Following Tracks: A Summer of Research in Quantitative Ecology

**GUEST POST** written by Irina Tolkova from the University of Washington.

R, a programming language and software for statistical analysis, gives me an error message.

I mull it over. Revise my code. Run it again.

Hey, look! Two error messages.

I’m Irina, and I’m working on summer research in quantitative ecology with Dr. Leigh Torres in the GEMM Lab. Ironically, as much as I’m interested in the environment and the life inhabiting it, my background is actually in applied math, and a bit in computer science.

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(Also, my background is the sand dunes of Florence, OR, which are downright amazing.)

When I mention this in the context of marine research, I usually get a surprised look. But from firsthand experience, the mindsets and skills developed in those areas can actually be very useful for ecology. This is partly because both math and computer science develop a problem-solving approach that can apply to many interdisciplinary contexts, and partly because ecology itself is becoming increasingly influenced by technology.

Personally, I’m fascinated by the advancement in environmentally-oriented sensors and trackers, and admire the inventors’ cleverness in the way they extract useful information. I’ve heard about projects with unmanned ocean gliders that fly through the water, taking conductivity, temperature, depth measurements (Seaglider project by APL at the University of Washington), which can be used for oceanographic mapping. Arrays of hydrophones along the coast detect and recognize marine mammals through bioacoustics (OSU Animal Bioacoustics Lab), allowing for analysis of their population distributions and potentially movement. In the GEMM lab, I learned about light and small GPS loggers, which can be put on wildlife to learn about their movement, and even smaller lighter ones that determine the animal’s general position using the time of sunset and sunrise. Finally, scientists even made artificial nest mounds which hid a scale for recording the weight of breeding birds — looking at the data, I could see a distinctive sawtooth pattern, since the birds lost weight as they incubated the egg, and gained weight after coming home from a foraging trip…

On the whole, I’m really hopeful for the ecological opportunities opened up by technology. But the information coming in from sensors can be both a blessing and a curse, because — unlike manually collected data — the sample sizes tend to be massive. For statistical analysis, this is great! For actually working with the data… more difficult. For my project, this trade-off shows as R and Excel crash over the hundreds of thousands of points in my dataset… what dataset, you might ask? Albatross GPS tracking data.

In 2011, 2012, and 2013, a group of scientists (including Dr. Leigh!) tagged grey-headed albatrosses at Campbell Island, New Zealand, with small GPS loggers. This was done in the summer months, when the birds were breeding, so the GPS tracks represent the birds’ flights as they incubated and raised their chicks. A cool fact about albatrosses: they only raise one chick at a time! As a result, the survival of the population is very dependent on chick survival, which means that the health of the albatrosses during the breeding season, and in part their ability to find food, is critical for the population’s sustainability. So, my research question is: what environmental variables determine where these albatrosses choose to forage?

The project naturally breaks up into two main parts.

  • How can we quantify this “foraging effort” over a trajectory?
  • What is the statistical relationship between this “foraging effort metric” and environmental variables?

Luckily, R is pretty good for both data manipulation and statistical analysis, and that’s what I’m working on now. I’ve just about finished part (1), and will be moving on to part (2) in the coming week. For a start, here are some color-coded plots showing two different ways of measuring the “foraging value” over one GPS track:

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Most of my time goes into writing code, and, of course, debugging. This might sound a bit dull, but the anticipation of new results, graphs, and questions is definitely worth it. Occasionally, that anticipation is met with a result or plot that I wasn’t quite expecting. For example, I was recently attempting to draw the predicted spatial distribution of an albatross population. I fixed some bugs. The code ran. A plot window opened up. And showed this:

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I stared at my laptop for a moment, closed it, and got some hot tea from the lab’s electronic kettle, all the while wondering how R came up with this abstract art.

All in all, while I spend most of my time programming, my motivation comes from the wildlife I hope to work for. And as any other ecologist, I love being out there on the Oregon coast, with the sun, the rain, sand, waves, valleys and mountains, cliff swallows and grey whales, and the rest of our fantastic wild outdoors.

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Irina5

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