By Cristy Milliken, Thomas More University, GEMM Lab REU Intern
It’s summertime in the GEMM Lab, meaning many visiting students, interns, and technicians working in the lab (12 additional people to be precise!). This influx of new faces in the lab means blog posts by some new people, including me, Cristy Milliken, as I am an NSF REU intern. I am a rising junior at Thomas More University where I am majoring in Biology along with obtaining a double minor in marine biology and environmental science. Prior to this internship I knew little about humpback whales aside from them being baleen whales and large mammals. Safe to say, I know much more about humpbacks after researching them for the SLATE project. SLATE stands for Scar-based Long-term Assessment of Trends in whale Entanglements. The project utilizes photos of humpback whales that have been collected from 2005 to 2023 to develop and refine methods of analyzing scaring rates. These methods of scar analysis will be used to determine the effectiveness of fishing regulations in Oregon. The SLATE project started recently (February 2023) and thus the current stage of the project is focused on analyzing many individual photographs of humpback whales captured in Oregon waters to determine the presence or absence of an entanglement scar.
Finding evidence of a scar on a whale is tricky, and we have encountered a few issues while developing our methodology. There is no universal method to analyze the scarring rate in whales, yet we are building off the methods created and utilized by Annabelle Wall and Jooke Robbins (Wall et al., 2019; Robbins., 2012). Robbins first developed the method of scar analysis using images of humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine. Wall refined the methods by creating set categories that classified every sighting of each individual to determine the likelihood of being entangled in the past. The image scoring methods have some flaws, and the descriptions can be vague, leaving more questions than answers. One specific issue we faced was how best to define when an image is of the dorsal or perpendicular side of a whale’s tailstock because there were photos that were a mix of both body parts as seen in Figure 1. In the end, we chose to classify photos that did not show a clear view of both insertion points of the fluke into the tailstock as a perpendicular tailstock. It is important to make this distinction because the view of a whale’s body part can show very different markings that could change our perspective of the whale’s possible entanglement history. We also have to assess the quality of each image because the quality can hide or show details that could influence our ability to access the whale’s history. The quality of the photos range from being very good to being illegible, which can make scoring a bit difficult. Aside from these issues, I have been making progress and I have been enjoying the work that I am doing knowing could help researchers in the future. This area of research is something that I could possibly pursue in the future because I enjoy working in an area helping with conservation efforts.
Figure 1: Perpendicular tail fluke of a humpback whale. Photo taken by Jenn Tackaberry; Copyright Cascadia Research Collective.
In addition to my research project, I am also expanding my personal connections and boundaries. I have started to feel more comfortable here in Newport, although I do miss my family. Everyone in the GEMM lab, as well as in the MMI in general, was very welcoming and kind so that made things easier to settle in. I have also been learning about other projects occurring since everyone has been showing off all the amazing videos and data being collected.
It’s hard to believe that it’s already been four weeks since I’ve arrived in Oregon. Had anyone told me that after my freshman year of college I would spend an entire summer in Oregon studying humpback whales scarring I would have never believed them and called them crazy. I’ve spent the majority of my life in Ohio thinking that it’d be impossible to study marine biology. But yet I was offered the opportunity to work in the GEMM lab and I will always be thankful for the opportunity.
Confidence has always been a struggle for me, but I wanted to challenge my insecurities, so I put myself out there in my application. Doing so opened up this opportunity and it makes me glad that I took the chance. Internships are a great way to build up confidence while gaining research experience, especially this one. I have met many amazing and kind people here and it has created an amazing atmosphere here at the Hatfield Marine Science Center. So, this is my message to everyone: take the chance and reach out because the opportunity could be an arm’s length away.
- Robbins, J. (2012). Scar-based Inference Into Gulf of Maine Humpback Whale Entanglement: 2010.
- Wall, A. (2019). Temporal and spatial patterns of scarred humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) off the U.S. West Coast. Master thesis, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia.