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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GEMM Lab 2021: A Year in the Life

Another year has come and gone, and the GEMM Lab has expanded in many facets! Every year it gets just a little bit harder to succinctly summarize all of the research, outreach, and successes that the GEMMs accomplish but it is an absolute honor and thrill to be a member of this lab. So, please enjoy the 6th edition of a GEMM Lab Year in the Life!

Our lab has almost doubled in size since I wrote the 2020 edition of this blog! This year we welcomed the arrival of two postdocs (Drs. Alejandro [Ale] Fernández Ajó and KC Bierlich) and two Master’s students (Allison Dawn and Miranda Mayhall). Ale and KC joined us as freshly minted Drs., as Ale defended his doctoral thesis from Northern Arizona University in April, while KC graduated in May from Duke University. Both of them immediately jumped into GRANITE fieldwork, scooping gray whale poop and flying drones (more below). Allison also dove headfirst into gray whale fieldwork as she co-led the TOPAZ and JASPER projects with me (Lisa) after defending her undergraduate thesis and graduating from the University of North Carolina with highest honors in the spring. Miranda, a U.S. Army Intelligence veteran, also joins us from the East Coast as she moved from Virginia to Oregon with her 10-year-old daughter, Mia, and two dogs, Angus and Mr. Gibbs. Unlike our other new arrivals, Miranda’s research does not relate to gray whales as she is part of the GEMM Lab’s newest research project…

There are exciting developments in the research project realm of the GEMM Lab every year. This year’s new project, HALO (Holistic Assessment of Living marine resources off Oregon), is particularly exciting as it is a joint project with the Cornell Lab, with GEMM Lab PI Leigh collaborating with Dr. Holger Klinck to better understand cetacean distributions off Oregon. HALO will involve monthly survey cruises aboard MMI’s R/V Pacific Storm along the Newport Hydrographic line (65 nm to 5 nm off Newport), where three Rockhopper hydrophones have been deployed and are passively monitoring cetacean acoustics. The HALO team, which includes GEMM students Miranda and PhD candidates Dawn Barlow and Rachel Kaplan, has already had two successful cruises this year! Check out the HALO website to stay tuned for updates throughout 2022. In addition to starting new research projects in our Oregon backyard, the GEMM Lab has also ventured further north, to the more frigid waters of Kodiak, Alaska. Postdocs KC and Ale went on a scouting mission to Kodiak Island to see whether the multidisciplinary methods we use in the GRANITE project to study PCFG gray whales in Oregon, can also be applied to other gray whales in other study areas. The reconnaissance trip was a huge success with KC and Ale making vital connections with potential collaborators and managing to collect some pilot data (drone flights, prey samples, and one fecal sample!). Both of these new ventures are funded by sales and renewals of the special Oregon gray whale license plate, which benefits MMI. We gratefully thank all the gray whale license plate holders, who made this research possible, and encourage any Oregonians that don’t have a whale on their tale yet, to do so in 2022!

These new research ventures certainly do not mean that we neglected our already established field research projects – in fact, most of them have flourished and thrived this year! Rachel and Dawn returned as marine mammal observers to the R/V Shimada for the May stint of the Northern California Current research cruise. They observed Dall’s porpoise, Northern right whale & Pacific white-sided dolphins, as well as killer, humpback, & fin whales. These sightings will add to the growing OPAL (Overlap Predictions About Large whales) dataset that both Rachel and postdoc Solène Derville are analyzing to better understand whale distribution patterns in Oregon waters. Speaking of OPAL, MMI Faculty Research Assistant Craig Hayslip and Leigh continued to take to the skies in U.S. Coast Guard helicopters to obtain monthly cetacean distribution data, which is also being used in the OPAL project to identify the co-occurrence between whales and fishing effort in Oregon to reduce entanglement risk. Both of our gray whale projects, GRANITE (Gray whale Response to Ambient Noise Informed by Technology & Ecology) and TOPAZ (Theodolite Overlooking Predators & Zooplankton)/JASPER (Journey for Aspiring Scientists Pursuing Ecological Research) had another year of successful field seasons. The GRANITE team, which includes Leigh, Todd Chandler, Ale, KC, PhD student Clara Bird, and myself, headed out in search of gray whales earlier than usual this year to document the potential effects of a National Science Foundation (NSF) funded seismic survey, which was conducted off the Oregon coast, on gray whales in the area. By the end of October, we had conducted 80 drone flights, collected 48 and 66 fecal and prey samples (respectively), and seen 36 individual whales during 201 sightings. Down south in Port Orford, the TOPAZ/JASPER project experienced a passing of the torch as I stepped down from the team lead position (which I held since 2018) and handed the project reins over to Allison. We co-led another fantastic field season this year. While whale sightings were much lower than in previous years (read some musings here), the project continued to be successful at making real impacts on young people’s lives as we once again engaged a local Pacific High School student (Damian Amerman-Smith) and two OSU undergraduates (Nadia Leal & Jasen White) in the field work. While our annual reach may be small in terms of numbers, the impact we have is huge, with many of the high school interns (including this year’s) deciding to go to college and/or to study biology directly as a result of our project.

TOPAZ/JASPER certainly is not the only project in our lab that engages students in ecological research. This year, we collectively oversaw and mentored 13 students. The OBSIDIAN (Observing Blue whale Spatial ecology to Investigate Distribution In Aotearoa New Zealand) project was assisted by three interns (Grace Hancock, Mateo Estrada Jorge, and Mattea Holt Colberg) overseen by Dawn and Leigh. Grace worked on maintaining the New Zealand blue whale photo-ID catalogue and won best student poster at our department’s annual student conference (RAFWE) for this work. Mattea, a 2020 TOPAZ/JASPER team member, switched study species and assisted Dawn in validating blue whale calls and songs. Mateo was a NSF Research Experience Undergraduate (REU) who conducted an analysis on blue whales and earthquakes. Clara also supervised a REU student with Leigh: Marc Donnelly, who created a habitat map for the GRANITE project. Rachel mentored Amanda Kent, an Undergraduate Research, Scholarship, & the Arts (URSA) Engage student, who helped her conduct a literature review about two Oregon krill species that are primary prey of whales. Over the summer, we had two student workers (Noah Goodwin-Rice & Julia Parker) join us in our efforts to better understand gray whale prey. Noah assisted us by sorting and identifying gray whale prey samples collected this summer and Julia wrapped up the microplastics analysis of gray whale prey and fecal samples. In the fall, both Clara and Allison supervised students (Kathryne Macallan & Jasen White, respectively) taking the Coastal & Estuarine Research Management class in our department who produced independent research projects during the term. Kathryne investigated the relationship between body length and blow intervals of gray whales during different behavioral states, while Jasen dove into the relationship between zooplankton abundance and environmental covariates. 

The sharing of our research and expertise was not limited to mentoring students. Despite most conferences and seminars still occurring virtually this year due to the pandemic, the GEMM Lab presented numerous talks including at the State of the Coast (Rachel, Dawn, Leigh, & myself), International Biologging Symposium (Solène), HMSC Research Seminar (Ale & Solène, KC), and the Northwest Student Society of Marine Mammalogy chapter conference (Clara, Dawn, & myself), to name a few. Furthermore, Clara and I were guest lecturers once again for Dr. Renee Albertson’s marine mammal classes in our department, and Solène gained her first teaching experience by creating and leading a data visualization workshop (called “Pimp my figure!”) for RAFWE in May, which she reiterated at the University of New Caledonia in October.

Another huge accomplishment comes from the southern hemisphere as the hard work and time that Leigh and Dawn dedicated to OBSIDIAN and the results generated contributed to the denial of a seabed mining permit to extract iron sands in the South Taranaki Bight. This milestone has been years in the making, starting in 2013 when Leigh published her hypothesis that an unrecognized blue whale foraging ground existed in New Zealand. Since then, Leigh and Dawn have been building a tower of knowledge about these resident New Zealand blue whales block-by-block. They first confirmed Leigh’s hypothesis by presenting a bounty of evidence in support of this resident population, then assessed the skin condition of these whales, modeled the functional relationships between oceanography, krill and the distribution of blue whales, discovered temporal and spatial lags between wind, coastal upwelling, and blue whale occurrence, and most recently, developed dynamic models to forecast blue whale distribution three weeks into the future. We are extremely proud of the direct applications that the OBSIDIAN research outputs have had on the management and conservation of these New Zealand blue whales – hurrah to Leigh & Dawn!!

Other hurrahs this year include that Rachel passed her College of Earth, Ocean, & Atmospheric Sciences qualifying exam, now making her a PhD Candidate. Clara also reached a graduate milestone this year as she not only formed her PhD committee but also successfully defended her research review in the spring. Additionally, Clara became a certified drone pilot right before the start of the GRANITE field season and joined Todd and KC as pilots this summer. The lab and its members also received numerous grants and awards. There are too many to name for this blog, but we are very grateful for all of them! I do want to highlight two here: Dawn was awarded the Bob Moch memorial endowment award that recognizes service to the Hatfield Marine Science Center (HMSC) and broader Oregon coast community. I cannot think of anyone more deserving of this award than Dawn who truly does so much to serve and better the HMSC and Oregon coast communities! Clara was awarded a prestigious ARCS (Achievement Rewards for College Scientists) scholarship which provides awards to academically outstanding students to further their scientific knowledge. 

We have once again been prolific writers, contributing 24 total peer-reviewed publications to 17 different scientific journals. If you are in the mood for some holiday reading, you will find the full list of publications at the end of this post.

And YOU, our awesome, supportive readers, have once again been supportive viewers, with a whopping 27,135 views of our blog this year!!! Thank you for joining us on our 2021 journey! We hope you have enjoyed the tales that we have told and the knowledge we have (hopefully) conveyed. We wish you all restful, happy, and most importantly, healthy holidays and hope you will join us again in 2022!

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Publications

Andréfouët, S., Derville, S., Buttin, J., Dirberg, G., Wabnitz, C.C.C., Garrigue, C., & Payri, C. E. 2021. Nation-wide hierarchical and spatially-explicit framework to characterize seagrass meadows in New Caledonia, and its potential application to the Indo-Pacific. Marine Pollution Bulletin 173:113036. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2021.113036

Barlow, D.R., & Torres, L.G. 2021. Planning ahead: Dynamic models forecast blue whale distribution with applications for spatial management. Journal of Applied Ecology. (Link)

Barlow, D.R., Klinck, H., Ponirakis, D., Garvey, C., & Torres, L.G. (2021). Temporal and spatial lags between wind, coastal upwelling, and blue whale occurrence. Scientific Reports 11(1):1-10. (Link)

Beal, M., … Torres, L.G., et al. 2021. Global political responsibility for the conservation of albatrosses and large petrels. Science Advances 7(10):eabd7225.

Bierlich, K.C., Schick, R.S., Hewitt, J., Dale, J., Goldbogen, J.A., Friedlaender, A.S., & Johnston D.J. 2021. A Bayesian approach for predicting photogrammetric uncertainty in morphometric measurements derived from UAS. Marine Ecology Progress Series. DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/meps13814

Bierlich, K.C., Hewitt, J., Bird, C.N., Schick R.S., Friedlaender, A.S., Torres, L.G., Dale, J., Goldbogen, J.A., Read, A., Calambokidis J., & Johnston, D.W. 2021. Comparing uncertainty associated with 1-, 2-, and 3D aerial photogrammetry-based body condition measurements of baleen whales. Frontiers in Marine Science 8:749943. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2021.749943  

Bonneville, C.D., Derville, S., Luksenburg, J.A., Oremus, M., Garrigue, C. 2021. Social structure, habitat use and injuries of Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops aduncus) reveal isolated, coastal, and threatened communities in the South Pacific. Frontiers in Marine Science 8:1–14. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2021.606975.

Clatterbuck, C.A., Lewison, R.L., Orben, R.A., Ackerman, J.T., Torres, L.G., Suryan, R.M., Warzybok, P., Jahncke, J., & Shaffer, S.A. 2021. Foraging in marine habitats increases mercury concentrations in a generalist seabird. Chemosphere 279:130470.

D’Agostino, V.C., Fernandez, A.A.A., Degrati M., Krock, B., Hunt, K.E., Uhart, M.M., & Buck, C.L. 2021. Potential endocrine correlation with exposure to domoic acid in Southern Right Whale (Eubalaena australis) at the Península Valdés breeding ground. Oecologia 1-14.

Dillon, D., Fernandez, A.A.A., Hunt, K.E., & Buck, C.L. 2021. Investigation of keratinase digestion to improve steroid hormone extraction from diverse keratinous tissues. General and Comparative Endocrinology 309:113795.

Fernandez, A.A.A., Hunt, K.H., Sironi, M., Uhart, M., Rowntree, V., Giese, A.C., Maron, C.F., DiMartino, M., Dillon, D., & Buck, C.L. 2021. Retrospective analysis of the lifetime endocrine response of southern right whales calves to gull wounding and harassment: a baleen hormone approach. Integrative and Comparative Biology 61.

Fernandez, A.A.A., Hunt, K.E., Dillon, D., Uhart, M., Sironi, M., Rowntree, V., & Buck, C.L. 2021. Optimizing hormone extraction protocols for whale baleen: tackling questions of solvent: sample ratio and variation. General and Comparative Endocrinology 113828.

Garrigue, C., & Derville, S. 2021. Behavioral responses of humpback whales to biopsy sampling on a breeding ground : the influence of age-class , reproductive status , social context , and repeated sampling. Marine Mammal Science 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1111/mms.12848

Gough, W.T., Smith, H.J., Savoca, M.S., Czapanskiy M.F., Fish, F.E., Potvin, J., Bierlich, K.C., Cade, D.E., Di Clemente, J., Kennedy, J., Segre, P., Stanworth, A., Weir, C., & Goldbogen, J.A. 2021. Scaling of oscillatory kinematics and Froude efficiency in baleen whales. Journal of Experimental Biology224(13):jeb237586. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1242/jeb.237586

Hildebrand, L., Bernard, K.S., & Torres, L.G. 2021. Go 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, https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2021.683634

Jones, D.C., Ceia, F.R., Murphy, E., Delord, K., Furness, R.W., Verdy, A., Mazloff, M., Phillips, R.A., Sagar, P.M., Sallée, J-B., Schreiber, B., Thompson, D.R., Torres, L.G., Underwood, P.J., Weimerskirch, H., & Xavier J.C. 2021. Untangling local and remote influences in two major petrel habitats in the oligotrophic Southern Ocean. Global Change Biology 27(22):5773-5785.

Kone, D.V., Tinker, M.T., & Torres, L.G. 2021. Informing sea otter reintroduction through habitat and human interaction assessment. Endangered Species Research 55:159-176. 

Lemos, L.S., Olsen, A., Smith, A., Burnett, J.D., Chandler, T.E., Larson, S., Hunt, K.E., & Torres, L.G. 2021. Stressed and slim or relaxed and chubby? A simultaneous assessment of gray whale body condition and hormone variability. Marine Mammal Science.

Lemos, L.S., Haxel, J.H., Olsen, A., Burnett, J.D., Smith, A., Chandler, T.E., Nieukirk, S.L., Larson, S.E., Hunt, K.E., & Torres, L.G. 2021. Sounds of stress: assessment of relationships between ambient noise, vessel traffic, and gray whale stress hormone. Scientific Reports. DOI:10.21203/rs.3.rs-923450/v1

Maron, C.F., Lábaque, M.C., Beltramino L., DiMartino, M., Alzugaray, L., Ricciardi, M., Fernandez, A.A.A., Adler, F.R., Seger, J., Sironi, M., Rowntree, V.J., & Uhart, M.M. 2021. Patterns of blubber fat deposition and evaluation of body condition in growing southern right whale calves (Eubalaena australis). Marine Mammal Science. DOI: 10/1111/mms.12818.

Orben, R.A., Adams, J., Hester, M., Shaffer, S.A., Suryan, R.M., Deguchi, T., Ozaki, K., Sato, F., Young, L.C., Clatterbuck, C., Conners, M.G., Kroodsma, D.A., & Torres, L.G. 2021. Across borders: External factors and prior behavior influence North Pacific albatross associations with vessel traffic. Journal of Applied Ecology.

Savoca, M.S. Czapanskiy, M.F., Kahane-Rapport, S.R., Gough, W.T., Falhbusch, J.A., Bierlich, K.C., Segre, P.S., Di Clemente, J., Penry G.S., Wiley, D.N., Calambokids, J., 
Nowacek, D.P., Johnston, D.W., Pyenson, N.D., Friedlaender, A.S., Hazen, E.L., & Goldbogen, J.A. 2021. Baleen whale prey consumption based on high-resolution foraging measurements. Nature 599:85–90. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-03991-5

Stephenson, F., Hewitt, J.E., Torres, L.G., Mouton, T.L., Brough, T., Goetz, K.T., Lundquist, C.J., MacDiarmid, A.B., Ellis, J., & Constantine, R. 2021. Cetacean conservation planning in a global diversity hotspot: dealing with uncertainty and data deficiencies. Ecosphere 12(7):e03633.

Thompson, D.R., Goetz, K.T., Sagar, P.M., Torres, L.G., Kroeger, C.E., Sztukowski, LA., Orben, R.A., Hoskins, A.J., & Phillips, R.A. 2021. The year-round distribution and habitat preferences of Campbell albatross (Thalassarche impavida). Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 31(10):2967-2978.

Looking for micro in the macro: microplastics in cetaceans

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

Since we find ourselves well into the cozy winter season, I thought it was an appropriate time to update you all on our project COZI (Coastal Oregon Zooplankton Investigation). COZI is a cross-college collaborative effort, led by GEMM PI Leigh Torres, that aims to better understand the quality of Oregon coast zooplankton prey and its impacts on gray whale foraging ecology and health. Leigh is joined by three other early-career female scientists, Dr. Sarah Henkel, Dr. Kim Bernard, and Dr. Susanne Brander, that each contribute a different area of expertise to the project. The quartet recently graced the cover of the Oregon Stater in an article all about COZI written by Nancy Steinberg (which I highly recommend reading!). To date, the COZI team (which includes myself as well as many other students) has found that the caloric content of the six predominant zooplankton species in Oregon coastal waters differs significantly, with Dungeness crab megalopae coming out on top as a caloric goldmine (Hildebrand et al. 2021). We found that these Oregon prey are calorically competitive with the predominant benthic amphipod that gray whales feed on in the Arctic, which has interesting implications for foraging ground selection and use of gray whales in the eastern North Pacific (read about it in detail in my blog about the publication). Now that we know that Oregon zooplankton quality differs in terms of calories, we are curious to determine whether these species are impacted by microplastics in the environment, to what extent, and how gray whales may be affected.

What is in those zooplankton? A microscopic view of several mysid shrimp collected in Oregon coastal waters. Source: L. Hildebrand.

To answer these questions, we are analyzing both zooplankton and gray whale fecal samples for microplastics to see what kind, and how many, microplastics we find, and whether microplastics biomagnify up the food chain. The lab analysis has just been completed and we are working on interpreting the results. We can’t let the cat out of the bag yet, but a little sneak-peek of what we have found is that there are different levels of microplastic loads by zooplankton species, which also end up in the whale poop. So, until we finalize those results for sharing, I am going to review the field of microplastics research, with a particular focus on cetaceans. Avid readers of our blog may recall that I wrote a blog about marine plastics at the start of 2019. In that blog, I mentioned that a GoogleScholar search of “microplastics marine” generated 7,650 results. To get an idea of how microplastics research in the marine environment has progressed since I wrote my 2019 blog, I conducted the same GoogleScholar search for this blog but I limited the results to studies published between 2019-2021. GoogleScholar presented me with a whopping 18,000+ results, which shows the rapidity at which the field of marine microplastics research has grown in the last couple of years. The studies span all kinds of topics from distribution & occurrence, to chemical behaviors & interactions with other toxins, to sources & sinks (to name a few!). The results encompass both laboratory and field studies investigating samples from all five oceans of the world. Unfortunately, the title of my blog from two years ago still rings very true: plastics truly are ubiquitous in the marine environment. 

In my last blog, I listed three cetacean species that had been found to contain microplastics: a True’s beaked whale (Lusher et al2015), a humpback whale (Besseling et al.2015) and an Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin (Zhu et al.2018). Reflective of the marine microplastics field in general, this list has also grown considerably in the last two years. Since 2019, microplastics have been detected in harbor porpoises (Philipp et al. 2021), common dolphins (Nelms et al. 2019), striped dolphins (Novillo et al. 2020), bottlenose dolphins (Battaglia et al. 2020), Atlantic white-sided dolphins (Nelms et al. 2019), beluga whales (Moore et al. 2020), and Bryde’s & sei whales (Zantis et al. 2021). At this point, I would posit that the main reason this list is not longer is due to the time it takes to collect and analyze samples for microplastics, rather than microplastics being absent in other cetacean species. During my research for this blog, I noticed that the studies on microplastics in cetaceans are starting to shift from focusing on simply determining microplastic occurrence to attempting to estimate levels of exposure and/or ingestion, determine the main source (from water vs. from prey), and long-term consequences. 

Graphical abstract taken from Zantis et al. (2021) representing the pathway of microplastics exposure of large marine filter-feeders. Source: Zantis et al. (2021).

A study published this year examined fecal samples of Bryde’s and sei whales in coastal waters in New Zealand and detected 32 ± 24 microplastics per 6 g of feces (Zantis et al. 2021). By extrapolating these values to the proportions of prey species in the whales’ diet, the authors estimate that these whales consume over 24,000 pieces of microplastics per mouthful of prey, or more than 3 million microplastics per day. Another study (Shetty 2021) in the same geographic region investigated the levels of microplastics in coastal surface waters, which allowed the authors to estimate whether the source of the microplastics that the Bryde’s and sei whales ingest come from the water or the prey. They found that the estimated level of microplastics that the whales consume daily from their prey is four orders of magnitude higher than the microplastic levels in the coastal waters. This finding strongly suggests that the predominant mode of exposure of large filter feeders, such as baleen whales, for microplastic pollution comes from their prey through biomagnification (not just from the ambient sea water).

The GEMM Lab collecting a gray whale fecal sample along the Oregon coast captured from a drone. Source: GEMM Lab.

COZI aims to conduct similar analyses as these studies described above to understand the exposure of coastal Oregon zooplankton to microplastics and how this may be affecting gray whales. Stay tuned for those results!

I am aware that I have painted a very bleak (but true) picture of microplastic pollution in our oceans in this blog but there are things you can do to help reduce microdebris in the environment!

  1. A major source of pollution in the ocean comes from microfibers through our laundry. You can help stop this pathway by simply using a Cora Ball or installing a filter (such as this one) in your washing machine that captures microfleece & polyester fibers.
  2. Minimize your use of single-use plastics. There are so many ways to do so including reuseable water bottles, travel mugs for coffee or tea, fabric totes as shopping bags, carry a set of utensils for takeout food, beeswax wraps instead of plastic wrap or sandwich bags.
  3. Use public transport when possible as another huge source of microplastics comes from tire treads! This solution also helps reduce your carbon footprint.

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References

Battaglia, F.M., Beckingham, B.A., & McFee, W.E. 2020. First report from North America of microplastics in the gastrointestinal tract of stranded bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). Marine Pollution Bulletin 160:111677.

Besseling, E., et al. 2015. Microplastic in a macro filter feeder: humpback whale Megaptera novaeangliae. Marine Pollution Bulletin 95: 248-252.

Hildebrand, L., Bernard, K.S., & Torres, L.G. 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. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2021.683634

Lusher, A.L., et al. 2015. Microplastic and macroplastic ingestion by a deep diving, oceanic cetacean: the True’s beaked whales Mesoplodon mirus. Environmental Pollution 199: 185-191.

Moore, R.C., et al. 2020. Microplastics in beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) from the eastern Beaufort Sea. Marine Pollution Bulletin 150:110723.

Nelms, S.E., et al. 2019. Microplastics in marine mammals stranded around the British coast: ubiquitous bus transitory? Scientific Reports 9:1075.

Novillo, O., Raga, J. A., & Tomás, J. 2020. Evaluating the presence of microplastics in striped dolphins (Stenella coeruleoalba) stranded in the western Mediterranean Sea. Marine Pollution Bulletin 160:111557.

Philipp, C., et al. 2021. First evidence of retrospective findings of microplastics in harbor porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) from German waters. Frontiers in Marine Science. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2021.682532

Shetty, D. 2021. Incidence of microplastics in coastal inshore fish species and surface waters in the Hauraki Gulf, New Zealand. Master’s thesis, University of Auckland, New Zealand.

Zantis, L.J., et al. 2021. Assessing microplastic exposure of large marine filter-feeders. Science of The Total Environment 151815.

Zhu, J., et al. 2018. Cetaceans and microplastics: First report of microplastic ingestion by a coastal delphinid, Sousa chinensis. Science of the Total Environment 659: 649-654.

Harmful algal blooms expose southern right whales to domoic acid and can potentially cause endocrine alterations

Dr. Alejandro Fernández Ajó, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, & Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Rises in ocean temperatures can lead to multiple alterations in marine ecosystems, including the increase and the frequency of Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs). HABs are characterized by the rapid growth of toxin-producing species of algae that can be harmful to people, animals, and the local ecology, even causing death in severe cases. Species of marine diatom within the genus Pseudo-nitzschia and Nitzschia can form HABs when they produce domoic acid (DA), a potent neurotoxin responsible for amnesic shellfish poisoning (D’Agostino et al., 2018, 2017).

Figure 1. Southern right whale (E. australis) mother and calf swimming at the gulfs of Peninsula Valdes, Argentina, during a phytoplankton bloom. Photo: Mariano Sironi / Instituto de Conservacion de Ballenas de Argentina.

During HABs, DA is transferred to higher organisms through the pelagic food web and is accumulated by intermediate vectors, such as copepods, euphausiids (i.e., krill), shellfish, and fish. As this neurotoxin affects top predators, DA poisoning poses a risk to the safety and health of humans and wildlife. This neurotoxin has caused mortality in many marine mammal species, including both pinnipeds and cetaceans (Gulland 1999; Lefebvre et al. 1999; Fire et al. 2010, 2021; Broadwater et al. 2018). In addition, the exposure to DA constitutes a stressor that may affect glucocorticoids (hormones involved in the stress response) concentrations.

The glucocorticoids (GCs; cortisol and corticosterone) are adrenal steroid hormones that maintain the essential functions of metabolism and energy balance in mammals. GCs can increase sharply in response to environmental stressors to elicit physiological and behavioral adaptations by individuals to support survival (Sapolsky et al. 2000; Bornier et al. 2009). However, with the chronic exposure to a stressor, this relationship can reverse, with GCs sometimes declining below its baseline levels (Dickens and Romero, 2013; Fernández Ajó et al., 2018). Moreover, DA can interfere with the stress response in mammals, and cause alterations in their physiological response. DA is an excitatory amino acid analog of glutamate (Pulido 2008), a well-known brain neurotransmitter that play an important role in the activation of the adrenal axis (which in turn regulate the production and secretion of the GCs) and regulate many of the pituitary hormones involved in the stress response (Brann and Mahesh 1994; Johnson et al. 2001). Hence, monitoring GC levels in marine mammals can be a potential useful metric for assessing the physiological impacts of exposure to DA.

Glucocorticoids are traditionally measured in plasma, but given that plasma sampling from free-ranging large whales is currently impossible, alternative sample types such as fecal samples, among others, can be utilized to quantify GCs in large whales (Ajó et al., 2021; Burgess et al., 2018, 2016; Fernández Ajó et al., 2020, 2018; Hunt et al., 2019, 2014, 2006; Rolland et al., 2017, 2005)(Figure 2). The analyses of fecal glucocorticoid metabolites (fGCm) is particularly useful for endocrine assessments of free-swimming whales, with several studies showing that fGCm correlate in meaningful ways with presumed stressors. For example, high levels of fGCm in North Atlantic right whales (NARW, Eubalaena glacialis) and in gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) correlate with poor body condition (Hunt et al., 2006; Lemos et al., 2021), and fGCm increases were associated with whale entanglements and ship strikes (i.e., Lemos et al., 2020; Rolland et al., 2017).

Figure 2. Alternative samples types can be used to study hormones in large whales. 1-2-3 are sample types that can be obtained from free-living whales and provide a more instantaneous and acute measurement of the whales´ physiology. 4-5 can be obtained at necropsy when the whale is found dead at the beach and provide an integrated measure of the whale physiology that can expand through years or even the lifespan of an individual.

In Península Valdés, Argentina, southern right whales (SRW, E. australis) gather in large numbers to mate and nurse their calves during the austral winter months (Bastida and Rodríguez, 2009). SRWs are capital breeders, largely fasting during the breeding season and instead relying on stored blubber fuel reserves. However, they can occasionally feed on calanoid copepods (D’Agostino et al., 2018, 2016), particularly during the phytoplankton blooms that are dominated by diatoms of the genus Pseudo-nitzschia (Sastre et al. 2007; D’Agostino et al. 2015, 2018). Therefore, feeding SRWs in Península Valdés temporally overlap with these Pseudo-nitzschia blooms (D’Agostino et al. 2018, 2015) and represents a test case for assessing the relationship of DA exposure with GC levels (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Southern right whale (E. australis) skim feeding at the Peninsula Valdes breeding ground. Photo: Lucas Beltranino.

In our recent scientific publication (D’Agostino et al. 2021), we investigate SRW exposure to DA at their breeding ground in Peninsula Valdes and assessed its effects on fecal glucocorticoid concentrations. Although the sample size of this study is unavoidably small due to the difficulties of obtaining fecal samples from whales at their calving grounds where defecation is infrequent, we observed significantly lower fGCm in samples from whales exposed to DA (Figure 4). Our results agree with findings from a previous study in California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) exposed to DA, where these authors found a significant association of DA exposure with reduced serum cortisol (Gulland et al., 2009), which can be tentatively attributed to abnormal function of the adrenal axis due to the exposure.

Figure 4. Fecal glucocorticoid metabolite levels in southern right whales exposed (YES, solid triangles) and not-exposed (NO, open circles) to DA. Left panel: immunoreactive fecal corticosterone metabolites. Right panel: immunoreactive fecal cortisol metabolites. Hormone concentrations are expressed in ng of immunoreactive hormone per gram of dry fecal sample. Significant differences between groups are denoted with an asterisk (P<0.05). The black solid line indicates the mean for each group, and in parenthesis is the sample size for each group. Adapted from D’Agostino et al. 2021.

If ingestion of toxins produced by phytoplankton can result in long-term suppression of baseline GCs, whales and marine mammals in general, could suffer reduced ability to cope with additional stressors. The adrenal function is essential to maintain circulating blood glucose and other aspects of metabolism within normal bounds. Additionally, the ability to elevate GCs facilitates energy mobilization to physiologically cope with a stressful event and to initiate appropriate behavioral responses (i.e., flee from predators, heal wounds). Various toxicants have been shown to reduce adrenal function across taxa (Romero and Wingfield, 2016) and could have negative consequences on the ability of cetaceans to respond and adapt to ongoing environmental and anthropogenic changes. Compounding this problem, whales are exposed to an increasing number of stressors from multiple sources and with cumulative effects and they need to be able to physiologically respond to continue to reproduce and survive.

To our knowledge, this study provides the first quantification of fGCm levels in whales exposed to DA; and we hope this effort starts a growing dataset to which other researchers can add. Sampling and analysis of non-traditional matrices, such as feces, blubber, baleen and others, would likely increase sample sizes and thus our understanding of the interrelationships among DA exposure and age, sex, and reproductive status of cetaceans. Given that chronic exposure to DA could alter the capacity of animals to respond to stress, and indications that HABs are becoming more frequent and intense world-wide (Van Dolah 2000; Masó et al. 2006; Erdner et al. 2008), we believe that research evaluating the health status of marine mammal populations should include the assessment of stress physiology relative to natural and anthropogenic stressors including exposure to toxicants.

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Weighing-in on scale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did you enjoy this blog? Want to learn more about marine life, research, and conservation? Subscribe to our blog and get weekly updates and more! Just add your name into the subscribe box on the left panel. 

References: 

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

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

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

Memoirs from above: drone observations of blue, humpback, Antarctic minke, and gray whales

By KC Bierlich, Postdoctoral Scholar, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, & Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

With the GRANITE field season officially over, we are now processing all of the data we collected this summer. For me, I am starting to go through all the drone videos to take snapshots of each whale to measure their body condition. As I go through these videos, I am reflecting on the different experiences I am fortunate enough to have with flying different drones, in different environments, over different species of baleen whales: blue, humpback, Antarctic minke, and now gray whales. Each of these species have a different morphological design and body shape (Woodward et al., 2006), which leads to different behaviors that are noticeable from the drone. Drones create immense opportunity to learn how whales thrive in their natural environments [see previous blog for a quick history], and below are some of my memories from above. 

I first learned how drones could be used to study the morphology and behavior of large marine mammals during my master’s degree at Duke University, and was inspired by the early works of John Durban (Durban et al., 2015, 2016) Fredrick Christiansen (Christiansen et al., 2016) and Leigh Torres (Torres et al., 2018). I immediately recognized the value and utility of this technology as a new tool to better monitor the health of marine mammals. This revelation led me to pursue a PhD with the Duke University Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing (MaRRS) Lab led by Dr. Dave Johnston where I helped further develop tools and methods for collecting drone-based imagery on a range of species in different habitats. 

When flying drones over whales, there are a lot of moving parts; you’re on a boat that is moving, flying something that is moving, following something that is moving. These moving elements are a lot to think about, so I trained hard, so I did not have to think about each step and flying felt intuitive and natural. I did not grow up playing video games, so reaching this level of comfort with the controls took a lot of practice. I practiced for hours over the course of months before my first field excursion and received some excellent mentorship and training from Julian Dale, the lead engineer in the MaRRS Lab. Working with Julian and the many hours of training helped me establish a solid foundation in my piloting skills and feel confident working in various environments on different species. 

Blue whales offshore of Monterey, California. 

In 2017 and 2018 I was involved in collaborative project with the MaRRS Lab and Goldbogen Lab at Stanford University, where we tagged and flew drones over blue whales offshore of Monterey, California. We traveled about an hour offshore and reliably found groups of blue whales actively feeding. Working offshore typically brought a large swell, which can often make landing the drone back into your field partner’s hands tricky as everything is bobbing up and down with the oscillations of the swell. Fortunately, we worked from a larger research vessel (~56 ft) and quickly learned that landing the drone in the stern helped dampen the effects of bobbing up and down. The blue whales we encountered often dove to a depth of around 200 m for about 20-minute intervals, then come to the surface for only a few minutes. This short surface period provided only a brief window to locate the whale once it surfaced and quickly fly over it to collect the imagery needed before it repeated its dive cycle. We learned to be patient and get a sense of the animal’s dive cycle before launch in order to time our flights so the drone would be in the air a couple of minutes before the whale surfaced. 

Once over the whales, the streamlined body of the blue whales was noticeable, with their small, high aspect ratio flippers and fluke that make them so well adapted for fast swimming in the open ocean (Fig. 1) (Woodward et al., 2006). I also noticed that because these whales are so large (often 21 – 24 m), I often flew at higher altitudes to be able fit them within the field of view of the camera. It was also always shocking to see how small the tagging boat (~8 m) looked when next to Earth’s largest creatures. 

Figure 1. Two blue whales surface after a deep dive offshore of Monterey, Ca. (Image credit: Duke University Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing under NOAA permit 14809-03)

Antarctic minke whales and humpback whales along the Western Antarctic PeninsulaA lot of the data included in my dissertation came from work along the Western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP), which had a huge range of weather conditions, from warm and sunny days to cold and snowy/foggy/rainy/windy/icy days. A big focus was often trying to keep my hands warm, as it was often easier to fly without gloves in order to better feel the controls. One of the coldest days I remember was late in the season in mid-June (almost winter!) in Wilhemina Bay where ice completely covered the bay in just a couple hours, pushing the whales out into the Gerlache Strait; I suspect this was the last ice-free day of the season. Surprisingly though, the WAP also brought some of the best conditions I have ever flown in. Humpback and Antarctic minke whales are often found deep within the bays along the peninsula, which provided protection from the wind. So, there were times where it would be blowing 40 mph in the Gerlache Strait, but calm and still in the bays, such as Andvord Bay, which allowed for some incredible conditions for flying. Working from small zodiacs (~7 m) allowed us more maneuverability for navigating around or through the ice deep in the bays (Fig. 2) 

Figure 2. Navigating through ice-flows along the Western Antarctic Peninsula. (Image credit: Duke University Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing under NOAA permit 14809-03 and ACA permits 2015-011 and 2020-016.)

Flying over Antarctic minke whale was always rewarding, as they are very sneaky and can quickly disappear under ice flows or in the deep, dark water. Flying over them often felt like a high-speed chase, as their small streamlined bodies makes them incredibly quick and maneuverable, doing barrel rolls, quick banked turns, and swimming under and around ice flows (Fig. 3). There would often be a group between 3-7 individuals and it felt like they were playing tag with each other – or perhaps with me!  

Figure 3. Two Antarctic minke whales swimming together along the Western Antarctic Peninsula. (Image credit: Duke University Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing under NOAA permit 14809-03 and ACA permits 2015-011 and 2020-016.)

Humpbacks displayed a wide range of behaviors along the WAP. Early in the season they continuously fed throughout the entire day, often bubble net feeding in groups typically of 2-5 animals (Fig. 4). For as large as they are, it was truly amazing to see how they use their pectoral fins to perform quick accelerations and high-speed maneuvering for tight synchronized turns to form bubble nets, which corral and trap their krill, their main food source (Fig. 4) (Woodward et al., 2006). Later in the season, humpbacks switched to more resting behavior in the day and mostly fed at night, taking advantage of the diel vertical migration of krill. This behavior meant we often found humpbacks snoozing at the surface after a short dive, as if they were in a food coma. They also seemed to be more curious and playful with each other and with us later in the season (Fig. 5).

We also encountered a lot of mom and calf pairs along the WAP. Moms were noticeably skinny compared to their plump calf in the beginning of the season due to the high energetic cost of lactation (Fig. 6). It is important for moms to regain this lost energy throughout the feeding season and begin to wean their calves. I often saw moms refusing to give milk to their nudging calf and instead led teaching lessons for feeding on their own.

Figure 4. Two humpback whales bubble-net feeding early in the feeding season (December) along the Western Antarctic Peninsula. (Image credit: Duke University Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing under NOAA permit 14809-03 and ACA permits 2015-011 and 2020-016.)
Figure 5. A curious humpback whale dives behind our Zodiac along the Western Antarctic Peninsula. (Image credit: Duke University Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing under NOAA permit 14809-03 and ACA permits 2015-011 and 2020-016.)
Figure 6. A mom and her calf rest at the surface along the Western Antarctic Peninsula. Note how the mom looks skinnier compared to her plump calf, as lactation is the most energetically costly phase of the reproductive cycle. (Image credit: Duke University Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing under NOAA permit 14809-03 and ACA permits 2015-011 and 2020-016.)

Gray whales off Newport, Oregon

All of these past experiences helped me quickly get up to speed and jump into action with the GRANITE field team when I officially joined the GEMM Lab this year in June. I had never flown a DJI Inspire quadcopter before (the drone used by the GEMM Lab), but with my foundation piloting different drones, some excellent guidance from Todd and Clara, and several hours of practice to get comfortable with the new setup, I was flying over my first gray whale by day three of the job. 

The Oregon coast brings all sorts of weather, and some days I strangely found myself wearing a similar number of layers as I did in Antarctica. Fog, wind, and swell could all change within the hour, so I learned to make the most of weather breaks when they came. I was most surprised by how noticeably different gray whales behave compared to the blue, Antarctic minke, and humpback whales I had grown familiar with watching from above. For one, it is absolutely incredible to see how these huge whales use their low-aspect ratio flippers and flukes (Woodward et al., 2006) to perform low-speed, highly dynamic maneuvers to swim in very shallow water (5-10 m) so close to shore (<1m sometimes!) and through kelp forest or surf zones close to the beach. They have amazing proprioception, or the body’s ability to sense its movement, action, and position, as gray whales often use their pectoral fins and fluke to stay in a head standing position (see Clara Bird’s blog) to feed in the bottom sediment layer, all while staying in the same position and resisting the surge of waves that could smash them against the rocks (Video 1) . It is also remarkable how the GEMM Lab knows each individual whale based on natural skin marks, and I started to get a better sense of each whale’s behavior, including where certain individuals typically like to feed, or what their dive cycle might be depending on their feeding behavior. 

Video 1. Two Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) gray whales “head-standing” in shallow waters off the coast of Newport, Oregon. NOAA/NMFS permit #21678

I feel very fortunate to be a part of the GRANITE field team and to contribute to data collection efforts. I look forward to the data analysis phase to see what we learn about how the morphology and behavior of these gray whales to help them thrive in their environment. 

References: 

Christiansen, F., Dujon, A. M., Sprogis, K. R., Arnould, J. P. Y., and Bejder, L. (2016).Noninvasive unmanned aerial vehicle provides estimates of the energetic cost of reproduction in humpback whales. Ecosphere 7, e01468–18.

Durban, J. W., Fearnbach, H., Barrett-Lennard, L. G., Perryman, W. L., & Leroi, D. J. (2015). Photogrammetry of killer whales using a small hexacopter launched at sea. Journal of Unmanned Vehicle Systems3(3), 131-135.

Durban, J. W., Moore, M. J., Chiang, G., Hickmott, L. S., Bocconcelli, A., Howes, G., et al.(2016). Photogrammetry of blue whales with an unmanned hexacopter. Mar. Mammal Sci. 32, 1510–1515.

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, 319.

Woodward, B. L., Winn, J. P., and Fish, F. E. (2006). Morphological specializations of baleen whales associated with hydrodynamic performance and ecological niche. J. Morphol. 267, 1284–1294.

How much energy does that mouthful cost?

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

Tagging a whale is no easy feat, nor is it without some impact to the whale – no matter how minimized through the use of non-penetrating suction cup tags. Yet, in August 2021 the GEMM Lab initiated a new phase in our research on gray whales, aimed at obtaining a better understanding of the underwater lives and energetics of a gray whale (Figure 1, top image). We captured some amazing data through these specialized, non-invasive tags that provide a brief window into their world and physiology. The video recordings from the tags showed us whales digging their heads into the benthos generating billowing clouds of sediment, likely exploiting desirable prey patches (Figure 1, middle images). We also saw foraging whales undertake dizzying spins and headstands for hours, demonstrating the fascinating maneuverability and flexibility of gray whales (Figure 1, bottom image). But what is motivating us to capture this information?

The GEMM Lab has researched the ecology and physiology of Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) gray whales since 2015. Our efforts have filled crucial knowledge gaps to better understand this sub-group of the Eastern North Pacific (ENP) gray whale population. We now know that gray whale body condition increases throughout a foraging season and can fluctuate considerably between years (Soledade Lemos et al. 2020). Additionally, body condition varies significantly by reproductive state, with calves and pregnant females displaying higher body conditions (Soledade Lemos et al. 2020). We have also validated and quantified fecal steroid and thyroid hormone metabolite concentrations, providing us with thresholds to identify a stressed vs. a not stressed whale based on its hormone levels (Lemos et al. 2020). These validations have allowed us to make correlations between poor body condition and the steroid hormone cortisol which confirm that slim whales are stressed, while chubby whales are relaxed (Lemos et al. 2021). These physiological results are particularly salient in the light of our recent findings that PCFG gray whales select prey quality over prey quantity when foraging (Hildebrand et al. in review) and that the caloric content of available prey species in the PCFG range vary significantly (Hildebrand et al. 2021).

While we have addressed several fundamental questions about the PCFG in the last 7 years, answering one question has led to asking 10 more questions – a common pattern in science. Given that we know (1) PCFG whales improve their body condition over the course of the foraging season (Soledade Lemos et al. 2020), (2) PCFG females are able to successfully give birth to and wean calves (Calambokidis & Perez 2017), and (3) certain prey in the PCFG region are of higher caloric value than prey in the ENP Arctic foraging grounds (Hildebrand et al. 2021), a big question that we continue to scratch our heads about is why does the PCFG sub-group have such a small abundance (~250 individuals; Calambokidis et al. 2017) in comparison to the much larger ENP population (~21,000 individuals; Stewart & Weller 2021). Several hypotheses have been suggested including that the energetic costs of feeding may differ between ENP and PCFG whales, with the latter having to expend more energy to obtain prey due to the different foraging behaviors employed (Torres et al. 2018) to obtain diverse prey types, thus justifying the larger abundance of the ENP (Hildebrand et al. 2021). 

Quantifying the energetic cost of baleen whale behaviors is not simple. However, the development of animal-borne tags has allowed scientists to make big strides regarding behavioral cost quantification. The majority of this work has focused on rorqual whales (i.e., blue, humpback, fin whales; e.g., Goldbogen et al. 2013; Cade et al. 2016) as their characteristic lunge-feeding strategy produces a distinct signal in the accelerometer sensors integrated within the tags, making feeding events easier to identify. Gray whales, unlike rorquals, do not lunge-feed. ENP gray whales predominantly feed benthically; diving down to the benthos where they turn onto their side and suction mouthfuls of soft sediment (mud) that contains amphipods that they filter out of the mud (Nerini & Oliver 1983). PCFG whales feed benthically as well, but they also use a number of other feeding behaviors to obtain a variety of prey in a variety of benthic habitats, including headstands, bubble blasts, and sharking (Torres et al. 2018). The above-mentioned gray whale feeding behaviors involve much subtler movements than the powerful, distinctive lunges displayed by rorquals, yet they undoubtedly still incur some energetic cost to the whales. However, exactly how energetically costly the various gray whale feeding behaviors are remains unknown.

One of the three suction cup tags we deployed on gray whales. Dr. Cade printed special “kelp shields” (blue part of the tag) to prevent kelp from potentially getting caught underneath the tag since PCFG whales often forage on reefs with a lot of kelp. This tag includes a video camera (the lens can be seen in the center of the tag) to record video of the whale’s underwater behavior. Source: L. Torres.

This knowledge gap is one of the reasons why the GEMM Lab initiated a new project in close collaboration with Dr. Dave Cade from Stanford University and John Calambokidis from Cascadia Research Collective to quantify and understand the energetics and underwater behavior of gray whales using suction-cup tags. The project was kick-started with a very successful pilot effort the week of August 16th this year. Tags were placed on the backs of three different PCFG gray whales with a long carbon fiber pole and attached to the whales with four suction cups. The tags recorded video, position, accelerometry, and magnetometry data, which we will use to recreate the animal’s movements (pitch, roll), heading, trackline, and environment. Although the weather forecast did not look promising for most of the week, we lucked out with perfect conditions for one day during which we managed to deploy three tags on three different gray whales that are well-known, long-term study animals of the GEMM Lab. The tags stayed on the whales for 1-6 hours and were all recovered (including an adventurous trip up the Alsea River which involved a kayak deployment!). 

Dr. Cade spent the rest of the week teaching GEMM Lab PI Leigh Torres, University of British Columbia Master’s student Kate Colson (who is co-advised by Leigh and Dr. Andrew Trites), and myself the intricacies of data download, processing, and preliminary analysis of the tag data. For her Master’s research, Kate will develop a bioenergetics model for the PCFG sub-group that includes data on foraging energetics (estimated from the tag data) and prey availability in the PCFG foraging range. I plan on using the tag data to assess behavior patterns of PCFG whales relative to habitat as part of my PhD research. All together analysis of the data from these short-term tag deployments will help us get closer to understanding the behavioral choices, habitat needs, and energetic trade-offs of whales living in a rapidly changing ocean. With the success of this pilot effort, we plan to conduct another suction-cup tagging effort next summer to hopefully capture and explore more mysterious underwater behaviors of the PCFG.

An ecstatic team at the end of a very long yet successful day of suction cup tagging. Bottom (from left): Leigh Torres, Lisa Hildebrand, Clara Bird, Dave Cade, KC Bierlich. Top: John Calambokidis.

This project was funded by sales and renewals of the special Oregon whale license plate, which benefits MMI. We gratefully thank all the gray whale license plate holders, who made this research effort possible.

Literature cited

Cade, D. E., Friedlaender, A. S., Calambokidis, J., & Goldbogen, J. A. 2016. Kinematic diversity in rorqual whale feeding mechanisms. Current Biology 26(19):2617-2624. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2016.07.037.

Calambokidis, J., & Perez, A. 2017. Sightings and follow-up of mothers and calves in the PCFG and implications for internal recruitment. IWC Report SC/A17/GW/04 for the Workshop on the Status of North Pacific Gray Whales (La Jolla: IWC). 

Calambokidis, J., Laake, J., & Perez, A. 2017. Updated analysis of abundance and population structure of seasonal gray whales in the Pacific Northwest, 1996-2015. IWC Report SC/A17/GW/05 for the Workshop on the Status of North Pacific Gray Whales (La Jolla: IWC).

Goldbogen, J. A., Friedlaender, A. S., Calambokidis, J., McKenna, M. F., Simon, M., & Nowacek, D. P. 2013. Integrative approaches to the study of baleen whale diving behavior, feeding performance, and foraging ecology. BioScience 63(2):90-100. doi:10.1525/bio.2013.63.2.5.

Hildebrand, L., Bernard, K. S., & Torres, L. G. 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 1008. doi:10.3389/fmars.2021.683634.

Lemos, L. S., Olsen, A., Smith, A., Burnett, J. D., Chandler, T. E., Larson, S., Hunt, K. E., & Torres, L. G. 2021. Stressed and slim or relaxed and chubby? A simultaneous assessment of gray whale body condition and hormone variability. Marine Mammal Science. doi:10.111/mms.12877.

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

Nerini, M. K., & Oliver, J. S. 1983. Gray whales and the structure of the Bering Sea benthos. Oecologia 59:224-225. doi:10.1007/bf00378840.

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.

Stewart, J. D., & Weller, D. W. 2021. Abundance of eastern North Pacific gray whales 2019/2020. Department of Commerce, NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-SWFSC-639. United States: NOAA. doi:10.25923/bmam-pe91.

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.

 

The first voyage of the HALO project

Miranda Mayhall, Graduate Student, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, & Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab. Marissa Garcia, Graduate Student, Cornell Department of Ornithology Center for Conservation Bioacoustics.

There is nothing quite like the excitement of starting a fresh project, and the newly organized Holistic Assessment of Living marine resources off the Oregon coast (HALO) project team was alive with it on 8 October as we prepared our various elements of research gear aboard the R/V Pacific Storm in the Newport bayfront (Fig 1). The weather was predicted suitable enough for our 24-hour trip out along the Newport Hydrographic line (NHL; Fig 2), and so we focused on the questions of whether we had remembered to pack each necessary piece of equipment, whether we had sufficiently charged and calibrated each bit of gear, whether we had enough snacks, and the most looming question of all, what would we see and hear when we get out there? The species guessing game only enhanced the thrill of our departure.

Figure 1. The R/V Pacific Storm docked at the Newport bayfront. Photo: Rachel Kaplan.

The HALO project aims to fill gaps in knowledge on the abundance and distribution of cetaceans off the Oregon coast, and relative to ongoing climate change and marine renewable energy development projects along the Oregon coast. The core of the HALO project is deployment of three hydrophones to record year-round cetacean vocalizations in the same area where we will conduct visual line surveys for cetaceans monthly in addition to mapping prey. Needless to say, we (the grad student authors of this blog) feel humbled and grateful to be on the project – not to mention, eager to gain our sea legs like the rest of the pros on the team and boat crew (much sea sickness meds were at the ready!).

This HALO team is well stacked, engaging the expertise and specialties of researchers from three different schools of science. Leigh Torres of the Marine Mammal Institute (MMI)’s GEMM lab (assisted by newcomer graduate student, Miranda Mayhall/coauthor of this post) brings to the project the knowledge of visual survey distance sampling data collection and analysis and will work alongside Craig Hayslip of MMI who will serve as lead visual observer. The visual sightings will inform us on cetacean occurrence patterns in the region. Since cetaceans also spend a great deal of time underwater, Holger Klinck, an expert bioacoustician from Cornell University and affiliate MMI professor (with graduate student Marissa Garcia, also a coauthor of this blog) will oversee the deployment of specialized hydrophones along our research line to record acoustic data. After the hydrophones are deployed, and while we are on-survey looking for cetaceans, we will also run a EK60 transducer (A.K. echosounder) to record backscatter data on prey in the area. This aspect of HALO brings in the third element of research from OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences (CEOAS) Zooplankton Ecology Lab, Kim Bernard who is leading the effort to collect and analyze prey data. During this first voyage, Rachel Kaplan, a grad student of both the GEMM lab and Zooplankton Ecology Labs, came along to run the echosounder and ensure data quality.

Figure 2. HALO’s research track-line: a 40-mile stretch along the Newport Hydrographic Line (NHL) from NH65 to NH25. The three points indicate the locations of the three deployed hydrophones.

With the sun nearly set, the R/V Pacific Storm left the dock at 7pm, pushing from Yaquina Bay out to the Pacific along the NHL hopping over swells that rocked the boat. Despite our strong-willed confidence, it was tough then to focus on anything but maintaining personal physiological equilibrium. Darkness surrounded the vessel, and we wouldn’t be able to see much of the Pacific Ocean until morning. It would take us nearly eleven hours to reach our first destination, 65 miles offshore (NH65) at which point all the activities would begin. All we could do was brace through the evening and hope that by dawn the dizziness would subside. We had field work adventures ahead! So, the focus went from extreme high energy to tucking in and allowing the Storm’s highly experienced crew to maintain watch and bring us to our first destination.   

Figure 3. The research lab room on the R/V Pacific Storm with four eager scientists just as team HALO departed Yaquina Bay; from the left Holger Klinck, Marissa Garcia, Rachel Kaplan & Leigh Torres. Photo: Miranda Mayhall.

At sunrise, the team rose to their feet, and we (the grad students) did what we could to muster the energy to crawl up the stairs, snap on lifejackets and ample out on the boat deck. Despite our condition, we looked out to a sight unlike anything we had ever seen before. The ocean was a deep purple, with flecks of orange bordering the horizon behind fluffy, indigo clouds. We were at NH65, and at this point it was time to deploy the first Rockhopper, a specialized hydrophone developed at Cornell lab of Ornithology, with the capability of recording at a high sampling rate (394 kHz), which allows it to detect and record most marine mammal species. In this case, we were recording at 197 kHz, only leaving our porpoises from the recordings.

Although the acoustic team has extensively prepared the hydrophones for deployment, nothing quite prepared us for focusing on the final connections and tests on the back deck while the boat rocked back and forth. The team initiated the Rockhopper for recording, and then we proceeded with setting up the mooring — connecting the Rockhopper to the acoustic release, float, and weights. We then slowly slid it off the edge of the boat, and there it went into the ocean, where it will record for six months, approximately 3,000 meters under the surface.

Figure 4. The HALO team prepared the Rockhopper (the orange orb-like device) for deployment; from the left, Craig Hayslip, Holger Klinck, and Marissa Garcia. Photo: Rachel Kaplan.

 Once the first Rockhopper was deployed, making its way to the ocean floor, the “transducer pole” was deployed off the side of the vessel to collect echosounder data and the long endeavor of conducting visual survey for the length of the research line began. Observers were glued to binoculars, scouring the sea for the presence of cetaceans, as the ocean swell rocked the boat on our journey eastward. Those with an appetite nibbled on Tony’s Chocoloney chocolate bars (Thanks, Leigh!), breaking off pieces and passing around the bar to each visual observer — an optimal fuel for remaining attentive.

Figure 5. HALO team up on the flying bridge; Observers clockwise from the lower left: Leigh Torres, Marissa Garcia, Craig Hayslip, Miranda Mayhall, Holger Klinck.

During visual survey effort, we observe from the flying bridge the entire front 180 degrees of the vessel trackline, all the while recording data on where we do and don’t see cetaceans (presence and absence data). During this survey effort we record the sighting conditions (visibility, sea state, glare), and when we see cetaceans we record the distance to the marine mammals from the boat, the species identification, and the number of animals in the sighting. We use a program called SeaScribe to collect our data. As we use the data collection protocols on each of the 12 planned monthly surveys, we will obtain a valuable, standardized dataset that can be analyzed relative to environmental conditions and in comparison, to the acoustic data to understand cetacean distribution patterns. The survey pressed on, and all the while the echosounder was actively recording prey availability data, with Rachel Kaplan at the control. 

Figure 6. Rachel Kaplan monitoring the incoming data from the transducer on the SIMRAD EK60. Photo: Marissa Garcia.

Over the course of the survey, the visual team spotted northern right whale dolphins, a fin whale, a small group of killer whales and many scattered humpback whales. All three Rockhoppers were deployed at their intended locations at NH65, NH45, and then NH25. The echosounder successfully collected backscatter data for the duration of the survey, and interestingly we noticed increased prey on the echosounder at the same time as we observed the humpbacks. Already we are detecting connections between the environment and cetaceans!           

Figure 8. Fin whale spotted while on our first HALO survey. Photo: Leigh Torres, NOAA/NMFS permit # 21678

After nearly twelve hours conducting field work, the shoreline was close in sight, and we stopped our survey effort. For the first time all day, we all collectively sat in the vessel’s laboratory, finally putting our feet up to rest. We pulled back into Newport harbor around 7:00 pm, with the first HALO cruise successfully in the books. And though we visually observed many cetaceans and collected prey data, we still couldn’t help wondering what the Rockhoppers were recording at the bottom of the ocean. The thought of getting back out there for more surveys and retrieving the sound data keeps our momentum in full swing. For the next 11 months (and hopefully longer!) we will conduct the same 24 hr. cruise. The future is exciting, and we can’t wait to report back on our future trips and research findings.

Figure 9. The HALO team walking along the dock to their cars in Newport, Oregon, heading home after cruise #1. Photo: Miranda Mayhall.

This project was funded by sales and renewals of the special Oregon whale license plate, which benefits MMI. We gratefully thank all the gray whale license plate holders, who made this research trip possible.

Scouting mission to Kodiak: Reconnaissance of potential gray whale research in Kodiak, Alaska.

Dr. KC Bierlich, Dr. Alejandro Fernández Ajó, and Dr. Leigh Torres, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, & Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Eastern North Pacific (ENP) gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) undertake one of the longest annual migrations of any mammal, traveling from their winter breeding grounds in the warm waters of Baja California, Mexico to their summer feeding grounds in the icy waters of the Bering and Chukchi Seas1,2. Yet, a distinct subgroup of this population, called the Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG), instead shorten their migration farther south to spend the summer foraging along waters from northern California, USA to northern British Columbia, Canada1 (Figure 1). On these summer feeding grounds gray whales will forage almost continuously to increase their energy reserves to support migration and reproduction during the rest of the year.

The GEMM Lab has been studying the ecology and physiology of the PCFG gray whales in Oregon waters since 2015, combining traditional photo-ID and behavioral observation methods with fecal sample collection, drone flights, and prey assessment to integrate data on individual whale behavior, nutritional status, prey consumption, and hormone variation. These multidisciplinary methods have proven effective to obtain an improved understanding of PCFG gray whale body condition and hormone variation by demographic unit and over time3,4,5, as well as prey energetics and foraging ecology6.

Figure 1. Left: ENP Gray whale´s range from the breeding grounds in Baja California, Mexico to the northernmost feeding grounds in the Arctic. Right: Overview of Kodiak Island; the red square shows a zoom in image of the study area, including the shore – and boat-based data collection sites in yellow.

Since the PCFG remains a small proportion (~230 individuals) of the larger eastern ENP population (~20,000 individuals), the GEMM Lab and multiple collaborators are interested in extending the research design implemented by the GEMM Lab in Oregon to study gray whale ecology and physiology of whales feeding on the more northern foraging grounds. The goal would be to fill some of the many critical knowledge gaps including gray whale resilience and response to climate change, connectivity between foraging grounds, population dynamics of the PCFG and ENP, and physiological variation (body condition, hormones) as a function of habitat, prey, demography, and time of year.

Kodiak Island, Alaska is a middle distance between PCFG foraging grounds in Newport, Oregon and the traditional ENP foraging grounds in Chukchi and Beaufort Seas (Figure 1). Two studies documented high gray whale encounter rates in Ugak Bay in Kodiak Island, including during summer months when foraging behavior was observed7,8. Evidence from photo-ID matches in these studies indicated that some PCFG whales might also extends their feeding grounds further north to Kodiak Island7,8.

During August-September of this year, GEMM Lab postdocs KC Bierlich and Alejandro Fernández Ajó traveled to Kodiak Island to assess opportunities for researching gray whales in the area. The mission objectives included determining gray whale presence, assessing behavioral states and foraging areas, determining feasibility of drone operations and fecal sample collection, collecting photo ID images, assessing feasibility of boat and shore-based operations in Ugak Bay (Figure 1), and connecting with local scientists and stakeholders interested in collaborating.

We landed in Kodiak the evening of August 28 (Figure 2), with a beautiful sunset. The next morning, we met our captain, Alexus Kwachka, over breakfast to discuss a plan for going offshore to look for gray whales later in the week. Alexus is a local fisherman in Kodiak with over 30 years of experience fishing in Alaska and incredible knowledge on local wildlife and navigating the rough Alaskan seas. It was particularly interesting to hear his stories on the local changes he has noticed over the years, not just in weather and fishing, but also in the seals, birds, and whales.

Figure 2. Arriving to Kodiak after a long day of travel.

Next, we met with Sun’aq Tribe’s biologist Matthew Van Daele, who coordinates the marine mammal stranding network on Kodiak Island and has a deep knowledge of the locations to find whales. Matt showed us several great spots to scout for gray whales along the shore in the Pasagshak area (Figure 1), which overlooks Ugak Bay and is about 1 hour drive from Kodiak (Figure 3). Along the way, Matt discussed the high mortality rate of gray whales he has observed over the past two years and his concerns about some skinny whales in the area he recently observed during aerial surveys. Since 2019, an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) of gray whales along the whole North Pacific west coast (Mexico, USA, Canada) has impacted the ENP gray whales and while the exact cause(s) of these mortalities is largely unknown, evidence suggests reduced nutritional status may be a likely cause of death9. We learned from Matt that while gray whale strandings are decreasing compared to the previous two years, the numbers are still concerningly high. It was an absolute pleasure spending the day with Matt, as being born and raised in Kodiak he has such great knowledge of the area and the local wildlife. Together we saw Kodiak’s beautiful landscape with lots of different wildlife, which included some huge Kodiak brown bears a few hundred meters away from the road (Figure 4).

Figure 3. The views from Pasagshak Point that are good observation locations for gray whales. The gray arrows represent the view looking left (A) and right (C) from Pasagshak Point (B). A panorama of the view from left to right on the point is also shown (D). Photo: KC Bierlich.
Figure 4. Sighting of a Kodiak brown bear (Ursus arctos) off the roadside on our way to Pasagshak. The Kodiak brown bear is the largest recognized subspecies (or population) of the brown bear, and one of the largest bears alive today. Photo: Alejandro Fernández Ajó.

The next day, the weather was great, so we returned to the Pasagshak lookout points to spend the day looking for whales. We spotted several gray whales from the cliffs and shore. At Burton Beach, we spotted a gray whale very close to shore that first appeared to be traveling, but then changed direction and started moving closer inshore –less than 10 m from where we were standing on the beach! The whale then swam back and forth along the shore, providing an opportunity to collect photos of its right and left side to use for photo ID. KC flew the drone over the whale and recorded some amazing behavior of lateral swimming and great images for photogrammetry. Our excitement was sky high as within two days on the trip we had documented the presence of gray whales, recorded the best places to work from land, and even captured some interesting behavior, photo ID, and photogrammetry data from shore! (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Gray whale feeding off Burton Beach, Kodiak Island. This photo was taken from the shore, as the whale swam back and forth amazingly close to the shoreline. In this picture you can see the whale´s head from a ventral perspective. Photo: Alejandro Fernández Ajó / GEMM Lab. Photograph captured under NOAA/NMFS permit #21678.

The weather deteriorated over the next couple days, bringing foggy and rainy conditions. We used this time to process data and meet with some of the local researchers. When the weather conditions improved, we met back up with Alexus and boarded his fishing vessel, “No Point”, and headed off to Ugak Bay to look for gray whales. During transit we encountered a humpback whale mother-calf pair lunge feeding and breaching (Figure 6). As we approached Pasagshak we sighted a gray whale diving and benthic feeding in 60 m water depth, and then 2-3 other individual whales exhibiting the same behavior close by. We collected photo ID data, but high wind conditions hindered drone operations, so we continued surveying further into Ugak Bay and turned around following the coast towards Gull Point (Figure 7).

Figure 6. A breaching humpback whale on the way to Ugak Bay from Kodiak. Photo: Alejandro Fernández Ajó / GEMM Lab. Photograph captured under NOAA/NMFS permit #21678.
Figure 7. Track line (shown in blue) of boat-based operations. White circles represent the locations for sightings of gray whales.

During our survey effort we spotted a gray whale foraging on a shallow rocky, kelp reef (12 m depth) along the northwest point of Ugak Bay. This sighting was similar to behavior we often observe in Oregon, with whales feeding in near shore shallow, reef habitats. Conditions for flying the drone were still too windy, but we observed the whale defecate and collected a fecal sample! For us, fecal samples are like “biological gold”, as we can study hormones (which include assessments of their reproductive status, nutritional condition, sex determination, and stress levels), genetics, prey, and much more! We were so excited to collect this sample because it provides the chance to start looking at the physiological parameters of these Alaskan whales and compare findings to what we observe in samples collected from whales in Oregon (Figure 8).

Figure 8. A gray whale fecal sample right after being scooped from the water using nets attached long aluminum poles. Photo: KC Bierlich.

After a beautiful night anchored in a sheltered bay near Gull Point (Figure 9) we continued west to scan for whales. Back in Ugak Bay, we found six more gray whales diving and feeding in 50-60 m depth near the same location as the previous day off Pasagshak point. Weather conditions had finally improved, allowing us to fly the drone. We flew over four whales and collected video for behavior and photogrammetry analysis, which allows us to measure the body condition of the whales to assess how healthy it is (Figure 10).

Figure 9. “Home sweet home” for the night where our vessel “No point” anchored in a sheltered bay. Photo: Alejandro Fernández Ajó.
Figure 10. Drone image of two gray whales feeding near each other. Note the trailing sediment plume from the whale’s mouth and body indicating it was bottom feeding in a muddy benthic habitat. Photo: KC Bierlich. Photograph captured under NOAA/NMFS permit #21678.

Another highlight of our field work was the collection of a benthic prey sample using a Ponar grab sampler at this location in Pasagshak Bay where the whales were foraging. The bottom was muddy and rich with invertebrates; the sample literally looked like it was boiling from the amount of prey in it (Figure 11). From this sample, we will determine the invertebrate species and caloric content of these prey for comparison to the prey found in Oregon waters.

Figure 11. The Ponar bottom grab sample, full of invertebrate prey, taken near whales feeding in ~50-60 m depth. Photo: CK Bierlich.

Overall, this scouting mission to Kodiak was a great success! Through boat surveys, shore-based observations, and the conversations with locals, we determined the best areas and timing to effectively work from boats and shore to expand our gray whale research to Kodiak. Moreover, our scouting mission resulted in the collection of relevant pilot data including fecal samples for hormonal analyses, drone images for body condition and behavioral assessments, prey samples, and photo-ID images. This scouting mission identified several knowledge gaps regarding gray whale ecology, physiology, and population connectivity that can be feasibly addressed through expansion of GEMM Lab research efforts to the Alaskan region. Importantly, the trip facilitated important networking with locals to establish potential collaborations for future work. We are optimistic and excited to grow our collaborative research in Kodiak.

This pilot project was funded by sales and renewals of the special Oregon whale license plate, which benefits MMI. We gratefully thank all the gray whale license plate holders, who made this scouting trip possible.

References:

1 Calambokidis J, Darling JD, Deecke V, Gearin P, Gosho M, Megill W, et al. Abundance, range and movements of a feeding aggregation of gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) from California to south- eastern Alaska in 1998. J Cetacean Res Manag 2002; 4:267–76.

2Stewart JD, Weller DW. Abundance of eastern North Pacific gray whales 2019/2020. 2021. U.S. Department of Commerce, NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-SWFSC-639. https://doi.org/10. 25923/bmam-pemorandum NMFS-SWFSC-639. https://doi.org/10. 25923/bmam-pe91.

3Lemos, L. S. et al. Assessment of fecal steroid and thyroid hormone metabolites in eastern North Pacific gray whales. Conserv. Physiol. 8, (2020).

4Lemos, L. S. et al. Stressed and slim or relaxed and chubby? A simultaneous assessment of gray whale body condition and hormone variability. Mar. Mammal Sci. 1–11 (2021). doi:10.1111/mms.12877

5Soledade Lemos, L., Burnett, J. D., Chandler, T. E., Sumich, J. L. & Torres, L. G. Intra‐ and inter‐annual variation in gray whale body condition on a foraging ground. Ecosphere 11, (2020).

6Hildebrand, L., Bernard, K. S. & Torres, L. G. (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(July), 1–13. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2021.683634

7Gosho Merrill, Patrick Gearin, Ryan Jenkinson, Jeff Laake, Lori Mazzuca, David Kubiak, John Calambokidis, Will Megill, Brian Gisborne, Dawn Goley, Christina Tombach, James Darling, V. D. gosho_et_al._2011_-_sc-m11-awmp2.pdf. (2011).

8Moore, S. E., Wynne, K. M., Kinney, J. C. & Grebmeier, J. M. GRAY WHALE OCCURRENCE AND FORAGE SOUTHEAST OF KODIAK, ISLAND, ALASKA. Mar. Mammal Sci. 23, 419–428 (2007).

9Christiansen F, Rodríguez-González F, Martínez-Aguilar S, Urbán J and others (2021) Poor body condition associated with an unusual mortality event in gray whales. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 658:237-252. https://doi.org/10.3354/meps13585


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Learning the right stuff – examining social transmission in humans, monkeys, and cetaceans

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

The start of a new school year is always an exciting time. Like high school, it means seeing friends again and the anticipation of preparing to learn something new. Even now, as a grad student less focused on coursework, the start of the academic year involves setting project timelines and goals, most of which include learning. As I’ve been reflecting on these goals, one of my dad’s favorite sayings has been at the forefront of my mind. As an overachieving and perfectionist kid, I often got caught up in the pursuit of perfect grades, so the phrase “just learn the stuff” was my dad’s reminder to focus on what matters. Getting good grades didn’t matter if I wasn’t learning. While my younger self found the phrase rather frustrating, I have come to appreciate and find comfort in it. 

Given that my research is focused on behavioral ecology, I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about how gray whales learn. Learning is important, but also costly. It involves an investment of energy (a physiological cost, Christie & Schrater, 2015; Jaumann et al., 2013), and an investment of time (an opportunity cost). Understanding the costs and benefits of learning can help inform conservation efforts because how an individual learns today affects the knowledge and tactics that the individual will use in the future. 

Like humans, individual animals can learn a variety of tactics in a variety of ways. In behavioral ecology we classify the different types of learning based on the teacher’s role (even though they may not be consciously teaching). For example, vertical transmission is a calf learning from its mom, and horizontal transmission is an individual learning from other conspecifics (individuals of the same species) (Sargeant & Mann, 2009). An individual must be careful when choosing who to learn from because not all strategies will be equally efficient. So, it stands to reason than an individual should choose to learn from a successful individual. Signals of success can include factors such as size and age. An individual’s parent is an example of success because they were able to reproduce (Barrett et al., 2017). Learning in a population can be studied by assessing which individuals are learning, who they are learning from, and which learned behaviors become the most common.

An example of such a study is Barrett et al. (2017) where researchers conducted an experiment on capuchin monkeys in Costa Rica. This study centered around the Panama ́fruit, which is extremely difficult to open and there are several documented capuchin foraging tactics for processing and consuming the fruit (Figure 1). For this study, the researchers worked with a group of monkeys who lived in a habitat where the fruit was not found, but the group included several older members who had learned Panamá fruit foraging tactics prior to joining this group. During a 75-day experiment, the researchers placed fruits near the group (while they weren’t looking) and then recorded the tactics used to process the fruit and who used each tactic. Their results showed that the most efficient tactic became the most common tactic over time, and that age-bias was a contributing factor, meaning that individuals were more like to copy older members of the group. 

Figure 1. Figure from Barrett et al. (2017) showing a capuchin monkey eating a Panamá fruit using the canine seam technique.

Social learning has also been documented in dolphin societies. A long-term study on wild bottlenose dolphins in Shark Bay, Australia assessed how habitat characteristics and the foraging behaviors used by moms and other conspecifics affected the foraging tactics used by calves (Sargeant & Mann, 2009). Interestingly, although various factors predicted what foraging tactic was used, the dominant factor was vertical transmission where the calf used the tactic learned from its mom (Figure 2). Overall, this study highlights the importance of considering a variety of factors because behavioral diversity and learning are context dependent.

Figure 2. Figure from Sargeant & Mann (2009) showing that the probability of a calf using a tactic was higher if the mother used that tactic.

Social learning is something that I am extremely interested in studying in our study population of gray whales in Oregon. While studies on social learning for such long-lived animals require a longer study period than of the span of our current dataset, I still find it important to consider the role learning may play. One day I would love to delve into the different factors of learning by these gray whales and answer questions such as those addressed in the studies I described above. Which foraging tactics are learned? How much of a factor is vertical transmission? Considering that gray whale calves spend the first few months of the foraging season with their mothers I would expect that there is at least some degree of vertical transmission present. Furthermore, how do environmental conditions affect learning? What tactics are learned in good vs. poor years of prey availability? Does it matter which tactic is learned first? While the chances that I’ll get to address these questions in the next few years are low, I do think that investigating how tactic diversity changes across age groups could be a good place to start. As I’ve discussed in a previous blog, my first dissertation chapter will focus on quantifying the degree of individual specialization present in my study group. After reading about age-biased learning, I am curious to see if older whales, as a group, use fewer tactics and if those tactics are the most energetically efficient.

The importance of understanding learning is related to that of studying individual specialization, which can allows us to estimate how behavioral tactics might change in popularity over time and space. We could then combine this with knowledge of how tactics are related to morphology and habitat and the associated energetic costs of each tactic. This knowledge would allow us to estimate the impacts of environmental change on individuals and the population. While my dissertation research only aims to provide a few puzzle pieces in this very large and complicated gray whale ecology puzzle, I am excited to see what I find. Writing this blog has both inspired new questions and served as a good reminder to be more patient with myself because I am still, “just learning the stuff”.