The final chapter:  “The effects of vessel traffic and ocean noise on gray whale stress hormones”

By Leila S. Lemos, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Associate at Florida International University, former member of the GEMM Lab (Defended PhD. March 2020)

It’s been a long time since I wrote a blog post for the GEMM Lab (more than two years ago!). You may remember me as a former Ph.D. student working with gray whale body condition and hormone variation in association with ambient noise… and so much has happened since then!

After my graduation, since I have tropical blood running in my veins, I literally crossed the entire country in search of blue and sunny skies, warm weather and ocean, and of course different opportunities to continue doing research involving stressors and physiological responses in marine mammals and other marine organisms. It didn’t take me long to start a position as a postdoctoral associate with the Institute of Environment at Florida International University. I have learned so much in these past two years while mainly working with toxicology and stress biomarkers in a wide range of marine individuals including corals, oysters, fish, dolphins, and now manatees. I have started a new chapter in my life, and I am very eager to see where it takes me.

Talking about chapters… my Ph.D. thesis comprised four different chapters and I had published only the first one when I left Oregon: “Intra- and inter-annual variation in gray whale body condition on a foraging ground”. In this study we used drone-based photogrammetry to measure and compare gray whale body condition along the Oregon coast over three consecutive foraging seasons (June to October, 2016-2018). We described variations across the different demographic units, improved body condition with the progression of feeding seasons, and variations across years, with a better condition in 2016 compared to the following two years. Then in 2020, I was able to publish my second chapter entitled “Assessment of fecal steroid and thyroid hormone metabolites in eastern North Pacific gray whales”. In this study, we used gray whale fecal samples to validate and quantify four different hormone metabolite concentrations (progestins, androgens, glucocorticoids, and thyroid hormone). We reported variation in progestins and androgens by demographic unit and by year. Almost a year later, my third chapter “Stressed and slim or relaxed and chubby? A simultaneous assessment of gray whale body condition and hormone variability was published. In this chapter, we documented a negative correlation between body condition and glucocorticoids, meaning that slim whales were more stressed than the chubby ones.

These three chapters were “relatively easy” to publish compared to my fourth chapter, which had a long and somewhat stressful process (which is funny as I am trying to report stress responses in gray whales). Changes between journals, titles, analyses, content, and focus had to be made over the past year and a half for it to be accepted for publication. However, I believe that it was worth the extra work and invested time as our research definitely became more robust after all of the feedback provided by the reviewers. This chapter, now entitled “Effects of vessel traffic and ocean noise on gray whale stress hormones” was finally published earlier this month at the Nature Scientific Reports journal, and I’ll describe it further below.

Increased human activities in the last decades have altered the marine ecosystem, leaving us with a noisier, warmer, and more contaminated ocean. The noise caused by the dramatic increase in commercial and recreational shipping and vessel traffic1-3 has been associated with negative impacts on marine wildlife populations4,5. This is especially true for baleen whales, whose frequencies primarily used for communication, navigation, and foraging6,7 are “masked” by the noise generated by this watercraft. Several studies have reported alterations in marine mammal behavioral states8-11, increased group cohesion12-14, and displacement8,15 due to this disturbance, however, just a few studies have considered their physiological responses. Examples of physiological responses reported in marine mammals include altered metabolic rate15,16 and variations in stress-related hormone (i.e., glucocorticoids) concentrations relative to vessel abundance and ambient noise17,18. Based on this context and on the scarcity of such assessments, we attempted to determine the effects of vessel traffic and associated ambient noise, as well as potential confounding variables (i.e., body condition, age, sex, time), on gray whale fecal glucocorticoid concentrations.

In addition to the data used in my previous three chapters collected from gray whales foraging off the Oregon coast, we also collected ambient noise levels using hydrophones, vessel count data from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), and wind data from NOAA National Data Buoy Center (NDBC). Our first finding was a positive correlation between vessel counts and underwater noise levels (Fig. 1A), likely indicating that vessel traffic is the dominant source of noise in the area. To confirm this, we also compared underwater noise levels with wind speed (Fig. 1B), but no correlations were found.

Figure 1: Linear correlations between noise levels (daily median root mean square [rms] sound pressure level [SPL] in dB [re 1 μPa]; 50–1000 Hz) recorded on a hydrophone deployed outside the Newport harbor entrance during June to October of 2017 and 2018 and (A) vessel counts in Newport and Depoe Bay, Oregon, USA, and (B) daily median wind speed (m/s) from an anemometer station located on South Beach, Newport, Oregon, USA (station NWPO3). Asterisk indicates significant correlations between SPL and vessel counts in both years.

We also investigated noise levels by the hour of the day (Fig. 2), and we found that noise levels peaked between 6 and 8 am most days, coinciding with the peak of vessels leaving the harbor to get to fishing grounds. Another smaller peak is seen at 12 pm, which may represent “half-day fishing charter” vessels returning to the harbor. In contrast, wind speeds (in the lower graph) peaked between 3 and 4 pm, thus confirming the absence of correlation between noise and wind and providing more evidence that noise levels are dominated by the vessel activity in the area. 

Figure 2: Median noise levels (root mean square sound pressure levels—SPLrms) for each hour of each day recorded on a hydrophone (50–10,000 Hz) deployed outside the Newport harbor entrance during June to October of 2017 (middle plot) and 2018 (upper plot), and hourly median noise level (SPL) against hourly median wind speed (lower plot) from an anemometer station located on South Beach, Newport, Oregon, USA (station NWPO3) over the same time period.

Finally, we assessed the effects of vessel counts, month, year, sex, whale body condition, and other hormone metabolites on glucocorticoid metabolite (GCm; “stress”) concentrations. Since we are working with fecal samples, we needed to consider the whale gut transit time and go back in time to link time of exposure (vessel counts) to response (glucocorticoid concentrations). However, due to uncertainty regarding gut transit time in baleen whales, we compared different time lags between vessel counts and fecal collection. The gut transit time in large mammals is ~12 hours to 4 days3,19,20, so we investigated the influence of vessel counts on whale “stress hormone levels” from the previous 1 to 7 days. The model with the most influential temporal scale included vessel counts from previous day, which showed a significant positive relationship with GCm (the “stress hormone level”) (Fig. 3).

Figure 3: The effect of vessel counts in Newport and Depoe Bay (Oregon, USA) on the day before fecal sample collection on gray whale fecal glucocorticoid metabolite (GCm) concentrations.

Thus, the “take home messages” of our study are:

  1. The soundscape in our study area is dominated by vessel noise.
  2. Vessel counts are strongly correlated with ambient noise levels in our study area.
  3. Gray whale glucocorticoid levels are positively correlated with vessel counts from previous day meaning that gray whale gut transit time may occur within ~ 24 hours of the disturbance event.

These four chapters were all very important studies not only to advance the knowledge of gray whale and overall baleen whale physiology (as this group is one of the most poorly understood of all mammals given the difficulties in sample collection21), but also to investigate potential sources for the unusual mortality event that is currently happening (2019-present) to the Eastern North Pacific population of gray whales. Such studies can be used to guide future research and to inform population management and conservation efforts regarding minimizing the impact of anthropogenic stressors on whales.

I am very glad to be part of this project, to see such great fruits from our gray whale research, and to know that this project is still at full steam. The GEMM Lab continues to collect and analyze data for determining gray whale body condition and physiological responses in association with ambient noise (Granite, Amber and Diamond projects). The gray whales thank you for this!

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Cited Literature

1. McDonald, M. A., Hildebrand, J. A. & Wiggins, S. M. Increases in deep ocean ambient noise in the Northeast Pacific west of San Nicolas Island, California. J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 120, 711–718 (2006).

2. Kaplan, M. B. & Solomon, S. A coming boom in commercial shipping? The potential for rapid growth of noise from commercial ships by 2030. Mar. Policy 73, 119–121 (2016).

3. McCarthy, E. International regulation of underwater sound: establishing rules and standards to address ocean noise pollution (Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004).

4. Weilgart, L. S. The impacts of anthropogenic ocean noise on cetaceans and implications for management. Can. J. Zool. 85, 1091–1116 (2007).

5. Bas, A. A. et al. Marine vessels alter the behaviour of bottlenose dolphins Tursiops truncatus in the Istanbul Strait, Turkey. Endanger. Species Res. 34, 1–14 (2017).

6. Erbe, C., Reichmuth, C., Cunningham, K., Lucke, K. & Dooling, R. Communication masking in marine mammals: a review and research strategy. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 103, 15–38 (2016).

7. Erbe, C. et al. The effects of ship noise on marine mammals: a review. Front. Mar. Sci. 6 (2019).

8. Sullivan, F. A. & Torres, L. G. Assessment of vessel disturbance to gray whales to inform sustainable ecotourism. J. Wildl. Manag. 82, 896–905 (2018).

9. Pirotta, E., Merchant, N. D., Thompson, P. M., Barton, T. R. & Lusseau, D. Quantifying the effect of boat disturbance on bottlenose dolphin foraging activity. Biol. Conserv. 181, 82–89 (2015).

10. Dans, S. L., Degrati, M., Pedraza, S. N. & Crespo, E. A. Effects of tour boats on dolphin activity examined with sensitivity analysis of Markov chains. Conserv. Biol. 26, 708–716 (2012).

11. Christiansen, F., Rasmussen, M. & Lusseau, D. Whale watching disrupts feeding activities of minke whales on a feeding ground. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 478, 239–251 (2013).

12. Bejder, L., Samuels, A., Whitehead, H. & Gales, N. Interpreting short-term behavioural responses to disturbance within a longitudinal perspective. Anim. Behav. 72, 1149–1158 (2006).

13. Nowacek, S. M., Wells, R. S. & Solow, A. R. Short-term effects of boat traffic on Bottlenose dolphins, Tursiops truncatus, in Sarasota Bay, Florida. Mar. Mammal. Sci. 17, 673–688 (2001).

14. Bejder, L., Dawson, S. M. & Harraway, J. A. Responses by Hector’s dolphins to boats and swimmers in Porpoise Bay, New Zealand. Mar. Mammal Sci. 15, 738–750 (1999).

15. Lusseau, D. Male and female bottlenose dolphins Tursiops spp. have different strategies to avoid interactions with tour boats in Doubtful Sound. New Zealand. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 257, 267–274 (2003).

16. Sprogis, K. R., Videsen, S. & Madsen, P. T. Vessel noise levels drive behavioural responses of humpback whales with implications for whale-watching. Elife 9, e56760 (2020).

17. Ayres, K. L. et al. Distinguishing the impacts of inadequate prey and vessel traffic on an endangered killer whale (Orcinus orca) population. PLoS ONE 7, e36842 (2012).

18. Rolland, R. M. et al. Evidence that ship noise increases stress in right whales. Proc. R. Soc. B Biol. Sci. 279, 2363–2368 (2012).

19. Wasser, S. K. et al. A generalized fecal glucocorticoid assay for use in a diverse array of nondomestic mammalian and avian species. Gen. Comp. Endocrinol. 120, 260–275 (2000).

20. Hunt, K. E., Trites, A. W. & Wasser, S. K. Validation of a fecal glucocorticoid assay for Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus). Physiol. Behav. 80, 595–601 (2004).

21. Hunt, K. E. et al. Overcoming the challenges of studying conservation physiology in large whales: a review of available methods. Conserv. Physiol. 1, cot006–cot006 (2013).

Return of the whales: The GRANITE 2022 field season comes to a close

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

It’s hard to believe that it’s already been four and half months since we started the field season (check out Lisa’s blog for a recap of where we began), but as of this weekend the GRANITE project’s 8th field season has officially ended! As the gray whales wrap up their foraging season and start heading south for the winter, it’s time for us to put our gear into storage, settle into a new academic year, and start processing the data we spent so much time collecting.

The field season can be quite an intense time (40 days equaling over 255 hours on the water!), so we often don’t take a moment to reflect until the end. But this season has been nothing short of remarkable. As you may remember from past blogs, the past couple years (2020-21) have been a bit concerning, with lower whale numbers than previously observed. Since many of us started working on the project during this time, most of us were expecting another similar season. But we were wrong in the best way. From the very first day, we saw more whales than in previous years and we identified whales from our catalog that we hadn’t seen in several years.

Image 1: Collage of photos from our field season.

We identified friends – old and new!

This season we had 224 sightings of 63 individual whales. Of those 63, 51 were whales from our catalog (meaning we have seen them in a previous season). Of these 51 known whales, we only saw 20 of them last year! This observation brings up interesting questions such as, where did most of these whales forage last year? Why did they return to this area this year? And, the classic end of season question, what’s going to happen next year?

We also identified 12 whales that were not in our catalog, making them new to the GEMM lab. Two of our new whales are extra exciting because they are not just new to us but new to the population; we saw two calves this year! We were fortunate enough to observe two mom-calf pairs in July. One pair was of a “new” mom in our catalog and her calf. We nicknamed this calf “Roly-poly” because when we found this mom-calf pair, we recorded some incredible drone footage of “roly-poly” continuously performing body rolls while their mom was feeding nearby (video 1). 

Video 1: “Roly-poly” body rolling while their mom headstands. NOAA/NMFS permit #21678.

The other pair includes a known GEMM lab whale, Luna, and her calf (currently nicknamed “Lunita”). We recently found “Lunita” feeding on their own in early October (Image 2), meaning that they are now independent from its mom (for more on mom-calf behavior check out Celest’s recent blog). We’ll definitely be on the lookout for Roly-Poly and Lunita next year!

Image 2: (left) drone image of Luna and Lunita together in July and (right) drone image of Lunita on their own in October.  NOAA/NMFS permit #21678.

We flew, we scooped, we collected heaps of data!

From our previous blogs you probably know that in addition to photo-ID images, our other two most important forms of data collection are drone flights (for body condition and behavior data) and fecal samples (for hormone analysis). And this season was a success for both! 

We conducted 124 flights over 49 individual whales. The star of these flights was a local favorite Scarlett who we flew over 18 different times. These repeat samples are crucial data for us because we use them to gain insight into how an individual’s body condition changes throughout the season. We also recorded loads of behavior data, collecting footage of different foraging tactics like headstanding, side-swimming, and surfacing feeding on porcelain crab larvae (video 2)!

Video 2: Two whales surface feeding on porcelain crab larvae. NOAA/NMFS permit #21678.

We also collected 61 fecal samples from 26 individual whales (Image 3). The stars of that dataset were Soléand Peak who tied with 7 samples each. These hard-earned samples provide invaluable insight into the physiology and stress levels of these individuals and are a crucial dataset for the project.

Image 3: Photos of fecal sample collection. Left – a very heavy sample, center: Lisa and Enrico after collecting the first fecal sample of the season, right: Clara and Lisa celebrating a good fecal sample collection.

On top of all that amazing data collection we also collected acoustic data with our hydrophones, prey data from net tows, and biologging data from our tagging efforts. Our hydrophones were in the water all summer recording the sounds that the whales are exposed to, and they were successfully recovered just a few weeks ago (Image 4)! We also conducted 69 net tows to sample the prey near where the whales were feeding and identify which prey the whales might be eating (Image 5). Lastly, we had two very successful tagging weeks during which we deployed (and recovered!) a total of 9 tags, which collected over 30 hours of data (Image 6; check out Kate’s blog for more on that).

Image 4 – Photos from hydrophone recovery.
Image 5: Photos from zooplankton sampling.
Image 6: Collage of photos from our two tagging efforts this season.

Final thoughts

All in all, it’s been an incredible season. We’ve seen the return of old friends, collected lots of awesome data, and had some record-breaking days (28 whales in one day!). As we look toward the analysis phase of the year, we’re excited to dig into our eight-year dataset and work to understand what might explain the increase in whales this year.

To end on a personal note, looking through photos to put in this blog was the loveliest trip down memory lane (even though it only ended a few days ago) – I am so honored and proud to be a part of this team. The work we do is hard; we spend long hours on a small boat together and it can be a bit grueling at times. But, when I think back on this season, my first thoughts are not of the times I felt exhausted or grumpy, but of all the joy we felt together. From the incredible whale encounters to the revitalizing snacks to the off-key sing alongs, there is no other team I would rather do this work with, and I so look forward to seeing what next season brings. Stay tuned for more updates from team GRANITE!

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A Hundred and One Data Visualizations: What We Can Infer about Gray Whale Health Using Public Data

By Braden Adam Vigil, Oregon State University Undergraduate, GEMM Lab NSF REU Intern

Introduction

My name is Braden Vigil, and I am enjoying this summer with the company of Lisa Hildebrand and Dr. Leigh Torres as a National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) intern. By slicing off a manageable chunk of the GRANITE project to focus on, I’ve had the chance to explore my passion for data visualization. My excitement for biological research was instilled in me by an impactful high school biology teacher (thank you Mr. Villalobos!) and was narrowed to marine biology research after a chance visit to Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center. I’ve come all the way from Southern New Mexico to explore this passion of mine, and the REU program has been one of my first chances to get my feet wet. My advice for any students debating taking big leaps for the sake of passion is to do it – it’s scary, but I’d say there’s nothing better than living out what you want to do (and hopefully getting paid for it!). For this project, the GEMM Lab has saved me the trouble of collecting data – this summer, I’m all action. 

Where Gray Whales Are and Why It Matters

Just as you might find yourself at a grocery store to buy food or at a coffee shop catching up with an old friend, so too do whales have places to go and reasons for being there. Research concerning gray whale ecology – understanding the who, what, when, where, whys – should then have a lot to do with the “where?” and “why?” That’s what my project is about: investigating where the gray whales off the Oregon coast are, and what features of the environment are related to their presence and other aspects of the population. After all, distribution is considered the foundational unit for the biogeographical understanding of a population’s location and its interactions with other species. An example of an environmental driver may be phytoplankton and – subsequently – zooplankton abundance. It’s been shown that bottom-up trophic cascades based on primary productivity directly influence predator and prey populations in both terrestrial and marine ecosystems (Sinclair and Krebs 2002; Benoit-Bird and McManus 2012). This driver specifically could then inform something as significant as population abundance of a predator, though that’s out of the scope of my project. Instead, I’m studying how these environmental drivers, specifically sea water temperature, affects the variation of the thyroid hormone (tri-iodothyronine, T3) in gray whales, which the GEMM Lab quantifies from fecal samples that they non-invasively and opportunistically collect. In terrestrial mammals, T3 is believed to be associated with thermoregulation, yet it is unclear if T3 has the same function in baleen whales who use blubber insulation to thermoregulate. To estimate blubber insulation, we use a proxy, called body area index (BAI) collected via drone footage (Burnett et al. 2018), which you can read more about in Clara’s blog. Insights into variations in T3 hormone levels as related to changes in the environment may allow researchers to better understand thermoregulatory challenges whales face in warming oceans.

This Sounds Like a Lot of Data About the Environment, Where’s it Coming From?

Not only has the GEMM Lab relieved me of the hassle that data collection and fieldwork can be, so too has the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI). Starting in 2014, the OOI has set up several buoys off the U.S. West Coast, each equipped with numerous sensors and data-collecting devices. These have been extracting data from the nearby environment since then, including aspects such as dissolved oxygen, pH, and most important to this study, sea temperature. These buoys run deep too! Some devices reach as low as 25 m, which is where we often expect to see whales foraging during surveys. For our interest, there is one specific buoy that is within the GRANITE project’s survey region, the Oregon Inshore Surface Mooring.

Figure 1. Locations of OOI buoys. Blue dots represent buoys, while the yellow dot represents our buoy of interest, the Oregon Inshore Surface Mooring. 

Expectations

The OOI has published, and continues to publish, an unbelievable amount of data. There are many things that would be interesting to investigate, but until we know how much we can bite off versus how much we can chew, we’ve narrowed it down to a few hypotheses we’re currently investigating. 

Table 1. Hypotheses and Expected Results.

A Hundred and One Data Visualizations

As fun as I find testing correlations between variables and creating satisfying looking plots, I must admit that I’m not even halfway into this project and I’ve made a LOT of plots. Plots can be an easy way to understand big datasets and observations. Since not all of the data-collecting devices on the OOI data are continuously running, I first needed to get an idea of how much data we have to work with, and how much of that data overlaps in time with our annual gray whale survey period (June 1 – October 15). Some of these preliminary plots look like Figure 2. In addition, these plots grant us an idea of how variable sea surface temperatures have been in these past few years. Marine heatwaves have occurred recently in the Pacific Ocean and off the U.S. West Coast, and it is important to know if their effects continue to linger to the present. Other, unexplained peaks might also be worth investigating. 

Figure 2. Preliminary plot comparing sea surface temperature data over time, from around June 2016 to December 2021. Straight lines between December to June each year indicates no data, as we have removed these periods from our analysis. 

The goal here is to eventually compare the variables of sea temperature to the T3 hormone levels in gray whales foraging off the Oregon coast. Before this step, it is important to decide what depth of temperature readings are most appropriate to assess. I’ve made several correlation plots of sea  temperature between varying depths of 1 m, 7 m, and 25 m. One such plot is included below (Figure 3). This plot shows variation of temperature between different depths. If there is strong variation between the depths of 1 m and 25 m, then the water column may be well stratified, meaning that gray whale response to environmental temperature may be distinct between these distances, possibly even between 1 m and 7 m. 

Figure 3. Sea surface temperature at 1 m versus 25 m in degrees Celsius, with points color coded by year. 

Conclusion

As previously described, this study plays part into the larger GRANITE project with the goal to understand and make predictions about the ecology and physiology of the gray whale population off of the U.S. West Coast. This study will investigate the significance of sea temperature on aspects of whale health – so far including BAI and T3 hormone level. I will be pursuing a stronger grasp on the variation of these relationships through ongoing analysis. My results should be used to clarify nodes and the correlation between them in the web of dynamics encircling the population. This project has given me great insight into how raw data can be turned into meaningful understandings and subsequent impacts. The public OOI data is a scattershot of many different measurements using many different devices constantly. The answers/solutions to the conservation of species threatened by the Anthropocene are out there, all that’s required is that we harness them. 

References

Benoit-Bird, K. J., & McManus, M. A. (2012). Bottom-up regulation of a pelagic community through spatial aggregations. Biology Letters8(5), 813–816. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2012.0232

Burnett, J. D., & Wing, M. G. (2018). A low-cost near-infrared digital camera for fire detection and monitoring. International Journal of Remote Sensing39(3), 741–753. https://doi.org/10.1080/01431161.2017.1385109

Sinclair, A. R. E., & Krebs, C. J. (2002). Complex numerical responses to top–down and bottom–up processes in vertebrate populations. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences357(1425), 1221–1231.https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2002.1123.

Reuniting with some old friends: The 8th GRANITE field season is underway

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

We are almost halfway through June which means summer has arrived! Although, here on the Oregon coast, it does not entirely feel like it. We have been swinging between hot, sunny days and cloudy, foggy, rainy days that are reminiscent of those in spring or even winter. Despite these weather pendulums, the GEMM Lab’s GRANITE project is off to a great start in its 8th field season! The field team has already ventured out onto the Pacific Ocean in our trusty RHIB Ruby on four separate days looking for gray whales and in this blog post, I am going to share what we have seen so far.

The core GRANITE field team before the May 24th “trial run”. From left to right: Leigh Torres, KC Bierlich, Clara Bird, Lisa Hildebrand, Alejandro Fernández Ajó. Source: L. Torres.

PI Leigh, PhD candidate Clara and I headed out for a “trial run” on May 24th. While the intention for the day was to make sure all our gear was running smoothly and we still remembered how to complete the many tasks associated with our field work (boat loading and trailering, drone flying and catching, poop scooping, data download, to name a few), we could not resist surveying our entire study range given the excellent conditions. It was a day that all marine field scientists hope for – low winds (< 5 kt all day) and a 3 ft swell over a long period. Despite surveying between Waldport and Depoe Bay, we only encountered one whale, but it was a whale that put a smile on each of our faces. After “just” 252 days, we reunited with Solé, the star of our GRANITE dataset, with record numbers of fecal samples and drone flights collected. This record is due to what seems to be a strong habitat or foraging tactic preference by Solé to remain in a relatively small spatial area off the Oregon coast for most of the summer, rather than traveling great swaths of the coast in search for food. Honest truth, on May 24th we found her exactly where we expected to find her. While we did not collect a fecal sample from her on that day, we did perform a drone flight, allowing us to collect a critical early feeding season data point on body condition. We hope that Solé has a summer full of mysids on the Oregon coast and that we will be seeing her often, getting rounder each time!

Our superstar whale Solé. Her identifying features are a small white line on her left side (green box) and a white dot in front of her dorsal hump on the right side (red circle). Source: GEMM Lab. Photograph captured under NOAA/NMFS permit #21678

Just a week after this trial day, we had our official start to the field season with back-to-back days on the water. On our first day, postdoc Alejandro, Clara and I were joined by St. Andrews University Research Fellow Enrico Pirotta, who is another member of the GRANITE team. Enrico’s role in the GRANITE project is to implement our long-term, replicate dataset into a framework called Population consequences of disturbance (PCoD; you can read all about it in a previous blog). We were thrilled that Enrico was able to join us on the water to get a sense for the species and system that he has spent the last several months trying to understand and model quantitatively from a computer halfway across the world. Luckily, the whales sure showed up for Enrico, as we saw a total of seven whales, all of which were known individuals to us! Several of the whales were feeding in water about 20 m deep and surfacing quite erratically, making it hard to get photos of them at times. Our on-board fish finder suggested that there was a mid-water column prey layer that was between 5-7 m thick. Given the flat, sandy substrate the whales were in, we predicted that these layers were composed of porcelain crab larvae. Luckily, we were able to confirm our hypothesis immediately by dropping a zooplankton net to collect a sample of many porcelain crab larvae. Porcelain crab larvae have some of the lowest caloric values of the nearshore zooplankton species that gray whales likely feed on (Hildebrand et al. 2021). Yet, the density of larvae in these thick layers probably made them a very profitable meal, which is likely the reason that we saw another five whales the next day feeding on porcelain crab larvae once again.

On our most recent field work day, we only encountered Solé, suggesting that the porcelain crab swarms had dissipated (or had been excessively munched on by gray whales), and many whales went in search for food elsewhere. We have done a number of zooplankton net tows across our study area and while we did collect a good amount of mysid shrimp already, they were all relatively small. My prediction is that once these mysids grow to a more profitable size in a few days or weeks, we will start seeing more whales again.

The GRANITE team from above, waiting & watching for whales, as we will be doing for the rest of the summer! Source: GEMM Lab.

So far we have seen nine unique individuals, flown the drone over eight of them, collected fecal samples from five individuals, conducted 10 zooplankton net tows and seven GoPro drops in just four days of field work! We are certainly off to a strong start and we are excited to continue collecting rock solid GRANITE data this summer to continue our efforts to understand gray whale ecology and physiology.

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Literature cited

Hildebrand L, Bernard KS, Torres LGT. 2021. Do gray whales count calories? Comparing energetic values of gray whale prey across two different feeding grounds in the Eastern North Pacific. Frontiers in Marine Science 8. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2021.683634

Of snakes and whales: How food availability and body condition affect reproduction

Clara Bird, PhD Student, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Over six field seasons the GEMM lab team has conducted nearly 500 drone flights over gray whales, equaling over 100 hours of footage. These hours of footage are the central dataset for my PhD dissertation, so it’s up to me to process them all. This process can be challenging, tedious, and daunting, but it is also quite fun and a privilege to be the one person who gets to watch all the footage. It’s fascinating to get to know the whales and their behaviors and pick up on patterns. It motivates me to get through this video processing step and start doing the data analysis. Recently, it’s been especially fun to notice patterns that I’ve seen mentioned in the literature. One example is adult social behavior. 

There are two categories of social behavior that I’m interested in studying: maternal behavior, defined as interactions between a mom and its calf, and general social behaviors, defined as social interactions between non-mom/calf pairs. In this blog I’ll focus on general social behaviors, but if you’re interested in maternal behavior check out this blog. General social behavior, which I’ll refer to as social behavior moving forward, includes tactile interactions and promiscuous behaviors (Torres et al. 2018; Clip 1). While gray whales in the PCFG range are primarily foraging, researchers have observed increases in social behavior towards the end of the foraging season (Stelle et al., 2008; Torres et al., 2018). We think that this indicates that the whales are starting to focus less on feeding and more on breeding. This tradeoff of foraging vs. socializing time is interesting because it comes at an energetic cost.

Clip 1. Example of social interaction between a male and female gray whale off the coast of Oregon, USA. Collected under NOAA/NMFS permit #21678

Broadly, animals need to balance the energetic demands of survival with those of reproduction. They need to reproduce to pass on their genes, but reproduction is energetically demanding, and animals also need to survive and grow to be able to reproduce. The decision to reproduce is costly because reproduction requires energetic investment and time investment since animals do not forage (gaining energy) when they are socializing. Consequently, only animals with sufficient energy reserves (i.e., body condition) to invest in reproduction actually engage in reproduction. Given these costs associated with reproduction, we expect to see a relationship between social behavior and body condition (Green, 2001) with mainly animals in good body condition engaging in social behavior because these animals have sufficient reserves to sustain the cost. Furthermore, since body condition is an indicator of foraging success and prey availability, environmental conditions can also affect social behavior and reproduction through this pathway. 

Rahman et al. (2014) used a lab experiment to study the relationship between nutritional stress and male guppy courtship behavior (Figure 1). In their experiment they tested for the effects of both decreased diet quantity and quality on the frequency of male courtship behaviors. Rahman et al (2014) found that individuals in the low-quantity group were significantly smaller than those in the high-quality group and that diet quantity had a significant effect on the frequency of courtship behaviors. Males fed a low-quantity diet performed fewer courtship behaviors. Interestingly, there was no significant effect of diet quality on courtships behavior, although there was some evidence of an interaction effect, which suggests that within the low-quantity group, males fed with high-quality food performed more courtship behaviors that those fed with low-quality food. This study is interesting because it shows how foraging success (diet quantity and quality) can affect courting behavior. 

Figure 1. A guppy (Rahman et al., 2013)

However, guppies are not the ideal species for comparison to gray whales because gray whales and guppies have quite different life history traits. A more fitting comparison would be with an example species with more in common with gray whales, such as viviparous capital breeders. Viviparous animals develop the embryo inside the body and give live birth. Capital breeders forage to build energy reserves and then rely on those energy reserves during reproduction. Surprisingly, I found asp vipers to be a good example species for comparison to gray whales.

Asp vipers (Figure 2) are viviparous snakes who are considered capital breeders because they forage prior to hibernation, and then begin reproduction immediately following hibernation without additional foraging. Naulleau & Bonnet (1996) conducted a field study on female asp vipers to determine if there was a difference in body condition at the start of the breeding season between females who reproduced or not during that season. To do this they marked individuals and measured their body condition at the start of the breeding season and then recaptured those individuals at the end of the breeding season and recorded whether the individual had reproduced. Interestingly, they found that there was a strongly significant difference in body condition between females that did and did not reproduce. In fact, they discovered that no female below a certain body condition value reproduced, meaning that they found a body condition threshold for reproduction. 

Figure 2. An asp viper

Additionally, a study on water pythons found that their body condition threshold for reproduction shifted over time in response to prey availability (Madsen & Shine, 1999). These authors found that females lowered their threshold after several consecutive years of poor prey availability. These studies are really exciting to me because they address questions that the GRANITE project team is interested in tackling.

Understanding the relationship between body condition and reproduction in gray whales is an important puzzle piece for our work. The aim of the GRANITE project is to understand how the effects of stressors on individual whales scales up to population level impacts (read Lisa’s blog to learn more). Reproduction rates play a big role in population dynamics, so it is important to understand what factors affect reproduction. Since we’re studying these whales on their foraging grounds, assessing body condition provides an important link between foraging behavior and reproduction. 

For example, if an individual’s response to a stressor is to forage less, that may lead to poorer body condition, meaning that they may be less likely to reproduce. While reduced reproduction in one individual may not have a big effect on the population, the same response from multiple individuals could impact the population’s dynamics (i.e., increasing or decreasing abundance). Understanding these different relationships between behavior, body condition, and reproduction rates is a big undertaking, but it’s exciting to be a member of the GRANITE team as this strong group of scientists works to bring together different data streams to work on this big picture question. We’re all deep into data processing right now so stay tuned over the next few years to learn more about gray whale social behavior and to find out if fat whales are more social than skinny whales. 

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References

Green, A. J. (2001). Mass/Length Residuals: Measures of Body Condition or Generators of Spurious Results? Ecology82(5), 1473–1483. https://doi.org/10.1890/0012-9658(2001)082[1473:MLRMOB]2.0.CO;2

Madsen, T., & Shine, R. (1999). The adjustment of reproductive threshold to prey abundance in a capital breeder. Journal of Animal Ecology68(3), 571–580. https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1365-2656.1999.00306.x

Naulleau, G., & Bonnet, X. (1996). Body Condition Threshold for Breeding in a Viviparous Snake. Oecologia107(3), 301–306.

Rahman, M. M., Kelley, J. L., & Evans, J. P. (2013). Condition-dependent expression of pre- and postcopulatory sexual traits in guppies. Ecology and Evolution3(7), 2197–2213. https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.632

Rahman, M. M., Turchini, G. M., Gasparini, C., Norambuena, F., & Evans, J. P. (2014). The Expression of Pre- and Postcopulatory Sexually Selected Traits Reflects Levels of Dietary Stress in Guppies. PLOS ONE9(8), e105856. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0105856

Stelle, L. L., Megill, W. M., & Kinzel, M. R. (2008). Activity budget and diving behavior of gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) in feeding grounds off coastal British Columbia. Marine Mammal Science24(3), 462–478. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-7692.2008.00205.x

Torres, L. G., Nieukirk, S. L., Lemos, L., & Chandler, T. E. (2018). Drone up! Quantifying whale behavior from a new perspective improves observational capacity. Frontiers in Marine Science5(SEP). https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2018.00319

The learning curve never stops as the GRANITE project begins its seventh field season

Clara Bird, PhD Student, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

When I thought about what doing fieldwork would be like, before having done it myself, I imagined that it would be a challenging, but rewarding and fun experience (which it is). However, I underestimated both ends of the spectrum. I simultaneously did not expect just how hard it would be and could not imagine the thrill of working so close to whales in a beautiful place. One part that I really did not consider was the pre-season phase. Before we actually get out on the boats, we spend months preparing for the work. This prep work involves buying gear, revising and developing protocols, hiring new people, equipment maintenance and testing, and training new skills. Regardless of how many successful seasons came before a project, there are always new tasks and challenges in the preparation phase.

For example, as the GEMM Lab GRANITE project team geared up for its seventh field season, we had a few new components to prepare for. Just to remind you, the GRANITE (Gray whale Response to Ambient Noise Informed by Technology and Ecology) project’s field season typically takes place from June to mid-October of each year. Throughout this time period the field team goes out on a small RHIB (rigid hull inflatable boat), whenever the weather is good enough, to collect photo-ID data, fecal samples, and drone imagery of the Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) gray whales foraging near Newport, OR, USA. We use the data to assess the health, ecology and population dynamics of these whales, with our ultimate goal being to understand the effect of ambient noise on the population. As previous blogs have described, a typical field day involves long hours on the water looking for whales and collecting data. This year, one of our exciting new updates is that we are going out on two boats for the first part of the field season and starting our season 10 days early (our first day was May 20th). These updates are happening because a National Science Foundation funded seismic survey is being conducted within our study area starting in June. The aim of this survey is to assess geophysical structures but provides us with an opportunity to assess the effect of seismic noise on our study group by collecting data before, during, and after the survey. So, we started our season early in order to capture the “before seismic survey” data and we are using a two-boat approach to maximize our data collection ability.

While this is a cool opportunistic project, implementing the two-boat approach came with a new set of challenges. We had to find a second boat to use, buy a new set of gear for the second boat, figure out the best way to set up our gear on a boat we had not used before, and update our data processing protocols to include data collected from two boats on the same day. Using two boats also means that everyone on the core field team works every day. This core team includes Leigh (lab director/fearless leader), Todd (research assistant), Lisa (PhD student), Ale (new post-doc), and me (Clara, PhD student). Leigh and Todd are our experts in boat driving and working with whales, Todd is our experienced drone pilot, I am our newly certified drone pilot, and Lisa, Ale, and myself are boat drivers. Something I am particularly excited about this season is that Lisa, Ale, and I all have at least one field season under our belts, which means that we get to become more involved in the process. We are learning how to trailer and drive the boats, fly the drones, and handling more of the post-field work data processing. We are becoming more involved in every step of a field day from start to finish, and while it means taking on more responsibility, it feels really exciting. Throughout most of graduate school, we grow as researchers as we develop our analytical and writing skills. But it’s just as valuable to build our skillset for field work. The ocean conditions were not ideal on the first day of the field season, so we spent our first day practicing our field skills.

For our “dry run” of a field day, we went through the process of a typical day, which mostly involved a lot of learning from Leigh and Todd. Lisa practiced her trailering and launching of the boat (figure 1), Ale and Lisa practiced driving the boat, and I practiced flying the drone (figure 2). Even though we never left the bay or saw any whales, I thoroughly enjoyed our dry run. It was useful to run through our routine, without rushing, to get all the kinks out, and it also felt wonderful to be learning in a supportive environment. Practicing new skills is stressful to say the least, especially when there is expensive equipment involved, and no one wants to mess up when they’re being watched. But our group was full of support and appreciation for the challenges of learning. We cheered for successful boat launchings and dockings, and drone landings. I left that day feeling good about practicing and improving my drone piloting skills, full of gratitude for our team and excited for the season ahead.

Figure 1. Lisa (driving the truck) launching the boat.
Figure 2. Clara (seated, wearing a black jacket) landing the drone in Ale’s hands.

All the diligent prep work paid off on Saturday with a great first day (figure 3). We conducted five GoPro drops (figure 4), collected seven fecal samples from four different whales (figure 5), and flew four drone flights over three individuals including our star from last season, Sole. Combined, we collected two trifectas (photo-ID images, fecal samples, and drone footage)! Our goal is to get as many trifectas as possible because we use them to study the relationship between the drone data (body condition and behavior) and the fecal sample data (hormones). We were all exhausted after 10 hours on the water, but we were all very excited to kick-start our field season with a great day.

Figure 3. Lisa on the bow pulpit during our first sighting of the day.
Figure 4. Lisa doing a GoPro drop, she’s lowering the GoPro into the water using the line in her hands.
Figure 5. Clara and Ale collecting a fecal sample.

On Sunday, just one boat went out to collect more data from Sole after a rainy morning and I successfully flew over her from launching to landing! We have a long season ahead, but I am excited to learn and see what data we collect. Stay tuned for more updates from team GRANITE as our season progresses!

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.

Stories from a whale’s life: how whale photo-identification is an essential part of the whale physiology toolkit

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  

Two years ago, in August 2018, I came to Newport and visited the Hatfield Marine Science Center for the first time with an NSF/RCN-founded laboratory exchange with the GEMM Lab and met Dr. Leigh Torres. My goals during this exchange where to learn about non-invasive fieldwork techniques for studying free-range whales while interacting, exchanging ideas, and networking with the GEMM Lab members; also, to discuss some projects and thoughts for future collaborations with Dr. Torres. During those two weeks in Newport, I had the opportunity to help with field work on the project “Evaluation of gray whale ecology and physiology in response to variable ambient ocean noise conditions”, which aims to evaluate the hormonal variability and health of the gray whales that forage along the Oregon coast in the context of multiple stressors. I would return during the summers of 2019 and 2020 as a visiting scientist and research assistant to work on this project. This year the experience has been a bit different in terms of interactions with the HMSC community due to COVID-19; however, we were able to successfully start the field season in time and now we are wrapping up our second month of surveys with many new and interesting data gathered, and many new, unforgettable memories to be treasured. Working with these animals is incredibly fascinating because there are so many things we don´t know about them, and the questions can become both overwhelming and exciting.

An essential part of this project, and arguably any research project done with cetaceans, is the identification of individuals. Hence, considerable effort is expended each year attempting to photograph every gray whale possible within our study region and to identify each whale we encounter. The GEMM Lab maintains a catalog of the gray whales that visit the Oregon coast, a sub-population known as the Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG). This catalog currently consists of 173 individuals. which we frequently compare with a larger catalog of gray whales that includes 2060 individuals observed since 1977 (Cascadia Research Collective). These methods allow us to know who is who among the whales we encounter each day at sea.

The different species of cetaceans can be individually identified by markings on their bodies, very much like fingerprints in humans. Some features on these animals are unique and conserved through life. For example, Southern and Northern right whales are identified by the callosity patters in their heads (Picture 1), while humpback whales are mostly identified individually by the shape and the patterns of black and white pigmentation on the underside of their fluke (Picture 2). Gray whales have very mottled skin coloration, so we use a combination of markings and features to identify individuals: pigmentation patterns, scars, shape and pigmentation of their fluke, and sometimes the shape of their knuckles, which are a series of “humps” that gray whales have instead of a dorsal fin on their back. It might sound very difficult to do, and it can be a tedious task, however as you train your eye it becomes easier, and features that at first seemed undistinguishable become recognizable and unique (Picture 3). As a reward, it is such a joy to find a match and recognize old friends when they arrive from their long journeys in the vast ocean each year to the Oregon coast.

The callosity pattern of a southern right whale. Photo by Alejandro Fernández Ajó – Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas.
Three different humpback whales with notably different pigmentation patterns on their flukes. Photographs captured under NOAA/NMFS permit #21678.
The gray whale “Knife” we have observed frequently this summer off the Oregon coast. Can you see how the right pigmentation pattern identified looks like a knife? Photograph captured under NOAA/NMFS permit #21678.

As a result of our photo-identification efforts and the high site-fidelity of the whales we study, the large majority of the gray whales we observe here in Oregon are known individually. For many whales, we also have detailed sightings records that can span years and decades, that document calving history, lactation, appearance of scars indicative of injury or entanglement, minimum age, sex, habitat-use patterns, behaviors, etc. Holding such detailed information of individual whales provides incredible contributions to our understanding of the basic patterns in life history of whales, such as reproduction rates, calving intervals, age of first reproduction, etc. Moreover, when these life history events are linked with physiological sample collection large steps can be made in the development and validation of physiological methods. Many endocrine assays currently in use for whales are based on non-traditional sample types including feces, respiratory vapor, and baleen, which have been validated using the catalogs of well-known individuals to verify that measured hormones reflect patterns expected for various physiological states. For example, we can compare endocrine data of confirmed pregnant females, known mature males, and known-injured whales to learn how whale physiological responses are different during different life history events (e.g., Burgess et al. 2017, 2018, Corkeron et al. 2017, Hunt et al. 2006, 2016, 2018, Lysiak et al. 2018, Rolland et al. 2005).

Here in Oregon we are learning from the lives of the gray whales we study, and here I want to share with you two of their stories, one happy and one not-so-happy.

Let´s start with the not-so-happy story so we can end with some brighter news. On June 24 this year, we encountered a whale near Cape Foulweather, which is a very tricky area to work as there are many rocks and shallow water that make the sea conditions very choppy even with low swell. We started documenting the sighting as usual, taking pictures of the left side, the right side and ideally also the fluke of the whale. As we approached this whale, we started noting that something was wrong with its fluke. With the challenging sea conditions, it was not easy to approach the whale and the whale was not exposing its fluke when diving. When we put our drone up to collect photogrammetry and behavior data we gained a much better perspective. This whale has a bad injury on it fluke (Picture 4.C). On the boat we started making conjectures about the cause of this terrible injury that had basically amputate most of its left fluke lobe. Once back on shore, we sorted out the photos and compared the field images captured during the day with the photo-ID catalog and we made a match. This whale is known in our catalog as “ROLLER SKATE”, is a female, and was first sighted in 2015, so she is at least 5 years old today.

The story unfolded when we reviewed Roller Skate’s sighting history. Interestingly we observed this same whale in the same location last September 2019. Unfortunately, it was a very brief encounter but enough for photo documentation of the whale and an interesting observation. Here I quote the field notes that Dr. Torres wrote from this sighting: “September 6th, 2019. Sighting 9: Scattered whales feeding and/or traveling across area to north of Cape Foulweather. One whale had recently chopped fluke; tried to re-find to get better photos but could not (looking at photos now, this whale is clearly entangled in line!). Ceiling too low for UAS [drone flight].” (Picture 4.B).

Progressive photos of Roller Skate’s fluke. In 2017, her fluke was healthy (A). In 2019, we observed her fluke with a line entanglement and “chewed up” (B). In 2020, we have observed the resulting wound and healing process (C). Photographs captured under NOAA/NMFS permit #21678.

Roller skate’s story is an example of how essential is to keep an ID catalog. After a close-up examination of the 2019 picture, we can clearly see a rope entanglement (Picture 4.B). Photos from previous years show how beautiful and healthy her fluke was before this event (Picture 4.A). This event is heart breaking to witness, but this whale could be considered lucky because she was able to shed the gear and survive this entanglement, at least in the short term. Additionally, we can learn from Roller Skate’s misfortune to help us understand what the consequences of such an injury (stressor) may be on the physiology of a whale. We have been eager to collect a fecal sample from Roller Skate to analyze how her hormone levels compare to non-injured whales. Fortunately, we got lucky a couple weeks ago and collected this sample, so now we need to get in the lab and analyze the samples. But more questions remain: Will this injury impact her ability to reproduce? If so, for how long? And at a larger scale, what are the population consequences of such events? If we can understand the magnitude of lethal and sublethal human caused impacts on individual whales and their populations from events such as entanglements, we can develop better methods to mitigate and limit such hazards for whales in their environments.

As I promised, there is also some good news to share. A very well-known PCFG whale, almost a celebrity I dear to say, is “Scarback”, or as we like to call her “Scarlett”. Scarlett is a female known since 1996, making her at least 24 years old, and she also has a very bad injury of unknown origin. Scarlett has a terrible scar on her back that is theorized to have been caused by an explosive harpoon, or maybe a bad ship-strike (Picture 5), but we really do not know. However, we do know she survived this injury and this year she brought a new calf into the population (Picture 6). This is the second calf we have documented from Scarlett, with her previous calf sighted during the 2016 field season and we call it “Brown”. Scarlett is an example of how resilient these amazing giants can be; however, it is likely that while she was recovering from this injury, she was unable to reproduce. How many calves from Scarlett did the PCFG population “lose” due to such a tragedy? We can´t know, but we are learning, and her story will also help us understand whale physiology as we will analyze her fecal hormones and body condition during pregnancy, lactation, and resting phases.

The scar on Scarlett’s back. This significant wound has an unknown origin. Photograph captured under NOAA/NMFS permit #21678.

Scarlett is a survivor. We need to recognize that we are sharing the ocean with different forms of life. We need to acknowledge their existence and understand how our use of the oceans is affecting them, and, more importantly, work toward improving their conditions. I hope that with our research we highlight and communicate how amazing are these animals, and how important are they for marine ecosystems. And ultimately, I hope our work helps minimize the impacts that affect other forms of ocean life that coexist with us, both above and below the surface.

The well-known gray whale “Scarlett” surfaces under her calf while it checks out the GEMM Lab field team. Photo by Alejandro Fernandez Ajo taken under NOAA/NMFS permit #21678.

References:

Burgess, E., Hunt, K. E., Kraus, S. D. and Rolland, R. M. (2016). Get the most out of blow hormones: validation of sampling materials, field storage and extraction techniques for whale respiratory vapor samples. Conservation Physiology, 4, cow024.

Burgess, E. A., Hunt, K. E., Kraus, S. D. and Rolland, R. M. (2018). Quantifying hormones in exhaled breath for physiological assessment of large whales at sea. Scientific Reports, 8, 10031.

Corkeron, P. J., Rolland, R. M., Hunt, K. E. and Kraus, S. D. (2017). A right whale PooTree: Fecal hormones and classification trees identify reproductive states in North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis). Conservation Physiology, 5, cox006. DOI: 10.1093/conphys/cox006.

Hunt, K., Lysiak, N., Moore, M. and Rolland, R. (2017). Multi-year longitudinal profiles of cortisol and corticosterone recovered from baleen of North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis). General and Comparative Endocrinology, 254, 50-59. DOI: 10.1016/j.ygcen.2017.09.009.

Hunt, K., Lysiak, N. S. J., Matthews, C. J. D., et al. (2018). Multi-year patterns in testosterone, cortisol and corticosterone in baleen from adult males of three whale species. Conservation Physiology, 6, coy049. DOI: 10.1093/conphys/coy049.

Hunt, K. E., Rolland, R. M., Kraus, S. D. and Wasser, S. K. (2006). Analysis of fecal glucocorticoids in the North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis). General and Comparative Endocrinology, 148, 260-272.

Lysiak, N., Trumble, S., Knowlton, A. and Moore, M. (2018). Characterizing the duration and severity of fishing gear entanglement on a North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) using stable isotopes, steroid and thyroid hormones in baleen. Frontiers in Marine Science. DOI: 10.3389/fmars.2018.00168.

Rolland, R. M., Hunt, K. E., Kraus, S. D. and Wasser, S. K. (2005). Assessing reproductive status of right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) using fecal hormone metabolites. General and Comparative Endocrinology, 142, 308-317.

Dual cameras provide bigger picture

By Hunter Warick, Research Technician, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab, Marine Mammal Institute

When monitoring the health of a capital breeding species, such as whales that store energy to support reproduction costs, it is important to understand what processes and factors drive the status of their body condition. Information gained will allow for better insight into their cost of reproduction and overall life history strategies.

For the past four years the GEMM Lab has utilized the perspective that Unoccupied Aerial Systems (UAS; or ‘drones’) provide for observations of marine mammals. This aerial perspective has documented gray whale behavior such as jaw snapping, drooling mud, and headstands, all of which shows or suggest foraging (Torres et al. 2018). However, UAS is limited to a bird’s eye view, allowing us to see WHAT whales are doing, but limited information about the reasons WHY. To overcome this hurdle, Leigh Torres and team have equipped their marine mammal research utility belts with the use of GoPro cameras. They developed a technique known as the “GoPro drop” where a GoPro camera mounted to a weighted pole is lowered off the side of the research vessel in waters < 20 m deep via a line to record video data. This technique allows the team to obtain fine-scale habitat and prey variation information, like what the whale experiences. Along with the context provided by the UAS, this dual camera perspective allows for deeper insight into gray whale foraging strategies and efficiency. Torres’s GoPro data analysis protocol examines kelp density, kelp health, benthic substrate, rock fish density, and mysid density. These characteristics are graded along a scale (Figure 1), allowing for relative comparisons of habitat and prey availability between where whales spend time and forage. These GoPro drops will also help create a fine-scale benthic habitat map of the Newport field area. So, why are these data on gray whale habitat and prey important to understand?

Figure 1. The top row shows varying degrees of mysid density (low to high, left to right). Middle row illustrates different types of substrate you might encounter (reef, sandy, boulders; left to right). Bottom row shows the different levels of kelp health (poor, medium, good).

The foraging grounds are the first step in the life history domino chain reaction for many rorqual whales; if this step doesn’t go off cleanly then everything else fails to fall into place. Gray whales partake on a 15,000-20,000 km (round trip) migration, which is the longest of any known mammal (Swartz 1986). During this migration, whales spend around three months fasting in their breeding grounds (Highsmith & Coyle 1992), living only off the energy stores that they accumulated in their feeding grounds (Næss et al. 1998). These extreme conditions of existence for gray whales drive the need to be a successful forager and is why it is so crucial for them to forage in high prey density areas (Newell, C. 2009).

Mysids are a critical part of the gray whale diet in Oregon waters (Newell, C. 2009; Sullivan, F. 2017) and mysids have strong predator-prey relationships with both top-down and bottom-up control (Dunham & Duffus 2001; Newell & Cowles 2006). This unique tie illustrates the great dependency that gray whales have on mysids, further showing the benefit to looking at the density of mysids where gray whales are seen foraging. The quality of mysids may also be as important as quantity; with higher water temperatures resulting in lower lipid content in mysids (Mauchline 1980), suggesting density might not be the only factor for determining efficient whale foraging. The overall goal of gray whales on their foraging grounds is to get as fat as possible in order to reproduce as often as possible. But, this isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Gray whales typically have a two-year breeding interval but can be anywhere from 1-4 years (Blokhin 1984). The longer time it takes to build up adequate energy stores to support reproduction costs, the longer it will take to breed successfully. Building back up these energy stores can prove to be difficult, especially for lactating females (Figure 2).

Being able to track the health and behavior of gray whales on an individual level, including comparisons between variation in body condition, foraging behavior, and fine scale information on benthic communities gained through the use of GoPros, can provide a better understanding of the driving factors and impacts on their health and population trends (Figure 3).


Figure 3. A compilation of video clips captured by the GEMM Lab during their research on gray whale ecology and physiology off Newport, Oregon using Unoccupied Aerial Systems (UAS, or “drones”) and GoPro cameras. UAS are used to observe gray whale behavior and conduct photogrammetry assessment of body condition. GoPro camera drops assess the benthic habitat and prey density across the study region, with a couple chance encounters of whales. Research is conducted under NOAA/NMFS permit # 21678.

Barcelona-bound! The GEMM Lab heads to the World Marine Mammal Conference

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

Every two years, an international community of scientists, managers, policy-makers, educators, and students gather to share the most current research and most pressing conservation issues facing marine mammals. This year, the World Marine Mammal Conference will take place in Barcelona, Spain from December 7-12, and the whole GEMM Lab will make their way across the Atlantic to present their latest work. The meeting is an international gathering of scientists ranging from longtime researchers who have shaped the field throughout the course of their careers to students who are just beginning to carve out a niche of their own. This year’s conference has 2,500 registered attendees from 95 different countries, 1,960 abstract submissions, and 700 accepted oral and speed talks and 1,200 posters. Needless to say, it is an incredible platform for learning, networking, and putting our work in the context of research taking place around the globe.

This will be my third time at this conference. I attended in San Francisco in 2015 as a wide-eyed undergraduate and met with Leigh, who I hoped would soon become my graduate advisor. I also presented my Masters research at the conference in Halifax in 2017. This time around, I will be presenting findings from the first two chapters of my PhD. Looking ahead to the Barcelona 2019 meeting and having some sense of what to expect, I feel butterflies rising in my stomach—a perfect mixture of the nerves that come with putting your hard work out in the world, eagerness to learn and absorb new information, and excitement to reconnect with friends and colleagues from around the world. In short, I can’t wait!

For those of you reading this blog that are unable to attend, I’d like to share an overview of what the GEMM Lab will be presenting at the conference. If you will be in Barcelona, we warmly invite you to the following posters, speed talks, and oral presentations! In order of appearance:

Lisa Hildebrand, MS Student

What do Oregon gray whales like to eat? Do individual whales have individual foraging habits? To learn more visit Lisa Hildebrand’s poster “Investigating potential gray whale individual foraging specializations within the Pacific Coast Feeding Group”. (Poster presentation, Session: Foraging Ecology – Group A, Time: Monday, 1:30-3:00pm)

Todd Chandler, Faculty Research Assistant

Did you know it is possible to measure the mechanics of how a blue whale feeds using a drone? The GEMM Lab’s all-star drone pilot Todd Chandler will present a poster titled “More than snacks: An analysis of drone observed blue whale surface lunge feeding linked with prey data”. (Poster presentation, Session: Foraging Ecology – Group A, Time: Monday, 1:30-3:00pm)

Clara Bird, MS Student

The GEMM Lab’s newest student Clara Bird will present a poster on work she conducted with the Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing lab at Duke University using new technologies and approaches to investigate scarring patterns on humpbacks. Her poster is titled “A comparison of percent dorsal scar cover between populations of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) off California and the Western Antarctic Peninsula”. (Poster presentation, Session: New Technology  – Group B, Time: Tuesday, 8:30-9:45am)

Dr. Leigh Torres, Principal Investigator

GEMM Lab PI Leigh Torres will synthesize some exciting new analyses from the GEMM Lab’s gray whale physiology and ecology research off the Oregon Coast. Is it stressful to feed in a noisy coastal environment? Leigh will discuss the latest findings in her talk, “Sounds of stress: Evaluating the relationships between variable soundscapes and gray whale stress hormones”. (Oral presentation, Session: Physiology, Time: Tuesday, 11:30-11:45am)

Leila Lemos, PhD Student

Carrying on with exciting new findings about Oregon gray whales, Leila Lemos will present a speed talk titled “Stressed and slim or relaxed and chubby? A simultaneous assessment of gray whale body condition and hormone variability”, in which she will summarize three years of analysis of how gray whale health can be quantified, and how physiology is influenced by ocean conditions. (Speed talk, Session: Physiology, Time: Tuesday, 11:55am-12:m)

Dawn Barlow, PhD Student

Can we predict where blue whales will be using our understanding of their environment and prey? Can this knowledge be used for effective conservation? I (Dawn Barlow) will give a presentation titled “Cloudy with a chance of whales: Forecasting blue whale occurrence based on tiered, bottom-up models to mitigate industrial impacts”, which will share our latest findings on how functional ecological relationships can be modeled in changing ocean conditions. (Oral presentation, Session: Habitat and Distribution I, Time: Wednesday, 10:15-10:30am)

Dr. Solene Derville, Post-Doctoral Scholar

The GEMM Lab’s most recent graduate Solene Derville will present work she has conducted in New Caledonia regarding humpback whale diving and movement patterns around breeding grounds. Her speed talk is titled “Whales of the deep: Horizontal and vertical movements shed light on humpback whale use of critical pelagic habitats in the western South Pacific” (Speed talk, Session: Behavioral Ecology II, Time: Wednesday, 11:35-11:40am)

Dominique Kone, MS Student

Can sea otters make a comeback in Oregon after a long absence? Dom Kone takes a comprehensive look at how Oregon coast habitat could support a reintroduced sea otter population in his speed talk, “An evaluation of the ecological needs and effects of a potential sea otter reintroduction to Oregon, USA”. (Speed talk, Session: Conservation II, Time: Wednesday, 2:45-2:50pm)

Alexa Kownacki, PhD Student

Alexa Kownacki will share her latest findings on dolphin distribution relative to static and dynamic oceanographic variables in her speed talk titled “The biogeography of common bottlenose dolphins (T. truncatus) of the southwestern USA and Mexico”. (Speed talk, Session: Habitat and Distribution II, Time: Wednesday, 3:35-3:40pm)

Other members of the Marine Mammal Mnstitute who will present their work include: Scott Baker, Debbie Steel, Angie Sremba, Karen Lohman, Daniel Palacios, Bruce Mate, Ladd Irvine, and Robert Pitman. For anyone planning to attend, we look forward to seeing you there! For those who wish to stay tuned from home, keep your eye on the GEMM Lab twitter page for our updates during the conference and follow the conference hashtag #WMMC19, and look forward to future blog posts recapping the experience.