A mosaic of interconnected nearshore dynamics in Port Orford

Allison Dawn, GEMM Lab Master’s student, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab 

In last week’s blog, GEMM Lab postdoc Dawn Barlow discussed the uncertain future of upwelling response to climate change and how findings from the Shanks et al., 2009 “Paradigm lost? . . .” study implies that nearshore systems are likely decoupled from offshore upwelling processes. In a follow up to that paper, Shanks and co-authors found that the heterogeneity of coastline morphology (i.e., rocky or sandy) across several Oregon nearshore study sites explained zooplankton retention differences. Indeed, not only are there differences between offshore and nearshore upwelling dynamics, but there are also site-specific factors to consider when it comes to understanding changes in zooplankton retention along the Oregon coast (Shanks et. al, 2010).

I spend a lot of time thinking about what drives the variability in abundance and distribution of zooplankton prey of gray whales at our Port Orford study site over our long-term study period (2015-2022). For this blog, I want to briefly touch on a few interconnected dynamics in this nearshore PCFG gray whale foraging site that may affect their prey availability. Specifically, the interplay between shoreline topography, temperature, and habitat complexity. 

Interplay between shoreline morphology and thermal fronts

Several years before the “Paradigm lost? . . .” paper, Shanks led a study that investigated how holoplankton (a group of plankton in which mysids and amphipods belong) retention varies across three sites near Cape Arago and one site in Port Orford (Shanks et a., 2003). Here the authors noted that the Port Orford Bight causes an “upwelling shadow”, which is a region of water protected from upwelling-favorable winds. This shadow results in a small-scale warm water feature in the lee of the Port Orford Bight, which may serve as an important retention and recirculation zone for primary productivity (Graham et al., 1997). Discovering this “upwelling shadow” was not the intention of this paper, so the depth and breadth of the warm water plume within our study area has yet to be mapped (see Figure 1 for another West Coast example). However, “upwelling shadows” can act as convergence zones associated with greater zooplankton biomass (Morgan & Fisher, 2010; Ryan et al., 2010, Woodson et al., 2007) and thus may be an important feature to consider in our spatial analyses of drivers of prey availability to gray whales in our Port Orford study region.

Figure 1. Example of an “upwelling shadow” in Monterey Bay. Remotely sensed oceanographic convergent zones (top panel) and sea surface temperature (SST; lower panel) changes over time: a) Sept 8th 2003, b) Sept 2nd 2004, c) Sept 26th 2004, and d) May 31st 2005. Each time period demonstrates that the lee side of Point Año Nuevo is consistently warmer than the surrounding area. Figure source: Ryan et al., 2020.

Habitat complexity: rugosity and kelp

Not only could the unique shoreline in Port Orford contribute to zooplankton aggregations, but the subtidal marine environment is characterized by a range of unique habitat types: rocky reef, kelp beds, and sandy bottom habitat. Structural habitat complexity has been well documented in coral reef systems to be strongly linked with zooplankton prey availability and biodiversity of planktonic grazers (Richardson et al., 2017; Darling et al., 2017; Kuffner et al., 2007; Gladstone, 2007). Structural complexity can be measured in various ways, but quantifying rugosity (or surface “roughness”) is a widely accepted approach. However, only a few studies have demonstrated predator response to rugose habitats in Oregon nearshore rocky reefs (Rasmuson et al., 2021), and there is a dearth of knowledge linking rugosity to marine mammal predation (Cimino et al., 2020). 

Rugosity serves several purposes in the marine environment. A rugose habitat creates micro-habitats for predator evasion, provides greater surface area for kelp recruitment (Cruz et al., 2014; Toohey et al., 2007), and generates turbulence that circulates vital micronutrients for filter-feeding zooplankton and ultimately drives foraging effort at fine scales (Ottersen et al., 2010). 

Figure 2. Example images of habitat rugosity as measured by SCUBA transects. A) High-relief coral habitat with B) quantified depth (m) over transect seconds (10 seconds = 1 meter) and C) Low-relief coral habitat with D) quantified depth (m) over transect seconds (10 seconds = 1 meter). Figure source: Dustan et al., 2013.

Rugosity-generated turbidity might also help explain the zooplankton abundance variation we see across our sampling stations in Port Orford. In Lisa’s recent work showing evidence for a trophic cascade, a decline in bull kelp is overall strongly linked to a decline in zooplankton and gray whale foraging in Port Orford. However, there are sampling stations that, despite a significant loss in kelp, still had an abundance of mysids and hosted gray whale feeding activity in 2021 and 2022. Could this mean that those rocky reef stations, which are more rugose than the sandy bottom habitats, produced enough turbulence to support zooplankton prey? This hypothesis is consistent with several studies that found kelp abundance becomes less relevant with increasing habitat complexity (Trebilco et al., 2016; Anderson, 1994; Choat & Ayling et al., 1987; Larson, 1984). 

There certainly may be other physical or oceanographic factors that create turbidity at these stations. However, as my REU mentee Zoe Sax has been investigating, we think that turbidity could be a metric of primary productivity, which supports zooplankton growth. 

Figure 3 is a map of the average secchi disk values, which provide us with a measure of turbidity (the deeper we see the disk the less turbidity) in 2021 at our 12 sampling stations and their relation to kelp cover. 

Last year was a low kelp year, but Mill Rocks still had a few bull kelp canopies. In Mill Rocks where there was rocky reef with kelp, we see secchi values were low (meaning turbidity was high). This is in contrast to the areas in the sandy bottom regions (no kelp, low rugosity: specifically MR16, TC4, TC6, and TC10) with the lightest values, meaning low turbidity. 

Then, in Tichenor Cove specifically, we see that station TC1 has very little kelp but high turbidity; interestingly this site was a favored foraging spot for gray whales in 2021 and happens to be the closest station to the “upwelling shadow” I described earlier. I hope to conduct rugosity measurements in the near future so we can investigate these linkages further.

Figure 3. Map of two study sites, Tichenor Cove and Mill Rocks, with twelve sampling stations in Port Orford, OR and their average secchi disk values (meters) in 2021. Kelp abundance shown in light green polygons. 

Conclusion

This focus on topography, temperature, and habitat complexity to understand zooplankton variation does not discount that upwelling is an important factor for Oregon nearshore ecology. Menge & Menge 2013 found that upwelling accounted for ~50% of ecological variance in rocky intertidal regions. However, these findings occurred across large spatial areas of about 100 km, while our TOPAZ  sampling in Port Orford is on a much finer scale. Variation in ecological patterns at different, hierarchical scales are well-documented (Levin, 1992; Ottersen et al., 2010). Uncovering the “mosaic of processes”, as Shanks et al., 2003 describes, that drives nearshore zooplankton dynamics is equally challenging as it is fascinating, and I look forward to sharing more results from my Master’s work soon.

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References

Anderson, T. W. (1994). Role of macroalgal structure in the distribution and abundance of a temperate reef fish. Marine ecology progress series. Oldendorf, 113(3), 279-290.

Choat, J. H., & Ayling, A. M. (1987). The relationship between habitat structure and fish faunas on New Zealand reefs. Journal of experimental marine biology and ecology, 110(3), 257-284.

Darling, E. S., Graham, N. A., Januchowski-Hartley, F. A., Nash, K. L., Pratchett, M. S., & Wilson, S. K. (2017). Relationships between structural complexity, coral traits, and reef fish assemblages. Coral Reefs, 36(2), 561-575.

Dustan, P., Doherty, O., & Pardede, S. (2013). Digital reef rugosity estimates coral reef habitat complexity. PloS one, 8(2), e57386.

Gladstone, W. (2007). Selection of a spawning aggregation site by Chromis hypsilepis (Pisces: Pomacentridae): habitat structure, transport potential, and food availability. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 351, 235-247.

Graham, W. M., & Largier, J. L. (1997). Upwelling shadows as nearshore retention sites: the example of northern Monterey Bay. Continental Shelf Research, 17(5), 509-532.

Kuffner, I. B., Brock, J. C., Grober-Dunsmore, R., Bonito, V. E., Hickey, T. D., & Wright, C. W. (2007). Relationships between reef fish communities and remotely sensed rugosity measurements in Biscayne National Park, Florida, USA. Environmental biology of fishes, 78(1), 71-82.

LARSON, R. J., & DeMARTINI, E. E. (1984). SAN ONOFRE, CALIFORNIA. Fishery Bulletin, 82(1-2), 37.

Levin, S. A. (1992). The problem of pattern and scale in ecology. Ecology, 73(6), 1943-1967.

Londoño Cruz et al. (2014) Londoño Cruz E, Mesa-Agudelo LAL, Arias-Galvez F, Herrera-Paz DL, Prado A, Cuellar LM, Cantera J. Distribution of macroinvertebrates on intertidal rocky shores in Gorgona Island, Colombia (Tropical Eastern Pacific) Revista de Biología Tropical. 2014;62(1):189–198. doi: 10.15517/rbt.v62i0.16275

Menge, B. A., & Menge, D. N. (2013). Dynamics of coastal meta-ecosystems: the intermittent upwelling hypothesis and a test in rocky intertidal regions. Ecological Monographs, 83(3), 283-310.

Morgan, S. G., & Fisher, J. L. (2010). Larval behavior regulates nearshore retention and offshore migration in an upwelling shadow and along the open coast. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 404, 109-126.

Ottersen, G., Kim, S., Huse, G., Polovina, J. J., & Stenseth, N. C. (2010). Major pathways by which climate may force marine fish populations. Journal of Marine Systems, 79(3-4), 343-360.

Rasmuson, L. K., Blume, M. T., & Rankin, P. S. (2021). Habitat use and activity patterns of female deacon rockfish (Sebastes diaconus) at seasonal scales and in response to episodic hypoxia. Environmental Biology of Fishes, 104(5), 535-553.

Richardson, L. E., Graham, N. A., Pratchett, M. S., & Hoey, A. S. (2017). Structural complexity mediates functional structure of reef fish assemblages among coral habitats. Environmental Biology of Fishes, 100(3), 193-207.

Ryan, J. P., Fischer, A. M., Kudela, R. M., McManus, M. A., Myers, J. S., Paduan, J. D., … & Zhang, Y. (2010). Recurrent frontal slicks of a coastal ocean upwelling shadow. Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, 115(C12).

Shanks, A. L., McCulloch, A., & Miller, J. (2003). Topographically generated fronts, very nearshore oceanography and the distribution of larval invertebrates and holoplankters. Journal of Plankton Research, 25(10), 1251-1277.

Shanks, A. L., & Shearman, R. K. (2009). Paradigm lost? Cross-shelf distributions of intertidal invertebrate larvae are unaffected by upwelling or downwelling. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 385, 189-204.

Shanks, A. L., Morgan, S. G., MacMahan, J., & Reniers, A. J. (2010). Surf zone physical and morphological regime as determinants of temporal and spatial variation in larval recruitment. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, 392(1-2), 140-150.

Toohey, B. D., Kendrick, G. A., & Harvey, E. S. (2007). Disturbance and reef topography maintain high local diversity in Ecklonia radiata kelp forests. Oikos, 116(10), 1618-1630.

Trebilco, R., Dulvy, N. K., Stewart, H., & Salomon, A. K. (2015). The role of habitat complexity in shaping the size structure of a temperate reef fish community. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 532, 197-211.

Woodson, C. B., Eerkes-Medrano, D. I., Flores-Morales, A., Foley, M. M., Henkel, S. K., Hessing-Lewis, M., … & Washburn, L. (2007). Local diurnal upwelling driven by sea breezes in northern Monterey Bay. Continental Shelf Research, 27(18), 2289-2302.

Port Orford Gray Whale Foraging Ecology Project 2022 Field Season Wrap-Up

Allison Dawn, GEMM Lab Master’s student, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab 

The 8th year of Port Orford Gray Whale Foraging Ecology Project (TOPAZ/JASPER) has come to an end and it feels truly bittersweet. Last Friday, the team hosted our annual community presentation to close out the project and I was filled with pride to see them confidently convey all they learned over this summer to an audience of family, friends, and community members.

Figure 1: Team B.W.E poses for the annual team photo after the community presentation alongside Tom Calvanese (field station manager) and Lisa Hildebrand (previous project lead). 

I am amazed by all that you can accomplish in one summer, especially with an enthusiastic and adaptable team. I’ve compiled a “by the numbers” table (Fig. 2) that summarizes our hard work this season. 

Figure 2: Port Orford Gray Whale Forage Ecology (GWFE) field season 2022 by the numbers.

Every Spring, the GEMM lab works diligently to hire a solid team of students for this project, which just finished its 8th consecutive year. These students are initially total strangers who come together to live and work at the Port Orford field station on a project that is as physically and mentally tasking as it is rewarding. Although attention to all the daily details is critical, without a genuine desire to form strong connections and learn from each other – the real “glue” for teamwork – this project would not be as successful as it has been. Like the teams before them, team Big Whale Energy (B.W.E.) started off with little to no gray whale knowledge, sea kayaking experience, zooplankton ID, theodolite operation, or other skills that this project demands. The learning curve required of these students in such a short time is steep, but each year these bright, young scientists prove that with patience, determination, and a positive mindset you can gain not only valuable skills but lifelong connections. 

I also experienced a learning curve as this was my first year leading the project solo. While Leigh and Lisa trained me well last year, and were always a phone call away, there are certain skills that can only truly be honed with experience, many of which must be learned through the inevitable curve balls each new field season brings. During the six week project, Team B.W.E. grew as individuals and as a team as we encountered every challenge with a positive mindset and creative adaptation – from learning new knots to secure our downrigger line, to creating new songs while patiently watching for whales. I know I speak for all of us when I say we are so grateful for everything this 2022 field season experience has taught us about both the process of scientific research and ourselves.

During our community presentation, Leigh wonderfully conveyed how informative and exciting long term data sets can be, especially because 8 years is long enough for us to begin to observe cycles. We have been able to observe cycles in both the ecological changes in Port Orford and in the succession of students who have taken part in the project. Last year, the ecological habitat suitability seemed to have reached a new low, while this year we have seen more kelp and an uptick of whale activity as compared to 2021. We are hopeful this change is indicative of an ecosystem recovery. The cycle of returning project leads and previous interns (both virtual and in person) allows for a meaningful interchange of wisdom, memories, and excitement for the future of this project.

Figure 3: Mosaic of memories for Team B.W.E.

Thank you Team B.W.E. for helping me grow as a leader, contributing to the GEMM lab legacy, and making the 8th year of this project a great success. 

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The Season of Big Whale Energy (B.W.E)

By Charlie Ells, incoming freshman, Environmental Science major, College of Arts & Sciences at University of Oregon, GEMM Lab intern

Hi! My name is Charlie Ells and I’m an intern at the Port Orford field station. I’m part of the 8th Gray Whale Foraging Ecology Research Team, named this year Team B.W.E (Big Whale Energy!)

Figure 1: Logo I made for the team using Canva

The inspiration for our team name originated when the cliff team first spotted a whale named Buttons. Luke, another intern, saw Buttons through the Theodolite and said that he had “Big Whale Energy.” Luke was correct. Pictured below is Zoe, a fellow intern whose blog you might have read a couple weeks ago, and Buttons, an adult gray whale who surprised us both when he appeared out of nowhere behind us while in the kayak. The image doesn’t do him justice, but Buttons is absolutely awesome (and I mean that in the literal definition of the word). Buttons is huge; when he surfaces, it is almost like he is showing off. Buttons pulls a lot more of his body out of the water than seems necessary. His blows are deafening, sounding like an 18-wheeler’s brakes applied with full force. He often exhibits a behavior called ‘sharking’, which is when a whale turns on its side on the surface, bringing a part of their fluke out of the water (see GEMM lab video of sharking behavior). The behavior helps gray whales feed in shallow areas, and was named so because someone thought the whale’s fluke looked like a shark’s fin.

Figure 2: Kayak team gets a surprise visit by Buttons. No craft, whether it has a motor or not, should get this close to a whale. See this GEMM lab website with vessel guidelines and more information. In this case, we had seen Buttons at a safe distance (>100 yards) moments before, and moved in the opposite direction we had seen him going to avoid disturbing him. But Buttons had other plans.

Not only does B.W.E apply to the large whale that Buttons is, but it also encapsulates how much more whale activity we’ve seen this year compared to last year. So far, we have over 17 hours of whale observation time this season, which is 15 hours more than the team had in total last year. We’ve ID’d three unique whales using our study area, learned about some of them on the IndividuWhale website, and collected some great behavior data. Meet Rugged, the first whale I ever photographed. She’s young, and a bit smaller than the other adults, but she’s full of personality (to the extent that we can observe a whale’s personality, anyway). 

Figure 3: Rugged. Photo taken from the beach.

Figure 4: Rugged shows us her fluke as she dives behind the jetty.

Rugged likes to feed for a relatively long time; while some whales have searched and left quickly, she often hangs around the foraging grounds for hours. When Rugged travels, she tends to fluke, meaning she brings the end of her tail out of the water (Figure 4), pretty often. She sometimes blows three times in a row, and spends more time at the surface than others typically do. Look closely at Figure 3 and you can see a propeller scar, which is sadly new this year but at least these identification marks help us spot her more easily. So far, Rugged has been a regular customer at this season’s Mill Rocks buffet, where she feasts on a variety of zooplankton. We’ve seen her the most frequently of any whale this season, and when she shows up, she can be counted on to stick around and offer us the opportunity to collect a lot of nice whale behavior data.

My favorite part of the TOPAZ project data collection efforts are the photographs of whales I’ve captured. The camera is my favorite piece of our gear, and since using it so much this summer I’ve been seriously considering investing in one for myself. For any photography nerds, the camera is a Canon EOS 90D with a 400mm telephoto lens and auto-stabilization. Using this camera on challenging subjects, like a whale that can travel over a kilometer in a couple minutes, has taught me a lot about photography. I’ve learned a lot of situation-specific tricks as well as some general knowledge I’d like to share. I found that using such a long lens can introduce enough camera shake to ruin a shot. To prevent this, simply cranking the shutter speed up does wonders. In the main menu, I change the shutter speed to something like 1/1000, which means the shutter is open for 1/1000th of a second, minimizing the effect of the shake. I’ve also discovered that with a subject that is only in frame for a second (such as a whale), there just isn’t enough time to manually focus the camera before it’s gone. There are two solutions here: rely on auto-focus, which is fine with this camera, but might not be sufficient on others, or use manual focus before your subject is in frame. This second trick has helped me get much better whale pictures than when I first started this internship, and I use it all the time now.

Capturing these pictures of the whales is a thrilling process. First, the wait. Second, the moment of panicked excitement when someone spots a blow. Third, the breathless callouts of where the whale is and the direction it’s heading. Fourth, the mad scramble to get the whale in frame, in focus, and open the shutter in the few seconds before it returns to the depths. This last step is tough — I end up with more photos of empty water, rocks I mistake for the whale, and blurry nothingness than usable ID photos. But when I do end up with a good picture, it’s a great feeling. 

Figure 5: My best picture yet. This is Rugged, showing off what my teammates have dubbed “RainBlow.” 

Figure 6: Dotty, the third whale we ID’d this season. I hustled to the Battle Rock shoreline to get a better angle of this whale, as the sun was causing too much glare from the Cliff site to obtain a good ID photo.

This internship has affirmed my favorite part of conservation, which is the blending of science and art to inform and inspire. One of the things that first got me into science, besides my excellent science teachers, was watching YouTube videos. People like Mark Rober, Steve Mould, Veritasium, and Physics Girl take the scientific process and turn it into creative, accessible, and understandable videos. These artists and scientists have gifted me so much inspiration, which I personally think is one of the most valuable things you can be given. Inspiration can propel you forward, motivate you, and help you take those first steps towards your goal. This internship has propelled my first steps (via kayak strokes) toward my career goals. I’m looking forward to taking these lessons with me as I go off to U of O to study Environmental science. I created the video below in an attempt to capture our work, show off some highlights, and give people the same inspiration that I was given. I hope you enjoy it. This is Team Big Whale Energy, signing off!

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Kelp, the Multi-purpose Plant: Whale Loofahs, Calf Refuge, and Food Supply

By Luke Donaldson, incoming OSU freshman, Department of Forestry, GEMM Lab intern

When I was a toddler, my grandma took me to the Face Rock viewpoint in Bandon, Oregon during summer to look for migrating whales. Even though we never spotted a blow or fluke, it was a great memory, one that helped spark my ever-growing interest in biology and the environment.

As soon as I was old enough, I volunteered to help scientists at the South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve (SSNERR) work on a variety of research projects, including European green crab (Carcinus maenas) removal in the Coos Estuary. The removal process of the invasive European green crabs from the Coos estuary is similar to current culling efforts of purple sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) by the Oregon Kelp Alliance (ORKA) of here in Port Orford. Both efforts hope to reduce the negative ecological impacts caused by a lack of natural predators on the Oregon coast. Without natural predators, green crabs and sea urchins dominate food sources and reproduce exponentially in their respective ecosystems. In Port Orford, the decline in population of several species of sea stars since 2013 has led to an abundance of sea urchins, an estimated 350 million alone at Orford Reef (Sommer & Kastelnik, 2021). Read Lisa Hildebrand’s blog for more information about how the cycles of potential phase shifts between sea urchins and kelp impact both the ecology and economics along the Oregon coast. 
In addition to collecting long term data on gray whale activity and zooplankton abundance, the TOPAZ/JASPER projects have accumulated a yearly inventory of bull kelp canopies in order to record biogeographic changes and monitor areas of concern related to urchin abundance.

After multiple opportunities to hone my skills on the theodolite during our two training weeks, I spent several hours at our cliff observation site helping map kelp beds (read more about the theodolite and its purposes in Nichola’s recent blog). Not only does operating the theodolite require practice and careful precision, but weather also poses a challenge to mapping the surface expression of kelp effectively. Sunlight itself strains the eye and causes a glare in the theodolite objective lens. Wind gusts, tidal changes and swell can all distort kelp patches, so consistent timing is essential. Some areas of Tichenor Cove and Mill Rocks are obstructed by sea stacks, vegetation, and man-made structures, so for these areas we use a Garmin GPS to mark waypoints via kayak to create the perimeter of each kelp patch. With over 1,500 fixes and 120 kelp patches mapped, it was our first formal assessment of kelp this year within our two study areas, Tichenor Cove and Mill Rocks (Figure 1). While kelp cover in Tichenor appears to have increased a little since 2021, the kelp in Mill Rocks shows a great recovery.

Figure 1. Study site map with kelp cover from 2021 and 2022 shown in green. The gray areas represent land and each kayak sampling station is denoted within a bounding box. Map by A. Dawn

Not only is the kelp different between study years and areas, but our zooplankton catches are also showing signs of recovery. The large kelp beds of Mill Rocks support a sustained population of zooplankton, unlike in 2021 or in Tichenor Cove. Last year’s GEMM lab intern Damian Amerman-Smith noted the decline of kelp also appeared to correlate with decreased zooplankton abundance and gray whale foraging activity in Port Orford. However, not only does Mill Rocks yield higher amounts of zooplankton this year, but their average size, especially the mysid Holmesmysis sculpta, appears larger this year than in 2021.  

Consequently, this increase in food availability may be the cause of our higher frequency of gray whale observations in Mill Rocks this year. Despite the continued abundance of sea urchins in our study areas, I am optimistic that the current amount of kelp compared to past year’s data might be indicating a recovery of the ecosystem (Figure 2).

Figure 2. A comparison between Mill Rocks Station 17 in 2021 (left) and 2022 (right). Observe the difference in kelp and mysid shrimp abundance.

The first gray whale that we observed this year was consistently foraging within the kelp beds of Mill Rocks, which was very encouraging for our team. Through this internship I have learned many interesting things about kelp, including how kelp supplies more than just primary productivity, but also a wide range of services directly and indirectly to gray whales. In addition to being a foundation species of Oregon’s coastal ecosystems, bull kelp specifically provides zooplankton with nutrient-rich detritus, protection from predators, and a buffer from strong ocean currents (Schaffer & Feehan, 2020). Kelp provides gray whales not only with habitat for their prey, but keeps them hygienic as well. Gray whales have been observed “kelping”, where they brush against kelp with their skin like a loofah (Morris, 2016). Although kelping is relatively under-investigated, there are claims that this behavior can double as another foraging method (Busch, 1998). When swimming through kelp, gray whales may scrape off tiny crustaceans clinging to the kelp fronds. It has also been noted that gray whale mothers will hide their calves in kelp to conceal them from predators (Busch, 1998).

Ask anyone who has been to Port Orford and they will attest to the abundance and diversity of marine fauna that thrive in the nutrient-rich coastal waters. I hope this will continue, and that we will see a stable bull kelp canopy kelp ecosystem return here in Port Orford. Stay tuned for more results when the team maps kelp canopies again at the end of August!

Figure 3. Kayak sampling at a large patch of kelp in Mill Rocks. Photo credit: Nichola Gregory

This Gray whale foraging ecology (GWFE) internship has prepared me for college in many ways. Being able to study this dynamic ecosystem is any marine science intern’s dream; and, my decision to pursue Natural Resources as my major has been affirmed through this summer’s field and lab experience. It inspires me to focus on ecology and possibly attend graduate school in the future. The college-like environment of living at the field station has conditioned me for dorm life in the fall; and, the opportunity to meet leading experts in a variety of marine science fields has expanded my knowledge of possible career pathways. With the inspiration and guidance of Dr. Leigh Torres, field station manager Tom Calvanese, team leader Allison Dawn, and the rest of the whale team, I am excited to begin my journey as a natural resource student and future scientist.

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References

Busch, R. (1998). Gray Whales: Wandering Giants. Orca Book Publishers.

Feehan, C. J., Grauman-Boss, B. C., Strathmann, R. R., Dethier, M. N., & Duggins, D. O. (2017, October 25). Kelp detritus provides high-quality food for sea urchin larvae. Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography. Retrieved August 13, 2022, from https://aslopubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/lno.10740

Kastelnik, T. (2021, August 18). Kelp. Oregon Kelp Alliance. Retrieved August 10, 2022, from https://www.oregonkelp.com/

Morris, A. (2016, October 17). We Can’t Kelp But Smile At This Incredible Humpback Footage. Awesome Ocean. Retrieved August 12, 2022, from http://awesomeocean.com/whales/cant-kelp-smile-humpback-whale-footage/

Schaffer, J. A., Munsch, S. H., & Cordell, J. R. (2020, January 21). Kelp Forest Zooplankton, Forage Fishes, and Juvenile Salmonids of the Northeast Pacific Nearshore. American Fisheries Society. Retrieved August 3, 2022, from https://afspubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/mcf2.10103Sommer, L. (2021, March 31). In Hotter Climate, ‘Zombie’ Urchins Are Winning And Kelp Forests Are Losing. NPR. Retrieved August 3, 2022, from https://www.npr.org/2021/03/31/975800880/in-hotter-climate-zombie-urchins-are-winning-and-kelp-forests-are-losing#:~:text=In%202013%2C%20 sea%20star%20 wasting,Red%20List%20of%20Endangered%20Species.&text=With%20their%20predator%20largely%20gone%2C%20purple%20urchins%20boomed

Seeing the future through a new lens

By Nichola Gregory, B.S. Earth Science, College of Earth, Ocean, & Atmospheric Sciences, GEMM Lab Port Orford Intern

As a recent OSU graduate from the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences (CEOAS), I gained both knowledge regarding oceanographic and biological concepts through my coursework, and also a passion to be involved in projects that work towards bettering the natural world. Currently, I am pursuing a GIS (Geographic Information System) certificate from Portland Community College. The choice to continue my education with this certification was driven by its applicability as well as my desire to equip myself with skill sets that are applicable in addressing questions in marine science. This desire leads to the primary reason I was drawn to the TOPAZ/ JASPER projects that I am fortunate to be a part of this summer. These projects located in Port Orford have allowed me to become more familiar with various softwares and instruments used within marine sciences, and the instrument that I have been most excited to learn more about this summer is the theodolite.

My first introduction to the theodolite was during my biology of marine mammals course in Newport where PhD student Lisa Hildebrand (then Master’s student and graduate student leader of the Port Orford project since 2018) visited us in Depoe Bay with the instrument. That day, I was intimidated yet intrigued by how theodolites work and learned from Lisa that it can be used to create ‘tracklines’ of gray whale movements. 

Now that the 2022 field season is underway, I’ve spent the last couple weeks at the Port Orford Field Station under the guidance of Master’s student Allison Dawn where I have gained familiarity with operating the theodolite (or as we affectionately call it, the Theo). I have also learned how vital of a tool it can be in helping us understand the habits and ecology of PCFG gray whales that visit the Oregon coast. 

Figure 1: Four out of five members of the 2022 team pictured during cliff training. From left to right: Charlie watches whales with binoculars, Zoe learns how to use Pythagoras software for trackline creation, and Allison instructs me on how to use the theodolite. Photo credit: Luke Donaldson

Figure 2: A basic diagram of a digital theodolite. Top “Theo” pictured is facing out toward the object while the bottom “Theo” shows the user side. Diagram credit: Johnson Level & Tool Mfg. Co

Theodolites became popular in the early 1800’s and have been used for land surveying since. They combine optical plummets, a bubble level, and graduated circles to find vertical and horizontal angles while surveying. For a more visual introduction to theodolite and some of its uses, check out this link to a youtube video.  

When the cliff team begins the day, their primary objective is to set up the theodolite and be prepared to track the locations and movements of gray whales. First, the surveying point (which is used to ensure repeatability of station location) is placed on the ground to position the tripod and theodolite. Then, once the tripod is set up and theodolite attached, leveling the instrument takes place. The 3 screws on the base plate of the Theo allow for leveling, which is of utmost importance so that the instrument is perfectly level with the horizon. The Theo has two bubble levelers to promote accuracy while moving the tripod legs as well as the leveling screws. Once the instrument is level, we complete the “start fix”, which is our first data point for each day and used as our reference point. The telescope includes an eyepiece for the user and an objective lens with internal mirrors to magnify the object(s) being viewed. Now we are ready to start fixing whale locations! And while the set up involved with “Theo” can be difficult to remember and tedious (leveling specifically) it has become somewhat automatic after a few weeks of practice.  

After a productive day with many whale fixes, a small map (Figure 3) is made on the associated computer program “Pythagoras”. This map shows the station (“Theo”), the reference point, and the relative location and coordinates of each fix made. The tracklines are then analyzed to learn more about movement and behavior of specific whale individuals (read Lisa’s blog  here for more information!). We also carefully outline kelp patches with many “fixes” so we can create maps of kelp cover in our study areas. This year we are seeing more bull kelp compared to 2021, but stay tuned for more details about these changes from intern Luke Donaldson’s upcoming blog!

Figure 3: An example of a trackline map made in Pythagoras after gray whale fixes are made. This specific trackline shows a whale coming into Mill Rocks to forage, moving past the cliff station toward Tichenor Cove, and then making its way back to Mill Rocks. 

Due to this amazing instrument, the GEMM lab has non-invasively tracked many whales over the many previous field seasons. Two whales that this year’s team has grown particularly fond of are named “Buttons” and “Rugged”. Both have visited Port Orford numerous times over the past couple weeks, giving us the chance to get practice with creating tracklines while also capturing up-to-date ID photos. Buttons is regularly documented along the Oregon coast and is such a local favorite that there is an honorary Port Orford Public Library Card in his name! Rugged also showed up two weeks ago with a brand new marking that is likely a propeller scar. In addition to seeing a greater number of kelp patches, we have already obtained more whale trackline data than the entirety of  last year’s season. I hope this means we are observing a recovering ecosystem, and a positive future for Port Orford, through the lens of the Theodolite.

Figure 4: A photo captured of Rugged, our first whale sighting of the 2022 season. Photo credit: Allison Dawn 

After being in Port Orford for a couple weeks now, with the first few days of proper sampling behind me, I can tell my time here will be time well spent. Not only have I become familiar with a new instrument, I have learned a great deal in how science in the field is conducted and how broad a project can become. Specifically, I am impressed by the volume of data that is collected at the 12 unique kayak sampling stations on any given field day –secchi depth, water depth & chemistry, underwater footage, and zooplankton. These data complement the data cliff team provides, which, in addition to whale movement data, includes Beaufort Sea State, tidal height, and weather. I now appreciate how important it is to gather as much information as possible in order to find connections between the environment, gray whales, and their prey, even if those connections are not obvious to us today. 

Another lesson I’ve found invaluable during this experience is my growing belief in myself and abilities. Prior to this summer, I had minimal experience on the water, mostly limited to rivers and lakes. But after being in Port Orford for a few weeks, I have learned that something that once seemed daunting can become enjoyable. I think almost every young person in science finds themselves in a state of “imposter syndrome” at some point, where despite great education and experiences, they fall short in self confidence. Time spent on the cliff, kayak and lab has helped affirm that marine science is where I belong. Perhaps even more impactful are the experiences I have had while navigating the learning curve of these skills. I hope to keep this growth-mindset and push through future experiences that feel awkward or scary in order to reach my goals and find my place in marine sciences. 

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References

All about theodolites. Levels, Laser Levels and Measuring Tool Mfg Company Johnson Level. (n.d.). Retrieved August 1, 2022, from https://www.johnsonlevel.com/News/TheodolitesAllAboutTheodo

 Leonid Nadolinets, Eugene Levin, Daulet Akhmedov. 12 Jun 2017, Theodolites from:

Surveying Instruments and Technology CRC Press

Retrieved August 1, 2022, from

https://www.routledgehandbooks.com/doi/10.4324/9781315153346-3
NMAH: Surveying & geodesy: Theodolite. NMAH | Surveying & Geodesy | Theodolite. (n.d.). Retrieved August 2, 2022, from https://amhistory.si.edu/surveying/type.cfm?typeid=19

Land unlocked: From the Midwest to the west coast

By Zoe Sax, Drake University senior, Department of Environmental Science & Sustainability, GEMM Lab NSF REU intern

My name is Zoe and I am from land-locked Minnesota… so how did I end up on the west coast this summer? Well, I am a rising senior at Drake University studying environmental science on the biological conservation track with a zoo and conservation science concentration and a math minor. Despite the wordy title, there is one thing missing from my education — the ocean. This summer, I am dipping my toes into the field of marine biology as a National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) student — and I am loving it. As an REU student in the GEMM lab, I am doing both lab and field work surrounding the TOPAZ/JASPER project. In June, I arrived at the Hatfield Marine Science Center (HMSC) in Newport to outline my project with master’s student Allison Dawn, and start data analysis before the busy field season began.

Since 2016, the Port Orford project has collected Secchi disk measurements and GoPro video footage at each kayak sampling station. A Secchi disk is a simple tool with black and white quadrants that we lower into the water until it cannot be seen anymore. As we raise the disk out of the water, we count the marks on the line to calculate a measurement of water clarity (Figure 1). This long time-series of Secchi measurements is an excellent dataset, but what do these Secchi measurements actually reflect? Productivity in the water column, increased turbidity from river runoff, changes in zooplankton abundance? Additionally, what, if anything, does GoPro video color represent? My REU project aims to address these specific questions that the GEMM Lab needs answered. I will compare the Secchi disk measurements to the water color in GoPro video footage, collected at the same time and place, and satellite chlorophyll-a concentrations from MODIS. The goal is to understand if there is a relationship between video color and visibility (Secchi disk data), or a relationship between video color and chlorophyll-a concentrations.

Figure 1. Secchi disk deployment (top) Secchi disk (bottom).

I am using a programming language called Python to take screenshots of the GoPro footage at certain depths and extract color information. Originally, I extracted RGB values from each pixel and converted them to hex color codes. RGB stands for “red, green, blue” and represents the amount of each color present to achieve the color seen. Hex codes are unique codes for every color and contain six letters or numbers; the first two represent red, the second two represent green, and the final two represent green (Figure 2). However, to relate color to numeric data, I need to quantify the color values into a scale. Hex color codes do not have an obvious scale because they are so distinct and use both letters and numbers. On the other hand, RGB values have a numeric scale from 0–255 for each of the three colors, so we ultimately decided to only use these.

Figure 2. Screenshot from MR17 GoPro video footage on August 23rd, 2021 and the hex color code extraction. The donut plot (left) shows the frequency of each hex code in the center GoPro image, and the table (right) lists the hex codes.

Figure 3. Screenshot from TC6 GoPro video footage on August 12th, 2021 (a) and its RGB color extraction histogram (b).

Every image has millions of pixels, and each pixel has an RGB value. My code separates the red, green, and blue values of each pixel and plots a histogram with the RGB color value on the x-axis and the number of pixels where that value is present on the y-axis (Figure 3). I am currently in the process of determining the best mode of summarizing the color values, whether that be the mean, maximum, or range of values. Once determined, the summarized values will be compared to Secchi disk values and satellite chlorophyll-a concentrations. I still have to iron out the code, but I am proud of what I have done so far and cannot wait for it to all come together!

Along with learning new methods of analysis, I am being challenged to learn new field techniques, such as self-rescue in a tandem kayak (Figure 4). I also have enjoyed performing the data collection that, until now, I have only been watching on my laptop. As this year’s team collects data and reviews GoPro footage, which seems to be showing higher zooplankton abundance than in previous years, I get excited at the prospect of analyzing the data after the field season is complete.

Figure 4. Kayak safety training with the whale team and Marcus from South Coast Tours.

At the beginning of the summer, I felt overwhelmed. Yet, I have come to realize that it is okay to not understand something as long as I put in the effort to learn and am not afraid to ask for repeated explanations. I have also learned what it is like to be part of a lab and that lab mates can be a great source of support and knowledge. The GEMM lab is collaborative and members enjoy helping each other brainstorm. I am very thankful that Clara Bird, a GEMM lab PhD candidate, provided base code and additional guidance throughout my analysis. Additionally, I attended a lab meeting where many others provided helpful comments and suggestions that were crucial for my project.

My experience as a GEMM lab intern has allowed me to see my REU project through many phases. I have gained confidence in my R and Python programming skills, and confidence in my capabilities overall. Living and working at both the HMSC and Port Orford field stations has exposed me to a multitude of areas in marine science, from GEMM lab research on foraging behavior or acoustics, to other REU students’ and mentors’ research on seabird behavior or plankton ecology. Although there is still a month left of my internship, I have already affirmed my interest in marine biology, and hands-on exploration, and have a greater sense of what I may want to do in graduate school.

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Updates from the 2022 Port Orford Gray Whale Foraging Ecology Project

Allison Dawn, GEMM Lab Master’s student, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab 

Hello, GEMM Lab blog readers! I am writing to you from the Port Orford Field Station, aka the “South Coast Outpost” as our esteemed field station manager, Tom Calvanese, calls it. I am so excited to be back this year leading a new group of interns into our 8th consecutive year of the integrated TOPAZ and JASPER projects. The field station is much busier than last year, as it houses not only our team of five, but an additional five other interns representing OSU, either through NSF REU projects or MSI internships. I continue to be amazed at the depth and breadth of work that is facilitated by the field station, from our gray whale foraging observations to urchin gonad analysis to creative community engagement efforts and even sustainable seafood distribution. The Port Orford Field Station is truly a haven for those passionate about coastal Oregon conservation.  

The whale team has just wrapped up our first full week of training and I am excited to share a few updates. For those who are not familiar with the project, in addition to our busy field work projects in Newport (GRANITE & HALO), the GEMM lab has also been anchored in Port Orford every summer for the past eight years. With Leigh at the metaphorical helm, and a master’s student as first Mate (previously Florence Sullivan followed by Lisa Hildebrand), we have established a legacy of gray whale research, local collaborations, science communication and hands-on learning for budding young scientists. From this work we have investigated vessel disturbance, prey preference and potential trophic cascades, and now my research aims to investigate the environmental drivers of prey abundance. Many exciting developments are underway that you will learn more about in the coming weeks, but first I’d like to introduce the interns that are helping make this year possible! 

Figure 1. Zoe takes her first peek at Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve through the theodolite. 

First, I’d like to introduce you to Zoe Sax. Zoe is the first REU student to intern on the whale team for the Port Orford Project. She is a rising senior at Drake University majoring in Environmental Science with a Zoology and Conservation Science minor. Last spring, Zoe interned at the Blank Park Zoo where she worked with a range of mammals – even rhinos! This is her first marine mammal internship, but in just a few short weeks, Zoe has demonstrated enthusiasm for fieldwork’s most challenging tasks as well as perseverance through tricky Python/R code. Prior to our arrival at the Field Station, she has been working with me in Newport investigating whether our secchi disk data can serve as a proxy for chlorophyll-a, to ultimately understand patterns of visibility and nutrient abundance. I will let her tell you more about her project’s journey and preliminary results in her blog next week!   

Figure 2. Nichola smiles through kayak sampling training day while learning how to use the GPS to navigate and stay on station in Tichenor Cove.  

Next up is Nichola Gregory. Nichola is an OSU alumni with a bachelors in Ocean Science and a minor in Biology and Ecology. She is currently taking a self-paced certification course in GIS at Portland Community College and is preparing to apply for graduate schools this fall. With a background in phytoplankton identification using the Imaging Flow Cytobot (IFCb) in the Seascape Ecology Lab at OSU, Nichola has a passion for the tools that allow us to investigate smaller marine organisms. She is particularly excited to explore data from our new oceanographic sensor and strengthen her coding skills to help understand the relationships between nutrients and zooplankton. Once a competitive swimmer, she is also excited to be strengthening her water sport skillset and has met every new on-the-water task with a great attitude, humor, and attention to detail. 

Figure 3. Luke investigates the season’s first gammarid prey under a microscope during zooplankton ID training. 

Luke Donaldson is one of the team’s two interns who grew up on the southern Oregon Coast, where he recently graduated from Coquille High School. He is eager for new challenges before he enters his freshman year at the OSU-Cascades campus as a major in Natural Resources. Luke has already established himself as a keen observer. First, he spotted a river otter running into the surf on our team bonding beach walk, and then he spotted the first blow of the season during our kayak sampling training day! From bush-whacking in search of lamprey populations at South Slough Reserve, green crab trapping, and even hay-baling, Luke’s previous volunteer and internship work has equipped him with transferable skills that I know will be integral in the weeks to come.

Figure 4. Charlie looks toward MR17 where we had just observed the first gray whale of the season surface. 

Last, but certainly not least – our other “coastie” intern is Charlie Ells. Charlie graduated from Bandon High School this past spring and plans to attend the University of Oregon as an Environmental Science major. He has earned the nickname “Mr. Safety” from his peers due to his commitment to fieldwork best practices and his catchphrase “Never turn your back on the ocean”. He has taken great initiative in learning every new task, and his familiarity with the water has made him an essential part of the team as an excellent kayak navigator. Charlie already has a demonstrated passion for conservation and is eager to gain experiences that will help him explore his future career pathways. 

Figure 5. The 2022 TOPAZ / JASPER team after a long yet rewarding morning of kayak sampling training. 

With week one under our belts, I know I speak for the whole team when I say we are as excited as ever for the season. With the exception of one foggy day, we have been fortunate to have favorable weather conditions that I hope will continue. Collaborators in Port Orford and I have noticed there have been new kelp patches in Mill Rocks where we spotted our first whale of the season, which makes us hopeful there will be some quality zooplankton prey in the area for our PCFG whales. This week, the team will tackle Basic Life Safety Training (BLS) and complete several more cliff/kayak practice days to prepare us for the first week of August where we will officially begin data collection. Stay tuned for more exciting updates from the Port Orford team! 

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Reflections from this year’s 27th Annual Markham Research Symposium

Allison Dawn, GEMM Lab Master’s student, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab 

The 27th Annual Markham Research Symposium was hosted at the Hatfield Marine Science Center (HMSC) last week. During the event, students who have been awarded funds and scholarships through HMSC present their research via poster presentations or 5-minute “ignite” talks. Given how isolated and mostly remote academic events have been during the COVID pandemic, it was invigorating to have an in-person research event. The timing of the symposium was also strategically planned to occur during the first week of Hatfield’s REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) students’ arrival, and it felt special to have such a diversity of ages and career stages coming together to discuss science. While I was certainly expecting to have good conversations about research and receive feedback on my work, I was most surprised by how much this event inspired me to reflect on my first year as a graduate student. For this week’s blog I’d like to share some of these reflections I had while listening to the excellent keynote address and interacting with students during the poster session.

The symposium began with a keynote address by Dr. Elizabeth Perotti who identifies as a scientist, communicator, and a parent. Dr. Perotti works as the Education and Outreach Coordinator for NOAA’s Ocean Acidification Program (OAP). I was expecting to hear a 45-minute presentation on the latest ocean acidification efforts, but I was surprised and appreciated that Dr. Perotti spent her time mainly focused on discussing career development through the lens of her own winding career path. While I would have been equally excited to hear about her science communication and outreach work, I am glad she took the time to share her story and give advice based on her experiences. As someone who used to feel insecure about my non-linear path to science, it was validating and inspiring to hear about the variety of experiences that prepared her to take on her current position at NOAA. Dr. Perotti describes her career path as “clear as mud”, but acknowledged that there were several key mentors who helped her identify and shape her specific interests. 

One of those mentors was the late Dr. Marian Diamond, who is renowned for her work on brain plasticity research. She was the first female science professor at Cornell and is considered one of the founders of modern neuroscience. She and her team pioneered the idea that the brain can change, and even improve, with the right stimulation. Dr. Diamond was the first person to study Einstein’s brain in the hopes of uncovering the secret to his high intelligence. She found that Einstein’s brain had more glial cells (which are now sometimes called “genius cells”) than the average person. These glial cells are known to nourish strong neuron connections and build a more complex brain structure. Dr. Diamond hypothesized that Einstein’s brain had more of these cells due to the high stimulation he put on his neurons. From the synthesis of this study and other fascinating experiments during her life’s work, Dr. Diamond suggested five core things the brain needs to continue development, regardless of age: diet, exercise, challenges, newness, and love. A healthy diet fuels the brain, exercise builds better brain cells, challenges and newness stimulate brain function, and love enriches our lives  – each of these factors are shown to contribute to the neuroplasticity of our brains (Diamond, 2001). During the keynote, Dr. Perotti asked the audience to contemplate if they are pursuing a career that is fulfilling at least one of those core requirements. As I contemplated these “brain essentials”, I realized how my experience as a Master’s student in the GEMM lab actually fulfills each one of these, and I am excited by the science that suggests I may be producing more “genius cells” because of it! 

Figure 1: Illustration showing Dr. Diamond’s suggested 5 core essentials for a healthy brain. Taken from: ​​https://blog.stannah-stairlifts.com/society/marian-diamond-women-in-science/

First, the diet I’ve had over the past year has certainly been nurturing. During the field season in Port Orford, one of my favorite meals is when we are given locally-sourced and sustainably caught fish from Port Orford Sustainable Seafood in exchange for helping them process orders. When I am back in Newport and Corvallis, my lab mates and peers are always sharing homemade snacks and we frequently get together for meals (and when the weather is nice – picnics!)

Figures 2 & 3: To the left: Locally sourced salmon cooked by Lisa Hildebrand for one of the many 2021 Port Orford team dinners; To the right: Colorful plates on an impromptu sunny day picnic with Rachel Kaplan. 

For exercise – it almost goes without saying that the field season in Port Orford is physically demanding. During data collection we are constantly alert and on our feet on the cliff site, or paddling continuously to stay on station to obtain good zooplankton and oceanographic samples.

Figure 4: Lisa Hildebrand and A. Dawn enjoying one of the last days of kayak sampling for the 2021 Port Orford field season.

Challenges – there are a variety of challenges to face as a new graduate student. Not only are there difficult, yet exciting questions to tackle, and new analysis skills to learn, but as Dr. Perotti discussed in her talk, there are also soft skills (communication, time/conflict management, task prioritization) that I am sharpening, which are equally important to master. 

Newness – as a graduate student, almost everything feels new. I frequently feel I am out of my comfort zone. Especially during the past three terms, I find myself in the mental “growth zone” consistently. Between my coursework and getting to attend exciting seminars, I consistently learn something new on a daily basis. Despite having completed a field season last year, leading the team this year will also be new, and I anticipate a steep learning curve where I am excited to learn how to be a better scientist and mentor.

Lastly, the love I have experienced since starting my Master’s degree has been one of my most treasured aspects of my life here – love for my lab family and for the opportunity I have to be here. After the symposium I got together with a few lab mates and we journeyed to Nye Beach to watch the sunset. I appreciate that despite our busy schedules, we all make time to connect with each other and explore the beautiful coast we are privileged to call home.

Figure 5: Watching the sunset on Nye Beach never gets old, especially when you are with good friends. Photo credit: C. Bird.

Just as I incorrectly assumed the keynote would be solely research focused, I anticipated answering in-depth questions about my preliminary Master’s thesis analysis results at the poster session. While I did receive great questions and valuable feedback from mentors, which has already helped shape the next steps in my analysis, the interactions I had with the REU student cohort was very different. These budding scientists were more interested in my personal outlook on graduate school, and asked many questions that felt familiar to me. I let the undergraduates know that it was only a year ago that I graduated with my B.S., and shared many of those same, daunting questions about the next chapter of my career: “How do you know if a program is right for you?”, “How do you pick the right advisor?”, “What type of working environment should I be looking for?”. It was fulfilling to be able to echo the great advice Dr. Perotti gave during the keynote address, in which she encouraged students to find mentors, know their talents, learn how to communicate, and take a challenge.

Figure 6: Posing next to my Markam Symposium poster, excited to share my proposed research with peers and mentors. Photo credit: Lisa Hildebrand

I am extremely grateful to have received one of this year’s Mamie Markham awards, and for the opportunity to interact with younger career scientists who I can share my journey and experiences with. The symposium was good practice in communicating my work and stimulating food for thought as I move forward with my second year in graduate school.

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References

Diamond, Marian (2001) Successful Aging of the Healthy Brain. Conference of the American Society on Aging and The National Council on the Aging March 10, 2001, New Orleans, LA

Shifts in planktonic community composition due to marine heatwaves (MHWs)

Allison Dawn, GEMM Lab Master’s student, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

As the first year of my Master’s is coming to an end, I am excited to have completed the first milestone of writing my research proposal. During the formation of my initial hypotheses, I have been thinking deeply about the potential drivers of zooplankton variability, and how these metrics relate to the Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) of gray whales foraging in Port Orford. One topic that continues to appear in the literature and throughout my coursework is that of the extreme marine heat wave (MHW) event (2013-2016) in the Pacific Ocean, otherwise known as the “warm blob”. In Dawn’s (now Dr. Barlow!) blog about this MHW, she discusses how whale habitat in California was compressed due to shifts in prey availability, and how this led to an increased number of whale entanglements (Santora et al., 2020). While sea surface temperature (SST) is only one of many factors that influence prey metrics, it is nevertheless an important factor to consider, especially as these heat waves are expected to increase in intensity and duration due to climate change (Joh and Di Lorenzo, 2017). As Lisa mentioned in her last blog, the “warm blob” exacerbated the loss of kelp and sea stars, which is now impacting multiple trophic levels in Port Orford. For my first thesis chapter, I plan to dive into how SST anomalies impact the mosaic of interactions at our study site in Port Orford, and ultimately try to better understand food availability for the PCFG whales.

Cavole et al., 2016 is one of the early comprehensive studies to discuss the impact of the blob on a variety of planktonic marine species. Their sea surface temperature anomaly figure (Figure 1) shows where the anomaly began in 2013 and how it migrated from the Northern Pacific to the Southern Pacific coast.

Figure 1. Plots showing the SST anomalies as the “warm blob” migrated from the Northern Pacific to the Southern Pacific from 2013 until 2016.

Among many other impacts, this MHW caused a reduction in phytoplankton, the major food source for zooplankton. The decline of this food source subsequently caused significant changes in zooplankton populations. Specifically, studies on copepod diversity and biomass show that in a typical California Current System (CCS) there is a seasonal oscillation between warm-water with subtropical species and cold-water with subarctic species. In the winter, the CCS is characterized by a high diversity of subtropical species, due to a southern water source. In the spring, northern cold water advection brings low-diversity, subarctic copepods. While the timing of these shifts is subject to change due to changes in the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), it remains that these subtropical copepod species are known to be smaller and less nutritious than subarctic copepod species regardless of arrival time (Kintisch, 2015; Leising et al., 2015). However, in 2015, this shift to cold water copepod species did not occur, but rather coastal sampling along the Oregon coast saw subtropical copepod species prevail. Specifically, there were 17 main subtropical copepod species that dominated the species composition while the nutrient-rich arctic species were rare. This occurrence of major copepod shifts alone points to the overall concern for the ecosystem imbalance, to the detriment of top predators like marine mammals and seabirds (the “losers”), and others gaining advantage (the “winners”) (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Figure showing the “losers” (right column) and “winners” (left column) of MHW impacts. Species are organized by trophic level, with top predators at the bottom. Taken from Cavole et al., 2016.

More recent studies found that in certain areas, impacts from the “warm blob” outlived the duration of the larger scale anomaly. In fact, large, positive SST anomalies have lingered on the Oregon shelf until at least September 2017 (Peterson et al., 2017). During this time period, anomalously high abundances of nearshore larval North Pacific krill (Euphausia pacifica) were collected off of the Newport Hydrographic Station (Morgan et al., 2019). Additionally, Brodeur et al. (2019) demonstrate that while indicator species in the nearshore have consistent annual variability, there were substantial differences between community composition between 2011-2014 (low diversity) and 2015-2016 (high diversity). This work also documented the shift from crustacean species (like krill and mysids) to more low-quality gelatinous taxa. As the authors acknowledge, this change in prey community assemblage could have major negative impacts on trophic interactions. This is especially true in the context of whales, as they are not known to rely on gelatinous taxa for energy.

Just like our summer sampling in Port Orford, these studies only provide a “snapshot” of plankton species abundance and composition during a particular time of year. However, even a snapshot can reveal significant changes in prey variability, which then may help us understand the drivers of PCFG habitat utilization. We are actively investigating whether there have been significant changes in the variability of several zooplankton metrics (abundance, distribution, size class, composition) relative to SST changes in Port Orford over the last 6 years (2016-2021).

We will also consider multiple other static and dynamic factors that could influence zooplankton patterns (e.g., upwelling strength, kelp health, tidal height, topography); however, given these documented strong relationships between the zooplankton community and SST across the North Pacific, we hypothesize similar impacts in our Port Orford study region. For example, in certain sampling years, net tows seemed to be comprised of smaller size classes of zooplankton than usual. We will consider how size class availability has changed and if this was driven by SST variability. Gray whales are drawn to this area for enhanced feeding opportunities, and understanding the drivers of zooplankton, especially high quality prey, is a key step to understanding whale use of the area.

Please stay tuned for more updates as we continue working towards the answer to these pressing questions!

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References

Brodeur, R. D., Auth, T. D., & Phillips, A. J. (2019). Major shifts in pelagic micronekton and macrozooplankton community structure in an upwelling ecosystem related to an unprecedented marine heatwave. Frontiers in Marine Science, 6, 212.

Cavole, L. M., Demko, A. M., Diner, R. E., Giddings, A., Koester, I., Pagniello, C. M., … & Franks, P. J. (2016). Biological impacts of the 2013–2015 warm-water anomaly in the Northeast Pacific: winners, losers, and the future. Oceanography, 29(2), 273-285.

Joh, Y., & Di Lorenzo, E. (2017). Increasing coupling between NPGO and PDO leads to prolonged marine heatwaves in the Northeast Pacific. Geophysical Research Letters, 44(22), 11-663.

Kintisch, E. (2015). ‘The Blob’ invades Pacific, flummoxing climate experts.

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Weighing-in on scale

Allison Dawn, GEMM Lab Master’s student, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab 

As the first term of my master’s program comes to an end and we head toward winter break, I am excited by the course material that has already helped direct my research and development as a scientist. There have been new, challenging topics to tackle, and each assignment has fostered deeper thinking into the formation of my thesis. While I learned new methods and analysis approaches this term, a single phrase pervades throughout my studies of ecology – “it depends!”. Ecologists work to uncover patterns driven by natural processes, and this single phrase seems to answer many questions about whether the pattern always exists. A reasonable follow up to that frequently used phrase is, “depends on what?” or “when or where would this pattern change?” In the context of foraging ecology, predator-prey patterns are frequently driven by environmental processes that depend on the scale you choose for your study. 

What do we mean by scale? Simply stated, scale is a graduation from one level of measurement to another. You can imagine a ruler, for example. You can measure how tall you are in inches with a ruler or in yards with a yard stick. When we think about scale in ecology, the “ruler” can have traditional units of space (meters, kilometers, etc.), units of time (minutes, days, hours, months, years, etc.), or sometimes both!  

The ocean is dynamic and heterogeneous, which simply means there is a lot going on at once. Oceanographic processes influence predator-prey interactions but due to the inherent variability in the system, it is important to explore which factors drive processes that influence patterns at different spatial and temporal scales.  

In marine ecology, the “explanatory power” of a factors’ influence on a given process depends on which scale you choose to build your research upon. Ocean ecosystems are hierarchical, with patterns happening at many temporal and spatial scales all at once. So, we could choose to study the same predator-prey interactions at the scale of meters and minutes or 100s of km and months, and we would likely find very different drivers of patterns. The topic of scale is particularly relevant in regard to whale foraging, as marine mammals employ different sensory methods to locate prey at different spatial scales (Torres 2017). 

Among the first papers to conduct multi-scale research on whale foraging was Jaquet and Whitehead, 1996. Here, they studied sperm whale distribution in relation to various physical and environmental variables. Analysis showed that the main drivers of sperm whale distribution were secondary productivity (e.g., bacteria and zooplankton), underwater topography, and the gradient between deep water and surface water productivity. However, these drivers had a different impact depending on the spatial scale. There was no correlation between the drivers and sperm whale distribution at small scales < 320 nautical miles. However, at large scales >= 320 nautical miles, female sperm whale distribution was correlated with high secondary productivity and steep underwater topography. These important findings demonstrate that small scale distribution of prey alone does not drive the distribution of sperm whale predators in this study region, while other factors contribute to predator movement.  

Figure 1. Figure reproduced from Jaquet & Whitehead, 1996. Plots show how the Spearman correlation results between sperm whale density and environmental variables change across multiple spatial scales. (A) Prey distribution, (B) distance to shore and bathymetric contour, and (C) the three main environmental drivers (secondary productivity, topography, and the deep water productivity gradient). 

Ten years later, a study on Mediterranean fin whales tackled a similar question of how interactions between prey and predator change at multiple scales. However, their work investigated responses to both spatial and temporal scale changes. Through spatial modeling relative to oceanographic factors, Cotté et al. 2009 found that at a large-scale (year and ocean basin-wide), fin whales demonstrated two distinct distribution patterns: in the summer they were aggregated, and in the winter they were more dispersed. However, at the meso-scale (weeks -months, and 20-100 km) fin whale fidelity switched to colder, saltier waters with steeper topography and temperature gradients. Based on these results, the authors concluded that at the large scale, whale movement was driven by annually persistent prey abundance. At smaller scales, prey aggregations are less predictable, thus the authors suggest that whale movement at the meso-scale is driven by physical processes, such as frontal zones and strong currents.  

Figure 2. Figure reproduced from Cotté et. al 2009. Map shows Mediterranean fin whale distribution against oceanographic conditions. Color gradient indicates sea surface temperature (SST), fin whale observations shown in white and red circles, black arrows show current direction, with inset temperature/salinity diagram for September 28-30th 2006. 

A key takeaway from these papers is that it is important to investigate how processes and responses can vary at different scales, because results can sometimes depend on the time and space measurement applied in the analysis. For my thesis, I will explore which drivers take a front seat role in gray whale foraging at both fine and meso-scales. I am interested to compare my results on the relationships between PCFG gray whales and their zooplankton prey to the results from the above described studies. Stay tuned for more updates! 

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References: 

Cotté, C., Guinet, C., Taupier-Letage, I., Mate, B., & Petiau, E. (2009). Scale-dependent habitat use by a large free-ranging predator, the Mediterranean fin whale. Deep Sea Research Part I: Oceanographic Research Papers, 56(5), 801-811. 

Jaquet, N., & Whitehead, H. (1996). Scale-dependent correlation of sperm whale distribution with environmental features and productivity in the South Pacific. Marine ecology progress series, 135, 1-9. 

​​Torres, L. G. (2017). A sense of scale: Foraging cetaceans’ use of scale‐dependent multimodal sensory systems. Marine Mammal Science, 33(4), 1170-1193.