already being attacked from above. They found that nine individuals used lunge feeding, and of those nine, six whales used this tactic exclusively. Five of those six whales were observed in at least two years. Seventeen whales were observed using bird-associated feeding, 14 exclusively. Of those 14, eight were observed in at least two years. Interestingly, like Woo et al. (2008), this study did not find any associations between foraging tactic use and sex, age, or size of whale. Through a comparison of dive durations and feeding rates, they hypothesized that lunge feeding was more energetically costly but resulted in more food, while bird-associated feeding was energetically cheaper but had a lower capture rate. This result means that these two strategies might have the similar energetic payoffs.

Both of these studies are examples of questions that I am excited to ask using our data on the PCFG gray whales feeding off the Oregon coast (especially after doing the research for this blog). We have excellent individual-specific data to address questions of specialization because the field teams for  this project always carefully link observed behaviors with individual whale ID.  Using these data, I am curious to find out if the whales in our study group are individual specialists or generalists (or some combination of the two). I am also interested in relating specific tactics to their energetic costs and benefits in order to assess the payoffs of each foraging tactic. I then hope to combine the results of both analyses to assess the payoffs of each individual whale’s strategy.

Figure 2. Example images of two foraging tactics, side swimming (left) and headstanding (right). Images captured under NOAA/NMFS permit #21678.

Studying individual specialization is important for conservation. Consider the earlier example of a generalist population that consumes five prey items but is composed of individual specialists. If the presence of individual specialization is not accounted for in management plans, then regulations may protect certain prey types or foraging tactics/areas of the whales and not others. Such a management plan could be a dangerous outcome for the whale population because only parts of the population would be protected, while other specialists are at risk, thus potentially losing genetic diversity, cultural behaviors, and ecological resilience in the population as a whole. A plan designed to maximize protection for all the specialists would be better for the population because populations with increased ecological resilience are more likely to persist through periods of rapid environmental change. Furthermore, understanding individual specialization could help us better predict how a population might be affected by environmental change. Environmental change does not affect all prey species in the same way. An individual specialization study could help identify which whales might be most affected by predicted environmental changes. Therefore, in addition to being a fascinating and exciting research question, it is important to test for individual specialization in order to improve management and our overall understanding of the PCFG gray whale population.

References

Bolnick, D. I., Svanbäck, R., Fordyce, J. A., Yang, L. H., Davis, J. M., Hulsey, C. D., & Forister, M. L. (2003). The ecology of individuals: Incidence and implications of individual specialization. American Naturalist, 161(1), 1–28. https://doi.org/10.1086/343878

Hoelzel, A. R., Dorsey, E. M., & Stern, S. J. (1989). The foraging specializations of individual minke whales. Animal Behaviour, 38(5), 786–794. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0003-3472(89)80111-3

Hutchinson, G. E. (1957). Concluding Remarks. Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology, 22(0), 415–427. https://doi.org/10.1101/sqb.1957.022.01.039

Nerini, M. (1984). A Review of Gray Whale Feeding Ecology. In The Gray Whale: Eschrichtius Robustus (pp. 423–450). Elsevier Inc. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-092372-7.50024-8

Pianka, E. R. (1974). Niche Overlap and Diffuse Competition. 71(5), 2141–2145.

Woo, K. J., Elliott, K. H., Davidson, M., Gaston, A. J., & Davoren, G. K. (2008). Individual specialization in diet by a generalist marine predator reflects specialization in foraging behaviour. Journal of Animal Ecology, 77(6), 1082–1091. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2656.2008.01429.x

New Zealand blue whale research in the time of COVID

By Grace Hancock, Undergraduate Student at Kalamazoo College MI, GEMM Lab Intern (June 2020 to present)

It feels safe to say that everyone’s plans for the summer of 2020 went through a roller coaster of changes due to the pandemic. Instead of the summer research or travel plans that many undergraduate students, including myself, expected, many of us found ourselves at home, quarantining, and unsure of what to do with our time. Although it was unexpected, all that extra time brought me serendipitously to the virtual doorstep of the GEMM Lab. A few zoom calls and many, many emails later I am now lucky to be a part of the New Zealand Blue Whale photo-ID team. Under Leigh’s and Dawn’s guidance, I picked up the photo identification project where they had left it and am helping to advance this project to its next stage.

The skin of a blue whale is covered by distinct markings similar to a unique fingerprint. Thus, these whales can have a variety of markings that we use to identify them, including mottled pigmentation, pock marks (often caused by cookie cutter sharks), blisters, and even holes in the dorsal fins and flukes.

Figure 1. Examples of skin conditions that help in matching demonstrated on a photo of NZBW052 on the 10/9/2015

True blue blog fans may remember that in 2016 Dawn began the very difficult work of creating a photo ID catalog of all the blue whales that the GEMM Lab had encountered during field work in the South Taranaki Bight in New Zealand. Since that post, the catalog has grown and become an incredibly useful tool. When I came to the lab, I received a hard drive containing all the work Dawn had done to-date with the catalog, as well as two years of photos from various whale watching trips in the Hauraki Gulf of New Zealand. The goal of my internship was to integrate these photos into the GEMM catalog Dawn had created and, hopefully, identify some matches of whales between the two datasets.  If there were any matches – and if I found no matches – we would gain information about whale movement patterns and abundance in New Zealand waters.

Before we could dive into this exciting matching work, there was lots of data organization to be done. Most of the photos I analyzed were provided by the Auckland Whale and Dolphin Safari (AWADS), an eco-tourism company that does regular whale watching trips in the Hauraki Gulf, off the North Island of New Zealand. The photos I worked with were taken by people with no connection to the lab and, because of this, were often filled with pictures of seals, birds, and whatever else caught the whale watcher’s eye. This dataset led to hours of sorting, renaming, and removing photos. Next, I evaluated each photo of a whale to determine photo-quality (focus, angle to the camera, lighting) and then I used the high-quality photos where markings are visible to begin the actual matching of the whales.

Figure 2. The fluke of NZBW013 taken on 2/2/2016 with examples of unique nicks and markings that could be used to match

Blue whales are inarguably massive organisms. For this reason, it can be hard to know what part of the whale you’re looking at. To match the photos to the catalog, I found the clearest pictures that included the whale’s dorsal fin. For each whale I tried to find a photo from the left side, the right side, and (if possible) an image of its fluke. I could then compare these photos to the ones organized in the catalog developed by Dawn.

The results from my matching work are not complete yet, but there are a few interesting tidbits that I can share with our readers today. From the photos submitted by AWADS, I was able to identify twenty-two unique individual whales. We are in the process of matching these whales to the catalog and, once this is done, we will know how many of these twenty-two are whales we have seen before and how many are new individuals. One of the most exciting matches I made so far is of a whale known in our catalog as individual NZBW072. Part of what made this whale so exciting was the fact that it is the calf of NZBW031 who was spotted eight times from 2010-2017, in the Hauraki Gulf, off Kaikoura, and in the South Taranaki Bight. As it turns out, NZBW072 took after her mother and has been spotted a shocking nine times from 2010 to 2019, all in the Hauraki Gulf region. Many of the whales in our catalog have only been spotted once, so encountering two whales with this kind of sighting track record that also happen to be related is like hitting the jackpot.

Figure 3. NZBW072 photographed on 11/8/2010 (top photo taken by Rochelle Constantine in the Hauraki Gulf) and on 10/3/2019 (bottom photo taken by the Auckland Whale and Dolphin Safari) with marks circled in red or yellow to highlight the matched features.

Once I finish comparing and matching the rest of these photos, the catalog will be substantially more up-to-date. But that is not where the work stops. More photos of blue whales in New Zealand are frequently being captured, either by whale watchers in the Hauraki Gulf, fellow researchers on the water, keen workers on oil and gas rigs, or the GEMM Lab. Furthermore, the GEMM Lab contributes these catalog photos to the International Whaling Commission (IWC) Southern Hemisphere Blue Whale Catalog, which compiles all photos of blue whales in the Southern Ocean and enables interesting and critical conservation questions to be addressed, like “How many blue whales are there in the Southern Ocean?” Once I complete the matching of these 22 individuals, I will upload and submit them to this IWC collaborative database on behalf of the GEMM Lab. This contribution will expand the global knowledge of these whales and motivates me to continue this important photo ID work. I am so excited to be a part of this effort, through which I have learned important skills like the basics of science communication (through writing this blog post) and attention to detail (from working very closely with the photos I was matching). I know both of these skills, and everything else I have learned from this process, will help me greatly as I begin my career in the next few years. I can tell big things will come from this catalog and I will forever be grateful for the chance I have had to contribute to it.

GEMM Lab 2020: A Year in the Life

By Lisa Hildebrand, PhD student, OSU Department of Fisheries & Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Despite the trials and tribulations of 2020, the GEMM Lab has persevered and experienced many successes and high points. Join me, perhaps with a holiday beverage of choice in-hand, for a summary of what the lab and its members have achieved this year.

The GEMM Lab celebrated several milestones this year. We were all extremely excited and proud when halfway through the year, in July, GEMM Lab PI, Dr. Leigh Torres, was promoted to Associate Professor and granted indefinite tenure in the Department of Fisheries & Wildlife. Leigh joined the department in 2014 and has since completed 13 research projects, is leading 10 current research projects, has graduated 7 graduate students, and is currently advising 4 PhD students and a postdoctoral scholar. A big hurrah to Leigh, our inspiring and tireless captain at the GEMM Lab helm!!

Leigh isn’t the only GEMM Lab member to have received a new title. In March, Leila successfully defended her PhD thesis entitled “Body condition and hormone assessment of eastern North pacific gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) and associations to ambient noise” and thus graduated from being a PhD candidate to being Dr. Leila Soledade Lemos. Leila is currently a postdoctoral associate at Florida International University. I (Lisa Hildebrand) defended my Master’s thesis “Tonight’s specials include mysids, amphipods, and more: An examination of the zooplankton prey of Oregon gray whales and its impact on foraging choices and prey selection” just a few weeks ago and now bear the title of Master of Science. I am excited to announce that I won’t be leaving the GEMM Lab anytime soon as I will continue to  work with Leigh as I pursue my PhD. Our final new title recipient is Dawn who at the start of December advanced to PhD candidacy after successfully passing her written comprehensive exams in mid-November and her oral comprehensive exams in early December.

Summer is a busy time in the GEMM Lab, largely because it is the time when gray whales are distributed along our Oregon coast for their feeding season and therefore when both of our gray whale projects (GRANITE, or Gray whale Response to Ambient Noise Informed by Technology and Ecology, and the Port Orford foraging ecology project) collect another year of data. With the COVID-19 pandemic in its early stages in the spring (when we start to prep for our field seasons), it was uncertain whether we would be able to get into the field at all. However, after weeks of drafting up and submitting COVID-19 safety plans and precautions, Leigh was able to get both of our gray whale field seasons approved to go ahead this summer! This task was not easy since both projects require some form of travel and sampling methods that do not always allow for 6-feet of distance between team members. Furthermore, the Port Orford project requires the whole team to live and work out of OSU’s Port Orford Field Station together. Despite the hurdles, both projects had successful field seasons. If you want to hear more about the specifics of the field seasons, check out the field season summary blog.

Gray whales weren’t the only species to grab our attention in the field this year. OPAL (Overlap Predictions about Large whales) had a successful second year with Leigh and MMI faculty research assistant Craig Hayslip taking to the skies in United States Coast Guard helicopters four times a month. The project seeks to identify co-occurrence between whales and fishing effort in Oregon to reduce entanglement risk. Leigh and Craig documented numerous cetacean species including blue, fin, humpback, sperm whales, and killer whales. To help with this work, we are so excited to officially have Solène Derville back in the GEMM Lab as a postdoctoral scholar who will work on statistical models aimed at predicting habitat use and distribution patterns of whales off the Oregon coast. While our wish to physically welcome Solène back to Oregon this year did not quite pan out, we are hopeful that she will make the journey from New Caledonia to Oregon in 2021!

The data collected during the helicopter flights will be complimented by the marine mammal observer data that various members of the GEMM Lab have collected over the last four years aboard NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada as part of the Northern California Current Ecosystem survey. These surveys typically occur three times a year (February, May, September). Although the pandemic threw a wrench into the May cruise, the September cruise was able to go ahead with Dawn and Clara on-board as the two marine mammal observers. It was a very successful cruise, with abundant marine mammal sightings and good survey conditions. Read more about those cruises in Clara and Dawn’s blogs.

While the GEMM Lab did not undertake any field work in New Zealand this year, Leigh and Dawn did travel there in February to meet with scientific colleagues, representatives of the oil and gas industry, and environmental managers, including the New Zealand Minister of Conservation, the Honorable Eugenie Sage. The trip allowed Leigh and Dawn to present their research on blue whales and discuss management implications. These meetings have been highly beneficial as they shared their latest research and results to assist with the development of a marine mammal sanctuary within the industrial region where their research is conducted.

The GEMM Lab prides itself on having strong outreach components to our research, ensuring that young students (high school and undergraduate) from diverse backgrounds have an opportunity to learn STEM skills. Some outreach opportunities were not possible in 2020, but the GEMM Lab continued our efforts where possible. Clara taught a photogrammetry workshop for the Marine Studies Initiative student club Ocean11, where students were taught how to measure whales from drone images. The success of the workshop (and earlier iterations of it in 2019) led to Clara turning it into a lab for Dr. Renee Albertson’s FW 469 Physiology/Behavior of Marine Megafauna class. As one of the program coordinators for the Fisheries & Wildlife Mentorship Program, I co-hosted an Intro to R & RStudio workshop this fall. Rachel taught a remote intensive science communication workshop during her first term in grad school. Although COVID-19 meant that one-on-one mentorships had to be a little more distant, over the course of the year, the GEMM Lab still supervised a total of 7 students that assisted our work in a variety of ways (field and/or lab work, data analyses, independent projects) on a number of projects going on in the lab.

In a typical year, GEMM Lab members would have undertaken quite a lot more travel, largely to attend conferences. Due to COVID-19, most conferences were either cancelled or held virtually. Leigh gave the plenary talk at the annual State of the Coast Conference, one of the favorite conferences of the GEMM Lab as it brings together scientists, stakeholders, managers, students, and the public to discuss Oregon-centric topics. Dawn gave an oral presentation at the International Marine Conservation Congress. The talk was titled “Wind, green water, and blue whales: Predictive models forecast blue whale distribution in an upwelling system to mitigate industrial impacts” as part of a symposium focused on evidence-based solutions for the management of large marine vertebrate species. Clara presented at the annual Research Advances in Fisheries, Wildlife & Ecology symposium hosted by the graduate student association in the Department of Fisheries & Wildlife. Clara’s talk, which was about her proposed PhD research, was titled “Drone footage reveals patterns of gray whale behavior across space, time, and the individual”.

While our travel may have been reduced this year, the lab certainly has had a prolific year of writing! The 19 new publications in 16 scientific journals include contributions from Leigh (6), Leila (5), Rachael (4), Solène (3), Clara (3), Dawn (2), and Ale (1). Scroll down to the end of the post to see the full list.

We are also very excited about a new addition to the lab. Rachel Kaplan, who is co-advised by Leigh and Dr. Kim Bernard in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, started her PhD at OSU in the fall. Rachel is one of this year’s recipients of the highly-competitive National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship. Receiving the fellowship allowed Rachel to wrap up her job at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Maine and move to Oregon. The journey wasn’t easy (Rachel moved in the midst of the pandemic and during the height of the wildfires that raged across the U.S. West Coast) but she made it here safely! For her PhD, Rachel will try to understand how oceanographic factors and prey patches shape the distribution of whales in Oregon waters (with data collected through the OPAL project) to work towards solutions to the high rates of whale entanglements in fishing gear that have occurred on the West Coast since 2014. Welcome Rachel! 

While we persevered through tough times this year and have been lucky to celebrate many accomplishments, nothing prepared us for the shock that we all felt, and are still feeling deeply, about the loss of our fellow GEMM Lab graduate student Alexa Kownacki just over a month ago. Alexa’s optimism, generosity, and kindness were unparalleled, and the hole that she leaves in the lab and in our lives individually is gaping. The lab wrote a collaborative blog about Alexa a few weeks ago and we have created a website in her honor, where we encourage everyone to post photos, tributes or stories about Alexa. It has been so comforting to us to read people’s memories of Alexa that allow us to learn new things about her and remind us of our own memories. Alexa, we think of you every day and we miss you.

Alexa in her element

If you are reading this post, we would like to say thank you for all the support and interest in our work – we really appreciate it! Our blog’s viewership this year (a whopping 25,588 views!) has increased over a seven-fold since its creation in 2015 (3,462 views). We hope you will continue to join us on our journeys in 2021. Until then, stay safe, mask up & happy holidays from the GEMM Lab!

A GEMM Lab Happy Hour Zoom

Publications

Ajó, A. A. F., Hunt, K. E., Giese, A. C., Sironi, M., Uhart, M., Rowntree, V. J., Marón, C. F., Dillon, D., DiMartino, M., & Buck, C. L. (2020). Retrospective analysis of the lifetime endocrine response of southern right whale calves to gull wounding and harassment: A baleen hormone approach. General and Comparative Endocrinology, 296, 113536.

Albert, C., …, Orben, R. A., et al. (2020). Seasonal variation of mercury contamination in Arctic seabirds: a pan-arctic assessment. Science of the Total Environment, 750, 142201.

Barlow, D. R., Bernard, K. S., Escobar-Flores, P., Palacios, D. M., & Torres, L. G. (2020). Links in the trophic chain: modeling functional relationships between in situ oceanography, krill, and blue whale distribution under different oceanographic regimes. Marine Ecology Progress Series642, 207-225.

Baylis, A. M. M., Tierney, M., Orben, R. A., González de la Peña, D., & Brickle, P. (2020). Non-breeding movements of Gentoo penguins at the Falkland Islands. Ibis, doi:10.1111/ibi.12882.

Bird, C., & Bierlich, K.. (2020).  CollatriX: A GUI to collate MorphoMetriX outputs. Journal of Open Source Software5(51), 2328. doi:10.21105/joss10.21105/joss.02328.

Bird, C., Dawn, A. H., Dale, J., & Johnston, D. W. (2020). A Semi-Automated Method for Estimating Adélie Penguin Colony Abundance from a Fusion of Multispectral and Thermal Imagery Collected with Unoccupied Aircraft Systems. Remote Sensing12(22), 3692. doi:10.3390/rs12223692.

Chero, G., Pradel, R., Derville, S., Bonneville, C., Gimenez, O., & Garrigue, C. (2020). Reproductive capacity of an endangered and recovering population of humpback whales in the Southern Hemisphere. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 643, 219-227.

Derville, S.Torres, L. G., Zerbini, A. N., Oremus, M., & Garrigue, C. (2020). Horizontal and vertical movements of humpback whales inform the use of critical pelagic habitats in the western South Pacific. Scientific Reports, 10, 4871.

DiGiacomo, A. E., Bird, C., Pan, V. G., Dobroski, K., Atkins-Davis, C., Johnston, D. W., & Ridge, J. T.. (2020). Modeling Salt Marsh Vegetation Height Using Unoccupied Aircraft Systems and Structure from Motion. Remote Sensing12(14), 2333. doi:10.3390/rs12142333.

Garrigue, C., Derville, S., Bonneville, C., Baker, C. S., Cheeseman, T., Millet, L., Paton, D., & Steel, D. (2020). Searching for humpback whales in a historical whaling hotspot of the Coral Sea, South Pacific. Endangered Species Research, 42, 67-82.

Hauser-Davis, R. A., Monteiro, F., Chávez da Rocha, R. C., Lemos, L., Duarte Cardoso, M., & Siciliano, S. (2020). Titanium as a contaminant of emerging concern in the aquatic environment and the current knowledge gap regarding seabird contamination. Ornithologia, 11, 7-15.

Hindell, M. A., … Torres, L. G., et al. (2020). Tracking of marine predators to protect Southern Ocean ecosystems. Nature, 580(7801), 87-92.

Jones, K. A., Baylis, A. M. M., Orben, R. A., Ratcliffe, N., Votier, S. C., Newton, J., & Staniland, I. J. (2020). Stable isotope values in South American fur seal pup whiskers as proxies of year-round maternal foraging ecology. Marine Biology, 167(10), 1-11.

Kroeger, C. E., Crocker, D. E., Orben, R. A., Thompson, D. R., Torres, L. G., Sagar, P. M., Sztukowski, L. A., Andriese, T., Costa, D. P., & Shaffer, S. A. (2020). Similar foraging energetics of two sympatric albatrosses despite contrasting life histories and wind-mediated foraging strategies. Journal of Experimental Biology, 223, jeb228585.

Lemos, L. S., Olsen, A., Smith, A., Chandler, T. E., Larson, S., Hunt, K., & Torres, L. G. (2020). Assessment of fecal steroid and thyroid hormone metabolites in eastern North Pacific gray whales. Conservation Physiology, 8, coaa110.

Monteiro, F., Lemos, L. S., et al. (2020). Total and subcellular Ti distribution and detoxification processes in Pontoporia blainvillei and Steno bredanensis dolphins from southeastern Brazil. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 153, 110975.

Quinete, N., Hauser-Davis, R. A., Lemos, L. S., Moura, J. F., Siciliano, S., & Gardinali P. R. (2020). Occurrence and tissue distribution of organochlorinated compounds and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in Magellanic penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus) from the southeastern coast of Brazil. Science of the Total Environment, 749, 141473.

Soledade Lemos, L., Burnett, J. D., Chandler, T. E., Sumich, J. L., & Torres, L. G. (2020). Intra- and inter-annual variation in gray whale body condition on a foraging ground. Ecosphere, 11(4), e03094.

Torres, L. G., Barlow, D. R.Chandler, T. E., & Burnett, J. D. (2020). Insight into the kinematics of blue whale surface foraging through drone observations and prey data. PeerJ8, e8906.

Five mind-blowing facts about sperm whales

By Solène Derville, Postdoctoral Scholar, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Having worked almost exclusively on humpback whales for the past 5 years, I recently realized how specialized I have become when I was asked to participate in an expedition targeting another legendary cetacean, which I discovered I knew so little about: the sperm whale. On November 18th I boarded a catamaran with a team of 8 other seamen, film makers and scientists, all ready to sail off the west coast of New Caledonia in the search of this elusive animal. The expedition was named “Code CODA” in reference to the unique patterned series of clicks produced by sperm whales.

As I prepared for the expedition, I did my scientific literature homework and felt a growing awe for sperm whales. At every step of my research, whether I investigated their morphology, physiology, social behavior, feeding habits… everything about them appeared to be exceptional. Below is a list summarizing five mind-blowing facts everyone should know about sperm whales.

A sperm whale sketch I made on the boat in preparation for this blog post (Illustration credit: Solène Derville)

Sea giants

 Sperm whales are the largest of the odontocetes species, which is the group of “toothed whales” that also includes dolphins, porpoises and beaked whales. They show a strong sexual dimorphism, unusual for a cetacean, as adult males can be about twice as big as adult females. Indeed, male sperm whales can reach up to 18 m and 56 tons (approximately the weight of 9 elephants!). Their massive block-shaped head is perhaps their most distinctive feature. It contains the largest brain in the animal kingdom and as a comparison, it is claimed that an entire car could fit in it! By its morphology alone, the sperm whale hence appears like an all-round champion of cetaceans.

Abyssal divers

 Sperm whales are some of the best divers among air-breathing sea creatures. They have been recorded down to 2,250 m, and sperm whale carcasses have been found entangled in deep-sea cables suggesting that they can dive even deeper. In these dark and cold waters, sperm whales hunt for fish and squids (and sometimes check out ROVs, see videos of a surprising deep sea encounter made in 2015 off the coast of Louisiana, on Nautilus Live). They are renowned for attacking giant (Architeuthis spp) and colossal (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) squids, which can reach more than 10 m in length. The squid sucker scars born by sperm whales give evidence of these titan combats. Because sperm whales only have teeth on the lower jaw, they cannot chew and may end up eating their prey alive. But every problem has its solution… sperm whales have evolved the longest digestive system in the world: it can reach 300 m long! Their stomach is divided into four compartments, the first of which is covered by a thick and muscular lining that can resist the assault of live prey.

Deluxe poopers  

The digestion of sperm whale prey happens in the next digestive compartments, but one component will resist: the squids’ beaks! As beaks accumulate in the digestive system (up to 18,000 beaks were found in a specimen!), they cause an irritation that is responsible for the production of a waxy substance known as ‘ambergris’. After a while, this substance is thought to be occasionally secreted along with the whale’s poop (although it has been speculated that large pieces of ambergris might be expelled by the mouth… charming!). Ambergris may be found floating at sea or washed up on coastlines, where it may make one happy beachcomber! The latest report of such a lucky finding of ambergris in 2016 was estimated at more than US$71,000 for a 1.57 kg lump. Indeed, ambergris is a valued additive used in perfume, although it has now mostly been replaced by synthetic equivalents. The use of ambergris in cooking, incense or medication in ancient Egypt and the Middle Ages is also reported.

Ambergris lump found in the UK in 2018 (photo credit: APEX, source: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-devon-42703991)

Caring whales

Sperm whales are highly social animals. They are organized in “clans” with their own vocal repertoire and behavioral traits that differ geographically. Clans are formed by several connected social units, which are ruled by a complex matrilineal system. While adult males typically live solitary lives, females remain in family units composed of their close female relatives. Within these groups, females take communal care of the calves, even nursing the calves of other females. Every female can act as a babysitter to the group’s calves at the surface while the clan members perform deep foraging dives of approximately 40 min. Juvenile males may also provide care to the younger calves in the group as they remain in the group far past weaning, up to 9 to 19 years old. When attacked by predators (mostly killer whales), all the group members will protect the younger and most vulnerable individuals by adopting a compact formation, either the “marguerite” (facing inwards with their tails out and the young at the center for protection) or the “heads-out” version.

Social interaction in a pod of sperm whales… much like the whale version of a cuddle (photo credit: Tony Wu)

Powerful sonars

Like other toothed whales, sperm whales use sound to echolocate and communicate. But again, sperm whales stand out from the crowd with the unique spermaceti organ that allows them to produce the most powerful sound in the animal kingdom, reaching a source level of about 230 dB within frequencies of 5 to 25 kHz (this is louder than the sound of a jet engine at take-off). The spermaceti organ is a large cavity surrounded by a tough and fibrous wall called “the case”, and is filled with up to 1,900 liters of a fatty and waxy liquid called “spermaceti”. The spermaceti oil is chemically very different from the oils found in the melons (heads) of most other species of odontocetes, which also explains why sperm whales were particularly targeted by whalers of the 19th and 20th centuries. Indeed, the spermaceti oil has exceptional lubricant properties, and thus was used in fine machinery and even in the aerospace industry.

Original figure from Raven & Gregory 1933

Sperm whales are among the most widely distributed animals in the world, as they roam waters from the ice-edge to the equator. While pre-whaling global abundance is thought to have been 1,110,000 sperm whales, the most recent estimate suggests that only about a third of this number currently populates the ocean. It is our absolute duty to make sure that these marvelous, superlative animals recover from our past mistakes and that they can be admired by future generations.

Sources:

Gero, Shane, Jonathan Gordon, and Hal Whitehead (2013) “Calves as Social Hubs: Dynamics of the Social Network within Sperm Whale Units.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 280 (1763). https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2013.1113

Graber, Cynthia (2007) “Strange but True: Whale Waste Is Extremely Valuable.” Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/strange-but-true-whale-waste-is-valuable/

Møhl, Bertel, Magnus Wahlberg, Peter T. Madsen, Anders Heerfordt, and Anders Lund (2003) “The Monopulsed Nature of Sperm Whale Clicks.” The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 114 (2): 1143–54. https://doi.org/10.1121/1.1586258

Raven, H C, and William K Gregory (1933) “The Spermaceti Organ and Nasal Passages of the Sperm Whale (Physeter Catodon) and Other Odontocetes.” American Museum Novitates, no. 677.

Whitehead, Hal (2018) “Sperm Whale.” Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, 919–25. https://doi.org/10.1016/b978-0-12-804327-1.00242-9

A Multidisciplinary Treasure Hunt: Learning about Indigenous Whaling in Oregon

By Rachel Kaplan, PhD student, OSU College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

At this year’s virtual State of the Coast conference, I enjoyed tuning into a range of great talks, including one by Zach Penney from the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. In his presentation, “More Than a Tradition: Treaty rights and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission,” Penney described a tribal “covenant with resources,” and noted the success of this approach — “You don’t live in a place for 15,000 years by messing it up.”

Indigenous management of resources in the Pacific Northwest dates back thousands of years. From oak savannahs to fisheries to fires, local tribes managed diverse natural systems long before colonial settlement of the area that is now Oregon. We know comparatively little, however, about how Indigenous groups in Oregon interacted with whale populations before the changes brought by colonialism and commercial whaling.

Makah hunters in Washington bring a harvested whale into Neah Bay (Asahel Curtis/Washington State Historical Society).

I’m curious about how this missing knowledge could inform our understanding of the coastal Oregon ecosystems in which many GEMM Lab projects take place. My graduate research will be part of the effort to identify co-occurrence between whales and fishing in Oregon, with the goal of helping to reduce whale entanglement risk. Penney’s talk, ongoing conversations about decolonizing science, and my own concerns about becoming the scientist that I want to be, have all led me to ask a new set of questions: What did humans know in the past about whale distributions along the Oregon coast? What lost knowledge can be reclaimed from history?

As I started reading about historical Indigenous whale use in Oregon, I was struck by how little we know today, and how this learning process became a multidisciplinary treasure hunt. Clues as to how Indigenous groups interacted with whales along the Oregon coast lie in oral histories, myths, journals, and archaeological artifacts. 

Much of what I read hinged on the question: did Indigenous tribes in Oregon historically hunt whales? Many signs point to yes, but it’s a surprisingly tricky question to answer conclusively. Marine systems and animals, including seals and whales, remain an important part of cultures in the Pacific Northwest today – but historically, documentation of hunting whales in Oregon has been limited. Whale bones have been found in coastal middens, and written accounts describe opportunistic harvests of beached whales. However, people have long believed that only a few North American tribes outside of the Arctic regularly hunted whales. 

But in 2007, archaeologists Robert Losey and Dongya Yang found an artifact that started to shift this narrative. While studying a collection of tools housed at the Smithsonian Institution, they discovered the tip of a harpoon lodged in a whale flipper bone. This artifact came from the Partee site, which was inhabited around AD 300-1150 and is located near present-day Seaside, Oregon.

A gray whale ulna with cut marks found at the Partee site (Wellman, et al. 2017).

Through DNA testing, Losey and Yang determined that the harpoon was made of elk bone, and that the elk was not only harvested locally, but also used locally. This new piece of evidence suggested that whaling did in fact take place at the Partee site, likely by the Tillamook or Clatsop tribes that utilized this area.

Several years later, this discovery inspired Smithsonian Museum of Natural History archaeologist Torben Rick and University of Oregon PhD student Hannah Wellman to comb through the rest of the animal remains in the Smithsonian’s collection from northwest Oregon. Rick and Wellman scrutinized 187 whale bones for signs of hunting or processing, and found that about a quarter of the marks they inspected could have come from either hunting or the opportunistic harvest of stranded whales. They examined tools from the midden as well, and found that they were more suited to hunting animals, like seals and sea lions, or fishing. 

However, Wellman and Rick also used DNA testing to identify which whale species were represented in the midden – and the DNA analyses suggested a different story. Genetic results revealed that the majority of whale bones in the midden came from gray whales, a third from humpback whales, and a few from orca and minke. Modern gray whale stranding events are not uncommon, and so it follows logically that these bones could have simply come from people harvesting beached whales. However, humpback strandings are rare – suggesting that such a large proportion of humpback bones in the midden is likely evidence of people actively hunting humpback whales.

Percentage of whale species identified at the Partee site and percentage of species in the modern stranding record for the Oregon Coast (Wellman, et al. 2017).

These results shed new light on whale harvesting practices at the Partee Site, and, like so much research, they suggest a new set of questions. What does the fact that there were orca, minke, gray, and humpback whales off the Oregon coast 900 years ago tell us about the history of this ecosystem? Could artifacts that have not yet been found provide more conclusive evidence of hunting? What would it mean if these artifacts are found one day, or if they are never found?

As this fascinating research continues, I hope that new discoveries will continue to deepen our understanding of historic Indigenous whaling practices in Oregon – and that this information can find a place in contemporary conversations. Indigenous whaling rights are both a contemporary and contentious issue in the Pacific Northwest, and the way that humans learn about the past has much to do with how we shape the present. 

What we learn about the past can also change how we understand this ecosystem today, and provide new context as we try to understand the impacts of climate change on whale populations in Oregon. I’m interested in how learning more about historical Indigenous whaling practices could provide more information about whale population baselines, ideas for management strategies, and a new lens on the importance of whales in the Pacific Northwest. Even if we can’t fully reclaim lost knowledge from history, maybe we can still read enough clues to help us see both the past and present more fully.

Sources:

Braun, Ashley. “New Research Offers a Wider View on Indigenous North American Whaling.” Hakai Magazine, November 2016, www.hakaimagazine.com/news/new-research-offers-wider-view-indigenous-north-american-whaling/. 

Eligon, John. “A Native Tribe Wants to Resume Whaling. Whale Defenders Are Divided.” New York Times, November 2019. 

Hannah P. Wellman, Torben C. Rick, Antonia T. Rodrigues & Dongya Y. Yang (2017) Evaluating Ancient Whale Exploitation on the Northern Oregon Coast Through Ancient DNA and Zooarchaeological Analysis, The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology, 12:2, 255-275, DOI: 10.1080/15564894.2016.1172382

Losey, R., & Yang, D. (2007). Opportunistic Whale Hunting on the Southern Northwest Coast: Ancient DNA, Artifact, and Ethnographic Evidence. American Antiquity, 72(4), 657-676. doi:10.2307/25470439

Sanchez, Gabriel (2014). Conference paper: Cetacean Hunting at the Par-Tee site (35CLT20)?: Ethnographic, Artifact and Blood Residue Analysis Investigation.

Remembering Alexa

The GEMM Lab

Alexa Kownacki first contacted me in October 2016 to enquire about being my PhD student and joining the GEMM Lab. She spoke with passion, intellect, curiosity and honesty, to which I was immediately drawn. Over the next four years, we were privileged to have her brilliance, kindness, wit and effervescence in our world. I am devastated to communicate here – on the GEMM Lab blog that Alexa frequently contributed to with enthusiasm and talent – that Alexa Kownacki passed away on Tuesday, November 17, 2020. The GEMM Lab has been shocked and deeply saddened by losing Alexa from our lives. She embodied joy, and recognized and relished beauty everywhere, and in each of us. Her ability to give support, love, and understanding was limitless, as was her passion for marine conservation and education. Our sorrow is profound, but we want to remember Alexa’s life with the brightness, color and laughter it deserves, for that’s how she lived. Below are memories of Alexa from each of us in the GEMM Lab who knew and loved Alexa, followed by a video montage of Alexa in life. Please visit this memorial website to contribute your stories of Alexa, as well as read other tributes and post photos.

Leigh

Alexa loved the ocean and seemed more at-home while at-sea than almost anyone I know. I asked Alexa to join me aboard the RV Oceanus for a STEM research cruise in September 2018 where we took high school students and teachers to sea to teach them how we collect marine mammal and oceanographic data. (Alexa wrote a lovely blog about this cruise.) I was not surprised by her enthusiasm – that was her nature – but I was utterly amazed at how easily Alexa mentored the students, communicated with the crew, balanced teaching with humor and humility, created learning moments everywhere, and supported everyone on-board so they felt welcomed and comfortable. During this cruise, Alexa was my partner, my teammate. We were both in our element and shared so much joy with the privilege to be at-sea, laughter at the excitement and adventure, inspiration at watching the next generation of marine scientists learn, and awe for the beauty that the ocean holds. This is how I will remember you, Alexa. Your free, beautiful, kind, joyous spirit will always be with me.

Dom

For anyone who knew Alexa, you knew she had an uncanny ability to connect with others on such a personal level that made you feel truly valued and loved. No matter the circumstances, she made it a point to always show up for those she cared about, which makes it extremely difficult to choose just one memory to remember her by. Instead, I’m choosing to remember her by the way she made me feel, as a human and a friend. Even during the most challenging of times, Alexa always wanted to know how I was doing and what I was doing outside of school to take care of myself. I can’t count the number of times she pulled me away from my work to go out dancing at the Peacock or drag shows, hiking on our weekends, or even making short donut runs to Benny’s Donuts. She understood that even scientists have basic needs for personal connection, fun and enjoyment, and love. If there’s anything Alexa’s passing has taught me, it is this: always show up for your fellow scientists and colleagues as people and friends first, because our support for one another will no doubt leave a longer-standing and greater impact on this world than our achievements and discoveries. Her passing will be my constant reminder that we all deserve to be treated and valued with love and dignity. Alexa, thank you for teaching me this valuable lesson, and I hope I get the chance to impact someone else’s life, as much as you have mine. I love you, and I promise I’ll visit San Diego soon.

Lisa

Alexa, there are so many memories, experiences, and moments we had together that I will never forget, least of all the very first day I met you (fasten your seatbelts everyone, this story is a wildly unbelievable, yet very true, roller coaster ride). Summers were always extremely busy for you in San Diego. Yet, despite that, you didn’t hesitate when Leigh asked you to come up to Oregon in July 2018 to teach me, the newest GEMM Lab member, all there was to know about the Port Orford gray whale project. You had never met me before and you had only participated in the Port Orford project for a week the previous summer, but none of that stopped you. You flew to Portland from San Diego and made your way to Newport. We loaded up the MMI truck with all the gear and headed south towards Port Orford. So far, so good. Great, even! You pulled off the highway any chance we got so I could marvel at the beauty of the Oregon coast. But that all changed when we got to Coos Bay where we planned to stock up on groceries. You, ever so organized & thoughtful, had already compiled a grocery list but as we were going up and down the aisle, adding things to our cart, you suddenly realized that your phone was missing. We retraced our steps. Nothing. As always, you were quick on your feet, and connected to the Safeway wifi on your tablet to use the ‘Find My iPhone’ app to help solve the mystery. Lo-and-behold, your phone was no longer in the store…We drove to the location and arrived at what we always describe as a “creepy-looking motel” (although under any other circumstance the motel would have probably looked totally normal). We surveyed our surroundings and made notes (I still have that note on my phone) about all the people and vehicles we saw. One person in particular drew our attention because out of the back of his car he pulled out several…Safeway grocery bags!!! Feeling giddy about our amateur-sleuthing but also nervous because we were sitting in a pretty conspicuous white government truck in a motel parking lot, you decided that it was probably time to call the police. Two officers arrived and it soon was revealed that the man we had seen with Safeway bags had indeed just been at Safeway with his daughter. Apparently, his daughter had a habit of stealing and he told the officers he was confident that his daughter had stolen the phone and that he would call them as soon as he found it. There wasn’t much for us to do so you decided it would be best to drive to Port Orford, get settled in and once we heard from the police, we could drive back to Coos Bay. We did eventually hear from the police and drove all the way back to Coos Bay in the dark, only to find that your phone was completely destroyed. The night involved more adventures (including sleeping on the floor but that’s a whole other story), yet, the next day (the 4th of July), you let none of these events stop us from making s’mores (my first ones ever!) and watching the dinghy race & fireworks from the field station. You blazed on, with your unparalleled optimism and determination, to ensure that I not only learned everything that I needed to know to be able to run the project, but that we also had a great time while learning. Alexa, I will cherish the time we had together forever and I miss you so incredibly much.

Dawn

The day Alexa moved to Oregon to start graduate school, she learned that we were sailing here in Newport as part of Yaquina Bay Yacht Club’s Wednesday night race series. She had yet to move into her apartment, but she hopped on a sailboat that very evening. Alexa was in her element, with wind in her hair and salt spray on her face. She smiled through it all as her signature laughter rang out across the bay, and by the end of the evening she had easily become friends with the entire community. This was Alexa’s way of life. She leapt at opportunities, she poured her whole self into everything she did, and she connected with everyone immediately, deeply, and genuinely. Her optimism was unending. After long, stormy weather days at sea she would enthusiastically send a sunset photo with the caption “Red sky at night, sailors delight!” She lived every moment to the fullest, and she helped all of us see beauty, humor, and joy through her eyes. “Let’s document this, I’m taking a picture!” she’d say. Oftentimes, I’d roll my eyes. “Hey, Dawn you’re not in the picture. Lean in!” she’d insist. Now I have so many photos and memories to cherish. What a constant joy it was, dear Alexa, to be your labmate and your friend. What a heartbreaking reminder your sudden departure is to take nothing for granted, to live life to the absolute fullest, to dance often and sing loudly, and to hold nothing back. Fair winds and following seas, you beautiful, bright spirit. We love and miss you dearly. Thank you for sharing your time on earth with all of us.

Leila

Alexa was a light in my life since I met her in Oregon. I first met Alexa while living in the dorms in Newport and got to be her roommate for that summer. She would always wake up in the morning and head to the basketball court with her laptop to do some exercises, always so energetic and enthusiastic! I also shared rooms with her on multiple other occasions, including my house when she needed a place and at all of the conferences we went to together. While I was pretty much dead after an entire day of talks and was ready to go to bed, she was getting ready to go dancing. She was always SO full of energy and life. Alexa indeed knew how to enjoy life, and did it graciously. 

She easily became one of my greatest friends in Oregon. She was my confidant during the struggles of grad life and was always supportive no matter what happened. Last year we were in Barcelona for a conference and my passport got lost in the mail system. She saw how nervous I was and made sure to accompany me to the other side of the city to go check if my passport had arrived, even if she already had plans for that night. Also, when I was about to defend my Ph.D. she would go do groceries for me to make sure I had enough ice cream while struggling with my presentation practice. Alexa had problems, many problems, but still went above and beyond to make sure all of her friends were taken care of. 

We both loved dancing and were taking dance classes in grad school. We tried to find a dance style that we both liked so we could go to dance together, but I was already taking hip hop classes and loved it. Alexa would not accept going to hip hop as she thought it was not an inclusive and diverse space and she wanted to spend her time meeting and cherishing diverse people. She was always so thoughtful and probably one of the most inclusive people I have ever met. 

Alexa’s contagious laugh, caring and optimism left me a deep mark that I am going to carry close to my heart throughout my life. She is such a great inspiration for how we should live our lives. I love you Alexa and miss you dearly. Thank you for everything. Rest in peace and keep shining wherever you are. I am sure this is just a “see you later”.

Alejandro

I had the joy to meet Alexa when I first visited the GEMM Lab in 2018, I will always remember her for her vibrant smile, her friendly kind, and for making me feel so welcomed when I arrived in Newport, she instantly made me feel among friends. I meet her so briefly because she was heading to San Diego for the summer to work on her research, she let me borrow her desk for me to work on while she was away and she left me a note written in Spanish, my native language, which meant a lot to me, and speaks about the kind of person she was, someone who would make you feel welcomed and would try finding things in common to engage and connect. We kept connected ever since, exchanging emails about work, whales, dolphins, or just to know about how we were doing, hoping to reunite again but, unfortunately, last summer due to COVID we could not meet again. The news about her leaving us just left me shocked, although I met her briefly she really impacted me, I want to be a bit like her, and be able to share the things I love in the way she did, with passion and vibrant enthusiasm. She will be missed.

Rachael

Alexa and I haven’t been in the same place at the same time for a while. On the top of my list for next time we crossed paths was to catch-up with her about her trip through the Northwest Passage and quiz her about the seabirds, the islands, and the polar bears. In September 2018, I agreed to join the R/V Oceanus on a STEM outreach cruise as a seabird observer. It was my first time as a seabird observer as I typically do better on land. I spent most of the first day in my bunk (I have queasy memories of making it up to the flying bridge, seeing the ocean, and quickly retreating). Luckily the cruise was long enough for me to gain my sea legs. I didn’t take any photos, but Alexa did and I can look back on those days through her eyes and remember the wonderful calm beautiful evening we spent on the back deck, her excitement and skill when we encountered whales, and her kind laughter when we spotted an albatross through the portal (and I wasn’t quite ready to go up to the flying bridge). I admired her outgoing confidence and enthusiasm and I will miss her presence in the GEMM lab family. In our field, people have the habit of coming round full circle and I also miss the future: reuniting with Alexa 10 years from now on a research cruise somewhere. Alexa – thank you for those moments we shared, your vision of life, and your efforts to make the ‘world a better place for all living creatures’.

Karen

Alexa threw kindness around like it was confetti and life was one big dance party. She freely gave of her time and energy and sought to raise those near her to her own level of excellence. Through her own example, she constantly reminded me, and many others, that being a kind, welcoming, and goodhearted person was just as important as academic or scientific success. Alexa always made me feel welcome in the GEMM lab (even though I’m adopted) for which I will always be grateful. What I admire most about Alexa is her strength and perseverance, and stubborn refusal to let anything life threw at her knock her off the course she chose for herself. Knowing Alexa was truly a gift. After receiving such a gift in my life, more than anything I want to say thank you to her. And so, to Alexa:Thank you for the beach breaks and the lunch dates and the ‘oh look, the sun’s out we gotta run out’ breaks. Thank you for the light and laughter you brought with you everywhere. Thank you for continually reminding me to find the joy in hard times and sitting with me in difficult moments until I could. Thank you for being goofy enough to stomp on seaweed or play on the swings with me. Thank you for keeping me entertained with silly jokes in Zoom meetings gone on too long. Thank you for being a cheerleader when I needed it, and for being so willing to share your positivity in the many pep talks you gave me. And most of all, thank you for the epic dance parties. I know you’re dancing wherever you are.

One example of Alexa’s endless determination – continuing to insist on taking selfies to document her friendships even in the age of social distancing.

Clara

I first met Alexa in Barcelona when I arrived at the apartment the GEMM lab was sharing for the conference. My first memory is that she greeted me like an old friend and made me feel instantaneously welcome. There was no awkward initial phase, we met and were friends. I adored every time we got a chance to catch up and chat. This past spring I had regular “zoom GIS dates” with Alexa to help her with GIS, but I have to admit these were 50% catch up time, and I’ve never been happier to be unproductive. She was never bothered by GIS crashing for the tenth time, something that would have most people banging their head on a desk, instead she would just say “ah well, ok so back to [whatever we were talking about]”. We bonded over field work and travel stories (she had the best travel stories). Whenever we spoke she was always supportive and kind, she truly believed in you and made sure you knew it. 

Alexa, your welcoming, enthusiastic, and encouraging spirit has been an inspiration that I will carry with me always. Thank you for everything, your warm, vibrant, and brilliant presence is deeply missed.

Alexa offered to take care of some of the library plants when it was preparing to close in March. We had to buckle the plants into the backseat of my car to transport them back to Corvallis, we both found this highly amusing and naturally, Alexa wanted to document it, I am so glad she did.

Florence

Alexa was one of those rare people who is genuinely, unapologetically excited about the universe and everything in it.  Like others have mentioned, if you weren’t her friend, it was only because you hadn’t met her yet. When you met her, she would quickly dig past traditional I-have-just-met-you small talk until she found a common passion or something to connect about. Our self evident enthusiasm for marine mammals and baking provided ample opportunities for geeking out together, but the ‘oh-wow-small-world’ moment that still makes me laugh is when we realised that her great uncle is the priest who celebrated my wedding!  

I will remember the dedication she had to maintaining the bonds of our GEMM Lab family, regularly driving across the coastal mountains for potlucks and boardgame nights (a 2 hr round trip most folks were reluctant to make!). I will remember her laughter whether she won or lost those games, and the way she insisted we make time to set aside our work and just exist as friends. I will remember her delight when I asked her to participate in a group weaving project, and the joy in her smile at learning a new skill. Alexa is inextricably woven into the tapestry of so many lives. The fabric of the community she helped build will hold her memory, and keep us warm with the blessing of her laughter.

–Like a Sailboat–

I am standing at the edge of the shore

A ship sails in the morning breeze

And heads for the open ocean

She is beauty, She is life.

I watch her ’til she disappears over the horizon.

Someone near me says << She is Gone >>

Gone where? Gone from my sight, that’s all.

Her mast is still as tall,

Her hull still holds the strength to carry

Her cargo of humanity

Her diminishment and loss from sight is in me, not in her.

And in the moment when someone near me say:

<< She is Gone >>

There are others who, seeing a sail on the horizon,

coming towards them,

exclaim with joy: << There She Is >>

This is death.

There are no dead,

Only people on both shores.

-Author unknown

To view a video montage put together by the GEMM lab click here.

Thank you for everything Alexa, we love and miss you, may your memory be a blessing.

Learning from teaching

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

Based on my undergrad experience I assumed that most teaching in grad school would be as a teaching assistant, and this would consist of teaching labs, grading, leading office hours, etc. However, now that I’m in graduate school, I realize that there are many different forms of teaching as a graduate student. This summer I worked as an instructor for an e-campus course, which mainly involved grading and mentoring students as they developed their own projects. Yet, this past week I was a guest teacher for Physiology and Behavior of Marine Megafauna, which was a bit more involved.

I taught a whale photogrammetry lab that I originally developed as a workshop with a friend and former lab mate, KC Bierlich, at the Duke University Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing (MaRRS) lab when I worked there. Similar to Leila’s work, we were using photogrammetry to measure whales and assess their body condition. Measuring a whale is a deceivingly simple task that gets complicated when taking into account all the sources of error that might affect measurement accuracy. It is important to understand the different sources of error so that we are sure that our results are due to actual differences between whales instead of differences in errors.

Error can come from distortion due to the camera lens, inaccurate altitude measurements from the altimeter, the whale being arched, or from the measurement process. When we draw a line on the image to make a measurement (Image 1), measurement process errors come from the line being drawn incorrectly. This potential human error can effect results, especially if the measurer is inexperienced or rushing. The quality of the image also has an effect here. If there is glare, wake, blow or refraction covering or distorting the measurer’s view of the full body of the whale then the measurer has to estimate where to begin and end the line. This estimation is subjective and, therefore, a source of error. We used the workshop as an opportunity to study these measurement process errors because we could provide a dataset including images of varying qualities and collect data from different measurers.

Image 1. Screenshot of measuring the widths along a minke whale in MorphoMetriX. Source: https://github.com/wingtorres/morphometrix/blob/master/images/Picture4.png

This workshop started as a one-day lecture and lab that we designed for the summer drone course at the Duke Marine Lab. The idea was to simultaneously teach the students about photogrammetry and the methods we use, while also using all the students’ measurements to study the effect of human error and image quality on measurement accuracy. Given this one-day format, we ambitiously decided to teach and measure in the morning, compile and analyze the students’ measurements over lunch, and then present the results of our error analysis in the afternoon. To accomplish this, we prepared as much as we could and set up all the code for the analysis ahead of time. This preparation meant several days of non-stop working, discussing, and testing, all to anticipate any issues that might come up on the day of the class.  We used the measuring software MorphoMetriX (Torres & Bierlich, 2020) that was developed by KC and a fellow Duke Marine Lab grad student Walter Torres. MorphoMetriX was brand new at the time, and this newness of the software meant that we didn’t yet know all the issues that might come up and we did not have time to troubleshoot. We knew this meant that helping the students install the software might be a bit tricky and sure enough, all I remember from the beginning of that first lab is running around the room helping multiple people troubleshoot at the same time, using use all the programming knowledge I had to discover new solutions on the fly.

While troubleshooting on the fly can be stressful and overwhelming, I’ve come to appreciate it as good practice. Not only did we learn how to develop and teach a workshop, we also used what we had learned from all the troubleshooting to improve the software. I also used the code we developed for the analysis as the starting blocks for a software package I then wrote, CollatriX (Bird & Bierlich, 2020), as a follow up software to MorphoMetriX. Aside from the initial troubleshooting stress, the workshop was a success, and we were excited to have a dataset to study measurement process errors. Given that we already had all the materials for the workshop prepared, we decided to run a few more workshops to collect more data.

That brings me to my time at here at OSU. I left the Duke MaRRS lab to start graduate school shortly after we taught the workshop. Interested in running the workshop here, I reached out to a few different people. I first ran the workshop here as an event organized by the undergraduate club Ocean11 (Image 2). It was fun running the workshop a second time, as I used what I learned from the first round; I felt more confident, and I knew what the common issues would likely be and how to solve them. Sure enough, while there were still some troubleshooting issues, the process was smoother and I enjoyed teaching, getting to know OSU undergraduate students, and collecting more data for the project.

Image 2. Ocean11 students measuring during the workshop (Feb 7, 2020).
Image credit: Clara Bird

The next opportunity to run the lab came through Renee Albertson’s physiology and behavior of marine megafauna class, but during the COVID era this class had other challenges. While it’s easier to teach in person, this workshop was well suited to be converted to a remote activity because it only requires a computer, the data can be easily sent to the students, and screen sharing is an effective way to demonstrate how to measure. So, this photogrammetry module was a good fit for the marine megafauna class this term that has been fully remote due to COVID-19.  My first challenge was converting the workshop into a lab assignment with learning outcomes and analysis questions. The process also involved writing R code for the students to use and writing step-by-step instructions in a way that was clear and easy to understand. While stressful, I appreciated the process of developing the lab and these accompanying materials because, as you’ve probably heard from a teacher, a good test of your understanding of a concept is being able to teach it. I was also challenged to think of the best way to communicate and explain these concepts. I tried to think of a few different explanations, so that if a student did not understand it one way, I could offer an alternative that might work better. Similar to the preparation for the first workshop, I also prepared for troubleshooting the students’ issues with the software. However, unlike my previous experiences, this time I had to troubleshoot remotely.

After teaching this photogrammetry lab last week my respect for teachers who are teaching remotely has only increased. Helping students without being able to sit next to them and walk them through things on their computer is not easy. Not only that, in addition to the few virtual office hours I hosted, I was primarily troubleshooting over email, using screen shots from the students to try and figure out what was going on. It felt like the ultimate test of my programming knowledge and experience, having to draw from memories of past errors and solutions, and thinking of alternative solutions if the first one didn’t work. It was also an exercise in communication because programming can be daunting to many students; so, I worked to be encouraging and clearly communicate the instructions. All in all, I ended this week feeling exhausted but accomplished, proud of the students, and grateful for the reminder of how much you learn when you teach.

References

Bird, C. N., & Bierlich, K. (2020). CollatriX: A GUI to collate MorphoMetriX outputs. Journal of Open Source Software, 5(51), 2328. https://doi.org/10.21105/joss.02328

Torres, W., & Bierlich, K. (2020). MorphoMetriX: a photogrammetric measurement GUI for morphometric analysis of megafauna. Journal of Open Source Software, 5(45), 1825. https://doi.org/10.21105/joss.01825

Boundaries in the dynamic ocean

By Dawn Barlow, PhD student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

The ocean is vast, ever-changing, and at first glance, seemingly featureless. Yet, we know that the warm, blue tropics differ from icy polar waters, and that temperate kelp forests are different from coral reefs. In the connected fluid environment of the global oceans, how do such different habitats exist, and what separates them? On a smaller scale, you may observe a current mixing line at the ocean surface, or dive down from the surface and feel the temperature drop sharply. In a featureless ocean, what boundaries exist, and how can we delineate between different environments?

These questions have been on my mind recently as I study for my PhD Qualifying Exams, an academic milestone that involves written and oral exams prepared by each committee member for the student. The subject matter spans many different areas, including ecological theory, underwater acoustics, oceanography, zooplankton dynamics, climate change and marine heatwaves, and protected area design. Yet, in my recent studying, I was struck by a realization: since when did my PhD involve so much physics? Atmospheric pressure differences generate wind, which drive global ocean circulation patterns. Density properties of seawater create structure in the ocean, and these physical features influence productivity and aggregate prey for predators such as whales. Sound propagates through the fluid ocean as a pressure wave, and its transmission is influenced by physical characteristics of the sound and the medium it moves through. Many of these examples can be distilled and described with equations rooted in physics. Physics doesn’t behave, it simply… is. In considering the vast and dynamic ocean, there is something quite satisfying in that simple notion. 

Circling back to boundaries in the ocean, there are changes in physical properties of the oceans that create boundaries, some stark and some nuanced. These physical features structure and partition the marine environment through differences in properties such as temperature, salinity, density, and pressure. Geographic partitions can occur in both horizontal and vertical dimensions of the water column, and on scales ranging from less than a kilometer to thousands of kilometers [1,2].

In the horizontal dimension, currents, fronts, and eddies mark transition zones between environments. In the time of industrial whaling, observations of temperature and salinity were made at the surface from factory whaling ships and examined to understand where the most whales were available for hunting. These early measurements identified temperature contour lines, or isotherms, and led to observations that whales were found in areas of stark temperature change and places where isotherms bent into “tongues” of interacting water masses [3,4] (Fig. 1). These areas where water masses of different properties meet are often areas of high productivity. Today, we understand that shelf break fronts, river plumes, tidal fronts, and eddies are important horizontal structures that drive elevated nutrient availability, phytoplankton production, and prey availability for mobile marine predators, including whales.

Figure 1. Surface temperature and salinity contour lines from measurements taken aboard a factory whaling ship in the Antarctic, reproduced from Nasu (1959).

In the vertical dimension, the water column is also structured into distinct layers. Surface waters are warmed by the sunlight and are often lower in salinity due to freshwater input from rain and runoff. Below this distinct surface portion of the water column, the temperature drops sharply in a layer known as the thermocline, and below which pressure and density increase with depth. The surface layer is subject to mixing from wind input, which can draw nutrients from below up into the photic zone and spur productivity. The alternation between stratification—a water column with distinctive layers—and mixing drives optimal conditions for entire food webs to thrive [1,2].

While I began this blog post by writing about boundaries that partition different ocean environments, I have continued to learn that those boundary zones are often critically important in their own right. I started by thinking about boundaries in terms of their importance for separation, but now understand that the leaky points between them actually spur ocean productivity. Features such as fronts, currents, mixed layers, and eddies separate water masses of different properties. However, they are not truly complete and rigid boundaries, and precisely for that reason they are uniquely important in promoting productive marine ecosystems.

Figure 2. Left: Some of the materials I am studying for my qualifying exams. Right: A blue whale surfaces in New Zealand’s South Taranaki Bight, the subject of my PhD and the lens through which I consider the concepts I am reading about (photo by L. Torres).

Many thanks to my PhD Committee members who continue to guide me through this degree and who I am lucky to learn from. In particular, the contents of this blog post were inspired by materials recommended by, and discussions with, Dr. Daniel Palacios.

References:

1.          Mann, K.H., and Lazier, J.R.N. (2006). Dynamics of Marine Ecosystems 3rd ed. (Blackwell Publishing).

2.          Longhurst, A.R. (2007). Ecological Geography of the Sea 2nd ed. (Academic Press).

3.          Nasu, K. (1959). Surface water conditions in the Antarctic whaling pacific area in 1956-57.

4.          Machida, S. (1974). Surface temperature fields in the Crozet and Kerguelen whaling grounds. Sci. Reports Whales Res. Inst. 26, 271–287.

Pretty science

By Solène Derville, Postdoc, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Ever since I was a teenager, I have been drawn to both arts and sciences. When I decided to go down the path of marine biology and research, I never thought I would one day be led to exploit my artistic skills as well as my scientific interests.

Processing data, coding, analyzing, modeling… these tasks form the core of my everyday work and are what generates my excitement and passion for research. But once a new result has come up, or a new hypothesis has been formed, how boring would it be to keep it for myself? Science is all about communication, exchanges with our peers, with stakeholders, and with the general public. Graphical representations have always been supported in research throughout the history of sciences, and particularly the life sciences (Figure 1).

I have come to realize how much I enjoy this aspect of my work, and also how much I wish I was better prepared for it! In this blogpost I will talk about visual communication in science, and tackle the question of how to make our plots, diagrams, powerpoints, figures, maps, etc. convey information that goes beyond any spoken language? I have compiled a few tips from the design and infographics fields that I think could be reinvested in our scientific communication material.

Figure 1. Illustration from anonymous biology book (credit: Katie Garrett)

Plan, order, design

This suggestion may appear like a rather simplistic piece of advice, but any form of communication should start with a plan. What is the name of my project, the goal, and the audience? A scientific conference poster will not be created with the same design as a flyer aimed at the general public, nor will the same tools be used. Libre office powerpoint, canva, inkscape, scribus, R, plotly, GIMP… these are the open-source software I use on a regular basis but there so many more possibilities!

For whatever the type of visual you want to create, there are two major rules that need to be considered. First, embrace the empty space! You may think that you are wasting space that could be filled by all sorts of extremely valuable pieces of information… but this empty space has a purpose all by itself. The empty space brings forward the central elements of your design and will help focus the attention of the viewer toward them (top panel of Figure 2). Second, keep it neat and aligned. Whether you choose to anchor elements to each other or to an invisible grid, pay attention to details so that all images and text in the design from a harmonious whole (bottom panel in Figure 2).

Figure 2. Empty spaces and alignment principles of design – examples presented by Kingcom (http://kingkom.net/12-criteres-hierarchie-visuelle/)

Alignment is also an essential aspect to consider when editing images. More than any text, images will provide the first impression to the viewer and may subjectively communicate ideas in an instant. To make them most effective, images may follow the ‘rule of thirds’. Imagine breaking the image down into thirds, hence creating four directive lines over it (Figure 3). Placing the points of interest of the image at the intersections or along the lines will provide balance and attract the viewer’s attention. In marine mammal science where we often use pictures of animals with the ocean as a background, aligning the horizon along one of these horizontal lines may be a good technique (which I have not followed in Figure 3 though!).

Figure 3. Rule of thirds example applied to a photo of a humpback whale calf (South Lagoon New Caledonia, credit: Opération Cétacés – Solène Derville). Notice how the tip of the calf’s jaw is at the intersection of two lines.

When adding text to images, it is important to not overwhelm illustrations with text by trying to use extensive written material (which happens much too often). I try to keep the text to the strict minimum and let the visuals speak for themselves. When including text over or next to an image, I place the text in the empty spaces, where the eye is drawn to (Figure 4). When using dark or contrasted images, I add a semi-transparent layer in between the text and the image to make my text pop out.

Figure 4. Text embedding example applied to a photo of a humpback whale calf (South Lagoon New Caledonia, credit: Opération Cétacés – Solène Derville). Notice how I placed the text in the empty space so that the nose of the calf would point to it.

Fonts

Tired of using Arial, Times and Calibri but don’t know which other font to pick? One good piece of advice I found online was to choose a font that complements the purpose of the design. To do so, it is necessary to choose the message before picking the font. There are three categories of fonts (show in Image 1):

– Serif (classic style designed for books as the little feet at the extremities of the letters guide the eye along the lines of text)

– Sans serif (designed to look clean on digital screen)

– Display (more personality, but to be used in small doses!)

Image 1. Examples of each font category

I have also learned that pairing fonts together is often about using opposites (Figure 5). Contrasting fonts are complementary. For instance, it is visually appealing to combine a very bold font with a very light font, or a round font with something tall. And if you need more font choices than the ones provided by your usual software, here is a web repository to freely download thousands of different fonts: https://www.dafont.com

Figure 5. Paired fonts example applied to a photo of a humpback whale calf (South Lagoon New Caledonia, credit: Opération Cétacés – Solène Derville). Notice how I combined a rounded  font with  a smaller  sans serif font.

Colors

Colors have inherent meaning that depends on individual cultures. Whether we want it or not, any plot, photo, or diagram that we present to an audience will carry a subliminal message depending on its color palette. So better make it fit with the message!

Let us go passed the boring blue shades we have used for all of our marine science presentations so far, and instead open ourselves up to an infinite choice of colors! Color nuances are defined by three things: hue (the color itself), saturation (intensity, whether the color looks more subtle or more vibrant), and value (how dark or light a color is, ranging from white to black). The color wheel helps us visualize the relationships between hues and pick the best associations (Figure 6).

Figure 6. The color wheel helps us visualize the relationships between hues and pick the best associations. Any of the principles above should work, from the simple monochromatic schemes to the more complex triad or tetradic schemes.

First, pick the main color, the hero color for your design. Choose a cool color (blues and greens) if you want to provide a calming impression or a warm color (reds and yellows) for something more energizing. This basic principle of color theory made me think back on the black/blue dark shaded presentations that I might have attended in the past and had trouble staying awake!

Now, create your color palette, which are the three to four colors that will compose your design, ideally combining some vibrant and some more neutral colors for contrast. For instance, in a publication, a color palette may be used consistently in all plots or figures to represent a set of variables, study areas, or species . Now how do you pick the right complementary colors? The color wheel provides you with a few basic principles that should help you choose a palette (Figure 6). From monochromatic to tetradic schemes, the choice is up to you:

– monochromatic colors: varying values or saturation of a given color picked in the wheel

– analogous colors: colors sitting next to each other in the wheel

– complementary color: colors sitting opposite to each other

If you are an R user, there are a myriad of color palettes available to produce your visuals. One of the most comprehensive list I have found was compiled by Emil Hvitfeldt in github (https://github.com/EmilHvitfeldt/r-color-palettes). For discrete color palettes, I enjoy using the Canva palettes, which are available both in the Canva designs and in R using the ‘canva’ library in combination with the ‘ggplot2’ library (https://www.canva.com/learn/100-color-combinations/).

In practice, this means I can produce R plots or maps with color codes that match those I use in my canva presentations or posters. And finally, thumbs up to Dawn and Clara for creating our very own GEMM lab color palette based on whale photos collected in the field (Figure 7: https://github.com/dawnbarlow/musculusColors)!

Figure 7: Example of a R plot colored with the musculusColors package using the blue whale “Bmlunge” palette (credit: Dawn Barlow & Clara Bird)

I hope these few tips help you make your science as look as pretty as it is in your mind!

Sources:

A lot of the material in this blog post was inspired by the free tutorials provided by Canva: https://designschool.canva.com/courses/graphic-design-basics/?lesson=design-to-communicate

About the rule of thirds: https://digital-photography-school.com/rule-of-thirds/

About alignment: https://blog.thepapermillstore.com/design-principles-alignment/