By Haley Kent, Marine Studies Initiative (MSI) & summer GEMM Lab intern, OSU senior
“BLOW!”, yells a team “Whale Storm” member, as mist remains above the water from an exhaling gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus). While based at the Port Orford Field Station for 6 weeks of my final summer as an undergrad at Oregon State University my heart has only grown fonder for marine wildlife. I am still in awe of this amazing opportunity of researching the foraging ecology of gray whales as a Marine Studies Initiative and GEMM Lab intern. From this field work I have already learned so much about gray whales and their zooplankton prey, and now it’s time to analyze the data we have collected and see what ecological stories we can uncover.
WORK IN THE FIELD
This internship is my first field work experience and I have learned many skills and demands needed to study marine wildlife: waking up before the sun (every day begins with screaming alarms), being engulfed by nature (Port Orford is a jaw-dropping location with rich biodiversity), packing up damp gear and equipment to only get my feet wet in the morning ocean waves again, and of course waiting on the weather to cooperate (fog, wind, swell). I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Whether it is standing above the ocean on the ‘Cliff Site’ or sitting in our two-man kayak, every day of this internship has been full of new learning experiences. Using various field work techniques, such as using a theodolite (surveying equipment to track whale location and behavior), Secchi disks (to measure water clarity), GoPro data collection, taking photos of wildlife, and many more tools, have given me a new bank of valuable skills that will stick with me into my future career.
To maximize my amazing internship experience, I am conducting a small data analysis project using the data we have collected these past weeks and in previous summers. There are so many questions that can be asked of these data, but I am particularly interested in how many times individual gray whales return to our study area to forage seasonally or annually, and if these individual whales forage preferentially where certain zooplankton prey are available.
After many hours of data collection in the field either in the kayak or on the cliff, we get to take a breather in the lab to work on various projects we are each assigned. Some job tasks include processing data, identifying zooplankton, and looking through the photos taken that day to potentially identify a known whale. Once photos are processed and saved onto the rugged laptop, they are ready for some serious one on one. Looking through each of the 300 photos captured each day can be very tedious, but it is worthwhile when a match is found. Within the photos of each individual whale I first determine whether it is the left or right side of the whale – if we are lucky we get both! – and maybe even a fluke (tail) photo!
The angles of these photos (Fig. 4 & 5) are very different, so it could be difficult to tell these are the same whale. But, have a closer look at the pigmentation patterns on this whale. Focus on a single spot or area of spots, and see how patterns line up. Does that match in the same area in the next photo? If yes, you could have yourself a match!
Buttons, one of the identified gray whales (Fig. 4 & 5), was seen in 2016, 17, and 18. I was so excited to identify Buttons for the 3rd year in a row as this result demonstrates this whale’s preference for foraging in Port Orford.
Zooplankton and whale foraging behavior
By using the theodolite we track the whale’s position from the cliff location. I have plugged these coordinates into Google Earth, and compared the coordinates to our zooplankton sample stations from that same day. These methods allow me to assess where the whale spent time, and where it did not, which I can then relate to the zooplankton species and abundance we caught in our sample tows (we use a net from the research kayak to collect samples throughout the water column).
‘Eyeball’ is one of our resident whales that we have identified regularly throughout this season here in Port Orford. I have compared the amount of time Eyeball has spent near zooplankton stations to the prey community we captured at each station.
There is a positive trend in the amount of time the whale spent in an area with the percent abundance of Holmesimysis sculpta (Fig. 7: blue trend line).
Conversely, there is an inverse trend with two other zooplankton species: Neomysis sp. (grey trend line) and Caprellidae (orange trend line). These results suggest that Eyeball has a foraging preference for areas where Holmesimysis sculpta (Fig. 6) is more abundant. Who would have known a whale could be so picky? Once the season comes to an end, I plan to use more of our data to continue to make discoveries about the foraging preferences of gray whales in Oregon.
By Dylan Gregory, GEMM Lab summer 2018 intern, OSU undergraduate transfer
In ecology, biodiversity is a term often touted for its key importance in stable ecosystems. Every organism plays its role in the constant struggle of nature, competing and cooperating with each other for survival. The sun provides the initial energy to primary producers, herbivores eat those producers, and predators then eat the consumers. The food chain is a simplistic way to look at how ecosystems work, and of course, it is more like an intricate web of interactions. Fungus and plants work together to trade nutrients and create a vast network of fertile soils; kelp forests provide habitats and food for a variety of prey that marine predators feed on. There are checks and balances between all these organisms that give breath into the beauty and color we see in ecosystems around the world. And, here in Port Orford is no exception. Coming to the project I expected to see some whales, of course. However only three weeks in and I’ve been absolutely astounded with the amount of marine biodiversity we’ve experienced. These past three weeks have been nothing if, well, wild.
Eschrichtius robustus, The Gray Whale
There was no doubt we would see gray whales, that is what we are here for after all, and studying them in the field has been an incredibly enlightening experience. Watching an animal every day for weeks really gets you into their head. You start to connect with them and think about their behaviors in different ways. You begin to realize that the individuals have unique quirks, habits and tendencies. For example, one whale would feed quickly for a time, and then seem to run out of energy and “log” itself, floating on the surface, taking multiple breaths in succession to recover before diving back down. Many whales come from the south, to feed in Mill Rocks before moving to Tichenor Cove, and then leave our study region through “Hell’s Gate” to the North, often resting a moment, taking multiple breaths and then launching into the open sea. Still, when you think you know these whales, they surprise you with an alarming unpredictability, making tracking them a new experience every day.
The whale in Fig. 1 surprised us, and honestly, being so close to it was as humbling as it was awesome. I expected to see whales, but never expected such a close encounter. These gentle giants are one of our not so distant relatives in the ocean. Many of us do this kind of research for more than just the science and the data. Many of us do it for the connection we feel to our mammal family.
Phoca vitulina richardii, The Pacific Harbor Seal
I absolutely adore these harbor seals! They’re well known for their friendliness towards humans as their dopey little heads pop up out of the water to greet you with a curious look in their eyes. They like to bob in the surf and stare at us while we’re out sampling in the kayak. At first, we got quite excited seeing one, often startling them as we’d squeal “seal!” to each other and they’d dip back under and scurry away. Now though, they seem more comfortable being around our kayak (Fig. 2).
One day a seal followed Lisa and Hayleigh around the jetty on their way back from sampling, swimming around the kayak and investigating them. Out in Mill Rocks, we often see them stretching on top of the rocks, seemingly doing a little yoga session while basking in the morning sun. Despite their cute and cuddly appearance, they are still predators. With plenty of fish to eat and make them happy, these harbor seals are quite plentiful themselves, and I’d like to think we’ve become quite good friends with the little guys.
Tursiops truncatus, The Bottlenose Dolphin
One morning we were in Mill Rocks and a large cloud of fog moved in, so we decided to wait it out before making our passage to Tichenor Cove. While sitting there, enjoying a snack, we noticed some dorsal fins popping up about 100 meters from us. Caught by surprise, Haley and I scrambled for our cameras and lo and behold, we noticed they were a small pod of dolphins! Two adults and a calf. Unfortunately, as you can see from our pictures, it is difficult to identify what species they were exactly.
After communicating with Lisa and Leigh, we have decided that their dorsal fins were far too big and curved to be harbor porpoises (Fig. 3), and the intersection of the head and rostrum seem to have the classic look of a bottlenose dolphin (Fig. 4).
If these were in fact bottlenose dolphins, why are they here in Port Orford, Oregon? It’s uncommon for them to be so far north in our colder waters. Were they foraging for food? Finding refuge from predators? Is it because our waters are becoming warmer? A sighting like this gives more weight to how climate change is affecting our oceans and how marine animals are responding by adapting their migratory and feeding behaviors.
Pisaster and Pycnopodia, The Common Sea Star and the Sunflower Star
One of the coolest aspects of living at the Port Orford Field Station is the fact that we have access to a lot of engagement with other scientists. For instance, we were able to attend a webinar about Sea Star Wasting Disease (SSWD) research currently happening at OSU by Post Doc Sarah Gravem. In a nutshell, a bacterial disease has been infecting sea stars along the west coast, causing a rapid plummet in their populations. Pisaster and Pycnopodia (Fig. 5) have been particularly affected. They are keystone predators, and as such, hold an important role in intertidal ecosystems. Feeding on snails, urchins, other sea stars and various mollusks, these sea stars maintain species populations and allow for a diverse and stable intertidal zone, which then supports many other near shore marine species. While SSWD’s cause is relatively unknown, Pisaster seems to be recovering while Pycnopodia is still struggling. I’ve even heard some anecdotal reports that fishermen here in Port Orford have noticed the lack of Pycnopodia as well, but they are rather pleased that these “ragmops” have stopped mucking up their lines and crab pots.
Below the Surface
There is a charm to the deep, a mystery and wonder that has captured the imagination of humans ad nauseam. Stories, movies, music and masterpieces of art have been inspired by The Abyss. Below the surface lies a diverse world teeming with life, full of questions and answers to be found. While marine mammals are why we’re here, there’s an entirely different environment under the water that is unseen from the safety of our dry, oxygen rich air. Our research doesn’t involve any diving, and so our eyes under the water are a GoPro camera attached to a downrigger on our kayak. Although designed to measure zooplankton community density, we’ve seen quite a bit more than itty bitty sea bugs in the depths of our little harbor here in Port Orford.
Strongylocentrotus purpuratus, The Purple Sea Urchin
Urchins are known for their bright colors and spiny ball like exterior. Close relatives to the sea stars, urchins inhabit the intertidal zones and also take residence within kelp beds. During our kayak training, we passed by some rocks near the cliffs and it was an awesome sight seeing the diversity of intertidal critters such as anemones, sea stars and sea urchins. However, a week into data collection, we have noticed something startling: a large quantity of the urchins cover the seafloor and the kelp, or at least what was left of the kelp (Fig. 6).
Sea urchins are important members in their communities. They graze on algae and control it from overwhelming the waters, but when left unchecked urchins can completely decimate kelp beds. This pattern is often referred to as “urchin barrens”. Sea otters and sea stars are the urchin’s main predator, and due to the absence of otters and the emergence of SSWD, the occurrence of urchin barrens has risen. An assessment of the reintroduction of the sea otters to Oregon by Dominique Kone, a GEMM Lab graduate student, is underway, and there is a lot of new research on SSWD, both of which could support the ‘ecosystem control’ of urchin populations. We’ve already spotted the urchins wreaking their havoc on the kelp in two separate sites in Tichenor Cove. Since gray whales primarily feed within these kelp beds, this increase in urchin populations is something that we are monitoring. An urchin barren can happen quickly and causes significant ecosystem damage, so this is not something to ignore. If we lose the kelp, it’s easy to imagine that we may lose the whales.
Alopias vulpinus, The Thresher Shark
By far, the most exciting thing I’ve seen so far has been this lovely creature (Fig. 7). The thresher shark usually inhabits the oceanic and coastal zones in tropical and temperate waters. They feed on pelagic schooling fish, squid and sometimes even shorebirds. They attack by whipping their tails (which grow to be the size of their body!) at their prey to stun them. Threshers are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as “Vulnerable” due to their declining populations. They are often hunted for shark fin soup, or by trophy hunters due to their elegant and unique tails.
Haley, our resident shark enthusiast, was able to tell that this shark was a female by the lack of claspers (male appendages) on her pelvic fin. Why was she here though? During the summer, threshers will migrate to colder yet productive northern waters to feed, and on some rare occasions, such as this one, they will come closer to shore. Perhaps she was chasing prey into the harbor and found it to be full of yummy food, or she is a juvenile, which often stay near the continental shelf.
Either way, we were all surprised and excited to see such an exotic and beautiful species of shark caught on camera in our study zone. She even does a little strut in front of the GoPro camera, showing off her beautiful caudal fin!
Protecting our Wilds
These are only a few examples of the many different animals at work in Port Orford’s ecosystem. Perhaps the biodiversity here is why this is such a hot spot for our whale friends. The productive and lively waters have shown us so many critters, and likely many more we have yet to see. But alas, we have three more weeks of data collection and new discoveries, and I couldn’t be more excited.
“It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist; the threat is rather to life itself.”
– Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us
This experience only drives me further into my pursuit of ecological research. I believe it’s incredibly important to understand the world and how it functions, and to do so before it’s too late. All too often we have breakthrough discoveries in science because something has already fallen apart. Ecosystems are fragile, and climate change, pollution, and other anthropogenic disturbances all have an impact which damage and alter ecosystems and the services they provide. However, it’s an impact we can control with a fundamental understanding of how nature works. With a little hope, some integrity, and a whole lot of passion, I believe we have the power to truly make a difference.
By Hayleigh Middleton, GEMM Lab summer 2018 intern, entering OSU undergrad
Cold Fingers and Carabiners: that’s what most of the past three weeks have been about. We’ve progressively been getting up earlier—with many thanks to the coffee pot and multiple alarms— in order to be on the water collecting data before the wind and fog decide to kick in. Working on the ocean at 7 am with wet hands, metal equipment, a tight suit, and a “refreshing” breeze while trying to keep an eight-foot sit-on-top kayak from tipping over is challenging to say the least. Making sure the Theodolite is perfectly level on its tripod resting on sand-covered ground at the top of a cliff? Not much easier. The air is cold, the wind is cold, the equipment is cold, I’m cold, and now, everything is wet.
I absolutely love it.
Of all the ways I could have chosen to spend my summer before starting college at OSU, I’m so glad I took a chance and asked to spend it here. The official goals of our research project are to monitor and record the foraging habits of the Pacific Coast Feeding Group of gray whales, attempt to find out if specific individuals tend to have site fidelity and forage here year after year, and why or how they choose certain spots to feed over others. What does that mean for me? I get to kayak and take pictures of whales for six weeks! Of course, there’s a bunch of technical stuff and expensive equipment that took us two weeks to learn, but now we’re off to a great start and ready to learn more about these amazing creatures.
We have such a short amount of time to collect all this data to try and fill in the puzzle that is gray whale behavior, and we’re only a few weeks in, but I feel like I’ve already connected with this group of 60,000-pound mammals. That, in essence, is really what we’re doing here. We’re on top of a 33-meter-high cliff watching empty water for hours on the chance that we’ll be able to see a whale, identify it through photo-ID, track it with the theodolite to figure out its behavior, and use our kayak data to figure out its diet and feeding choices. Even though the whales forage up to two kilometers away from our tracking spot, it feels like they know we’re watching them. Sometimes it feels like they’re teasing us—we’ll see one, and once we get the sights fixed on it, it dives down and doesn’t come back up until we’ve turned our attention. One whale got into a very predictable pattern: three blows and then a deep dive, forage for five minutes, pop up half a viewfinder away, three more blows. We set our sights on the third blow and waited for her to resurface.
She swam away and didn’t show herself again.
Other times it’s like they conspire against us. Earlier this week, we spent most of the morning tracking the same whale. A couple hours into the track, another whale popped up right next to the first. Since we use a computerized tracking program, each whale is assigned a group number. That way, we can track each individual’s path and later match it to the photo identification database and sometimes a nickname. The two whales surfaced at just the right frequency and distance apart that deciding which number was currently up was guesswork for a good 15 minutes, but we gave them new track numbers and were able to sort it out later after reviewing our photos.
On another day, we surveyed for whales until quitting time, which is 3:00 pm. About 2:30 pm, one was finally spotted. I named her Princess because she couldn’t be bothered to bring her body out of the water enough so we could mark her location or take a picture except for when her pectoral fin, the tip of which was “gloved” in white, came out and made a motion like a princess in a parade. When there are whales around, we can’t just say “oh look, 3:00 pm time to go” because this is important data to collect. So, we decided to wait until 3:30 pm to see if she surfaced again within visual range. 3:30 pm came and still no sign of her, so I packed up the theodolite and tripod. As soon as the box was closed, she blew, and another whale surfaced right in front of the cliff. We got some pictures of the closer one for a bit and decided that was enough. As the camera was being lowered into its case, another whale surfaced in the cove. It felt like the first went and told all the whales heading south “hey, these guys want to leave at 3, so show up right around then.” That day we got back to the lab around 5. Even though this meant being on the cliff for almost 10 hours that day, it was thrilling to have seen so many whales in one day.
Then there are times when the whales seem to beg for attention. On our third day on the cliff, we saw what we believe to be a juvenile come swimming into view. We assume that he was a juvenile because he was “small” and quite blank in terms of pigmentation and scarring. He was adorable. He stayed over at Mill Rocks for a while foraging, all of which we “fixed” into the tracking program via the Theodolite, and then he came toward us into the little kelp patch just in front of our cliff site. He would dive down, scoop up some zooplankton to eat, and resurface right in the middle of the kelp. The cutest part is that he would then proceed to roll around in the kelp and further drape himself in it.
Having such a young whale come and forage made us wonder if mothers who have site fidelity then teach their young “hey, you don’t have to go all the way north, there’s a ton of good food here in Port Orford.” Hopefully that’s one of the things we’ll be able to figure out with the data collected with this long–term study. But in the meantime, I still have three weeks of data to collect and a bunch more whales to meet.
By Leila Lemos, PhD candidate, Fisheries and Wildlife Department, OSU
As previously mentioned in one of Florence’s blog posts, the GEMM Lab holds monthly lab meetings, where we share updates about our research and discuss articles and advances in our field, among other activities.
In a past lab meeting we were asked to bring an article to discuss that had inspired us in the past to conduct research in the marine field or in our current position. I brought to the meeting a literature review regarding methodologies to overcome the challenges of studying conservation physiology in large whales . This article discusses different non-invasive or minimally invasive matrices (e.g., feces, blow, skin/blubber) that can be gathered from whales, and what types of analyses could be carried out, as well as their pros and cons.
One of the possible analyses that can be performed with fecal samples that was discussed in the article is the gut microflora (i.e., bacterial gut community) via genetic analysis. Since my PhD project analyzes fecal samples to determine/quantify stress responses in gray whales, we have since discussed the possibility of integrating this extra parameter to our analysis.
But… what is the importance of analyzing the gut microflora of a whale? What is the relationship between microflora and stress responses? Should we really use our limited sample size, time and money to work on this extra analysis? In order to be able to answer all of these questions, I began reading some articles of the field to better understand its importance and what kind of research questions this analysis can answer.
The gut of a mammal comprises a natural habitat for a large and dynamic community of bacteria  that is first developed in early life. Colonization of facultative bacteria (i.e., aerobic bacteria) begins at birth , and later, anaerobic bacteria also colonizes the gut. In humans, at the age of 1 year old, the microbiome should have a stable adult-like signature (Fig. 1).
The gut bacterial community is important for the physiology and pathology of its host and plays an important role in mammal digestion and health , responsible for many metabolic activities, including:
fermentation of non-digestible dietary residue and endogenous mucus ;
recovery of energy ;
recovery of absorbable nutrients ;
cellulose digestion ;
vitamin K synthesis ;
important trophic effects on intestinal epithelia (cell proliferation and differentiation) ;
angiogenesis promotion ;
enteric nerve function ;
immune structure ;
immune function ;
protection of the colonized host against invasion by alien microbes (barrier effect) ;
Despite all the benefits, the bacterial community might also be potentially harmful when changes in the community composition (i.e., dysbiosis) occur due to the use of antibiotics, illness, stress, aging, lifestyle, bad dietary habits , and prolonged food and water deprivation . Thus, potential pathological disorders might emerge when the microbiome community changes, such as allergy, obesity, diabetes, autism, multisystem organ failure, gastrointestinal and prostate cancers, inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), and cardiovascular diseases [2, 4].
Changes in gut bacterial composition may also alter the brain-gut axis and the central nervous system (CNS) signaling . More specifically, the core pathway affected is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is activated by physical/psychological stressors. According to a previous study , the microbial community in the gut is critical for the development of an appropriate stress response. In addition, the microbial colonization in early life should occur within a certain time window, otherwise an abnormal development of the HPA axis might happen.
However, the gut microbiome can not only affect the HPA axis, but the opposite can also occur . Signaling molecules released by the axis can alter the gastrointestinal (GIT) environment (i.e., motility, secretion, and permeability) . Stress responses, as well as diseases, may also alter the gut permeability, causing the bacteria to cross the epithelial barrier (reducing the overall numbers of bacteria in the gut), activating immune responses that also alter the composition of the bacterial community in the gut [8, 9].
Thus, when thinking about whales, monitoring of the gut microflora might allow us to detect changes caused by factors such as aging, illness, prolonged food deprivation, and stressful events [2, 5]. However, since these are two-way factors, it is important to find an association between bacterial composition alterations and stressful events, such as the presence of predators (e.g., killer whales), illness (e.g., bad body condition), prolonged food deprivation (e.g., low prey availability and high competition), noise (e.g., noisy vessel traffic, fisheries opening and seismic surveys), and stressful reproductive status (e.g., pregnancy and lactating period). Examination of possible shifts in the gut microflora may be able to detect and be linked to many of these events, and also forecast possible chronic events within the population. In addition, the bacterial community monitoring study could aid in validating the hormone data (i.e., cortisol) we have been working with.
Therefore, the main research questions that arise in this context that can aid in elucidating the stress physiology in gray whales are:
What is the microflora community content in guts of gray whales along the Oregon coast?
Is it possible to detect shifts in the gut microflora from our gray fecal samples over time?
How do gut microflora and cortisol levels correlate?
Am I able to correlate shifts in gut microflora with any of the stressful events listed above?
We can answer so many other questions by analyzing the microbiome of baleen whales. Microbiomes are mainly correlated with host diet , so the composition of a microbiome can be associated with specific diets and functional gut capacity, and consequently, be linked to other animal populations, which helps to decode evolutionary questions. Results of a previous study on baleen whale microbiomes  point out that whales harbor unique gut microbiomes that are actually similar to those of terrestrial herbivores. Baleen whales and terrestrial herbivores have a shared physical structure of the GIT tract itself (i.e., multichambered foregut) and a shared hole for fermentative metabolisms. The multichambered foregut of baleen whales fosters the maintenance of the gut microbiome that is capable of extracting relatively unavailable nutrients from zooplankton (i.e., chitin, “sea cellulose”).
Thus, the importance of studying the gut microbiome of a baleen whale is clear. Monitoring of the bacterial community and possible shifts can help us elucidate many questions regarding diet, overall health, stress physiology and evolution. Thinking about my PhD project, it may also help in validating our cortisol level results. I am confident that a microbiome analysis would significantly enhance my studies on the health and ecology of gray whales.
Hunt, K.E., et al., Overcoming the challenges of studying conservation physiology in large whales: a review of available methods.Conservation Physiology, 2013. 1: p. 1-24.
Guarner, F. and J.-R. Malagelada, Gut flora in health and disease.The Lancet, 2003. 360: p. 512–519.
Grenham, S., et al., Brain–gut–microbe communication in health and disease.Frontiers in Physiology, 2011. 2: p. 1-15.
Zhang, Y., et al., Impacts of Gut Bacteria on Human Health and Diseases.International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 2015. 16: p. 7493-7519.
Bailey, M.T., et al., Stressor exposure disrupts commensal microbial populations in the intestines and leads to increased colonization by Citrobacter rodentium.Infection and Immunity, 2010. 78: p. 1509–1519.
Sudo, N., et al., Postnatal microbial colonization programs the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system for stress response in mice.The Journal of Physiology, 2004. 558: p. 263–275.
Rhee, S.H., C. Pothoulakis, and E.A. Mayer, Principles and clinical implications of the brain–gut–enteric microbiota axis Nature Reviews Gastroenterology & Hepatology, 2009. 6: p. 306–314.
Kiliaan, A.J., et al., Stress stimulates transepithelial macromolecular uptake in rat jejunum.American Journal of Physiology, 1998. 275: p. G1037–G1044.
Dinan, T.G. and J.F. Cryan, Regulation of the stress response by the gut microbiota: Implications for psychoneuroendocrinology.Psychoneuroendocrinology 2012. 37: p. 1369—1378.
Sanders, J.G., et al., Baleen whales host a unique gut microbiome with similarities to both carnivores and herbivores.Nature Communications, 2015. 6(8285): p. 1-8.