Love thy mother: maternal care in cetaceans

By Lisa Hildebrand, PhD student, OSU Department of Fisheries & Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Last week marked the one year anniversary of the pandemic reality we have all been living. It has been an extremely challenging year, with everyone experiencing different kinds of difficulties and hurdles. One challenge that likely unites the majority of us is having to forego seeing our loved ones. For me personally, this is the longest time I have not seen my family (445 days and counting) and I know I am not alone in this situation. My homesickness started a train of thought about cetacean parental care and inspired me to write a blog about this topic. As you can see from the title, this post focuses on maternal care, rather than parental care. This bias isn’t due to my lack of research on this topic or active exclusion, but rather because there are currently no known cetacean species where paternal participation in offspring production and development extends beyond copulation (Rendell et al. 2019). Thus, this blog is all about the role of mothers in the lives of cetacean calves.

Like humans, cetacean mothers invest a lot of energy into their offspring. Most species have a gestation period of 10 or more months (Oftedal 1997). For baleen whale females in particular, pregnancy is not an easy feat given that they only feed during summer feeding seasons. They must therefore acquire all of the energy they will need for two migrations, birth, and (almost) complete lactation, before they will have access to food on feeding grounds again. For pregnant gray whales, a mere 4% loss in average energy intake on the foraging grounds will prevent her from successfully producing and/or weaning a calf (Villegas-Amtmann et al. 2015), demonstrating how crucial the foraging season is for a pregnant baleen whale. Once a calf is born, lactation ensues, ranging in length between approximately 6-8 months for most baleen whale species to upwards of one or two years in odontocetes (Oftedal 1997). The very short lactation period in baleen whales is offset by the large volume (for blue whales, up to 220 kg per day) and high fat percentage (30-50%) of milk that mothers provide for their calves (Oftedal 1997). In contrast, odontocetes (or toothed whales) have a more prolonged period of lactation with less fatty milk (10-30%). This discrepancy in lactation period lengths is in part because odontocete species do not undertake long migrations, which allows females to feed year-round and therefore allocate energy to nursing young for a longer time. 

Blue whale calf nursing in New Zealand in 2016. Footage captured via unmanned aerial system (UAS; drone) piloted by Todd Chandler for GEMM Lab’s OBSIDIAN project. Source: GEMM Lab.

Aside from the energetically costly task of lactation, cetacean mothers must also assist their calves as they learn to swim. Echelon swimming is a common position of mother-calf pairs whereby the calf is in very close proximity to its mother’s mid-lateral flank and provides calves with hydrodynamic benefits. Studies in bottlenose dolphins have shown that swimming in echelon results in a 24% reduction in mean maximum swim speeds and a 13% decrease in distance per stroke (Noren 2008) for mothers, while concurrently increasing average swim speeds and distance per stroke of calves by 28% and 19%, respectively (Noren et al. 2007). While these studies have only been conducted in odontocete species, echelon swimming is also observed in baleen whales (Smultea et al. 2017), indicating that baleen whale females may experience the same reductions in swimming efficiency. Furthermore, mothers will forgo sleep in the first days after birth (killer whales & bottlenose dolphins; Lyamin et al. 2005) and/or shorten their dive foraging times to accommodate calf diving ability (bottlenose dolphins [Miketa et al. 2018] & belugas [Heide-Jørgensen et al. 2001]). Females must endure these losses in foraging opportunities and decreased swimming efficiency when they are at their most nutritionally stressed to ensure the well-being and success of their offspring.

It is at the time of weaning (when a calf becomes independent), that we start to see differences in the maternal role between baleen and toothed whale mothers. Odontocetes have much stronger sociality than baleen whales causing offspring to stay with their mothers for much longer periods. Among the largest toothed whales, such as killer and sperm whales, offspring stay with their mothers in stable matrilineal units for often a lifetime. Among the smaller toothed whales, such as bottlenose dolphins, maternal kin maintain strong bonds in dynamic fission-fusion societies. In contrast, post-weaning maternal care in baleen whales is limited, with the mother-calf pair typically separating soon after the calf is weaned (Rendell et al. 2019). 

Conceptual diagram depicting where baleen (Mysticeti) and toothed (Odontoceti) whales fall on the continuum of low to high social structure and matrilineal kinship structure. The networks at the top depict long-term datasets of photo-identified individuals (red nodes = females, blue nodes = males, yellow nodes = calves) with thickness of connecting lines representing strength of association between individuals. Figure and caption [adapted] from Rendell et al. 2019.

The long-term impact of social bonds in odontocetes is evident through examples of vertically transmitted behaviors (from mother to calf) in a number of species. For example, the use of three unique foraging tactics (sponge carrying, rooster-tail foraging, and mill foraging) by bottlenose dolphin calves in Shark Bay, Australia, was only significantly explained by maternal use of these tactics (Sargeant & Mann 2009). In Brazil, individuals of four bottlenose dolphin populations along the coast cooperatively forage with artisanal fishermen, which involves specialized and coordinated behaviors from both species. This cooperative foraging tactic among dolphins is primarily maintained across generations via social learning from mothers to calves (Simões-Lopeset al. 2016). The risky tactic of intentional stranding by killer whales on beaches to capture elephant seal pups requires a high degree of skill and high parental investment to reduce the associated risk of stranding (Guinet & Bouvier 1995). 

Evidence for vertical transmission of specialized foraging tactics in baleen whales currently does not exist. Bubble-net feeding is a specialized tactic employed by humpback whales in three oceanic regions where multiple individuals work together to herd and trap prey (Wiley et al. 2011). However, it remains unknown whether this behavior is vertically transmitted. Simultaneous video tags from a mother-calf humpback whale pair in the Western Antarctic Peninsula documented synchrony in dives, with the calf’s track lagging behind the mother’s by 4.5 seconds, suggesting that the calf was following its mother (Tyson et al. 2012). Synchronous diving likely allows calves to observe their mothers and practice their diving, and could offer a pathway for them to mimic foraging behaviors and tactics displayed by mothers. 

While there currently may not be evidence for vertical transmission of specialized foraging tactics among the baleen whales, there is documentation of matrilineal fidelity to both foraging (Weinrich 1998, Barendse et al. 2013, Burnham & Duffus 2020) and breeding grounds (Carroll et al. 2015). Matrilineal site fidelity to foraging grounds is not exclusive to baleen whales and has also been documented in a number of odontocete species (Palsbøll et al. 1997, Turgeon et al. 2012). 

In the GEMM Lab, we are interested in exploring the potential long-term bonds, role and impact of Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) gray whale mothers on their calves. GEMM Lab PhD student Clara Bird is digging into whether specialized foraging tactics, such as bubble blasts and headstands, are passed down from mothers to calves. I hope to assess whether using the PCFG range as a foraging ground (rather than the Arctic region) is a vertically transmitted behavior or whether environmental factors may play a larger role in the recruitment and dynamics of the PCFG. It will take us a while to get to the bottom of these questions, so in the meantime hug your loved ones if it’s safe to do so or, if you’re in my boat, continue to talk to them virtually until it is safe to be reunited.

References

Barendse, J., Best, P. B., Carvalho, I., and C. Pomilla. 2013. Mother knows best: occurrence and associations of resighted humpback whales suggest maternally derived fidelity to a southern hemisphere coastal feeding ground. PloS ONE 8:e81238.

Burnham, R. E., and D. A. Duffus. 2020. Maternal behaviors of gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) on a summer foraging site. Marine Mammal Science 36:1212-1230.

Carroll, E. L., Baker, C. S., Watson, M., Alderman, R., Bannister, J., Gaggiotti, O. E., Gröcke, D. R., Patenaude, N., and R. Harcourt. 2015. Cultural traditions across a migratory network shape the genetic structure of southern right whales around Australia and New Zealand. Scientific Reports 5:16182.

Guinet, C., and J. Bouvier. 1995. Development of intentional stranding hunting techniques in killer whale (Orcinus orca) calves at Crozet Archipelago. Canadian Journal of Zoology 73:27-33.

Heide-Jørgensen, M. P., Hammeken, N., Dietz, R., Orr, J., and P. R. Richard. 2001. Surfacing times and dive rates for narwhals and belugas. Arctic 54:207-355.

Lyamin, O., Pryaslova, J., Lance, V., and J. Siegel. 2005. Continuous activity in cetaceans after birth. Nature 435:1177.

Miketa, M. L., Patterson, E. M., Krzyszczyk, E., Foroughirad, V., and J. Mann. 2018. Calf age and sex affect maternal diving behavior in Shark Bay bottlenose dolphins. Animal Behavior 137:107-117.

Noren, S. R. 2008. Infant carrying behavior in dolphins: costly parental care in an aquatic environment. Functional Ecology 22:284-288.

Noren, S. R., Biedenbach, F., Redfern, J. V., and E. F. Edwards. 2007. Hitching a ride: the formation locomotion strategy of dolphin calves. Functional Ecology 22:278-283.

Oftedal, O. T. Lactation in whales and dolphins: evidence of divergence between baleen- and toothed-species. Journal of Mammary Gland Biology and Neoplasia 2:205-230.

Palsbøll, P. J., Heide-Jørgensen, M. P., and R. Dietz. 1996. Population structure and seasonal movements of narwhals, Monodon monoceros, determined from mtDNA analysis. Heredity 78:284-292.

Rendell, L., Cantor, M., Gero, S., Whitehead, H., and J. Mann. 2019. Causes and consequences of female centrality in cetacean societies. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 374:20180066.

Sargeant, B. L., and J. Mann. 2009. Developmental evidence for foraging traditions in wild bottlenose dolphins. Animal Behavior 78:715-721.

Simões-Lopes, P. C., Daura-Jorge, F. G., and M. Cantor. 2016. Clues of cultural transmission in cooperative foraging between artisanal fishermen and bottlenose dolphins, Tursiops truncatus (Cetacea: Delphinidae). Zoologia (Curitiba) 33:e20160107.

Smultea, M. A., Fertl, D., Bacon, C. E., Moore, M. R., James, V. R., and B. Würsig. 2017. Cetacean mother-calf behavior observed from a small aircraft off Southern California. Animal Behavior and Cognition 4:1-23.

Turgeon, J., Duchesne, P., Colbeck, G. J., Postma, L. D., and M. O. Hammill. 2011. Spatiotemporal segregation among summer stocks of beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) despite nuclear gene flow: implication for the endangered belugas in eastern Hudson Bay (Canada). Conservation Genetics 13:419-433.

Tyson, R. B., Friedlaender, A. S., Ware, C., Stimpert, A. K., and D. P. Nowacek. 2012. Synchronous mother and calf foraging behaviour in humpback whales Megaptera novaeangliae: insights from multi-sensor suction cup tags. Marine Ecology Progress Series 457:209-220.

Villegas-Amtmann, S., Schwarz, L. K., Sumich, J. L., and D. P. Costa. 2015. A bioenergetics model to evaluate demographic consequences of disturbance in marine mammals applied to gray whales. Ecosphere 6:1-19.

Weinrich, M. 1998. Early experience in habitat choice by humpback whales (Megaptera novaeaengliae). Journal of Mammalogy 79:163-170.

Wiley, D., Ware, C., Bocconcelli, A., Cholewiak, D., Friedlaender, A., Thompson, M., and M. Weinrich. 2011. Underwater components of humpback whale bubble-net feeding behavior. Behavior 148:575-602.

Putting Physiological Tools to Work for Whale Conservation

By Alejandro Fernandez Ajo, PhD student at the Department of Biology, Northern Arizona University, Visiting scientist in the GEMM Lab working on the gray whale physiology and ecology project  

About four years ago, I was in Patagonia, Argentina deciding where to focus my research and contribute to whale conservation efforts. At the same time, I was doing fieldwork with the Whale Conservation Institute of Argentina at the “Whale Camp” in Península Valdés. I read tons of papers and talked with my colleagues about different opportunities and gaps in knowledge that I could tackle during my Ph.D. program. One of the questions that caught my attention was about the unknown cause (or causes) for the recurrent high calf mortalities that the Southern Right Whale (SRW) population that breeds at Peninsula Valdés experienced during the 2000s (Rowntree et al. 2013). Still, at that time, I was unsure how to tackle this research question.

Golfo San José, Península Valdés – Argentina. Collecting SRW behavioral data from the cliff’s vantage point. Source: A. Fernandez Ajo.

Between 2003 and 2013, at least 672 SRWs died, of which 91% were calves (Sironi et al. 2014). These mortalities represented an average total whale death per year of 80 individuals in the 2007-2013 period, which vastly exceeded the 8.2 average deaths per year of previous years by a ten-fold increase (i.e., 1993-2002) (Rowntree et al. 2013). In fact, this calf mortality rate was the highest ever documented for any population of large whales. During this period, from 2006 to 2009, I was the Coordinator of the Fauna Area in the Patagonian Coastal Zone Management Plan, and I collaborated with the Southern Right Whale Health Monitoring Program (AKA: The Stranding Program) that conducted field necropsies on stranded whales along the coasts of the Península and collected many different samples including whale baleen.

Southern Right Whale, found stranded in Patagonia Argentina. Source: Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas.

In this process, I learned about the emerging field of Conservation Physiology and the challenges of utilizing traditional approaches to studying physiology in large whales. Basically, the problem is that there is no possible way to obtain blood samples (the gold standard sample type for physiology) from free-swimming whales; whales are just too large! Fortunately, there are currently several alternative approaches for gathering physiological information on large whales using a variety of non-lethal and minimally invasive (or non-invasive) sample matrices, along with utilizing valuable samples recovered at necropsy (Hunt et al. 2013). That is how I learned about Dr. Kathleen Hunt’s novel research studying hormones from whale baleen (Hunt et al., 2018, 2017, 2014). Thus, I contacted Dr. Hunt and started a collaboration to apply these novel methods to understand the case of calf mortalities of the SRW calves in Patagonia utilizing the baleen samples that we recovered with the Stranding program at Península Valdés (see my previous blog post).

What is conservation physiology?

Conservation physiology is a multidisciplinary field of science that utilizes physiological concepts and tools to understand underlying mechanisms of disturbances to solve conservation problems. Conservation physiology approaches can provide sensitive biomarkers of environmental change and allow for targeted conservation strategies. The most common Conservation Physiology applications are monitoring environmental stressors, understanding disease dynamics and reproductive biology, and ultimately reducing human-wildlife conflict, among other applications.

I am now completing the last semester of my Ph.D. program. I have learned much about the amazing field of Conservation Physiology and how much more we need to know to achieve our conservation goals. I am still learning, yet I feel that through my research I have contributed to understanding how different stressors impact the health and wellbeing of whales, and about aspects of their biology that have long been obscured or unknown for these giants. One contribution I am proud of is our recent publication of, “A tale of two whales: putting physiological tools to work for North Atlantic and southern right whales,” which was published in January 2021 as a book chapter in “Conservation Physiology: Applications for Wildlife Conservation and Management” published by Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK.

This book outlines the significant avenues and advances that conservation physiology contributes to the monitoring, management, and restoration of wild animal populations. The book also defines opportunities for further growth in the field and identifies critical areas for future investigation. The text and the contributed chapters illustrate several examples of the different approaches that the conservation physiology toolbox can tackle. In our chapter, “A tale of two whales,” we discuss developments in conservation physiology research of large whales, with the focus on the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) and southern right whale (Eubalaena australis), two closely related species that differ vastly in population status and conservation pressures. We review the advances in Conservation Physiology that help overcome the challenges of studying large whales via a suite of creative approaches, including photo-identification, visual health assessment, remote methods of assessing body condition, and endocrine research using non-plasma sample types such as feces, respiratory vapor, and baleen. These efforts have illuminated conservation-relevant physiological questions for both species, such as discrimination of acute from chronic stress, identification of likely causes of mortality, and monitoring causes and consequences of body condition and reproduction changes.

Book Overview:

This book provides an overview of the different applications of Conservation Physiology, outlining the significant avenues and advances by which conservation physiology contributes to the monitoring, management, and restoration of wild animal populations. By using a series of global case studies, contributors illustrate how approaches from the conservation physiology toolbox can tackle a diverse range of conservation issues, including monitoring environmental stress, predicting the impact of climate change, understanding disease dynamics, and improving captive breeding, and reducing human-wildlife conflict. The variety of taxa, biological scales, and ecosystems is highlighted to illustrate the far-reaching nature of the discipline and allow readers to appreciate the purpose, value, applicability, and status of the field of conservation physiology. This book is an accessible supplementary textbook suitable for graduate students, researchers, and practitioners in conservation science, ecophysiology, evolutionary and comparative physiology, natural resources management, ecosystem health, veterinary medicine, animal physiology, and ecology.

References

Hunt KE, Fernández Ajó A, Lowe C, Burgess EA, Buck CL. 2021. A tale of two whales: putting physiological tools to work for North Atlantic and southern right whales. In: “Conservation Physiology: Integrating Physiology Into Animal Conservation And Management”, ch. 12. Eds. Madliger CL, Franklin CE, Love OP, Cooke SJ. Oxford University press: Oxford, UK.

Sironi, M., Rowntree, V., Di Martino, M. D., Beltramino, L., Rago, V., Franco, M., and Uhart, M. (2014). Updated information for 2012-2013 on southern right whale mortalities at Península Valdés, Argentina. SC/65b/BRG/06 report presented to the International Whaling Commission Scientific Committee, Portugal. <https://iwc.int/home>.

Rowntree, V.J., Uhart, M.M., Sironi, M., Chirife, A., Di Martino, M., La Sala, L., Musmeci, L., Mohamed, N., Andrejuk, J., McAloose, D., Sala, J., Carribero, A., Rally, H., Franco, M., Adler, F., Brownell, R. Jr, Seger, J., Rowles, T., 2013. Unexplained recurring high mortality of southern right whale Eubalaena australis calves at Península Valdés, Argentina. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 493, 275-289. DOI: 10.3354/meps10506

Hunt KE, Moore MJ, Rolland RM, Kellar NM, Hall AJ, Kershaw J, Raverty SA, Davis CE, Yeates LC, Fauquier DA, et al., 2013. Overcoming the challenges of studying conservation physiology in large whales: a review of available methods. Conserv Physiol 1: cot006–cot006.

Hunt, K.E., Stimmelmayr, R., George, C., Hanns, C., Suydam, R., Brower, H., Rolland, R.M., 2014. Baleen hormones: a novel tool for retrospective assessment of stress and reproduction in bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus). Conserv. Physiol. 2, cou030. https://doi.org/10.1093/conphys/cou030

Hunt, K.E., Lysiak, N.S., Moore, M.J., Rolland, R.M., 2016. Longitudinal progesterone profiles in baleen from female North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) match known calving history. Conserv. Physiol. 4, cow014. https://doi.org/10.1093/conphys/cow014

Hunt, K.E., Lysiak, N.S., Robbins, J., Moore, M.J., Seton, R.E., Torres, L., Buck, C.L., 2017. Multiple steroid and thyroid hormones detected in baleen from eight whale species. Conserv. Physiol. 5. https://doi.org/10.1093/conphys/cox061

Hunt, K.E., Lysiak, N.S.J., Matthews, C.J.D., Lowe, C., Fernández Ajó, A., Dillon, D., Willing, C., Heide-Jørgensen, M.P., Ferguson, S.H., Moore, M.J., Buck, C.L., 2018. Multi-year patterns in testosterone, cortisol and corticosterone in baleen from adult males of three whale species. Conserv. Physiol. 6, coy049. https://doi.org/10.1093/conphys/coy049

What makes a species, a species?

By Lisa Hildebrand, PhD student, OSU Department of Fisheries & Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Over the roughly 2.5 years that I have researched the Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) of gray whales, I have thought more and more about what makes a population, a population. From a management standpoint, the PCFG is currently not considered a separate population or even a sub-population of the Eastern North Pacific (ENP) gray whales. Rather, the PCFG is most commonly referred to as a ‘sub-group’ of the ENP. In my opinion, there are valid arguments both for and against the PCFG being designated as its own population. I will address those arguments briefly at the end of this post, but first, I want you to join on me on a journey that is tangential to my question of ‘what makes a population, a population?’ and one that started at the last Marine Mammal Institute Monthly Meeting (MMIMM).

During 2021’s first MMIMM, our director Dr. Lisa Ballance proposed that we lengthen our monthly meeting duration from 1 hour to 1.5 hours. The additional 30 minutes was to allow for an open-ended, institute-wide discussion of a current hot topic in marine mammal science. This proposal was immediately adopted, and the group dove into a discussion about the discovery of a new baleen whale species in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico: Rice’s whale (Balaenoptera ricei). Let me pause here very briefly to reiterate – the discovery of a new baleen whale species!! The fact that anything as large as 12 m could remain undiscovered in our oceans is really quite fascinating and shows that our scientific quest will likely never run out of discoverable subjects. Anyway, the discovery of this new species is supported by several lines of evidence. Unfortunately (but understandably), MMI’s discussion of these topics had to cease after 30 minutes, however I had more questions. I wanted to know what had sparked the researchers to believe that they had discovered a new cetacean species. 

Scientific illustration of Bryde’s whale. Source: NOAA Fisheries.

I started my research by skimming through some news articles about the Rice’s whale discovery. In a Smithsonian Magazine article, I saw a quote by Dr. Patricia Rosel, the lead author of the study detailing Rice’s whale, that read: “But we didn’t have a skull.”. That quote made me pause. A skull? Is that what it takes to discover and establish a new species? This desired piece of evidence seemed rather puzzling and a little antiquated to me, given that the field of genetics is so advanced now and since it is no longer an accepted practice to kill a wild animal just to study it (i.e., scientific whaling). I backtracked through the article to learn that in the 1990s, renowned marine mammal scientist Dale Rice (after whom Rice’s whale was named) recognized that a small population of baleen whale occurred in the northeastern part of the Gulf of Mexico year-round. At the time, this population was believed to be a sub-population of Bryde’s whale. It wasn’t until 2008, that NOAA scientists were able to conduct a genetic analysis of tissue samples from this population, only to find that these whales were genetically distinct from other Bryde’s whales (Rosel & Wilcox 2014). Yet, this information was not enough for these whales to be established as their own species. A skull really was needed to prove that these whales were in fact a new species. Thankfully (for the scientists) but sadly (for the whale), one of these individuals stranded in Sandy Key, Florida, in 2019, and a dedicated team of stranding responders from Florida Fish and Wildlife, Mote Marine Lab, NOAA, Dolphins Plus, and Marine Animal Rescue Society worked tirelessly in difficult conditions to comprehensively document and preserve this animal. Through the diligent work of this, and previous, stranding response teams, Dr. Rosel and her team were provided the opportunity to examine the skull needed to determine population-status. The science team determined that the bones atop the skull around the blowhole provided evidence that these whales were not only genetically, but also anatomically, different from Bryde’s whales. It was this incident, triggered by that short quote in the Smithsonian article, that brought me to my journey of asking ‘what makes a species, a species?’.

Given that I had just read that Dr. Rosel needed a skull to establish Rice’s whale as its own species, I assumed that my search for ‘how to establish a new species’ would end quickly in me finding a list of requirements, one of which would be ‘must present anatomical/skeletal evidence’. To my surprise, my search did not end quickly, and I did not find a straightforward list of requirements. Instead, I discovered that my question of ‘what makes a species, a species?’ does not have a black-and-white answer and involves a lot of debate.

The skull of this stranded whale was a large piece of evidence in establishing Rice’s whale as its own species. Source: Smithsonian Magazine from NOAA / Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission

Kevin de Queiroz, a vertebrate, evolutionary, and systematic biologist who has published extensively on theoretical and conceptual topics in systematic and evolutionary biology, believes that the issue of species delimitation (‘what makes a species, a species?’) has been made more complicated by a larger issue involving the concept of species itself (‘what is a species?’) (De Queiroz 2007). To date, there are 24 recognized species concepts (Mayden 1997). In other words, there are 24 different definitions of what a species is. Perhaps the most common example is the biological species concept where a species is defined as a group of individuals that are able to produce viable and fertile offspring following natural reproduction. Another example is the ecological species concept whereby a species is a group of organisms adapted to a particular set of resources and conditions, called a niche, in the environment. Problematically, many of these concepts are incompatible with one another, meaning that applying different concepts leads to different conclusions about the boundaries and numbers of species in existence (De Queiroz 2007).

This large number of species concepts is due to the different interests of certain subgroups of biologists. For example, highlighting morphological differences between species is central to paleontologists and taxonomists, whereas ecologists will focus on niche differences. Population geneticists will attribute species differences to genes, while for systematists, monophyly will be paramount. It goes on and on. And so does the debate about the concept of species. It seems that there currently is not one clear, defined consensus on what a species is. Some biologists argue that a species is a species if it is genetically different, while others will insist that skeletal and morphological evidence must be present. From what I can tell, it seems that scientists describe and (attempt to) establish a new species by publishing their lines of evidence, after which experts in the field discuss and evaluate whether a new species should be established. 

In the field of marine mammal science, the Society of Marine Mammalogy’s Taxonomic Committee is charged with maintaining a standard, accepted classification and nomenclature of marine mammals worldwide. The committee annually considers and evaluates new, peer-reviewed literature that proposes changes (including additions) to marine mammal taxonomy. I expect that the case of Rice’s whale will be on the committee’s docket this year. Given that Rosel and co-authors presented geographic, morphological, and genetic evidence to support the establishment of Rice’s whale, I would not be surprised if the committee adds it to their curated list.

After taking this dive into the ‘what makes a species, a species?’ question, let’s see if we can apply some of what we’ve learned to the ‘what makes a population, a population?’ question regarding the PCFG and ENP gray whales. Following the ecological species concept, an argument for the recognition of the PCFG as its own population would be that they occupy an entirely different environment during their summer foraging season than the ENP whales. Not only are the geographic ranges different, but PCFG whales also show behavioral differences in their foraging tactics and targeted prey. The argument against the PCFG being classified as its own population is largely supported by genetic analysis that has revealed ambiguous evidence that the PCFG and ENP are not genetically isolated from one another. While one study has shown that there is maternal cultural affiliation within the PCFG (meaning that calves born to PCFG females tend to return to the PCFG range; Frasier et al. 2011), another has revealed that mixing between ENP and PCFG gray whales on the breeding grounds does occur (Lang et al. 2014). So, even though these two groups feed in areas that are very far apart (ENP: Arctic vs PCFG: US & Canadian west coast) and certain individuals do show a propensity for a specific feeding ground, the genetic evidence suggests that they mix when on their breeding grounds in Baja California, Mexico. Depending on which species concept you align with, you may see better arguments for either side.

PCFG gray whale along the Oregon coast during the GEMM Lab’s 2020 GRANITE summer field season. Image captured under NOAA/NMFS permit #21678. Source: GEMM Lab.

You may be wondering why it is important to even ponder questions like ‘what makes a species, a species?’ and ‘what makes a population, a population?’. Does it really matter if the PCFG are considered their own population? Would anything really change? The answer is, most likely, yes. If the PCFG were to be recognized as their own population, it would likely have an immediate effect on their conservation status and subsequently on how the population needed to be managed. Rather than being under the umbrella of a large, (mostly) stable population of ~25,000 individuals, the PCFG would consist of only ~250 individuals. A group this small would possibly be considered “endangered”, which would require much stricter monitoring and management to ensure that their numbers did not decline from year to year, especially due to anthropogenic activities. 

For a long time, I felt like taxonomy was a bit of an archaic scientific field. In my mind, it was something that biologists had focused their time and energy on in the 18th century (most notably Carl Linnaeus, whose taxonomic classification system is still used today), but something that many biologists have moved on from focusing on in the 21st century. However, as I have developed and grown over the last years as a scientist, I have learned that scientific disciplines are often heavily intertwined and co-dependent on one another. As a result, I am able to see the enormous value and need for taxonomic work as it plays a large part in understanding, managing, and ultimately, conserving species and populations.

Literature cited

De Queiroz, K. 2007. Species concepts and species delimitation. Systematic Biology 56(6):879-886.

Frasier, T. R., Koroscil, S. M., White, B. N., and J. D. Darling. 2011. Assessment of population substructure in relation to summer feeding ground use in the eastern North Pacific gray whale. Endangered Species Research 14:39-48.

Lang, A. R., Calambokidis, J., Scordino, J., Pease, V. L., Klimek, A., Burkanov, V. N., Gearin, P., Litovka, D. I., Robertson, K. M., Mate, B. R., Jacobsen, J. K., and B. L. Taylor. 2014. Assessment of genetic structure among eastern North Pacific gray whales on their feeding grounds. Marine Mammal Science 30(4):1473-1493.

Mayden, R. L. 1997. A hierarchy of species concepts: the denouement of the species problem in The Units of Biodiversity – Species in Practice Special Volume 54 (M. F. Claridge, H. A. Dawah, and M. R. Wilson, eds.). Systematics Association.

Rosel, P. E., and L. A. Wilcox. 2014. Genetic evidence reveals a unique lineage of Bryde’s whale in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico. Endangered Species Research 25:19-34.

GEMM Lab 2020: A Year in the Life

By Lisa Hildebrand, PhD student, OSU Department of Fisheries & Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Despite the trials and tribulations of 2020, the GEMM Lab has persevered and experienced many successes and high points. Join me, perhaps with a holiday beverage of choice in-hand, for a summary of what the lab and its members have achieved this year.

The GEMM Lab celebrated several milestones this year. We were all extremely excited and proud when halfway through the year, in July, GEMM Lab PI, Dr. Leigh Torres, was promoted to Associate Professor and granted indefinite tenure in the Department of Fisheries & Wildlife. Leigh joined the department in 2014 and has since completed 13 research projects, is leading 10 current research projects, has graduated 7 graduate students, and is currently advising 4 PhD students and a postdoctoral scholar. A big hurrah to Leigh, our inspiring and tireless captain at the GEMM Lab helm!!

Leigh isn’t the only GEMM Lab member to have received a new title. In March, Leila successfully defended her PhD thesis entitled “Body condition and hormone assessment of eastern North pacific gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) and associations to ambient noise” and thus graduated from being a PhD candidate to being Dr. Leila Soledade Lemos. Leila is currently a postdoctoral associate at Florida International University. I (Lisa Hildebrand) defended my Master’s thesis “Tonight’s specials include mysids, amphipods, and more: An examination of the zooplankton prey of Oregon gray whales and its impact on foraging choices and prey selection” just a few weeks ago and now bear the title of Master of Science. I am excited to announce that I won’t be leaving the GEMM Lab anytime soon as I will continue to  work with Leigh as I pursue my PhD. Our final new title recipient is Dawn who at the start of December advanced to PhD candidacy after successfully passing her written comprehensive exams in mid-November and her oral comprehensive exams in early December.

Summer is a busy time in the GEMM Lab, largely because it is the time when gray whales are distributed along our Oregon coast for their feeding season and therefore when both of our gray whale projects (GRANITE, or Gray whale Response to Ambient Noise Informed by Technology and Ecology, and the Port Orford foraging ecology project) collect another year of data. With the COVID-19 pandemic in its early stages in the spring (when we start to prep for our field seasons), it was uncertain whether we would be able to get into the field at all. However, after weeks of drafting up and submitting COVID-19 safety plans and precautions, Leigh was able to get both of our gray whale field seasons approved to go ahead this summer! This task was not easy since both projects require some form of travel and sampling methods that do not always allow for 6-feet of distance between team members. Furthermore, the Port Orford project requires the whole team to live and work out of OSU’s Port Orford Field Station together. Despite the hurdles, both projects had successful field seasons. If you want to hear more about the specifics of the field seasons, check out the field season summary blog.

Gray whales weren’t the only species to grab our attention in the field this year. OPAL (Overlap Predictions about Large whales) had a successful second year with Leigh and MMI faculty research assistant Craig Hayslip taking to the skies in United States Coast Guard helicopters four times a month. The project seeks to identify co-occurrence between whales and fishing effort in Oregon to reduce entanglement risk. Leigh and Craig documented numerous cetacean species including blue, fin, humpback, sperm whales, and killer whales. To help with this work, we are so excited to officially have Solène Derville back in the GEMM Lab as a postdoctoral scholar who will work on statistical models aimed at predicting habitat use and distribution patterns of whales off the Oregon coast. While our wish to physically welcome Solène back to Oregon this year did not quite pan out, we are hopeful that she will make the journey from New Caledonia to Oregon in 2021!

The data collected during the helicopter flights will be complimented by the marine mammal observer data that various members of the GEMM Lab have collected over the last four years aboard NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada as part of the Northern California Current Ecosystem survey. These surveys typically occur three times a year (February, May, September). Although the pandemic threw a wrench into the May cruise, the September cruise was able to go ahead with Dawn and Clara on-board as the two marine mammal observers. It was a very successful cruise, with abundant marine mammal sightings and good survey conditions. Read more about those cruises in Clara and Dawn’s blogs.

While the GEMM Lab did not undertake any field work in New Zealand this year, Leigh and Dawn did travel there in February to meet with scientific colleagues, representatives of the oil and gas industry, and environmental managers, including the New Zealand Minister of Conservation, the Honorable Eugenie Sage. The trip allowed Leigh and Dawn to present their research on blue whales and discuss management implications. These meetings have been highly beneficial as they shared their latest research and results to assist with the development of a marine mammal sanctuary within the industrial region where their research is conducted.

The GEMM Lab prides itself on having strong outreach components to our research, ensuring that young students (high school and undergraduate) from diverse backgrounds have an opportunity to learn STEM skills. Some outreach opportunities were not possible in 2020, but the GEMM Lab continued our efforts where possible. Clara taught a photogrammetry workshop for the Marine Studies Initiative student club Ocean11, where students were taught how to measure whales from drone images. The success of the workshop (and earlier iterations of it in 2019) led to Clara turning it into a lab for Dr. Renee Albertson’s FW 469 Physiology/Behavior of Marine Megafauna class. As one of the program coordinators for the Fisheries & Wildlife Mentorship Program, I co-hosted an Intro to R & RStudio workshop this fall. Rachel taught a remote intensive science communication workshop during her first term in grad school. Although COVID-19 meant that one-on-one mentorships had to be a little more distant, over the course of the year, the GEMM Lab still supervised a total of 7 students that assisted our work in a variety of ways (field and/or lab work, data analyses, independent projects) on a number of projects going on in the lab.

In a typical year, GEMM Lab members would have undertaken quite a lot more travel, largely to attend conferences. Due to COVID-19, most conferences were either cancelled or held virtually. Leigh gave the plenary talk at the annual State of the Coast Conference, one of the favorite conferences of the GEMM Lab as it brings together scientists, stakeholders, managers, students, and the public to discuss Oregon-centric topics. Dawn gave an oral presentation at the International Marine Conservation Congress. The talk was titled “Wind, green water, and blue whales: Predictive models forecast blue whale distribution in an upwelling system to mitigate industrial impacts” as part of a symposium focused on evidence-based solutions for the management of large marine vertebrate species. Clara presented at the annual Research Advances in Fisheries, Wildlife & Ecology symposium hosted by the graduate student association in the Department of Fisheries & Wildlife. Clara’s talk, which was about her proposed PhD research, was titled “Drone footage reveals patterns of gray whale behavior across space, time, and the individual”.

While our travel may have been reduced this year, the lab certainly has had a prolific year of writing! The 19 new publications in 16 scientific journals include contributions from Leigh (6), Leila (5), Rachael (4), Solène (3), Clara (3), Dawn (2), and Ale (1). Scroll down to the end of the post to see the full list.

We are also very excited about a new addition to the lab. Rachel Kaplan, who is co-advised by Leigh and Dr. Kim Bernard in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, started her PhD at OSU in the fall. Rachel is one of this year’s recipients of the highly-competitive National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship. Receiving the fellowship allowed Rachel to wrap up her job at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Maine and move to Oregon. The journey wasn’t easy (Rachel moved in the midst of the pandemic and during the height of the wildfires that raged across the U.S. West Coast) but she made it here safely! For her PhD, Rachel will try to understand how oceanographic factors and prey patches shape the distribution of whales in Oregon waters (with data collected through the OPAL project) to work towards solutions to the high rates of whale entanglements in fishing gear that have occurred on the West Coast since 2014. Welcome Rachel! 

While we persevered through tough times this year and have been lucky to celebrate many accomplishments, nothing prepared us for the shock that we all felt, and are still feeling deeply, about the loss of our fellow GEMM Lab graduate student Alexa Kownacki just over a month ago. Alexa’s optimism, generosity, and kindness were unparalleled, and the hole that she leaves in the lab and in our lives individually is gaping. The lab wrote a collaborative blog about Alexa a few weeks ago and we have created a website in her honor, where we encourage everyone to post photos, tributes or stories about Alexa. It has been so comforting to us to read people’s memories of Alexa that allow us to learn new things about her and remind us of our own memories. Alexa, we think of you every day and we miss you.

Alexa in her element

If you are reading this post, we would like to say thank you for all the support and interest in our work – we really appreciate it! Our blog’s viewership this year (a whopping 25,588 views!) has increased over a seven-fold since its creation in 2015 (3,462 views). We hope you will continue to join us on our journeys in 2021. Until then, stay safe, mask up & happy holidays from the GEMM Lab!

A GEMM Lab Happy Hour Zoom

Publications

Ajó, A. A. F., Hunt, K. E., Giese, A. C., Sironi, M., Uhart, M., Rowntree, V. J., Marón, C. F., Dillon, D., DiMartino, M., & Buck, C. L. (2020). Retrospective analysis of the lifetime endocrine response of southern right whale calves to gull wounding and harassment: A baleen hormone approach. General and Comparative Endocrinology, 296, 113536.

Albert, C., …, Orben, R. A., et al. (2020). Seasonal variation of mercury contamination in Arctic seabirds: a pan-arctic assessment. Science of the Total Environment, 750, 142201.

Barlow, D. R., Bernard, K. S., Escobar-Flores, P., Palacios, D. M., & Torres, L. G. (2020). Links in the trophic chain: modeling functional relationships between in situ oceanography, krill, and blue whale distribution under different oceanographic regimes. Marine Ecology Progress Series642, 207-225.

Baylis, A. M. M., Tierney, M., Orben, R. A., González de la Peña, D., & Brickle, P. (2020). Non-breeding movements of Gentoo penguins at the Falkland Islands. Ibis, doi:10.1111/ibi.12882.

Bird, C., & Bierlich, K.. (2020).  CollatriX: A GUI to collate MorphoMetriX outputs. Journal of Open Source Software5(51), 2328. doi:10.21105/joss10.21105/joss.02328.

Bird, C., Dawn, A. H., Dale, J., & Johnston, D. W. (2020). A Semi-Automated Method for Estimating Adélie Penguin Colony Abundance from a Fusion of Multispectral and Thermal Imagery Collected with Unoccupied Aircraft Systems. Remote Sensing12(22), 3692. doi:10.3390/rs12223692.

Chero, G., Pradel, R., Derville, S., Bonneville, C., Gimenez, O., & Garrigue, C. (2020). Reproductive capacity of an endangered and recovering population of humpback whales in the Southern Hemisphere. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 643, 219-227.

Derville, S.Torres, L. G., Zerbini, A. N., Oremus, M., & Garrigue, C. (2020). Horizontal and vertical movements of humpback whales inform the use of critical pelagic habitats in the western South Pacific. Scientific Reports, 10, 4871.

DiGiacomo, A. E., Bird, C., Pan, V. G., Dobroski, K., Atkins-Davis, C., Johnston, D. W., & Ridge, J. T.. (2020). Modeling Salt Marsh Vegetation Height Using Unoccupied Aircraft Systems and Structure from Motion. Remote Sensing12(14), 2333. doi:10.3390/rs12142333.

Garrigue, C., Derville, S., Bonneville, C., Baker, C. S., Cheeseman, T., Millet, L., Paton, D., & Steel, D. (2020). Searching for humpback whales in a historical whaling hotspot of the Coral Sea, South Pacific. Endangered Species Research, 42, 67-82.

Hauser-Davis, R. A., Monteiro, F., Chávez da Rocha, R. C., Lemos, L., Duarte Cardoso, M., & Siciliano, S. (2020). Titanium as a contaminant of emerging concern in the aquatic environment and the current knowledge gap regarding seabird contamination. Ornithologia, 11, 7-15.

Hindell, M. A., … Torres, L. G., et al. (2020). Tracking of marine predators to protect Southern Ocean ecosystems. Nature, 580(7801), 87-92.

Jones, K. A., Baylis, A. M. M., Orben, R. A., Ratcliffe, N., Votier, S. C., Newton, J., & Staniland, I. J. (2020). Stable isotope values in South American fur seal pup whiskers as proxies of year-round maternal foraging ecology. Marine Biology, 167(10), 1-11.

Kroeger, C. E., Crocker, D. E., Orben, R. A., Thompson, D. R., Torres, L. G., Sagar, P. M., Sztukowski, L. A., Andriese, T., Costa, D. P., & Shaffer, S. A. (2020). Similar foraging energetics of two sympatric albatrosses despite contrasting life histories and wind-mediated foraging strategies. Journal of Experimental Biology, 223, jeb228585.

Lemos, L. S., Olsen, A., Smith, A., Chandler, T. E., Larson, S., Hunt, K., & Torres, L. G. (2020). Assessment of fecal steroid and thyroid hormone metabolites in eastern North Pacific gray whales. Conservation Physiology, 8, coaa110.

Monteiro, F., Lemos, L. S., et al. (2020). Total and subcellular Ti distribution and detoxification processes in Pontoporia blainvillei and Steno bredanensis dolphins from southeastern Brazil. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 153, 110975.

Quinete, N., Hauser-Davis, R. A., Lemos, L. S., Moura, J. F., Siciliano, S., & Gardinali P. R. (2020). Occurrence and tissue distribution of organochlorinated compounds and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in Magellanic penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus) from the southeastern coast of Brazil. Science of the Total Environment, 749, 141473.

Soledade Lemos, L., Burnett, J. D., Chandler, T. E., Sumich, J. L., & Torres, L. G. (2020). Intra- and inter-annual variation in gray whale body condition on a foraging ground. Ecosphere, 11(4), e03094.

Torres, L. G., Barlow, D. R.Chandler, T. E., & Burnett, J. D. (2020). Insight into the kinematics of blue whale surface foraging through drone observations and prey data. PeerJ8, e8906.

Summaries, highlights, and musings – our 2020 gray whale field seasons at a glance

By Lisa Hildebrand, MSc student, OSU Department of Fisheries & Wildlife, Marine Mammal Institute, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Fall has arrived in the Pacific Northwest. For humans, it means packing away the shorts and sandals, and getting the boots, raincoats and firewood ready. For gray whales, it means gulping down the last meal of zooplankton they will eat for several months and commencing the journey to warmer waters and sunnier skies in Mexico where they will spend the winter fasting, calving, and nursing. While the GEMM Lab may still squeeze in a day or two of field work this week, we are slowly wrapping up the 2020 field season as conditions get rougher and our beloved gray whales gradually depart our waters. This year marked the 6th year of data collection for both of our gray whale projects: the Newport project that investigates the impacts of multiple stressors on gray whale ecology and health, and the Port Orford project that explores fine-scale foraging ecology of gray whales and their zooplankton prey. Since it will be several months before the GEMM Lab heads back out onto the water again, I thought I would summarize our two field seasons, share some highlights, and muse about the drivers of our observations this summer.

Summaries

Our RHIB Ruby zipped around the central and southern Oregon coast on 33 different days. The summer started slow, with several days of field work where we encountered no whales despite surveying our entire study region. Our encounters picked up towards the end of June and by the end of the summer we totaled 107 sightings, encountering 46 unique individuals, 36 of which were resightings of known individuals we have identified in previous years. Our Newport star of the summer was Solé, a female gray whale we have seen every year since 2015, and we also saw many of our other regulars including Casper, Rafael, Spray, Bit, and Heart. None of these whales shone as bright as Solé though. We flew the drone over her 8 times and collected 7 fecal samples (one of which was the biggest whale fecal sample I have ever seen!). In total, we collected 30 fecal samples and flew the drone 88 times. These data will allow us to continue measuring body condition and hormone levels of Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) gray whales that use the Oregon coast.

Our tandem research kayak Robustus may not be as zippy as Ruby (it is powered by human muscle rather than a powerful outboard engine after all), but it certainly continues to be a trusty vessel for the Port Orford team. The Port Orford research team, named the Theyodelers this year, collected 181 zooplankton samples and conducted 180 GoPro drops during the month of August from Robustus. Despite the many samples collected, the size of our prey samples remained relatively small throughout the whole season compared to previous years. The cliff team surveyed for a total of 117 hours, of which 15 were spent tracking whales with the theodolite and resulted in 40 different tracklines of whale movements. The whale situation in Port Orford was similar to the pattern of whale sightings in Newport, with low whale sightings at the start of the field season. Luckily, by the start of August (which marked the start of data collection for the Theyodelers), the number of whales using the Port Orford area, especially the two study sites, Mill Rocks & Tichenor Cove, had increased. Of the whales that came close enough to shore for us to identify using photo-id, we tracked 5 unique individuals, 3 of which we also saw in Newport this year. The Port Orford star of the summer was Smudge, with his tracklines making up a quarter of all of our tracklines collected. Smudge is also the whale we sighted most often last year in Port Orford. 

Highlights

Many of you may be familiar with the whale Scarlett (formally known as Scarback). Scarlett is a female, at least 24 years old (she was first documented  in the PCFG range in 1996), who is well-known (and easily identified) by the large concave injury on her back that is covered in whale lice, or cyamids. No one knows for certain how Scarlett sustained this injury (though there are stories), however what we do know is that it has not prevented this female from reproducing and successfully raising several calves over her lifetime. The GEMM Lab last saw Scarlett with a calf (which we named Brown) in 2016. Since Scarlett is such a famous whale with a unique history, it shouldn’t be a surprise that one of our highlights this summer is the fact that Scarlett showed up with a new calf! In keeping with a “shades of red” theme, Leigh came up with the name Rose for the new calf. In July, the mom-calf pair put on quite a cute performance, with Rose rising up on Scarlett’s back, giving the team a glimpse of its face. The Scarlett-Rose highlight doesn’t end there though. Just last week, we had a very brief encounter in choppy, swelly waters with a small whale. The whale surfaced just twice allowing us to capture photo-id images, and as we were looking around to see where it would come up a third time, it suddenly breached approximately 20 m from the boat. Lo-and-behold, after comparing our photos of the whale to our catalogue, we realized that this elusive, breaching whale was Rose! I am excited to see whether Rose will return to the Oregon coast next summer and become a PCFG regular just like her mom.

The highlight of the field season in Port Orford is the trial, failures and small successes of a new element to the project. There is still a lot that we do not know and understand about PCFG gray whales. One such thing is the way in which gray whales maneuver their large bodies in shallow rocky habitats, often riddled with kelp, and how exactly they capture their zooplankton prey in these environments. Using drones has certainly helped bring some light into this darkness and has led to the documentation of many novel foraging behaviors (Torres et al. 2018). However, the view from above is unable to provide the fine-scale interactions between whales, kelp, reefs, and zooplankton. Instead, we must somehow find a way to watch the whales underwater. Enter CamDo. CamDo is a technology company that designs specialty products to allow for GoPro cameras to be used for time-lapsed recordings over long periods of time in harsh environmental conditions. One of their products is a housing specifically designed for long-term filming underwater – exactly what we need! The journey was not as easy as simply purchasing the housing. We also needed to build a lander for the housing to sit on (thankfully our very own Todd Chandler designed and built something for us), and coordinate with divers and a vessel to deploy and retrieve the set-up, as well as undertake weekly battery and SD cards swaps (thankfully Dave Lacey of South Coast Tours and a very generous group of divers* donated their time and resources to make this happen). We unfortunately had some technological difficulties and bad visibility for the first 4 weeks (precisely why this CamDo effort was a pilot season this year), however we had some small success in the last 2 weeks of deployment that give us hope for the future. The camera recorded a lot of things: thick layers of mysids, countless rockfish and lingcod, several swimming and foraging murres, a handful of harbor seals, and two encounters of the species we were hoping to film – gray whales! While the footage is not the ‘money shot’ we are hoping to film (aka, a headstanding gray whale eating zooplankton right in front of the camera), the fact that we captured gray whales in the first place has showed us that this set-up is a promising investment of time, money and effort that will hopefully deliver next year.

Musings

You may have picked up on the fact that we had slow starts to our field seasons in both Newport and Port Orford. Furthermore, while the number of whale sightings did increase in both locations throughout the field seasons, the number of sightings and whales per day were lower than they have been in previous years. For example, in 2018, we identified 15 different individuals in the month of August in Port Orford (compared to just 5 this year). In 2019, 63 unique whales were seen in Newport (compared to 46 this year). Interestingly, we had a greater diversity of encountered individuals at the start and end of the season in Newport, with a relatively small number of different individuals in July and August. While I cannot provide a definitive reason (or reasons) as to why patterns were observed (we will need to analyze several years of our data to try and understand why), I have some hypotheses I wish to share with you.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, this summer the coastal upwelling along the Oregon coast was delayed (Figure 1). Typically, peak upwelling occurs during the month of June or shortly thereafter, bringing nutrient-rich, deep waters to the surface and, when mixed with sunlight, a lot of productivity. This productivity sets off a chain of reactions — the input of nutrients leads to increased phytoplankton production, which in turn leads to increased zooplankton production, resulting in growth and development of larger organisms that consume zooplankton, such as rockfish and gray whales. If the timing of upwelling is delayed, then so too is this chain of reactions. As you can see from Figure 1, the red lines show that the peak upwelling this year occurred far later in the summer than any year in the last 10 years, with the exception of 2012. Gray whales may have cued into this delay and therefore also delayed their arrival to the PCFG feeding grounds, hence causing us to have low sighting rates at the start of our season. However, this is mostly speculative as we still do not understand the functional mechanisms by which cetaceans, such as gray whales, detect prey across different scales, and to what extent oceanographic conditions like upwelling may play a role in prey availability (Torres 2017). 

Figure 1. 10 year time series of the Coastal Upwelling Transport Index (CUTI). CUTI represents the amount of upwelling (positive numbers) or downwelling (negative numbers). The light-colored lines represent the CUTI at that point in time while the dark, bold line represents the long-term average. The vertical red lines represent the point of peak upwelling in that summer and the horizontal green line shows the peak level of upwelling in 2020 relative to all previous years.

Furthermore, the green line in Figure 1 shows that even after peak upwelling was reached this year, upwelling conditions were lower than all the other peaks in the previous 10 years. We know that weak upwelling is correlated to poor body condition of PCFG gray whales in subsequent years (Soledade Lemos et al. 2020). Upon arriving to the Oregon coast feeding grounds, gray whales may have noticed that it was shaping up to be a poor prey year (we certainly noticed it in Port Orford in the emptiness of our zooplankton net). Faced with this low resource availability, individuals had to make important decisions – risk staying in a currently prey-poor environment or continue the journey onward, searching for better prey conditions elsewhere. This conundrum is known as the marginal value theorem, whereby an individual must decide whether it should abandon the patch it is currently foraging on and move on to search for a new patch without knowing how far away the next patch may be or its value relative to the current patch (Charnov 1976). If we think of the Oregon coast as the ‘current patch’, then we can see how the marginal value theorem translates to the situation gray whales may have found themselves in at the start of the summer. 

Yet, an individual gray whale does not make these decisions in a vacuum. Instead, all gray whales in the same area are faced with the same conundrum. Seminal work by Pianka (1974) showed that when resources, such as food, are abundant, then competition between predators is low because there is enough food to go around. However, when resources dwindle, competition increases and the niches of predators begin to overlap more and more. With Charnov and Pianka’s theories in mind, we can see two groups of gray whales emerge from our 2020 field work observations: those that stayed in the ‘current patch’ (Oregon) and those that decided to seek out a new patch in hopes that it would be a better one. Solé certainly belongs in the first group. We saw her consistently throughout the whole summer. In fact, she was oftentimes so predictable that we would find her foraging on the same reef complex every time we went out to survey. Smudge may also belong in this group, however it is hard to say definitively since we only survey in Port Orford in late July and August. In contrast, I would place whales such as Spray and Heart in the second group since we saw them early in the summer and then not again until mid-to-late September. Where did they go in the interim? Did they go somewhere else in the PCFG range? Or did they venture all the way up to Alaska to the primary Eastern North Pacific (ENP) gray whale feeding grounds? Did their choice to search for food elsewhere pay off?  

As I said earlier, these are all just musings for now, but the GEMM Lab is already hard at work trying to answer these questions. Stay tuned to see what we find!

* Thanks to all the divers who assisted with the pilot CamDo season: Aaron Galloway, Ross Whippo, Svetlana Maslakova, Taylor Eaton, Cori Kane, Austin Williams, Justin Smith

References

Charnov, E.L. 1976. Optimal Foraging, the Marginal Value Theorem. Theoretical Population Biology 9(2):129-136.

Pianka, E.R. 1974. Niche Overlap and Diffuse Competition. PNAS 71(5):2141-2145.

Soledade Lemos, L., Burnett, J.D., Chandler, T.E., Sumich, J.L., and L.G. Torres. 2020. Intra- and inter-annual variation in gray whale body condition on a foraging ground. Ecosphere 11(4):e03094.

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

Torres, L.G., Nieukirk, S.L., Lemos, L., and T.E. Chandler. 2018. Drone Up! Quantifying Whale Behavior From a New Perspective Improves Observational Capacity. Frontiers in Marine Science: https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2018.00319.

Do gray whales count calories?

By Lisa Hildebrand, MSc student, OSU Department of Fisheries & Wildlife, Marine Mammal Institute, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

When humans count calories it is typically to regulate and limit calorie intake. What I am wondering about is whether gray whales are aware of caloric differences in the prey that is available to them and whether they make foraging decisions based on those differences. In last week’s post, Dawn discussed what makes a good meal for a hungry blue whale. She discussed that total prey biomass of a patch, as well as how densely aggregated that patch is, are the important factors when a blue whale is picking its next meal. If these factors are important for blue whales, is it same for gray whales? Why even consider the caloric value of their prey?

Gray and blue whales are different in many ways; one way is that blue whales are krill specialists whereas gray whales are more flexible foragers. The Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) of gray whales in particular are known to pursue a more varied menu. Previous studies along the PCFG range have documented gray whales feeding on mysid shrimp (Darling et al. 1998; Newell 2009), amphipods (Oliver et al. 1984Darling et al. 1998), cumacean shrimp (Jenkinson 2001; Moore et al. 2007; Gosho et al. 2011), and porcelain crab larvae (Dunham and Duffus 2002), to name a few. Based on our observations in the field and from our drone footage, we have observed gray whales feeding on reefs (likely on mysid shrimp), benthically (likely on burrowing amphipods), and at the surface on crab larvae (Fig. 1). Therefore, while both blue and PCFG whales must make decisions about prey patch quality based on biomass and density of the prey, gray whales have an extra decision to make based on prey type since their prey menu items occupy different habitats that require different feeding tactics and amount of energy to acquire them. In light of these reasons, I hypothesize that prey caloric value factors into their decision of prey patch selection. 

Figure 1. Gray whales use several feeding tactics to obtain a variety of coastal Oregon zooplankton prey including jaw snapping (0:12 of video), drooling mud (0:21), and head standing (0:32), to name a few.

This prey selection process is crucial since PCFG gray whales only have about 6 months to consume all the food they need to migrate and reproduce (even less for the Eastern North Pacific (ENP) gray whales since their journey to their Arctic feeding grounds is much longer). You may be asking, well if feeding is so important to gray whales, then why not eat everything they come across? Surely, if they ate every prey item they swam by, then they would be fine. The reason it isn’t quite this simple is because there are energetic costs to travel to, search for, and consume food. If an individual whale simply eats what is closest (a small, poor-quality prey patch) and uses up more energy than it gains, it may be missing out on a much more beneficial and rewarding prey patch that is a little further away (that patch may disperse or another whale may eat it by the time this whale gets there). Scientists have pondered this decision-making process in predators for a long time. These ponderances are best summed up by two central theories: the optimal foraging theory (MacArthur & Pianka 1966) and the marginal value theorem (Charnov 1976). If you are a frequent reader of the blog, you have probably heard these terms once or twice before as a lot of the questions we ask in the GEMM Lab can be traced back to these concepts.

Optimal foraging theory (OFT) states that a predator should pick the most beneficial resource for the lowest cost, thereby maximizing the net energy gained. So, a gray whale should pick a prey patch where it knows that it will gain more energy from consuming the prey in the patch than it will lose energy in the process of searching for and feeding on it. Marginal value theorem elaborates on this OFT concept by adding that the predator also needs to consider the cost of giving up a prey patch to search for a new one, which may or may not end up being more profitable or which may take a very long time to find (and therefore cost more energy). 

The second chapter of my thesis will investigate whether individual gray whales have foraging preferences by relating feeding location to prey quality (community composition) and quantity (relative density). However, in order to do that, I first must know about the quality of the individual prey species, which is why my first chapter explores the caloric content of common coastal zooplankton species in Oregon that may serve as gray whale prey. The lab work and analysis for that chapter are completed and I am in the process of writing it up for publication. Preliminary results (Fig. 2) show variation in caloric content between species (represented by different colors) and reproductive stages (represented by different shapes), with a potential increasing trend throughout the summer. These results suggest that some species and reproductive stages may be less profitable than others based solely on caloric content. 

Figure 2. Mean caloric content (J/mg) of coastal Oregon zooplankton (error bars represent standard deviation) from May-October in 2017-2018. Colors represent species and shapes represent reproductive stage.

Now that we have established that there may be bigger benefits to feeding on some species over others, we have to consider the availability of these zooplankton species to PCFG whales. Availability can be thought of in two ways: 1) is the prey species present and at high enough densities to make searching and foraging profitable, and 2) is the prey species in a habitat or depth that is accessible to the whale at a reasonable energetic cost? Some prey species, such as crab larvae, are not available at all times of the summer. Their reproductive cycles are pulsed (Roegner et al. 2007) and therefore these prey species are less available than species, such as mysid shrimp, that have more continuous reproduction (Mauchline 1980). Mysid shrimp appear to seek refuge on reefs in rock crevices and among kelp, whereas amphipods often burrow in soft sediment. Both of these habitat types present different challenges and energetic costs to a foraging gray whale; it may take more time and energy to dislodge mysids from a reef, but the payout will be bigger in terms of caloric gain than if the whale decides to sift through soft sediment on the seafloor to feed on amphipods. This benthic feeding tactic may potentially be a less costly foraging tactic for PCFG whales, but the reward is a less profitable prey item.  

My first chapter will extend our findings on the caloric content of Oregon coastal zooplankton to facilitate a comparison to the caloric values of the main ampeliscid amphipod prey of ENP gray whales feeding in the Arctic. Through this comparison I hope to assess the trade-offs of being a PCFG whale rather than an ENP whale that completes the full migration cycle to the primary summer feeding grounds in the Arctic. 

References

Charnov, E. L. 1976. Optimal foraging: the marginal value theorem. Theoretical Population Biology 9:129-136.

Darling, J. D., Keogh, K. E. and T. E. Steeves. 1998. Gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) habitat utilization and prey species off Vancouver Island, B.C. Marine Mammal Science 14(4):692-720.

Dunham, J. S. and D. A. Duffus. 2002. Diet of gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) in Clayoquot Sound, British Columbia, Canada. Marine Mammal Science 18(2):419-437.

Gosho, M., Gearin, P. J., Jenkinson, R. S., Laake, J. L., Mazzuca, L., Kubiak, D., Calambokidis, J. C., Megill, W. M., Gisborne, B., Goley, D., Tombach, C., Darling, J. D. and V. Deecke. 2011. SC/M11/AWMP2 submitted to International Whaling Commission Scientific Committee.

Jenkinson, R. S. 2001. Gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) prey availability and feeding ecology in Northern California, 1999-2000. Master’s thesis, Humboldt State University.

MacArthur, R. H., and E. R. Pianka. 1966. On optimal use of a patchy environment. American Naturalist 100:603-609.

Mauchline, J. 1980. The larvae and reproduction in Blaxter, J. H. S., Russell, F. S., and M. Yonge, eds. Advances in Marine Biology vol. 18. Academic Press, London.

Moore, S. E., Wynne, K. M., Kinney, J. C., and C. M. Grebmeier. 2007. Gray whale occurrence and forage southeast of Kodiak Island, Alaska. Marine Mammal Science 23(2)419-428.

Newell, C. L. 2009. Ecological interrelationships between summer resident gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) and their prey, mysid shrimp (Holmesimysis sculpta and Neomysis rayii) along the central Oregon coast. Master’s thesis, Oregon State University.

Oliver, J. S., Slattery, P. N., Silberstein, M. A., and E. F. O’Connor. 1984. Gray whale feeding on dense ampeliscid amphipod communities near Bamfield, British Columbia. Canadian Journal of Zoology 62:41-49.

Roegner, G. C., Armstrong, D. A., and A. L. Shanks. 2007. Wind and tidal influences on larval crab recruitment to an Oregon estuary. Marine Ecology Progress Series 351:177-188.

What is a scientist?

By Noah Dolinajec, MSc student, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, GEMM Lab summer intern

There is something special about the Oregon Coast. It’s like nowhere else in the world. When Lisa told me that gray whales are understudied on our coastline, I secretly and selfishly thought to myself, “I hope it stays that way”. Then I would have a chance to be a pioneer one day too, studying something along this rugged coast full of life, death and everything in between, that no one has answered before. Of course, I only feel this way half of the time.

Yet, the more time I spend in Port Orford, the more I realize that our coastline truly is one of those last frontiers. A place where fundamental questions have yet to be explored, where the passing of seasons brings with it a violent change in conditions. From sunny summer days on the Port Orford beaches taking in the soft glistening of sunlight illuminating Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve, to cold, dark and stormy months with no end in sight and nothing but the sound of wind curving around the bends of your home and rain puttering against the windows.

Noah reading a book on the cliff site with a view of Mill Rocks in the background. Source: N. Dolinajec.

But no matter the season, no matter the conditions, the Oregon Coast harnesses something truly special, truly extraordinary. A cyclical diversity of life.

Since I was a kid, the Oregon Coast has inspired me. Not always to think about wildlife, in fact, mostly in other ways. To contemplate more primal philosophical questions. At 28 years old, it’s been a longer road than expected to get to this point, working with these amazing people, in this amazing place, on this amazing project. And the more time that passes, the more failures, missteps and dysfunctional experiences I absorb, the more that I learn about what really needs to change. In the world of course, but, mostly in science.

In the past few years, as I eek closer to 30, and I begin to look back on some of the adventures I have taken in my life, I take heavy note of where I am now, sitting on a kayak in Mill Rocks sampling for gray whale prey abundance and distribution, or atop the cliff, gazing out into the open ocean waiting patiently and graciously (at least trying to be) for a small poof of water spray from the beating surface of the sea. That little poof? It may not seem like much but it’s a sign of life. Of an age-old journey, one we know very little about. And here I am, a part of it, albeit a small one, but nevertheless, forever a part of that great journey.

And without losing sight of my job, sampling for zooplankton or tracking the whales as they move across the open water, I’ve found myself thinking about the depth of being involved in such an ancient process, and considering a very important question. One that doesn’t spend nearly enough time in the day-to-day conversation of an academic…

What exactly is a scientist? And how does one become a scientist?

The academic path to the sciences is exclusionary, beyond any reasonable level. It discriminates on gender, race, experience and age. Making the sciences, which are meant as a tool to better the world and make useful contributions to society and the future, feel inaccessible for so many people full of potential but without the right boxes ticked on a form.

How many beautiful ideas have been left to decay because of the ego that science has built for itself?

A sign that sits in the front window of the OSU Port Orford Field Station. Source: N. Dolinajec.

Don’t get me wrong, I love science, it has given me joy that other things in life cannot. It has shown me both the complexity of the world and the simplicity of how we view it. And I believe that science can still be the future. But in order for science to command our future, to guide us in the right direction, it cannot be a hierarchy of antiquated procedures any longer. We must open our arms, our minds and our resources to take chances on students, far and wide, that may lack traditional training but instead have other skills or experiences to offer science. Science needs an overhaul. Science needs diversity.

After all, change of perspective can be a profound driver of scientific results, can it not?

Here in Port Orford, in this bizarre year of 2020, we have the beginning, the makings if-you-will, of that very diversity that I am speaking of. The four of us, ‘The Theyodelers’ as we righteously call ourselves, each come from such drastically different places in life only to meet under the same roof for 6 weeks and miraculously not only survive together, but thrive together.

‘The Theyodelers’ after the 2020 (virtual) Port Orford Community Presentation, from left to right: Dr. Leigh Torres, Lisa Hildebrand, Liz Kelly, Mattea Holt Colberg, Noah Dolinajec, Tom Calvanese, Tom McCambridge (front). Source: L. Hildebrand.

And that, that essence of positivity that we have been able to build around one another this season, is exactly what I mean when I say that science needs an overhaul.

We do not all find our way to this moment, doing science in such an inspiring place, in the same way. Some of us are born with the innate ability to see the world through objective eyes, the kind of mind that makes great science happen from an early age. And others find our way to science after being enlightened by trials and travails, failures and mistakes, missed opportunities and missteps.

No matter the journey, we all ended up here. Watching these great gray giants on their journeys.

And it all comes full circle doesn’t it?

Each of our journeys, human or whale, can lead to the very same point despite beginning at very different places. And in that diversity of experience, of life, of age, of color, is where we find our brightest moments, our grandest ideas and our future, driven by science.

New experiences, new emotions, new skills

By Elizabeth Kelly, Pacific High School senior, GEMM Lab summer intern

Figure 1. Liz on the cliff. Source: E. Kelly.

The gray whale foraging ecology project with OSU’s GEMM Lab has been nothing short of a dream come true. Going into this internship, I was just a high schooler who had taken zoology my previous school year. With my lack of a formal education in marine biology, let alone gray whales, I was a little daunted at the thought of going to a university field station with college students and actual biologists. When I applied for this internship, I didn’t think I was even going to be accepted for the internship, but I applied with high hopes and a lot of excitement. When I was officially accepted, I wanted to start immediately. 

Despite my concerns of the steep learning curves I knew I would have to overcome, I was ready to jump right into the internship. The other interns live at the field station since they do not live locally, but I drive to the field station every morning because I live about 20 minutes away. However, this situation has never made me feel like an outsider. I spend a lot of my time at the field station and it would be hard to not get comfortable there immediately. I don’t feel sad that somebody is cooking some sort of delicious meal every night because even though I don’t live at the station, I sometimes stay for dinners. When I’m there for whatever reason, whether it be while working or eating and hanging out after a day of working or during breaks, I never feel out of my depth socially or even academically even though I am clearly younger and less experienced. The environment and team here, which is made up of scholarly individuals with lots of personality and character, is never judgemental or patronizing; rather it is inviting and the graduate student intern, Noah, and my team leader, Lisa, give off a feeling of mentorship. This has made my internship fun and given me far more of an interest and intent towards pursuing Wildlife Sciences after high school. 

Figure 2. A photo taken by Liz today on the cliff as a whale traveled from Tichenor Cove to Mill Rocks. Source: GEMM Lab.

While there have been tedious parts of the internship with a steep learning curve, including asking many questions about whales, and learning to use different programs, tools and methods, it all pays off and comes in handy when the whole focus of the work comes through town – the famous gray whales. During this field season we have been having low whale sightings for the first 4 weeks (but our sightings are slowly picking up over the last couple days), so the waiting for the grand appearance of a whale can feel eternal. Though, when the red curtains reveal a blow out in the distance headed our way, the feeling of boredom when staring at the ocean is completely forgotten. Suddenly, everyone jumps to action – the theodolite’s position needs to be adjusted as we try to pinpoint where the whale will surface next after its dive. 

Figure 3. A zoomed-in photo from the kayak of a gray whale headstanding (a feeding behavior) in Tichenor Cove. Source: E. Kelly.

Recently we have been collecting larger samples of zooplankton when sampling from our research kayak, and the whales have been coming in larger numbers too. Every time I see a whale while I am out on the kayak I am crippled with excitement and adrenaline. There is absolutely nothing like seeing these majestic mammals out and about in their day-to-day lives. I love when I get to see them forage, blow, shark, and even do headstands in the water. When we see them forage in a spot that is not one of our regular zooplankton sampling stations we do some adaptive sampling (sampling at spots where we see whales actively feeding), and so far the whales haven’t lied to me about where the zooplankton is. I’m very curious as to how the whales know where the higher concentrations of zooplankton are, even in low visibility (we have had plenty of that this year too). Nevertheless, they know and aren’t shy about getting what they want. 

The only downfall of this internship is that it ends soon. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time with my team and at the field station. This in-the-field experience is one of a kind. Even though I didn’t think I was going to receive this internship, I really wanted it and now that I have had it and am finishing up with it, I am so grateful for the knowledge and experiences I have gained from it and look forward to the opportunities it will further grant me.

Questions that drive my research curiosity

By Mattea Holt Colberg, GEMM Lab summer intern, OSU junior

Science is about asking new questions in order to make new discoveries. Starting every investigation with a question, sparked by an observation, is enshrined in the scientific method and pursued by researchers everywhere. Asking questions goes beyond scientific research though; it is the best way to learn new things in any setting.

When I first arrived in Port Orford, I did not know much about gray whales. The extent of my knowledge was that they are large baleen whales that migrate every year and feed on plankton. I did, however, know quite a bit about killer whales. I have been interested in killer whales since I was 5 years old, so I have spent years reading about, watching, and listening to them (my current favorite book about them is Of Orcas and Men, by David Neiwert and I highly recommend it!). I have also had opportunities to research them in the Salish Sea, both on a sailing trip and through the dual-enrollment program Ocean Research College Academy, where I explored how killer whales respond to ambient underwater noise for a small independent project. Knowing more about killer whales than other species has caused killer whales to be the lens through which I approach learning and asking questions about other whales. 

At first, I was not sure how to apply what I know about killer whales specifically to research on gray whales, since killer whales are toothed whales, while gray whales are baleen whales. There are several differences between toothed whales and baleen whales; toothed whales tend to be more social, occurring in pods or groups, eat larger prey like fish, squid, and seals, and they echolocate. In comparison, baleen whales are less social, eat mostly tiny zooplankton prey, and do not echolocate. Because of these differences, I wanted to learn more about gray whales, so I started asking Lisa questions. Killer whales only sleep with half of their brain at a time, so I asked if gray whales do the same. They do. Killer whales typically travel in stable, long-term matriarchal groups, and I recently learned that gray whales frequently travel alone (though not exclusively). This new knowledge to me led me to ask if gray whales vocalize while traveling. They typically do not. Through asking these questions, and others, I have begun to learn more about gray whales. 

Figure 2. Mattea on the tandem research kayak taking a break in between prey sampling. Source: L. Hildebrand.

I am still learning about marine mammal research, and from what I have experienced so far, marine mammal acoustics intrigues me the most. As a child, I developed a general interest in whale vocalizations after hearing recordings of them in museums and aquariums. Then, two years ago, I heard orcas vocalizing in the wild, and I decided I wanted to learn more about their vocalizations as a long-term career goal. 

To pursue a career studying marine mammal acoustics, I will need scientific and communication skills that this internship is helping me develop. Sitting on the cliff for hours at a time, sometimes with gray whales swimming in our view-scape and sometimes without, is teaching me the patience and attention needed to review hours of sound recordings with or without vocalizations. Identifying and counting zooplankton most days is teaching me the importance of processing data regularly, so it does not build up or get too confusing, as well as attention to detail and keeping focused. Collecting data from a kayak is teaching me how to assess ocean conditions, keep track of gear, and stay calm when things go wrong. I am also practicing the skill of taking and identifying whale photos, which can be applied to many whale research topics I hope to pursue. Through writing this blog post and discussing the project with Lisa and my fellow interns, I am improving my science communication skills. 

Figure 3. Mattea manning the theodolite watching and waiting for a gray whale to show up in our study area. Source: L. Hildebrand.

As an undergraduate student, it can sometimes be difficult to find opportunities to research marine mammals, so I am very grateful for and excited about this internship, both because of the skills it is helping me build and the field work experiences that I enjoy participating in. Another aspect of research this internship is helping me learn about is to ask engaging questions. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, asking questions is a key element of conducting research. By asking questions about gray whales based on both prior knowledge and new observations, I am practicing this skill, as well as thinking of topics I am curious about and might want to explore in the future. While watching for whales, I have thought of questions such as: How is whale behavior affected by surface conditions? Do gray whales prefer feeding at certain times of the day? Questions like these help me learn about whales, and they keep me excited about research. Thanks to this internship, I can continue working towards my dreams of pursuing similar questions about whales as a career.

Introducing the Theyodelers – the Port Orford Gray Whale Foraging Ecology Team of 2020

By Lisa Hildebrand, MSc student, OSU Department of Fisheries & Wildlife, Marine Mammal Institute, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Yodel-Ay-Ee-Ooooo! Hello from the Theyodelers, this year’s Port Orford gray whale foraging ecology field team. In case you were wondering, no, we aren’t hobby yodelers and we don’t plan on becoming them. The team name this year actually has to be attributed to a parent of one of my interns. Shout out to Scott Holt who during the first week of the field season asked his daughter Mattea (our OSU undergraduate intern) whether using a theodolite (the instrument we use to track gray whales from our cliff site) is anything like yodeling. The name was an immediate hit with the team and so the team name discussion was closed fairly early on in the season. Now that I have explained our slightly unconventional team name, let me tell you a little about this year’s team and what has been going on down here on the Oregon south coast so far.

As you can tell from the byline, I (Lisa) am back as the project’s team lead in this, the 6th year of the Port Orford gray whale research and internship project. Going into this year’s field season with two years of experience under my belt has made me feel more confident and comfortable with diving straight back into our fine-scale research with a new team of interns. Yet, I am beginning to realize that no matter how much experience I have, there will always be unforeseeable curve balls thrown at me that I can’t anticipate no matter how prepared or experienced I am. However, my knowledge and experience now certainly inform how I tackle these curve balls and hopefully allow my problem-solving to be better and quicker. I am so thrilled that Leigh and I were able to get the field season approved here in Port Orford despite the ongoing pandemic. There were many steps we had to take and protocols to write and get approved, but it was worth the work. It certainly is strange living in a place that is meant to be your home for six weeks but having to wear a face covering everywhere except your own bedroom. However, mask wearing, frequent hand washing, and disinfecting is a very small price to pay to avoid having a lapse in our gray whale data collected here in Port Orford (and minimize transmission). Doing field research amidst COVID has certainly been a big curve ball this year but, so far, I have been able to handle these added challenges pretty well, especially with a lot of help from my team. Speaking of which, time to introduce the other Theyodelers…

Figure 1. Noah watching and waiting for whales on the cliff. When we are outside in the wind and are able to maintain a minimum 6-ft distance, we are able to remove our face coverings. Source: T. McCambridge.

First up, we have Noah Dolinajec. Noah is a fellow graduate student who is currently doing a Master’s in Marine & Lacustrine Science and Management at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Brussels, Belgium. While he is attending graduate school in Belgium, Noah is not actually from this European country. In fact, he is a Portlandian! As an Oregonian with a passion for the marine environment, Noah is no stranger to the Oregon coast and has spent quite some time exploring it in the past. Some other things about Noah: before going to college he played semi-professional ice hockey, he is a bit of a birder, and he likes to cook (he and I have been tag-teaming the team cooking this year). 

Figure 2. Mattea outside the field station holding local fisher-pup Jim. Source: L. Hildebrand.

Next, we have Mattea Holt Colberg. As I mentioned before, Mattea is the team’s OSU undergraduate intern this year. By participating in a running-start program at her high school where she took two years of college classes, Mattea entered OSU as a junior at just 18 years old! However, she has decided to somewhat extend her undergraduate career at OSU by completing a dual major in Biology and Music. She plays the piano and the violin (which she brought to Port Orford, but we have yet to be serenaded by her). Mattea has previously conducted field research on killer whales in the Salish Sea and I can tell that she is hoping for killer whales to show up in Port Orford (while not entirely ludicrous, the chance of this happening is probably very, very slim). 

Figure 3. Liz in the bow of the kayak in Tichenor Cove. Source: L. Hildebrand.

Last but certainly not least, is Liz Kelly, our Pacific High School intern from Port Orford. Liz has lived in several different states across the country (I’m talking Kentucky to Florida) and so I am really excited that she currently lives here in Oregon because she has been an absolute joy to have on the team so far. Liz brings a lot of energy and humor to the team, which we have certainly needed whenever those curve balls come flying. Besides her positivity, Liz brings a lot of determination and perseverance and seeing her work through tough situations here already has made me very proud. I really hope this internship provides Liz with the life, STEM, and communication skills she needs to help her succeed in pursuing her goals of doing wildlife research after college. As you may have read in my last blog, our previous high school interns have had successes in being admitted to various colleges to follow their goals, and I feel confident that Liz will be no different. When she is not here at the field station, she can probably be found taking care of and riding one of her four horses (Millie, Maricja, Miera, and Jeanie). 

Now that I have introduced the 2020 field team, here is a short play-by-play of what we have been seeing, or perhaps more aptly, not seeing. Our whale sighting numbers have been pretty low so far and when we do see them, they seem to be foraging a little further away from our study site than I am used to seeing in past years. However, this shift in behavior is not entirely surprising to me since our zooplankton net has been coming up pretty empty at our sampling stations. While there are mysids and amphipods scattered here and there, their numbers are in the low 10s when we do our zooplankton ID lab work in the afternoons. These low counts are also reflected by the low densities I am anecdotally seeing on our GoPro drops (Fig 4).

While I am not entirely certain why we are seeing this low prey abundance, I do have some hypotheses. The most likely reason is that this year we experienced some delayed upwelling on our coast. Dawn wrote a great blog about upwelling and wind a few weeks ago and I suggest checking it out to better understand what upwelling is and how it can affect whales (and the whole ecosystem). Typically, we see our peak upwelling occur here in Oregon in May-June. However, if you look at Figure 5 you will see that both the indices remained low at that time this year, whereas in previous years, they were already increasing by May/June.

Figure 5. 10 year time series of the Coastal Upwelling Transport Index (CUTI; top plot) and Biologically Effective Upwelling Transport Index (BEUTI; bottom plot) at 44ºN. CUTI represents the amount of upwelling (positive numbers) or downwelling (negative numbers) while BEUTI estimates the amount of nitrate (i.e. nutrients) upwelled (positive numbers) and downwelled (negative numbers). The light-colored lines represent the CUTI and BEUTI at that point in time while the dark, bold lines represent the long-term average.

A delayed upwelling means that there was likely less nutrients in the water to support little critters like zooplankton to start reproducing and increasing their abundances. Simply put, it means our coastal waters appear to be less productive than they usually are at this time of the year. If there is not much prey around (as we have been finding in our two study sites – Mill Rocks and Tichenor Cove), then it makes sense to me why gray whales are not hanging around since there is not much to feed on. Fortunately, the tail of the trend line in Figure 5 is angling upward, which means that the upwelling finally started in June so hopefully the nutrients, zooplankton and whales will follow soon too. In fact, since I wrote the draft of this blog at the end of last week, we have actually seen an increase in the numbers of mysids in our zooplankton net and on our GoPro videos.

We are almost halfway done with the field season already and I cannot believe how quickly it goes by! During the first two weeks we were busy getting familiar with all of our gear and completing First Aid/CPR and kayak paddle & rescue courses. This week the team started the real data collection. We have had some hiccups (we lost our GoPro stick and our backup GoPro stick, but thankfully have already recovered one of them) but overall, we are off to a pretty good start. Now we just need the upwelling to really kick in, for there to be thick layers of mysids, and for the whales to come in close. Over the next three weeks, you will be hearing from Noah, Mattea and Liz as they share their experiences and viewpoints with all of you!