Harbor porpoise and gray whale distribution over three decades: introducing the EMERALD project

By Dawn Barlow, Postdoctoral Scholar, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Throughout the world, humans rely on coastal regions for shipping and commerce, fisheries, industrial development, and increasingly for the development of marine renewable energy such as wind and wave energy [1]. Nearshore environments, including the coastal waters of the Northern California Current (NCC), are therefore coupled social-ecological systems, at the intersection of human and biological productivity [2].

The NCC supports a diverse food web of ecologically and commercially important species [3]. The nearshore region of the NCC is further shaped by a rich mosaic of complex features including rocky reefs, kelp forests, and sloping sandy bottom substrate [4], creating habitat for numerous species of conservation interest, including invertebrates, fish, seabirds, and marine mammals [5]. Despite its importance, this realm poses significant challenges for vessel-based data collection, and therefore it remains relatively poorly monitored and understood.

The view from Cape Foulweather, showing the complex mosaic of nearshore habitat features. Photo: D. Barlow.

I am excited to introduce a new project focused on these important nearshore waters, in which we will be Examining Marine mammal Ecology through Region-wide Assessment of Long-term Data (EMERALD). Since 1992, standardized surveys have been conducted between San Francisco Bay, CA, and the Columbia River, OR, to monitor the abundance of marbled murrelets, a seabird of conservation concern. Each spring and summer, researchers have simultaneously been diligently documenting the locations of harbor porpoise and gray whale sightings—two iconic marine mammal species that rely on the nearshore waters of the NCC. This rich and extensive record is rare for marine mammal data, particularly in the challenging, turbulent nearshore environment. Furthermore, harbor porpoises are cryptic, making visual sampling particularly challenging, and gray whales can be sparsely distributed, yielding low sample sizes in the absence of long-term data collection.

Left: The survey team collecting data; Right: Marbled murrelet floating on the water.

For the EMERALD project, we will investigate spatial and temporal distribution patterns of harbor porpoises and gray whales in relation to fluctuations in key environmental drivers. The primary goals of the project are to (1) Identify persistent hotspots in harbor porpoise and gray whale sightings over time, and (2) Examine the environmental drivers of sighting hotspots through spatial and temporal analyses.

A harbor porpoise surfacing off the central Oregon coast. Photo: L. Torres.

From a first look at the data, we are already excited by some emerging patterns. In total, the dataset contains sightings of 6,763 harbor porpoise (mean 233 per year) and 530 gray whales (mean 18 per year). Preliminary data exploration reveals that harbor porpoise sightings increased in 2011-2012, predominantly between Cape Blanco, OR, and Cape Mendocino, CA. Gray whale sightings appear to follow an oscillating, cyclical pattern with peaks approximately every three years, with notable disruption of this pattern during the marine heatwave of 2014-2015. What are the drivers of sighting hotspots and spatial and temporal fluctuations in sighting rates? Time—and a quantitative analytical approach involving density estimation, timeseries analysis, and species distribution modeling—will tell.

A gray whale forages in kelp forest habitat over a nearshore rocky reef. Photo: T. Chandler.

I recently completed my PhD on the ecology and distribution of blue whales in New Zealand (for more information, see the OBSIDIAN project). Now, I am excited to apply the spatial analysis skills have been honing to a new study system and two new study species as I take on a new role in the GEMM Lab as a Postdoctoral Scholar. The EMERALD project will turn my focus to the nearshore waters close to home that I have grown to love over the past six years as a resident of coastal Oregon. The surveys I will be working with began before I was born, and I am truly fortunate to inherit such a rich dataset—a rare treat for a marine mammal biologist, and an exciting prospect for a statistical ecologist.

Dawn and Quin the dog, enjoying views of Oregon’s complex and important nearshore waters. Both are thrilled to remain in Oregon for the EMERALD project. Photo: R. Kaplan.

So, stay tuned for our findings as the project unfolds. In the meantime, I want express gratitude to Craig Strong of Crescent Coastal Research who has led the dedicated survey effort for the marbled murrelet monitoring program, without whom none of the data would exist. This project is funded by the Oregon Gray Whale License Plate funds, and we thank the gray whale license plate holders for their support of marine mammal research.

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References:

1.        Jouffray, J.-B., Blasiak, R., Norström, A. V., Österblom, H., and Nyström, M. (2020). The Blue Acceleration: The Trajectory of Human Expansion into the Ocean. One Earth 2, 43–54.

2.        Sjostrom, A.J.C., Ciannelli, L., Conway, F., and Wakefield, W.W. (2021). Gathering local ecological knowledge to augment scientific and management understanding of a living coastal resource: The case of Oregon’s nearshore groundfish trawl fishery. Mar. Policy 131, 104617.

3.        Bograd, S.J., Schroeder, I., Sarkar, N., Qiu, X., Sydeman, W.J., and Schwing, F.B. (2009). Phenology of coastal upwelling in the California Current. Geophys. Res. Lett. 36, 1–5.

4.        Romsos, G., Goldfinger, C., Robison, R., Milstein, R., Chaytor, J., and Wakefield, W. (2007). Development of a regional seafloor surficial geologic habitat map for the continental margins of Oregon and Washington, USA. Mapp. Seafloor Habitat Charact. Geol. Assoc. Canada, Spec. Pap., 219–243.

5.        Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (2016). Oregon Nearshore Strategy. Available at: https://oregonconservationstrategy.org/oregon-nearshore-strategy/ [Accessed January 10, 2022].

Hope lies in cooperation: the story of a happy whale!

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

I wrote my last blogpost in the midst of winter and feeling overwhelmed as I was trying to fly to the US at the peak of the omicron pandemic… Since then, morale has improved exponentially. I have spent two months in the company of my delightful GEMM lab friends, nerding over statistics, sharing scientific conversations, drinking (good!) beer and enjoying the company of this great group of people. During that stay, I was able to focus on my OPAL project more than I have ever been able to, as I set myself the goal of not getting distracted by anything else during my stay in Newport.

The only one distraction that I do not regret is a post I read one morning on the Cetal Fauna Facebook page, a group of cetacean experts and lovers who share news, opinions, photos… anything cetacean related! Someone was posting a photo of a humpback whale stranded in the 1990s’ on Peregian beach, on the east coast of Australia, which is known as a major humpback whale migratory corridor. The story said that (probably with considerable effort) the whale was refloated by many different individuals and organizations present at the beach on that day, specifically Sea World Research, Rescue & Conservation.

I felt very touched by this story and the photo that illustrated it (Figure 1). Seeing all these people come together in this risky operation to save this sea giant is quite something. And the fact that they succeeded was even more impressive! Indeed, baleen whales strand less commonly than toothed whales but their chances of survival when they do so are minimal. In addition to the actual potential damages that might have caused the whale to strand in the first place (entanglements, collisions, diseases etc.), the beaching itself is likely to hurt the animal in a permanent way as their body collapses under their own weight usually causing a cardiovascular failure (e.g., Fernández et al., 2005)⁠. The rescue of baleen whales is also simply impaired by the sheer size and weight of these animals. Compared to smaller toothed whales such as pilot whales and false killer whales that happen to strand quite frequently over some coastlines, baleen whales are almost impossible to move off the beach and getting close to them when beached can be very dangerous for responders. For these reasons, I found very few reports and publications mentioning successful rescues of beached baleen whales (e.g., Priddel and Wheeler, 1997; Neves et al., 2020).⁠

Figure 1: Stranded humpback whale in Peregian Beach, East Australia, on Aug 16th 1991. Look at the size of the fluke compared to the men who are trying to rescue her! Luckily, that risky operation ended well. Credit: Sea World Research, Rescue and Conservation. Photo posted by P. Garbett on https://www.facebook.com/groups/CetalFauna – February 26, 2022)

Now the story gets even better… the following day I received an email from Ted Cheeseman, director and co-founder of Happywhale, a collaborative citizen science tool to share and match photographes of cetaceans (initially only humpback whales but has extended to other species) to recognize individuals based on the unique patterns of the their fluke or dorsal fin. The fluke of the whale stranded in Australia in 1991 had one and only match within the Happywhale immense dataset… and that match was to a whale seen in New Caledonia (Figure 2). “HNC338” was the one!

Figure 2: Happy whale page showing the match of HNC338 between East Australia and New Caledonia. https://happywhale.com/individual/78069;enc=284364?fbclid=IwAR1QEG_6JkpH_k2UrF-qp-9qrOboHYakKjlTj0lLbDFygjN5JugkkKVeMQw

Since I conducted my PhD on humpback whale spatial ecology in New Caledonia, I have continued working on a number of topics along with my former PhD supervisor, Dr Claire Garrigue, in New Caledonia. Although I do not remember each and every whale from her catalogue (composed of more than 1600 humpback whales as of today), I do love a good “whale tale” and I was eager to know who this HNC338 was. I quickly looked into Claire’s humpback whale database and sure enough I found it there: encountered at the end of the 2006 breeding season on September 12th, at a position of 22°26.283’S and 167°01.991’E and followed for an hour. Field notes reported a shy animal that kept the boat at a distance. But most of all, HNC338 was genetically identified as a female and was accompanied by a calf during that season! The calf was particularly big, as expected at this time of the season. What an inspiring thing to think that this whale, stranded in 1991, was resighted 15 years later in a neighboring breeding ground, apparently healthy and raising a calf of her own.

As genetic paternity analysis have been conducted on many New Caledonia calf biopsy samples as part of the Sexy Singing project conducted with our colleagues from St Andrews University in Scotland, we might be able to identify the calf’s father in this breeding stock. Thanks to the great amount of data shared and collected through Happywhale, we are discovering more and more about whale migratory patterns and behavior. It might as well be that this calf’s father was one of those whales that seem to roam over several different breeding grounds (New Caledonia and East Australia). This story is far from finished…

Figure 3: A (pretty bad!) photo of HNC338’s fluke. Luckily the Happywhale matching algorithm is very efficient and was able to detect the similarities of the fluke’s trailing edge compared to figure 1 (Cheeseman et al., 2021)⁠. Also of note, see that small dorsal fin popping out of the waters behind big mama’s fluke? That’s her calf!

From the people who pulled this whale back into the water in 1991, to the scientists and cetacean enthusiasts who shared their data and whale photos online, this story once again shows us that hope lies in cooperation! Happywhale was only created in 2015 but since then it has brought together the general public and the scientists to contribute over 465,000 photos allowing the identification of 75,000 different individuals around the globe. In New Caledonia, in Oregon and elsewhere, I hope that these collective initiatives grow more and more in the future, to the benefit of biodiversity and people.

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References

Cheeseman, T., Southerland, K., Park, J., Olio, M., Flynn, K., Calambokidis, J., et al. (2021). Advanced image recognition: a fully automated, high-accuracy photo-identification matching system for humpback whales. Mamm. Biol. doi:10.1007/s42991-021-00180-9.

Fernández, A., Edwards, J. F., Rodríguez, F., Espinosa De Los Monteros, A., Herráez, P., Castro, P., et al. (2005). “Gas and fat embolic syndrome” involving a mass stranding of beaked whales (Family Ziphiidae) exposed to anthropogenic sonar signals. Vet. Pathol. 42, 446–457. doi:10.1354/vp.42-4-446.

Neves, M. C., Neto, H. G., Cypriano-Souza, A. L., da Silva, B. M. G., de Souza, S. P., Marcondes, M. C. C., et al. (2020). Humpback whale (megaptera novaeangliae) resighted eight years after stranding. Aquat. Mamm. 46, 483–487. doi:10.1578/AM.46.5.2020.483.

Priddel, D., and Wheeler, R. (1997). Rescue of a Bryde’s whale Balaenoptera edeni entrapped in the Manning River, New South Wales: Unmitigated success or unwarranted intervention? Aust. Zool. 30, 261–271. doi:10.7882/AZ.1997.002.

Marine megafauna as ecosystem sentinels: What animals can tell us about changing oceans

By Dawn Barlow1 and Will Kennerley2

1PhD Candidate, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

2MS Student, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Seabird Oceanography Lab

The marine environment is dynamic, and mobile animals must respond to the patchy and ephemeral availability of resource in order to make a living (Hyrenbach et al. 2000). Climate change is making ocean ecosystems increasingly unstable, yet these novel conditions can be difficult to document given the vast depth and remoteness of most ocean locations. Marine megafauna species such as marine mammals and seabirds integrate ecological processes that are often difficult to observe directly, by shifting patterns in their distribution, behavior, physiology, and life history in response to changes in their environment (Croll et al. 1998, Hazen et al. 2019). These mobile marine animals now face additional challenges as rising temperatures due to global climate change impact marine ecosystems worldwide (Hazen et al. 2013, Sydeman et al. 2015, Silber et al. 2017, Becker et al. 2019). Given their mobility, visibility, and integration of ocean processes across spatial and temporal scales, these marine predator species have earned the reputation as effective ecosystem sentinels. As sentinels, they have the capacity to shed light on ecosystem function, identify risks to human health, and even predict future changes (Hazen et al. 2019). So, let’s explore a few examples of how studying marine megafauna has revealed important new insights, pointing toward the importance of monitoring these sentinels in a rapidly changing ocean.

Cairns (1988) is often credited as first promoting seabirds as ecosystem sentinels and noted several key reasons why they were perfect for this role: (1) Seabirds are abundant, wide-ranging, and conspicuous, (2) although they feed at sea, they must return to land to nest, allowing easier observation and quantification of demographic responses, often at a fraction of the cost of traditional, ship-based oceanographic surveys, and therefore (3) parameters such as seabird reproductive success or activity budgets may respond to changing environmental conditions and provide researchers with metrics by which to assess the current state of that ecosystem.

The unprecedented 2014-2016 North Pacific marine heatwave (“the Blob”) caused extreme ecosystem disruption over an immense swath of the ocean (Cavole et al. 2016). Seabirds offered an effective and morbid indication of the scale of this disruption: Common murres (Uria aalge), an abundant and widespread fish-eating seabird, experienced widespread breeding failure across the North Pacific. Poor reproductive performance suggested that there may have been fewer small forage fish around and that these changes occurred at a large geographic scale. The Blob reached such an extreme as to kill immense numbers of adult birds, which professional and community scientists found washed up on beach-surveys; researchers estimate that an incredible 1,200,000 murres may have died from starvation during this period (Piatt et al. 2020). While the average person along the Northeast Pacific Coast during this time likely didn’t notice any dramatic difference in the ocean, seabirds were shouting at us that something was terribly wrong.

Happily, living seabirds also act as superb ecosystem sentinels. Long-term research in the Gulf of Maine by U.S. and Canadian scientists monitors the prey species provisioned by adult seabirds to their chicks. Will has spent countless hours over five summers helping to conduct this research by watching terns (Sterna spp.) and Atlantic puffins (Fratercula arctica) bring food to their young on small islands off the Maine coast. After doing this work for multiple years, it’s easy to notice that what adults feed their chicks varies from year to year. It was soon realized that these data could offer insight into oceanographic conditions and could even help managers assess the size of regional fish stocks. One of the dominant prey species in this region is Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus), which also happens to be the focus of an economically important fishery.  While the fishery targets four or five-year-old adult herring, the seabirds target smaller, younger herring. By looking at the relative amounts and sizes of young herring collected by these seabirds in the Gulf of Maine, these data can help predict herring recruitment and the relative number of adult herring that may be available to fishers several years in the future (Scopel et al. 2018).  With some continued modelling, the work that we do on a seabird colony in Maine with just a pair of binoculars can support or maybe even replace at least some of the expensive ship-based trawl surveys that are now a popular means of assessing fish stocks.

A common tern (Sterna hirundo) with a young Atlantic herring from the Gulf of Maine, ready to feed its chick (Photo courtesy of the National Audubon Society’s Seabird Institute)

For more far-ranging and inaccessible marine predators such as whales, measuring things such as dietary shifts can be more challenging than it is for seabirds. Nevertheless, whales are valuable ecosystem sentinels as well. Changes in the distribution and migration phenology of specialist foragers such as blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) and North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) can indicate relative changes in the distribution and abundance of their zooplankton prey and underlying ocean conditions (Hazen et al. 2019). In the case of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, their recent declines in reproductive success reflect a broader regime shift in climate and ocean conditions. Reduced copepod prey has resulted in fewer foraging opportunities and changing foraging grounds, which may be insufficient for whales to obtain necessary energetic stores to support calving (Gavrilchuk et al. 2021, Meyer-Gutbrod et al. 2021). These whales assimilate and showcase the broad-scale impacts of climate change on the ecosystem they inhabit.

Blue whales that feed in the rich upwelling system off the coast of California rely on the availability of their krill prey to support the population (Croll et al. 2005). A recent study used acoustic monitoring of blue whale song to examine the timing of annual population-level transition from foraging to breeding migration compared to oceanographic variation, and found that flexibility in timing may be a key adaptation to persistence of this endangered population facing pressures of rapid environmental change (Oestreich et al. 2022). Specifically, blue whales delayed the transition from foraging to breeding migration in years of the highest and most persistent biological productivity from upwelling, and therefore listening to the vocalizations of these whales may be valuable indicator of the state of productivity in the ecosystem.

Figure reproduced from Oestreich et al. 2022, showing relationships between blue whale life-history transition and oceanographic phenology of foraging habitat. Timing of the behavioral transition from foraging to migration (day of year on the y-axis) is compared to (a) the date of upwelling onset; (b) the date of peak upwelling; and (c) total upwelling accumulated from the spring transition to the end of the upwelling season.

In a similar vein, research by the GEMM Lab on blue whale ecology in New Zealand has linked their vocalizations known as D calls to upwelling conditions, demonstrating that these calls likely reflect blue whale foraging opportunities (Barlow et al. 2021). In ongoing analyses, we are finding that these foraging-related calls were drastically reduced during marine heatwave conditions, which we know altered blue whale distribution in the region (Barlow et al. 2020). Now, for the final component of Dawn’s PhD, she is linking year-round environmental conditions to the occurrence patterns of different blue whale vocalization types, hoping to shed light on ecosystem processes by listening to the signals of these ecosystem sentinels.

A blue whale comes up for air in the South Taranaki Bight of New Zealand. photo by L. Torres.

It is important to understand the widespread implications of the rapidly warming climate and changing ocean conditions on valuable and vulnerable marine ecosystems. The cases explored here in this blog exemplify the importance of monitoring these marine megafauna sentinel species, both now and into the future, as they reflect the health of the ecosystems they inhabit.

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References:

Barlow DR, Bernard KS, Escobar-Flores P, Palacios DM, Torres LG (2020) Links in the trophic chain: Modeling functional relationships between in situ oceanography, krill, and blue whale distribution under different oceanographic regimes. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 642:207–225.

Barlow DR, Klinck H, Ponirakis D, Garvey C, Torres LG (2021) Temporal and spatial lags between wind, coastal upwelling, and blue whale occurrence. Sci Rep 11:1–10.

Becker EA, Forney KA, Redfern J V., Barlow J, Jacox MG, Roberts JJ, Palacios DM (2019) Predicting cetacean abundance and distribution in a changing climate. Divers Distrib 25:626–643.

Cairns DK (1988) Seabirds as indicators of marine food supplies. Biol Oceanogr 5:261–271.

Cavole LM, Demko AM, Diner RE, Giddings A, Koester I, Pagniello CMLS, Paulsen ML, Ramirez-Valdez A, Schwenck SM, Yen NK, Zill ME, Franks PJS (2016) Biological impacts of the 2013–2015 warm-water anomaly in the northeast Pacific: Winners, losers, and the future. Oceanography 29:273–285.

Croll DA, Marinovic B, Benson S, Chavez FP, Black N, Ternullo R, Tershy BR (2005) From wind to whales: Trophic links in a coastal upwelling system. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 289:117–130.

Croll DA, Tershy BR, Hewitt RP, Demer DA, Fiedler PC, Smith SE, Armstrong W, Popp JM, Kiekhefer T, Lopez VR, Urban J, Gendron D (1998) An integrated approch to the foraging ecology of marine birds and mammals. Deep Res Part II Top Stud Oceanogr.

Gavrilchuk K, Lesage V, Fortune SME, Trites AW, Plourde S (2021) Foraging habitat of North Atlantic right whales has declined in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada, and may be insufficient for successful reproduction. Endanger Species Res 44:113–136.

Hazen EL, Abrahms B, Brodie S, Carroll G, Jacox MG, Savoca MS, Scales KL, Sydeman WJ, Bograd SJ (2019) Marine top predators as climate and ecosystem sentinels. Front Ecol Environ 17:565–574.

Hazen EL, Jorgensen S, Rykaczewski RR, Bograd SJ, Foley DG, Jonsen ID, Shaffer SA, Dunne JP, Costa DP, Crowder LB, Block BA (2013) Predicted habitat shifts of Pacific top predators in a changing climate. Nat Clim Chang 3:234–238.

Hyrenbach KD, Forney KA, Dayton PK (2000) Marine protected areas and ocean basin management. Aquat Conserv Mar Freshw Ecosyst 10:437–458.

Meyer-Gutbrod EL, Greene CH, Davies KTA, Johns DG (2021) Ocean regime shift is driving collapse of the north atlantic right whale population. Oceanography 34:22–31.

Oestreich WK, Abrahms B, Mckenna MF, Goldbogen JA, Crowder LB, Ryan JP (2022) Acoustic signature reveals blue whales tune life history transitions to oceanographic conditions. Funct Ecol.

Piatt JF, Parrish JK, Renner HM, Schoen SK, Jones TT, Arimitsu ML, Kuletz KJ, Bodenstein B, Garcia-Reyes M, Duerr RS, Corcoran RM, Kaler RSA, McChesney J, Golightly RT, Coletti HA, Suryan RM, Burgess HK, Lindsey J, Lindquist K, Warzybok PM, Jahncke J, Roletto J, Sydeman WJ (2020) Extreme mortality and reproductive failure of common murres resulting from the northeast Pacific marine heatwave of 2014-2016. PLoS One 15:e0226087.

Scopel LC, Diamond AW, Kress SW, Hards AR, Shannon P (2018) Seabird diets as bioindicators of atlantic herring recruitment and stock size: A new tool for ecosystem-based fisheries management. Can J Fish Aquat Sci.

Silber GK, Lettrich MD, Thomas PO, Baker JD, Baumgartner M, Becker EA, Boveng P, Dick DM, Fiechter J, Forcada J, Forney KA, Griffis RB, Hare JA, Hobday AJ, Howell D, Laidre KL, Mantua N, Quakenbush L, Santora JA, Stafford KM, Spencer P, Stock C, Sydeman W, Van Houtan K, Waples RS (2017) Projecting marine mammal distribution in a changing climate. Front Mar Sci 4:413.

Sydeman WJ, Poloczanska E, Reed TE, Thompson SA (2015) Climate change and marine vertebrates. Science 350:772–777.

New year’s hindsight: will it ever be the same?

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

As I sit down at my desk during the first week of 2022 to write the first blog of this new year, more than ever before I feel like I am at a pivotal time. Standing in front of an invisible frontier, contemplating the past, and anxiously looking ahead.

Globally, 2021 was yet another challenging year. The COVID pandemic is persisting in endless waves of contamination and new variants. Climate change is all the more on our minds as the COP26 failed to live up to the expectations of many.

For me personally, 2021 was a very strange year too. I recovered from an accident I had in November 2020 that shook me to the bones and pushed me into living life to its fullest. On the other hand, the pandemic prevented me from moving to Oregon and I have been remotely working on the OPAL project for a year. I feel very lucky to participate in this work and I have enjoyed every bit of time I have spent on my computer processing data and teasing out the ecological drivers of whale distribution in Oregon. Yet, despite the numerous zoom meeting and email exchanges, I have been frustrated by the long-distance relationship I had with my dear GEMM lab colleagues and friends. Like so many others, I have felt the tow of the virtual life the pandemic has imposed on us.

As I reflect on the mixed feelings I am experiencing in this first week of 2022, I realize that the global context we live in and my individual questionings are intertwined. The pandemic and environmental issues triggered the same ethical and philosophical questions about individual responsibility, freedom, and equity. For instance, why should I make sacrifices that will cost me a lot personally but only have a very minor effect on the broader scale? The year 2021 has confronted us with a harsh reality: however strongly you believe your answer to the above question is the right one, other people might think otherwise.

The term eco-anxiety has emerged in recent years to describe people suffering from ‘persistent worries about the future of Earth and the life it shelters’. These symptoms of chronic fear are rising worldwide, which sadly but frankly, is only normal given that the degradation of our climate and biosphere deserves our full attention. More disturbingly, I found out that eco-anxiety is mostly affecting children and young people around the globe. Despite acting for the environment on an everyday basis and working as a conservation biologist, I can relate to this feeling of overwhelming helplessness.

In the first week of this new year, I would like to turn this distress into motivation to act and do better. To that extent, ‘adaptation’ is the word that keeps coming up to my mind. In biology, adaptation is the process of change by which an organism or species becomes better suited to its environment. Contrary to ‘acclimation’ that refers to a temporary change occurring on the short term, adaptation is a more profound evolution occurring at the scale of multiple generations. Somewhat, we need to combine the best of both worlds, adapt profoundly but adapt fast.

As I stayed at my family house in Toulouse (France) during the last couple weeks, I went through my old stuff in the room I occupied as a teenager and found a note book written by a 13 year-old Solène. I smiled at my words “One day, I will become a Biologist so that maybe I can save our beautiful planet, […] it’s the only thing that matters”. I was both impressed by the strength of the conviction I was holding to back then and stunned that I have now reached a place, as an independent adult and early career marine ecologist, where I could actually put these words in action.

So here is my 2022 New Year’s resolution: despite the waves of anxiety that sometimes hit us, let’s keep fighting our battles and trust that we can make this world a better place!

“Sometimes you have the feeling that nothing makes sense anymore, and sometimes it just feels right.”
A picture of myself taken during a research cruise in New Caledonia this summer. We were searching for humpback whales in the Chesterfield archipelago (South Pacific), one of the most remote and pristine reef in the world (Photo credit: Marine Reveilhac, mission MARACAS/IRD/Opération Cétacés/WWF/GouvNC/Parc naturel de la mer de Corail).

Different blue whale populations sing different songs

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

In human cultures, how you sound is often an indicator of where you are from. Have you ever taken a linguistics quiz that tries to guess what part of the United States you grew up in? Questions about whether you pronounce the sugary sweet treat caramel as “carr-mul” or “care-a-mel”, whether you say “soda” or “pop”, or whether a certain type of intersection is called a “roundabout”, “rotary”, or “traffic circle” are used to make a guess at where in the country you were raised. I have spent time in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, I was amused to learn that the shoes you might wear in summertime can be called flip flops, slippers, thongs, or jandals, depending on which English-speaking country you are in. We know that listening to how someone speaks can tell us about their heritage or culture. As it turns out, the same is true for blue whales. We can learn a lot about blue whales by listening to them.

A blue whale comes up for air in the South Taranaki Bight, New Zealand. We catch only a short glimpse of these ocean giants when they are at the surface. By listening to their vocalizations using acoustic recordings, we can gain a whole new perspective on their lives. Photo by D. Barlow.

Sound is an incredibly important sense to marine mammals, particularly since sound waves can efficiently transmit over long distances in the ocean where other senses, such as vision or smell, are limited. Therefore, passive acoustic monitoring—placing hydrophones underwater to listen for an extended period of time and record the sounds of animals and their environment—is a highly effective tool for studying marine mammals, including blue whales. Throughout the world, blue whales sing. In this case, “song” is defined as a limited number of sound types that are produced in succession to form a recognizable pattern (McDonald et al. 2006). These songs are presumed to be produced by males only, most likely used to maintain associations and mediate social interactions, and seem to play a role in reproduction (Oleson et al. 2007, Lewis et al. 2018). Furthermore, these songs are highly stereotyped, and stable over decadal scales (McDonald et al. 2006).

Figure reproduced from McDonald et al. (2006), illustrating the variation and in blue whale songs from different geographic regions, and their stability over time: Recordings from New Zealand (A), the Central North Pacific (B), Australia (C), the Northeast Pacific (D) and North Indian Ocean (E) illustrate the stable character of the blue whale song over long time periods. All song types for which long time spans of recordings are available show some frequency drift through time, but only minor change in character. These examples were chosen because recordings over a significant time span were available to the authors in raw form, and not because these song types are more stable than the others.

Fascinatingly, blue whale songs have acoustic characteristics that are distinct between geographic regions. A blue whale in the northeast Pacific sings a different song than a blue whale in the north Atlantic; the song heard around Australia is distinct from the one sung off the coast of Chile, and so on. Therefore, differences in blue whale songs between areas can be used as a provisional hypothesis about population structure (McDonald et al. 2006, Samaran et al. 2013, Balcazar et al. 2015). Vocalizations may evolve more rapidly than traditional markers such as genetics or morphology that are often used to delineate populations, particularly in long-lived mammalian species such as blue whales (McDonald et al. 2006).

Figure reproduced from McDonald et al. (2006): Blue whale residence and population divisions suggested from their song types. Arrows indicate the direction of seasonal movements.

Despite the general rule of thumb that population-specific blue whale songs occur in separate geographic regions, there are examples throughout the southern hemisphere where songs from different populations overlap and are recorded in the same location (Samaran et al. 2010, 2013, Tripovich et al. 2015, McCauley et al. 2018, Buchan et al. 2020, Leroy et al. 2021). However, these examples may be instances where the populations temporally or ecologically partition their use of the area. For example, there may be differences in the timing of peak occurrence so that overlap is minimized by alternating which population is predominantly present in different seasons (Leroy et al. 2018). Alternatively, whales from different populations may overlap in space and time, but occupy different ecological niches at the same site. In this case, an area may simultaneously be a migratory corridor for one population and a foraging ground for another (Tripovich et al. 2015).

Figure reproduced from Leroy et al. (2021): Distribution of the five blue whale acoustic populations of the Indian Ocean: the Sri Lankan—NIO (yellow); Madagascan—SWIO (orange); Australian—SEIO (blue); and Arabian Sea—NWIO (red) pygmy blue whales; the hypothesized Chagos pygmy blue whale (green); and the Antarctic blue whale (black dashed line). These distributions have been inferred from the acoustic recordings conducted in the area. The long-term recording sites used to infer these distribution areas are indicated by red stars. Blue whale illustration by Alicia Guerrero.

In the South Taranaki Bight (STB) region of New Zealand, where the GEMM lab has been studying blue whales for the past decade (Torres 2013), the New Zealand song type is recorded year-round (Barlow et al. 2018). New Zealand blue whales rely on a productive upwelling system in the STB that supports an important foraging ground (Barlow et al. 2020, 2021). Antarctic blue whales also seasonally pass through New Zealand waters, likely along their migratory pathway between polar feeding grounds and lower latitude areas (Warren et al. 2021). What does it mean in terms of population connectivity or separation when two different populations occasionally share the same waters? How do these different populations ecologically partition the space they occupy? What drives their differing occurrence patterns? These are the sorts of questions I am diving into as we continue to explore the depths of our acoustic recordings from the STB region. We still have a lot to learn about these blue whales, and there is a lot to be learned through listening.

References:

Balcazar NE, Tripovich JS, Klinck H, Nieukirk SL, Mellinger DK, Dziak RP, Rogers TL (2015) Calls reveal population structure of blue whales across the Southeast Indian Ocean and the Southwest Pacific Ocean. J Mammal 96:1184–1193.

Barlow DR, Bernard KS, Escobar-Flores P, Palacios DM, Torres LG (2020) Links in the trophic chain: Modeling functional relationships between in situ oceanography, krill, and blue whale distribution under different oceanographic regimes. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 642:207–225.

Barlow DR, Klinck H, Ponirakis D, Garvey C, Torres LG (2021) Temporal and spatial lags between wind, coastal upwelling, and blue whale occurrence. Sci Rep 11:1–10.

Barlow DR, Torres LG, Hodge KB, Steel D, Baker CS, Chandler TE, Bott N, Constantine R, Double MC, Gill P, Glasgow D, Hamner RM, Lilley C, Ogle M, Olson PA, Peters C, Stockin KA, Tessaglia-hymes CT, Klinck H (2018) Documentation of a New Zealand blue whale population based on multiple lines of evidence. Endanger Species Res 36:27–40.

Buchan SJ, Balcazar-Cabrera N, Stafford KM (2020) Seasonal acoustic presence of blue, fin, and minke whales off the Juan Fernández Archipelago, Chile (2007–2016). Mar Biodivers 50:1–10.

Leroy EC, Royer JY, Alling A, Maslen B, Rogers TL (2021) Multiple pygmy blue whale acoustic populations in the Indian Ocean: whale song identifies a possible new population. Sci Rep 11:8762.

Leroy EC, Samaran F, Stafford KM, Bonnel J, Royer JY (2018) Broad-scale study of the seasonal and geographic occurrence of blue and fin whales in the Southern Indian Ocean. Endanger Species Res 37:289–300.

Lewis LA, Calambokidis J, Stimpert AK, Fahlbusch J, Friedlaender AS, Mckenna MF, Mesnick SL, Oleson EM, Southall BL, Szesciorka AR, Širović A (2018) Context-dependent variability in blue whale acoustic behaviour. R Soc Open Sci 5.

McCauley RD, Gavrilov AN, Jolli CD, Ward R, Gill PC (2018) Pygmy blue and Antarctic blue whale presence , distribution and population parameters in southern Australia based on passive acoustics. Deep Res Part II 158:154–168.

McDonald MA, Mesnick SL, Hildebrand JA (2006) Biogeographic characterisation of blue whale song worldwide: using song to identify populations. J Cetacean Res Manag 8:55–65.

Oleson EM, Wiggins SM, Hildebrand JA (2007) Temporal separation of blue whale call types on a southern California feeding ground. Anim Behav 74:881–894.

Samaran F, Adam O, Guinet C (2010) Discovery of a mid-latitude sympatric area for two Southern Hemisphere blue whale subspecies. Endanger Species Res 12:157–165.

Samaran F, Stafford KM, Branch TA, Gedamke J, Royer J, Dziak RP, Guinet C (2013) Seasonal and Geographic Variation of Southern Blue Whale Subspecies in the Indian Ocean. PLoS One 8:e71561.

Torres LG (2013) Evidence for an unrecognised blue whale foraging ground in New Zealand. New Zeal J Mar Freshw Res 47:235–248.

Tripovich JS, Klinck H, Nieukirk SL, Adams T, Mellinger DK, Balcazar NE, Klinck K, Hall EJS, Rogers TL (2015) Temporal Segregation of the Australian and Antarctic Blue Whale Call Types (Balaenoptera musculus spp.). J Mammal 96:603–610.

Warren VE, Širović A, McPherson C, Goetz KT, Radford CA, Constantine R (2021) Passive Acoustic Monitoring Reveals Spatio-Temporal Distributions of Antarctic and Pygmy Blue Whales Around Central New Zealand. Front Mar Sci 7:1–14.

Learning to Listen for Animals in the Sea

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

Part of what makes being a graduate student so exciting is the way that learning can flip the world around: you learn a new framework or method, and suddenly everything looks a little different. I am experiencing this fabulous phenomenon lately as I learn to collect and process active acoustic data, which can reveal the distribution and biomass of animals in the ocean – including those favored by foraging whales off of Oregon, like the tiny shrimp-like krill.

Krill, like this Thysanoessa spinifera, play a key role in California Current ecosystems. Photo credit: Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

We know that whales seek out the dense, energy-rich swarms that krill form, and that knowing where to expect krill can give us a leg up in anticipating whale distributions. Project OPAL (Overlap Predictions About Large whales) seeks to model and provide robust predictions of whale distributions off the coast of Oregon, so that managers can make spatially discrete decisions about potential fishery closures, minimizing burdens to fishermen while also maximizing protection of whales. We hope that including prey in our ecosystem models will help this effort, and working on this aim is one of the big tasks of my PhD.

So, how do we know where to expect krill to be off the coast of Oregon? Acoustic tools give us the opportunity to flip the world upside down: we use a tool called an echosounder to eavesdrop on the ocean, yielding visual outputs like the ones below that let us “see” and interpret sound.

Echograms like these reveal features in the ocean that scatter “pings” of sound, and interpreting these signals can show life in the water column.

This is how it works. The echosounder emits pulses of sound at a known frequency, and then it listens for their return after it bounces of the sea floor or things in the water column. Based on sound experiments in the laboratory, we know to expect our krill species, Euphausia pacifica and Thysanoessa spinifera, to return those echoes at a characteristic decibel level. By constantly “pinging” the water column with this sound, we can record a continuous soundscape along the cruise track of a vessel, and analyze it to identify the animals and features recorded.

I had the opportunity to use an echosounder for the first time recently, on the first HALO cruise. We deployed the echosounder soon after sunrise, 65 miles offshore from Newport. After a little fiddling and troubleshooting, I was thrilled to start “listening” to the water; I was able to see the frothy noise at its surface, the contours of the seafloor, and the pixelated patches that indicate prey in between. Although it’s difficult to definitively identify animals only based on the raw output, we saw swarms that looked like our beloved krill, and other aggregations that suggested hake. Sometimes, at the same time that the team of visual observers on the flying bridge of the vessel sighted whales, I also saw potential prey on the echogram.

 I spent much of the HALO cruise monitoring incoming data from the transducer on the SIMRAD EK60. Photo: Marissa Garcia.

I’m excited to keep collecting these data, and grateful that I can also access acoustic data collected by others. Many research vessels use echosounders while they are underway, including the NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada, which conducts cruises in the Northern California Current several times a year. Starting in 2018, GEMM Lab members have joined these cruises to conduct marine mammal surveys.

This awesome pairing of data types means that we can analyze the prey that was available at the time of marine mammal sightings. I’ve been starting to process acoustic data from past Northern California Current cruises, eavesdropping on the preyscape in places that were jam-packed with whales, such as this echogram from the September 2020 cruise, below.

An echogram from the September 2020 NCC cruise shows a great deal of prey at different depths.

Like a lot of science, listening to animals in the sea comes down to occasional bursts of fieldwork followed by a lot of clicking on a computer screen during data analysis. This analysis can be some pretty fun clicking, though – it’s amazing to watch the echogram unfurl, revealing the preyscape in a swath of ocean. I’m excited to keep clicking, and learn what it can tell us about whale distributions off of Oregon.

Let me introduce you to… dugongs!

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

Today let me take you on a journey into the tropical waters of the Indo-Pacific Ocean, far from Oregon’s beautiful coasts. Although I have been working as a postdoc on the OPAL project for a year, the pandemic has prevented me from moving to the US as planned. Like so many around the globe, I have been working remotely from my study area (Oregon coastal waters), imagining my study species (blue, fin and humpback whales) gently swimming and feeding along the productive California Current system. One day, I’ll get to see these amazing animals for real, that’s for sure.

But in the meantime, I have taken this year as an opportunity to work with the GEMM lab, while continuing to enjoy the marvels of New Caledonia, a French overseas territory where I have lived for more than 6 years now. Among the animals that I get to approach and observe regularly in the coral reef lagoons that surround the island, the dugong (Dugon dugon) is perhaps the most emblematic and intriguing. This marine mammal is listed as vulnerable in the IUCN Red list of threatened species and has been the focus of important research and conservation efforts in New Caledonia over the last two decades1–3. During my previous post-doctoral position at the French Institute of Research for Sustainable Development, I contributed to some recent research involving satellite tracking of dugongs in the region. This work has led to a publication, now in review4, and will be the topic of my oral presentation at the 7th International Bio-Logging Science Symposium hosted in Hawaii in a couple weeks.

While I was analyzing dugong satellite tracks, writing this paper with my colleagues and preparing for the symposium, I learned a lot about these strange “sea cows”. Dugongs belong to the Sirenian marine mammal order, just like manatees (West Indian, Amazonian and West African species), which they are often mistaken for (watch out: Google Images will misleadingly suggest hundreds of manatee pictures if you make a “dugong” keyword search). The physiology and anatomy of dugongs is actually quite different from that of manatees (Figure 1). They also live in a different part of the world as they are broadly distributed in the Indo-Pacific coastal and island waters. Dugongs form separate populations, some of which are very isolated and at high risk of extirpation. They are found in 37 different countries, with Australia being home to the largest populations by far (exceeding 70,000 individuals5).

Figure 1: Manatee vs Dugong, can you tell them apart? Among other things, dugongs and manatees have a very different body shape. As the famous Sirenian specialist Helene Marsh said, a dugong essentially looks like “a manatee that goes to the gym”5! Illustration by S. Derville.

Sea cow or sea elephant?

Through the tree of evolution, the dugong and manatee’s closest relative is not the one you would think… other marine mammals like cetaceans or pinnipeds. Indeed, molecular genetic analyses have placed the Sirenians in the Afrotheria Superorder of mammals. Therefore, it appears that dugongs are more closely related to elephant and golden moles than to whales and dolphins!

As a memory aid to help remember this ancient origin, we may notice that both elephants and dugongs have tusks. Mature male and female dugongs have erupted tusks, although the females’ only erupt rarely and at a very old age. Interestingly, tusks are used by scientists to determine age. Analyses of growth layers in bisected dugong tusks have revealed that dugongs are long-lived, with a maximum longevity record of 73 years (estimated from a female individual found in Western Australia5).

An (almost) vegetarian marine mammal

Dugongs and manatees are the only predominantly herbivorous aquatic mammals. Given that manatees use both marine and fresh water ecosystems they tend to have a broader diet, eating many kinds of submerged, floating or emergent algae and seagrass (even bank growth!). On the other hand, dugongs are a strictly marine species and primarily feed on seagrass, which may look very similar to seaweeds, but are in fact marine flowering plants. Seagrass tend to form underwater shallow meadows that are among the most productive ecosystems in the world6. In fact, dugong grazing influences the biomass, species composition and nutritional quality of seagrass meadows7,8. Just like we take care of our gardens, dugongs regulate seagrass ecosystems. But there is more. Recent research conducted in the Great Barrier Reef indicates that seagrass seeds that have been digested by dugongs germinate at a faster rate9. As well as playing a role in dispersal10, it appears that dugongs are pooping seeds with enhanced germination potential, hence participating to seagrass meadow resilience.

Figure 2: Dugong mother and calf feeding on a dense seagrass bed (a) and solitary adult foraging in a very sparce seagrass bed (b). Seagrass grows in many different types of meadows, which may vary in density, species composition and substrate. For instance, seagrass species of the Halophila genus are among the preferred dugong’s meals although may be very thinly distributed (c). Photo credit: Serge Andréfouët, New Caledonia.

Unlike manatees, dugongs cannot feed over the whole water column and are strictly bottom feeders. They use their deflected snout (Figure 1) to search the seabed for their favorite food (Figure 2). The feeding trails left by dugongs in dense seagrass meadows are easily detectable from above, just like the sediment clouds that they generate when searching muddy bottoms. Although seagrass is undoubtedly the main component of the dugong’s diet, they may incidentally (or not) ingest algae and invertebrates5.

A legendary animal

The etymology for the word Sirenian comes from the mermaids, or “sirens” of the Greek mythology. These aquatic creatures with the upper body of a female human would sing to lure sailors towards the shore… and towards a certain death. The morphology of dugongs and manatees shares some resemblance with mermaids, at least enough for desperate and lonely sailors to think so!

In addition to having a scientific name rooted in legends, dugongs are also important to contemporary human cultures. In tropical islands and coastal communities, marine megafauna species such as dugongs are considered heritage, due to the strong bond that their people have forged with the ocean5. Dugongs may play an important cultural role because they can be part of the socio-symbolic organization of societies, associated with the imaginary world, or simply because they are seen as companions of the sea, which people frequently encounter. For New Caledonia’s indigenous people, the Kanaks, dugongs can be totem to tribes. Like other large marine species (whales, sharks), the dugong is also considered as an embodiment of ancestors11.

Dugongs have been hunted throughout their range since prehistoric times. Archaeological excavations such as those conducted on the island of Akab in the United Arab Emirates12, indicate that dugong hunting played a role in ancient rituals, in addition to providing a large quantity of meat. The cultural value of dugongs is recognized by multiple countries, which have therefore authorized indigenous dugong hunting, sometimes under quotas. For instance, in Australia, dugongs may be legally hunted by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (Figure 3) under section 211 of the Native Title Act 1993.

In New Caledonia, the dugong has been protected since 1962 and its hunting is only authorized in one province, with a dispensation for traditional Kanak celebrations13. However, in view of the critical situation in which the New Caledonian dugong population finds itself, estimated at around 700 individuals in 2008-201214, no hunting exemptions have been issued since 2004.

Figure 3: “Naath” (dugong hunting platform), hand colored linocut by Torres Strait Islander artist Dennis Nona. The art piece represents traditional dugong hunting where the hunter is guided by the phosphorescent glow the dugong would leave in the water at night.

What future for dugongs?

Despite legislations to forbid dugong meat consumption outside specific traditional permits, poaching persists, in New Caledonia and in many of the “low-income” countries that are home to dugongs. As climate change and demography intensifies risks to food security, scientists and stakeholders fear for dugongs. Moreover, dugongs entirely rely on seagrass ecosystems that are also disappearing at an alarming rate (7% per year6) as a result of coastal development, pollution and overfishing.

Can we preserve dugongs in regions of high climate vulnerability and where people still have low levels of access to basic needs? Can dugongs play the role of “umbrellas” for the conservation of the ecosystem they live in? I do not have the answer to these questions but I certainly believe that people’s well-being and environmental conservation are tightly intertwined. I hope that rising transdisciplinary approaches such as those supported by the “One Health” framework will help reconnect human populations to their environment, and achieve the goal of optimal health for everyone, humans and animals.

References

1.        Garrigue, C., Patenaude, N. & Marsh, H. Distribution and abundance of the dugong in New Caledonia, southwest Pacific. Mar. Mammal Sci. 24, 81–90 (2008).

2.        Cleguer, C., Grech, A., Garrigue, C. & Marsh, H. Spatial mismatch between marine protected areas and dugongs in New Caledonia. Biol. Conserv. 184, 154–162 (2015).

3.        Cleguer, C., Garrigue, C. & Marsh, H. Dugong (Dugong dugon) movements and habitat use in a coral reef lagoonal ecosystem. Endanger. Species Res. 43, 167–181 (2020).

4.        Derville, S., Cleguer, C. & Garrigue, C. Ecoregional and temporal dynamics of dugong habitat use in a complex coral reef lagoon ecosystem. Sci. Rep. (In review)

5.        Marsh, H., O’Shea, T. J. & Reynolds, J. E. I. Ecology and conservation of the Sirenia: dugongs and manatees, Vol 18. (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2011).

6.        Unsworth, R. K. F. & Cullen-Unsworth, L. C. Seagrass meadows. Curr. Biol. 27, R443–R445 (2017).

7.        Aragones, L. V., Lawler, I. R., Foley, W. J. & Marsh, H. Dugong grazing and turtle cropping: Grazing optimization in tropical seagrass systems? Oecologia 149, 635–647 (2006).

8.        Preen, A. Impacts of dugong foraging on seagrass habitats: observational and experimental evidence for cultivation grazing. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 124, 201–213 (1995).

9.        Tol, S. J., Jarvis, J. C., York, P. H., Congdon, B. C. & Coles, R. G. Mutualistic relationships in marine angiosperms: Enhanced germination of seeds by mega-herbivores. Biotropica (2021) doi:10.1111/btp.13001.

10.      Tol, S. J. et al. Long distance biotic dispersal of tropical seagrass seeds by marine mega-herbivores. Sci. Rep. 7, 1–8 (2017).

11.      Dupont, A. Évaluation de la place du dugong dans la société néo-calédonienne. (Mémoire Master. Encadré par L. Gardes (Agence des Aires Marines Protégées) et C. Sabinot (IRD), 2015).

12.      Méry, S., Charpentier, V., Auxiette, G. & Pelle, E. A dugong bone mound: The Neolithic ritual site on Akab in Umm al-Quwain, United Arab Emirates. Antiquity 83, 696–708 (2009).

13.      Leblic, I. Vivre de la mer, vivre de la terre… en pays kanak. Savoirs et techniques des pêcheurs kanak du sud de la Nouvelle-Calédonie. (Société des Océanistes, 2008).

14.      Hagihara, R. et al. Compensating for geographic variation in detection probability with water depth improves abundance estimates of coastal marine megafauna. PLoS One 13, e0191476 (2018).

Where will the whales be? Ecological forecast models present new tools for conservation

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

Dynamic forecast models predict environmental conditions and blue whale distribution up to three weeks into the future, with applications for spatial management. Founded on a robust understanding of ecological links and lags, a recent study by Barlow & Torres presents new tools for proactive conservation.

The ocean is dynamic. Resources are patchy, and animals move in response to the shifting and fluid marine environment. Therefore, protected areas bounded by rigid lines may not always be the most effective way to conserve marine biodiversity. If the animals we wish to protect are not within protected area boundaries, then ocean users pay a price without the conservation benefit. Management that is adaptive to current conditions may more effectively match the dynamic nature of the species and places of concern, but this approach is only feasible if we have the relevant ecological knowledge to implement it.

The South Taranaki Bight region of New Zealand is home to a foraging ground for a unique population of blue whales that are genetically distinct and present year-round. The area also sustains New Zealand’s most industrial marine region, including active petroleum exploration and extraction, and vessel traffic between ports.

To minimize overlap between blue whale habitat and human use of the area, we develop and test forecasts of oceanographic conditions and blue whale habitat. These tools enable managers to make decisions with up to three weeks lead time in order to minimize potential overlap between blue whales and other ocean users.

Overlap between blue whale habitat and industry presence in the South Taranaki Bight region. A blue whale surfaces in front of a floating production storage and offloading (FPSO) vessel, servicing the oil rigs in the area. Photo by Dawn Barlow.

Predicting the future

Knowing where animals were yesterday may not create effective management boundaries for tomorrow. Like the weather, our expectation of when and where to find species may be based on long-term averages of previous patterns, real-time descriptions based on recent data, and forecasts that predict the future using current conditions. Forecasts allow us to plan ahead and make informed decisions needed to produce effective management strategies for dynamic systems.

Just as weather forecasts help us make decisions about whether to wear a raincoat or pack sunscreen before leaving the house, ecological forecasts can enable managers to anticipate environmental conditions and species distribution patterns in advance of industrial activity that may pose risk in certain scenarios.

In our recent study, we develop and test models that do just that: forecast where blue whales are most likely to be, allowing informed decision making with up to three weeks lead time.

Harnessing accessible data for an applicable tool

We use readily accessible data gathered by satellites and shore-based weather stations and made publicly available online. While our understanding of the ecosystem dynamics in the South Taranaki Bight is founded on years of collecting data at-sea and ecological analyses, using remotely gathered data for our forecasting tool is critical for making this approach operational, sustainable, and useful both now and into the future.

Measurements of conditions such as wind speed and ocean temperature anomaly are paired with known measurements of the lag times between wind input, upwelling, productivity, and blue whale foraging opportunities to produce forecasted environmental conditions.

Example environmental forecast maps, illustrating the predicted sea surface temperature and productivity in the South Taranaki Bight region, which can be forecasted by the models with up to three weeks lead time.

The forecasted environmental layers are then implemented in species distribution models to predict suitable blue whale habitat in the region, generating a blue whale forecast map. This map can be used to evaluate overlap between blue whale habitat and human uses, guiding management decisions regarding potential threats to the whales.

Example forecast of suitable blue whale habitat, with areas of higher probability of blue whale occurrence shown by the warmer colors and the area classified as “suitable habitat” denoted by the white boundaries. This habitat suitability map can be produced for any day in the past 10 years or for any day up to three weeks in the future.

Dynamic ecosystems, dynamic management

These forecasts of whale distribution can be effectively applied for dynamic spatial management because our models are founded on carefully measured links and lags between physical forcing (e.g., wind drives cold water upwelling) and biological responses (e.g., krill aggregations create feeding opportunities for blue whales). The models produce outputs that are dynamic and update as conditions change, matching the dynamic nature of the ecosystem.

A blue whale raises its majestic fluke on a deep foraging dive in the South Taranaki Bight. Photo by Leigh Torres.

Engagement with stakeholders—including managers, scientists, industry representatives, and environmental organizations—has been critical through the creation and implementation of this forecasting tool, which is currently in development as a user-friendly desktop application.

Our forecast tool provides managers with lead time for decision making and allows flexibility based on management objectives. Through trial, error, success, and feedback, these tools will continue to improve as new knowledge and feedback are received.

The people behind the science, from data collection to conservation application. Left: Dawn Barlow and Dr. Leigh Torres aboard a research vessel in New Zealand in 2017, collecting data on blue whale distribution patterns that contributed to the findings in this study. Right: Dr. Leigh Torres and Dawn Barlow at the Parliament buildings in Wellington, New Zealand, where they discussed research findings with politicians and managers, gathered feedback on barriers to implementation, and subsequently incorporated feedback into the development and implementation of the forecasting tools.

Reference: Barlow, D. R., & Torres, L. G. (2021). Planning ahead: Dynamic models forecast blue whale distribution with applications for spatial management. Journal of Applied Ecology, 00, 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2664.13992

This post was written for The Applied Ecologist Blog and the Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab Blog

Supporting marine life conservation as an outsider: Blue whales and earthquakes

By Mateo Estrada Jorge, Oregon State University undergraduate student, GEMM Lab REU Intern

Introduction

My name is Mateo Estrada and this past summer I had the pleasure of working with Dawn Barlow and Dr. Leigh Torres as a National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) intern. I had the chance to proactively learn about the scientific method in the marine sciences by studying the acoustic behaviors of pygmy blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus brevicauda) that are documented residents of the South Taranaki Bight region in New Zealand (Torres 2013, Barlow et al. 2018). I’ve been interested in conducting scientific research since I began my undergraduate education at Oregon State University in 2015. Having the opportunity to apply the skills I gained through my education in this REU has been a blessing. I’m a physics and computer science major, but more than anything I’m a scientist and my passion has taken me in new, unexpected directions that I’m going to share in this blog post. My message for any students who feel like they haven’t found their path yet is: hang in there, sometimes it takes time for things to take shape. That has been my experience and I’m sure it’s been the experience of many people interested in the sciences. I’m a Physics and Computer Science student, so why am I studying blue whales, and more specifically, how can I be doing marine science research having only taken intro to biology 101?

My background

I decided to apply for the REU in the Spring 2021 because it was a chance to use my programming skills in the marine sciences. I’m also passionate about conservation and protecting the environment in a pragmatic way, so I decided to find a niche where I could put my technical skills to good use. Finally, I wanted to explore a scientific field outside of my area of expertise to grow as a student and to learn from other researchers. I was mostly inspired by anecdotal tales of Physicist Richard Feynman who would venture out of the physics department at Caltech and into other departments to learn about what other scientists were investigating to inspire his own work. This summer, I ventured into the world of marine science, and what I found in my project was fascinating.

Whale watching tour

Figure 1. Me standing on a boat on the Pacific Ocean off Long Beach, CA.

To get into the research mode, I decided to go on a whale watching tour with the Aquarium of the Pacific. The tour was two hours long and the sunburn was worth it because we got to see four blue whales off the Long Beach coast in California. I got to see the famous blue whale blow and their splashes. It was the first time I was on a big boat in the ocean, so naturally I got seasick (Fig 1). But it was exciting to get a chance to see blue whales in action (luckily, I didn’t actually hurl). The marine biologist onboard also gave a quick lecture on the relative size of blue whales and some of their behaviors. She also pointed out that they don’t use Sonar to locate whales as this has been shown to disturb their calling behaviors. Instead, we looked for a blow and splashing. The tour was a wonderful experience and I’m glad I got to see some whales out in nature. This experience also served as a reminder of the beauty of marine life and the responsibility I feel for trying to understand and help conserving it.

Context of blue whale calling

Sound plays a significant role in the marine environment and is a critical mode of communication for many marine animals including baleen whales. Blue whales produce different vocalizations, otherwise known as calls.  Blue whale song is theorized to be produced by males of the species as a form of reproductive behavior, similar to how male peacocks engage females by displaying their elongated upper tail covert feathers in iridescent colors as a courtship mechanism. Then there are “D calls” that are associated with social mechanisms while foraging, and these calls are made by both female and male blue whales (Lewis et al. 2018) (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Spectrogram of Pygmy blue whale D calls manually (and automatically) selected, frequency 0-150 Hz.

Understanding research on blue whales

The most difficult part about coming into a project as an outsider is catching up. I learned how anthropogenetic (human made) noise affects blue whale communication. For example, it has been showing that Mid Frequency Active Sonar signals employed by the U.S. Navy affect blue whale D calling patterns (Melcón 2012). Furthermore, noise from seismic airguns used for oil and gas exploration has also impact blue whale calling behavior (Di Lorio, 2010). Understanding the environmental context in which the pygmy blue whales live and the anthropogenic pressures they face is essential in marine conservation. Protecting the areas in which they live is important so they can feed, reproduce and thrive effectively. What began as a slowly falling snowflake at the start of a snowstorm turned into a cascading avalanche of knowledge pouring into my mind in just two weeks.

Figure 3. The white stars show the hydrophone locations (n = 5). A bathymetric scale of the depth is also given.

The research question I set out to tackle in my internship was: do blue whales change their calling behavior in response to natural noise events from earthquake activity? To do this, I used acoustic recordings from five hydrophones deployed in the South Taranaki Bight (Fig. 3), paired with an existing dataset of all recorded earthquakes in New Zealand (GeoNet). I identified known earthquakes in our acoustic recordings, and then examined the blue whale D calls during 4 hours before and after each earthquake event to look for any change in the number of calls, call energy, entropy, or bandwidth.

A great mentor and lab team

The days kept passing and blending into each other, as they often do with remote work. I began to feel isolated from the people I was working with and the blue whales I was studying. The zoom calls, group chats, and working alongside other remote interns kept me afloat as I adapted to a work world fully online. Nevertheless, I was happy to continue working on this project because I felt like I was slowly becoming part of the GEMM Lab. I would meet with my mentor Dawn Barlow at least once a week and we would spend time talking about the project and sorting out the difficult details of data processing. She always encouraged my curiosity to ask questions. Even if they were silly questions, she was happy to ponder them because she is a curious scientist like myself.

What we learned

Pygmy blue whales from the South Taranaki Bight region do not change their acoustic behavior in response to earthquake activity. The energy of the earthquake, magnitude, depth, and distance to the origin all had no influence on the number of blue whale D calls, the energy of their calling, the entropy, and the bandwidth. A likely reason for why the blue whales would have no acoustic response to earthquakes (magnitude < 5) is that the STB region is a seismically active region due to the nearby interface of the Australian and Pacific plates. Because of the plate tectonics, the region averages about 20,000 recorded earthquakes per year (GeoNet: Earthquake Statistics). Given that pygmy blue whales are present in the STB region year-round (Barlow et al. 2018), the blue whales may have adapted to tolerate the earthquake activity (Fig 4).

Figure 4. Earthquake signal from MARU (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) and blue whale D calls, Frequency 0-150 Hz.

Looking at the future

I presented my work at the end of my REU internship program, which was a difficult challenge for me because I am often intimidated by public speaking (who isn’t?). Communicating science has always been a big interest of me. I love reading news articles about new breakthroughs and being a small part of that is a huge privilege for me. Finding my own voice and having new insights to contribute to the scientific world has always been my main objective. Now I will get to deliver a poster presentation of my REU work at the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO) Conference in March 2022. I am both excited and nervous to take on this new adventure of meeting seasoned professionals, communicating my results, and learning about the ocean sciences. I hope to gain new inspirations for my future academic and professional work.

References:

About Earthquake Drums – GeoNet. geonet.Org. Retrieved June 23, 2021, from https://www.geonet.org.nz/about/earthquake/drums

Barlow, D. R., Torres, L. G., Hodge, K. B., Steel, D., Scott Baker, C., Chandler, T. E., Bott, N., Constantine, R., Double, M. C., Gill, P., Glasgow, D., Hamner, R. M., Lilley, C., Ogle, M., Olson, P. A., Peters, C., Stockin, K. A., Tessaglia-Hymes, C. T., & Klinck, H. (2018). Documentation of a New Zealand blue whale population based on multiple lines of evidence. Endangered Species Research, 36, 27–40. https://doi.org/10.3354/esr00891

Di Iorio, L., & Clark, C. W. (2010). Exposure to seismic survey alters blue whale acoustic communication. Biology Letters, 6(3), 334–335. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2009.0967

Lewis, L. A., Calambokidis, J., Stimpert, A. K., Fahlbusch, J., Friedlaender, A. S., McKenna, M. F., Mesnick, S. L., Oleson, E. M., Southall, B. L., Szesciorka, A. R., & Sirović, A. (2018). Context-dependent variability in blue whale acoustic behaviour. Royal Society Open Science, 5(8). https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.180241

Melcón, M. L., Cummins, A. J., Kerosky, S. M., Roche, L. K., Wiggins, S. M., & Hildebrand, J. A. (2012). Blue whales respond to anthropogenic noise. PLoS ONE, 7(2), 1–6. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0032681

Torres LG. 2013 Evidence for an unrecognised blue whale foraging ground in New Zealand. NZ J. Mar. Freshwater Res. 47, 235–248. (doi:10. 1080/00288330.2013.773919)

The early phases of studying harbor seal pup behavior along the Oregon coast

By Miranda Mayhall, Masters Student, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Recently, when expected to choose a wildlife species for behavioral observation for one of my Oregon State University graduate courses, I immediately chose harbor seals as my focus. Harbor seals (Fig 1) are an abundant species and in proximity to the Hatfield Marine Science Center (HMSC) (Steingass et al., 2019) where I will be spending much of my time this summer, making logistics easy. Studying pinnipeds (marine mammals with a finned foot, seals, walrus, and sea lions) is appealing due to their undeniably cute physique, floppy nature on land, and super agile nature in the water. I am working to iron out my methods for this study, which I hope to work through in this initial phase of my research project.

Figure 1. Harbor seal hauling out to rest on rocks off Oregon Coast near HMSC.

Behaviors:

At times it can appear that the most interesting harbor seal behaviors occur under water, and the haul out time is simply time for resting. During mating season, most adult seal behaviors take place in the water, such as the incredible vocal acoustics displayed by the males to attract the females (Matthews et al., 2018). However, I hypothesize that young pups can capitalize on haul out time by practicing becoming adults (while the adults are taking that time to rest) and therefore I plan to observe their haul out behaviors in their first summer of life. Specifically, I will document seal pup vocal behavior to evaluate how they are learning to use sound. I am beginning this study in late July, which is just after pupping season (Granquist et al., 2016). This should give me the opportunity to find pups along the Oregon coast near HMSC, so I intend to visit several locations where harbor seals are known to frequently haul out. Knowing that field work and animal behavior is unpredictable, there is no telling what behaviors I will observe on a given day, or if I will see seals at all. Some days I could come home with lots of seal data and great photos, and other days I could come home with little to report. This will be my first hurdle combined with my time limit (strictly completing this observation in the next five weeks). I intend to schedule at least eight hours of field observation at haul-out sites over the next two weeks and will adjust my schedule based on my success in data collection at that point.  

Figure 2. Harbor Seals hauling out on rocks not too far from HMSC.

Timing:

Prior knowledge on harbor seal haul-out sites along the Oregon coast is clearly important for this project’s success, but I must also pay close attention to the tide cycles. During low tides, haul out locations are exposed and occupied by seals. When the tide is high, the seals are less likely to haul-out (Patterson et al., 2008). Furthermore, according to a recent study conducted on harbor seals residing on the Oregon coast, these seals spend on average 71% of their time in the water and will haul-out for the remainder of their time (Steingass et al., 2019). Therefore, it is crucial to maximize my observation time of hauled out pups wisely.

Concerning timing, I also need to observe locations and periods without too many tourists who can get near the haul-out site. As I learned recently, when children show up and start throwing rocks into the water near where harbor seals are swimming, the seals will recede from the area and no longer be available for observation. As an experiment, I waited for the noisy crowds with unchecked children to leave and only myself, my trusty sidekick (my daughter), and one quiet photographer were left on the beach. Once that happened, we noticed more and more seal heads popping up out of the water. Then they came closer and closer to the beach, splashing around doing somersaults visibly on the surface of the water. It was quite a show. I will either need to account for the presence of humans when evaluating seal behavior or assess only periods without disturbance. Seal pups are easily disturbed by humans, so I will keep a non-invasive distance while positioning myself to hear the vocals.

Figure 3. Hauled-out adult harbor seal on the Oregon coast near HMSC. 

Data Collection and Analysis Approach:

The aspect of this project I am still working out is how to quantify pup vocalizations and their associated behaviors. As I mentioned, I will go out each week for eight hours and record each time I notice a pup exhibiting vocal behavior. I will categorize and describe the sound produced by the pup, and document any associated behavior of the pup or behavioral responses from nearby adult seals. Prior research has found that harbor seals are much attuned to vocal behavior. Mother harbor seals learn to quickly distinguish their own pup’s call within a few days of their birth (Sauve et al. 2015). I hypothesize that pups themselves can discern and use vocalizations, and I am excited to watch them develop over the course of my field observations.

Figure 4. Seal pup on the far-left rock, watching the adults as they appear to rest.

References

Granquist, S.M., & Hauksson, E. (2016). Seasonal, meteorological, tidal, and diurnal effects on haul-out patterns of harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) in Iceland. Polar Biology, 39 (12), 2347-2359.

Matthews, L.P., Blades, B., Parks, S. (2018). Female harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) behavioral response to playbacks of underwater male acoustic advertisement displays. PeerJ, 6, e4547.

Patterson, J., Acevedo-Gutierrez, A. (2008). Tidal influence on the haul-out behavior of harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) At all time levels. Northwestern Naturalist, 89 (1), 17-23.

Sauve, C., Beauplet, G., Hammil, M., Charrier, I. (2015). Mother-pup vocal recognition in harbour seals: influence of maternal behavior, pup voice and habitat sound properties. Animal Behavior, 105 (July 2015), 109-120

Steingass, S., Horning, M., Bishop, A. (2019). Space use of Pacific harbor seals (Phoca vitulina richardii) from two haulout locations along the Oregon coast. PloS one. 14 (7), e0219484.