With the changing of the season, gray whales are starting their southbound migration that will end in the lagoons off the Baja California Mexico. The migration of the gray whale is the longest migration of any mammal—the round trip totals ~10,000 miles (Pike, 1962)!
Like these gray whales, I am also undertaking my own “migration” as I leave Newport to start my post-Master’s journey. However, my migration will be a little shorter than the gray whale’s journey—only ~3,000 miles—as I head back to the east coast. As I talked about in my previous blog, I have finished my thesis studying the energetics of gray whale foraging behaviors and I attended my commencement ceremony at the University of British Columbia last Wednesday. As my time with the GEMM Lab comes to a close, I want to take some time to reflect on my time in Newport.
Many depictions of scientists show them working in isolation but in my time with the GEMM Lab I got to fully experience the collaborative nature of science. My thesis was a part of the GEMM Lab’s Gray whale Response to Ambient Noise Informed by Technology and Ecology (GRANITE) project and I worked closely with the GRANITE team to help achieve the project’s research goals. The GRANITE team has annual meetings where team members give updates on their contributions to the project and flush out ideas in a series of very busy days. I found these collaborative meetings very helpful to ensure that I was keeping the big picture of the gray whale study system in mind while working with the energetics data I explored for my thesis. The collaborative nature of the GRANITE project provided the opportunity to learn from people that have a different skill set from my own and expose me to many different types of analysis.
Outside of the amazing science opportunities, I have thoroughly enjoyed the privilege of exploring Newport and the Oregon coast. I was lucky enough to find lots of agates and enjoyed consistently spotting gray whale blows on my many beach walks. I experienced so many breathtaking views from hikes (God’s thumb was my personal favorite). I got to attend an Oregon State Beavers football game where we crushed Stanford! And most of all, I am so thankful for all the friends I’ve made in my time here. These warm memories, and the knowledge that I can always come back, will help make it a little easier to start my migration away from Newport.
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Pike, G. C. (1962). Migration and feeding of the gray whale (Eschrichtius gibbosus). Journal of the Fisheries Research Board of Canada, 19(5), 815–838. https://doi.org/10.1139/f62-051
The world is warming. Ocean ecosystems are experiencing significant and rapid impacts of climate change. However, the cascading effects on marine life are largely unknown. Thus, it is critical to understand how – not just if – environmental change impacts the availability and quality of key prey species in ocean food webs, and how these changes will impact marine predator health and population resilience. With these pressing knowledge gaps in mind, we are thrilled to launch a new project “Marine predator and prey response to climate change: Synthesis of Acoustics, Physiology, Prey, and Habitat in a Rapidly changing Environment (SAPPHIRE).” We will examine how changing ocean conditions affect the availability and quality of krill, and thus impact blue whale behavior, health, and reproduction. This large-scale research effort is made possible with funding from the National Science Foundation.
The SAPPHIRE project takes place in the South Taranaki Bight (STB) region of Aotearoa New Zealand, and before diving into our new research plans, let’s reflect briefly on what we know so far about this study system based on our previous research. Our collaborative research team has studied blue whales in the STB since 2013 to document the population, understand their ecology and habitat use, and inform conservation management. We conducted boat-based surveys and used hydrophones to record the underwater soundscape, and found the following:
Blue whales in Aotearoa New Zealand are a unique population, genetically distinct from all other known populations in the Southern Hemisphere, with an estimated population size of 718 (95% CI = 279 – 1926).1
Blue whales reside in the STB region year-round, with feeding and breeding vocalizations detected nearly every day of the year.2,3
Wind-driven upwelling over Kahurangi shoals moves a plume of cold, nutrient-rich waters into the STB, supporting aggregations of krill, and thereby critical feeding opportunities for blue whales in spring and summer.4–6
We developed predictive models to forecast blue whale distribution up to three weeks in advance, providing managers with a real-time tool in the form of a desktop application to produce daily forecast maps for dynamic management.7
During marine heatwaves, blue whale feeding activity was substantially reduced in the STB. Interestingly, their breeding activity was also reduced in the following season when compared to the breeding season following a more productive, typical foraging season. This finding indicates that shifting environmental conditions, such as marine heatwaves and climate change, may have consequences to not just foraging success, but the population’s reproductive patterns.3
Building on this existing knowledge, we aim to gain understanding of the health impacts of environmental change on krill and blue whales, which can in turn inform management decisions. Over the next three years (2024-2026) we will use multidisciplinary methods to collect data in the field that will enable us to tackle these important but challenging goals. Our broad objectives are to:
Assess variation in krill quality and availability relative to rising temperatures and different ocean conditions,
Document how blue whale body condition and hormone profiles change relative to variable environmental and prey conditions,
Understand how environmental conditions impact blue whale foraging and reproductive behavior, and
Integrate these components to develop novel Species Health Models to predict predator and prey whale population response to rapid environmental change.
Kicking off fieldwork
This coming January, we will set sail aboard the R/V Star Keys and head out in search of blue whales and krill in the STB! Five of our team members will spend three weeks at sea, during which time we will conduct surveys for blue whale occurrence paired with active acoustic assessment of krill availability, fly Unoccupied Aircraft Systems (UAS; “drones”) over whales to determine body condition and potential pregnancy, collect tissue biopsy samples to quantify stress and reproductive hormone levels, deploy hydrophones to record rates of foraging and reproductive calls by blue whales, and conduct on-board controlled experiments on krill to assess their response to elevated temperature.
The moving pieces are many as we work to obtain research permits, engage in important consultation with iwi (indigenous Māori groups), procure specialized scientific equipment, and make travel and shipping arrangements. The to-do lists seem to grow just as fast as we can check items off; such is the nature of coordinating an international, multidisciplinary field effort. But it will pay off when we are underway, and I can barely contain my excitement to back on the water with this research team.
Our team has not collected data in the STB since 2017. We know so much more now than we did when studies of this blue whale population were just beginning. For example, we are eager to put our blue whale forecast tool to use, which will hopefully enable us to direct survey effort toward areas of higher blue whale density to maximize data collection. We are keen to see what new insights we gain, and what new questions and challenges arise.
The SAPPHIRE project will only be possible with the expertise and coordination of the many members of our collaborative group. We are all thrilled to begin this research journey together, and eager to share what we learn.
Research partners and key collaborators:
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1. Barlow DR, Torres LG, Hodge KB, Steel D, Baker CS, Chandler TE, Bott N, Constantine R, Double MC, Gill P, Glasgow D, Hamner RM, Lilley C, Ogle M, Olson PA, Peters C, Stockin KA, Tessaglia-Hymes CT, Klinck H. Documentation of a New Zealand blue whale population based on multiple lines of evidence. Endanger Species Res. 2018;36:27–40.
2. Barlow DR, Klinck H, Ponirakis D, Holt Colberg M, Torres LG. Temporal occurrence of three blue whale populations in New Zealand waters from passive acoustic monitoring. J Mammal. 2022;
3. Barlow DR, Klinck H, Ponirakis D, Branch TA, Torres LG. Environmental conditions and marine heatwaves influence blue whale foraging and reproductive effort. Ecol Evol. 2023;13:e9770.
4. Barlow DR, Klinck H, Ponirakis D, Garvey C, Torres LG. Temporal and spatial lags between wind, coastal upwelling, and blue whale occurrence. Sci Rep. 2021;11(6915):1–10.
5. Barlow DR, Bernard KS, Escobar-Flores P, Palacios DM, Torres LG. Links in the trophic chain: Modeling functional relationships between in situ oceanography, krill, and blue whale distribution under different oceanographic regimes. Mar Ecol Prog Ser. 2020;642:207–25.
6. Torres LG, Barlow DR, Chandler TE, Burnett JD. Insight into the kinematics of blue whale surface foraging through drone observations and prey data. PeerJ. 2020;8:e8906.
7. Barlow DR, Torres LG. Planning ahead: Dynamic models forecast blue whale distribution with applications for spatial management. J Appl Ecol. 2021;58(11):2493–504.
Dr. Alejandro A. Fernández Ajó, Postdoctoral Scholar, Marine Mammal Institute – OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, & Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna (GEMM) Lab.
In a previous post (link to blog), I discussed the crucial importance of acquiring knowledge on the reproductive parameters of individual animals in wild populations for designing effective strategies in conservation biology. Specifically, the ability to quantify the number of pregnancies within a population offers valuable insights into the health of individual females and the population as a whole [1,2]. This knowledge provides tools to describe important life-history parameters, including the age of sexual maturity, frequency of pregnancy, duration of gestation, timing of reproduction, and population fecundity; all of which are essential components for monitoring trends in reproduction and the overall health of a species . Additionally, I explained some of the challenges inherent in obtaining such information when working with massive wild animals that spend most of their time underwater in vast expanses of the oceans. Yes, I am talking about whales.
As a result of the logistical and methodological challenges that involve the study of large whales, detailed knowledge of the life-history and general reproductive biology of whales is sparse for most species and populations. In fact, much of the available information is derived from whaling records , which may be outdated for application in population models .
If you are an avid reader of the GEMM Lab blog posts, you might be familiar with the gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus), and with the distinct subgroup of gray whales, known as the Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG). PCFG gray whales are characterized by their shorter migration to spend their feeding season in the coastal waters of Northern California, Oregon, and southeastern Alaska , relative to the larger Eastern North Pacific gray whale that forage in the Arctic region.
The GEMM Lab has monitored individual gray whales within the PCFG off the Oregon coast since 2016 (check the GRANITE project). Each individual whale presents a unique pigmentation pattern, or unique marks that we can use to identify who is who among the whales who visit the Oregon coast. In this way, we keep a detailed record of re-sightings of known individuals (visit IndividuWhale to learn more), and we have high individual re-sighting rates, resulting in a long-term data series for individual whales which enables us to monitor their health, body condition, and thus further develop and advance our non-invasive study methods.
In our recently manuscript published in the Royal Society Open Science journal, armed with our robust dataset comprising fecal hormone metabolites, drone-based photogrammetry, and individual sightings, we delved into the strengths and weaknesses of various diagnostic tools for non-invasive pregnancy diagnosis. Ultimately, we propose a methodological approach that can help with the challenging and important task of identifying pregnancies in gray whales. In particular, we explored the variability in fecal progesterone metabolites and body morphology relative to observed reproductive status and estimated the pregnancy probability for mature females using statistical models.
In mammals, the progesterone hormone is secreted in the ovaries during the estrous cycle and gestation, making it the predominant hormone responsible for sustaining pregnancy . As the hormones are cleared from the blood into the gut, they are metabolized and eventually excreted in feces; fecal samples represent a cumulative and integrated concentration of hormone metabolites [8;9], which are useful indicators for endocrine assessments of free-swimming whales. Additionally, our previous studies in this population  detected differences in body condition (see KC blog for more details about how we measure whales) that suggest that changes in the whale’s body widths could be useful in detecting pregnancies.
Our exploratory analyses show that in individual whales, the levels of fecal progesterone were elevated when pregnant as compared to when the same whale was not pregnant. But when looking at progesterone levels at the population level, these differences were masked with the intrinsic variability of this measurement. In turn, the body morphometrics, in particular the body width at the 50% of the total body length, helped discriminate pregnancies better, and the statistical models that included this width variable, effectively classified pregnant from non-pregnant females with a commendable accuracy. Thus, our morphometric approach showcased its potential as a reliable alternative for pregnancy diagnosis.
Notably, when we ran the pregnancy prediction models on data from our 2022 season and compared results with observations of whales in 2023, we identified a known whale from our study area “Clouds” accompanied by a calf, indicating that she was pregnant in 2022. Our model predicted Clouds to be pregnant with a 70% probability. This validation lends strong confidence to our approach to diagnosing pregnancy. Conversely, some whales predicted to be pregnant in 2022 were not observed with a calf during the 2023 season. However, the absence of calves accompanying these females is likely due to the relatively high mortality of newborn calves in gray whales due to predation or other causes .
Overall, our findings underscore some limitations of fecal progesterone metabolite in accurately identifying pregnant PCFG gray whales. However, while acknowledging the challenges associated with fecal sample collection and hormone analysis, we advocate for ongoing exploration of alternative hormone quantification methods and antibodies. Our study highlights the importance of continued research in refining these techniques. The unique attributes of our study system, including high individual re-sighting rates and non-invasive fecal hormone analysis, position it as a cornerstone for future advancements in understanding gray whale reproductive health. By improving our ability to monitor reproductive metrics in baleen whale populations, we pave the way for more effective conservation strategies, ensuring the resilience of these magnificent creatures in the face of a changing marine ecosystems.
 Burgess EA, Lanyon JM, Brown JL, Blyde D, Keeley T. 2012 Diagnosing pregnancy in free-ranging dugongs using fecal progesterone metabolite concentrations and body morphometrics: A population application. Gen Comp Endocrinol 177, 82–92. (doi:10.1016/J.YGCEN.2012.02.008)
 Slade NA, Tuljapurkar S, Caswell H. 1998 Structured-Population Models in Marine, Terrestrial, and Freshwater Systems. J Wildl Manage 62. (doi:10.2307/3802363)
 Madliger CL, Love OP, Hultine KR, Cooke SJ. 2018 The conservation physiology toolbox: status and opportunities. Conserv Physiol 6, 1–16. (doi:10.1093/conphys/coy029)
 Rice DW, Wolman AA. 1971 Life history and ecology of the gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus). Stillwater, Oklahoma: American Society of Mammalogists.
 Melicai V, Atkinson S, Calambokidis J, Lang A, Scordino J, Mueter F. 2021 Application of endocrine biomarkers to update information on reproductive physiology in gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus). PLoS One 16. (doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0255368)
 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.
 Bronson, F. H. (1989). Mammalian reproductive biology. University of Chicago Press.
 Wasser SK, Hunt KE, Brown JL, Cooper K, Crockett CM, Bechert U, Millspaugh JJ, Larson S, Monfort SL (2000) A generalized fecal glucocorticoid assay for use in a diverse array of nondomestic mammalian and avian species. Gen Comp Endocrinol120:260–275.
 Hunt, K.E., Rolland, R.M., Kraus, S.D., Wasser, S.K., 2006. Analysis of fecal glucocorticoids in the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis). Gen. Comp. Endocrinol. 148, 260–272. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ygcen.2006.03.01215.
 Soledade Lemos L, Burnett JD, Chandler TE, Sumich JL, Torres LG. 2020 Intra‐ and inter‐annual variation in gray whale body condition on a foraging ground. Ecosphere 11. (doi:10.1002/ecs2.3094)
 James L. Sumich, James T. Harvey, Juvenile Mortality in Gray Whales (Eschrichtius robustus), Journal of Mammalogy, Volume 67, Issue 1, 25 February 1986, Pages 179–182, https://doi.org/10.2307/1381019
Dr. KC Bierlich, Postdoctoral Scholar, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, & Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna (GEMM) Lab
A recent blog post by GEMM Lab’s PhD Candidate Clara Bird gave a recap of our 8th consecutive GRANITEfield season this year. In her blog, Clara highlighted that we saw 71 individual gray whales this season, 61 of which we have seen in previous years and identified as belonging to the Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG). With an estimated population size of around 212 individuals, this means that we saw almost 1/3 of the PCFG population this season alone. Since the GEMM Lab first started collecting data on PCFG gray whales in 2016, we have collected drone imagery on over 120 individuals, which is over half the PCFG population. This dataset provides incredible opportunity to get to know these individuals and observe them from year to year as they grow and mature through different life history stages, such as producing a calf. A question our research team has been interested in is what makes a PCFG whale different from an Eastern North Pacific (ENP) gray whale, which has a population size around 16,000 individuals and feed predominantly in the Arctic during the summer months? For this blog, I will highlight findings from our recent publication in Biology Letters (Bierlich et al., 2023) comparing the morphology (body length, skull, and fluke size) between PCFG and ENP populations.
Body size and shape reflect how an animal functions in their environment and can provide details on an individual’s current health, reproductive status, and energetic requirements. Understanding how animals grow is a key component for monitoring the health of populations and their vulnerability to climate change and other stressors in their environment. As such, collecting accurate morphological measurements of individuals is essential to model growth and infer their health. Collecting such morphological measurements of whales is challenging, as you cannot ask a whale to hold still while you prepare the tape measure, but as discussed in a previous blog, drones provide a non-invasive method to collect body size measurements of whales. Photogrammetry is a non-invasive technique used to obtain morphological measurements of animals from photographs. The GEMM Lab uses drone-based photogrammetry to obtain morphological measurements of PCFG gray whales, such as their body length, skull length (as snout-to-blowhole), and fluke span (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Morphological measurements obtained via photogrammetry of a Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) gray whale. These measurements were used to compare to individuals from the Eastern North Pacific (ENP) population.
As mentioned in this previous blog, we use photo-identification to identify unique individual gray whales based on markings on their body. This method is helpful for linking all the data we are collecting (morphology, hormones, behavior, new scarring and skin conditions, etc.) to each individual whale. An individual’s sightings history can also be used to estimate their age, either as a ‘minimum age’ based on the date of first sighting or a ‘known age’ if the individual was seen as a calf. By combining the length measurements from drone-based photogrammetry and age estimates from photo-identification history, we can construct length-at-age growth models to examine how PCFG gray whales grow. While no study has previously examined length-at-age growth models specifically for PCFG gray whales, another study constructed growth curves for ENP gray whales using body length and age estimates obtained from whaling, strandings, and aerial photogrammetry (Agbayani et al., 2020). For our study, we utilized these datasets and compared length-at-age growth, snout-to-blowhole length, and fluke span between PCFG and ENP whales. We used Bayesian statistics to account and incorporate the various levels of uncertainty associated with data collected (i.e., measurements from whaling vs. drone, ‘minimum age’ vs. ‘known age’).
We found that while both populations grow at similar rates, PCFG gray whales reach smaller adult lengths than ENP. This difference was more extreme for females, where PCFG females were ~1 m (~3 ft) shorter than ENP females and PCFG males were ~0.5 m (1.5 ft) shorter than ENP males (Figure 2, Figure 3). We also found that ENP males and females have slightly larger skulls and flukes than PCFG male and females, respectively. Our results suggest PCFG whales are shaped differently than ENP whales (Figure 3)! These results are also interesting in light of our previous published study that found PCFG whales are skinnier than ENP whales (see this previous blog post).
Figure 2. Growth curves (von Bertalanffy–Putter) for length-at-age comparing male and female ENP and PCFG gray whales (shading represents 95% highest posterior density intervals). Points represent mean length and median age. Vertical bars represent photogrammetric uncertainty. Dashed horizontal lines represent uncertainty in age estimates.
Figure 3. Schematic highlighting the differences in body size between Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) and Eastern North Pacific (ENP) gray whales.
Our results raise some interesting questions regarding why PCFG are smaller: Is this difference in size and shape normal for this population and are they healthy? Or is this difference a sign that they are stressed, unhealthy and/or not getting enough to eat? Larger individuals are typically found at higher latitudes (this pattern is called Bergmann’s Rule), which could explain why ENP whales are larger since they feed in the Arctic. Yet many species, including fish, birds, reptiles, and mammals, have experienced reductions in body size due to changes in habitat and anthropogenic stressors (Gardner et al., 2011). The PCFG range is within closer proximity to major population centers compared to the ENP foraging grounds in the Arctic, which could plausibly cause increased stress levels, leading to decreased growth.
The smaller morphology of PCFG may also be related to the different foraging tactics they employ on different prey and habitat types than ENP whales. Animal morphology is linked to behavior and habitat (see this blogpost). ENP whales feeding in the Arctic generally forage on benthic amphipods, while PCFG whales switch between benthic, epibenthic and planktonic prey, but mostly target epibenthic mysids. Within the PCFG range, gray whales often forage in rocky kelp beds close to shore in shallow water depths (approx. 10 m) that are on average four times shallower than whales feeding in the Arctic. The prey in the PCFG range is also found to be of equal or higher caloric value than prey in the Arctic range (see this blog), which is interesting since PCFG were found to be skinnier.
It is also unclear when the PCFG formed? ENP and PCFG whales are genetically similar, but photo-identification history reveals that calves born into the PCFG usually return to forage in this PCFG range, suggesting matrilineal site fidelity that contributes to the population structure. PCFG whales were first documented off our Oregon Coast in the 1970s (Figure 4). Though, from examining old whaling records, there may have been PCFG gray whales foraging off the coasts of Northern California to British Columbia since the 1920s.
Figure 4. First reports of summer-resident gray whales along the Oregon coast, likely part of the Pacific Coast Feeding Group. Capital Journal, August 9, 1976, pg. 2.
Altogether, our finding led us to two hypotheses: 1) the PCFG range provides an ecological opportunity for smaller whales to feed on a different prey type in a shallow environment, or 2) the PCFG range is an ecological trap, where individuals gain less energy due to energetically costly feeding behaviors in complex habitat while potentially targeting lower density prey, causing them to be skinnier and have decreased growth. Key questions remain for our research team regarding potential consequences of the smaller sized PCFG whales, such as does the smaller body size equate to reduced resilience to environmental and anthropogenic stressors? Does smaller size effect fecundity and population fitness? Stay tuned as we learn more about this unique and fascinating smaller sized gray whale.
Agbayani, S., Fortune, S. M. E., & Trites, A. W. (2020). Growth and development of North Pacific gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus). Journal of Mammalogy, 101(3), 742–754. https://doi.org/10.1093/jmammal/gyaa028
Bierlich, K. C., Kane, A., Hildebrand, L., Bird, C. N., Fernandez Ajo, A., Stewart, J. D., Hewitt, J., Hildebrand, I., Sumich, J., & Torres, L. G. (2023). Downsized: gray whales using an alternative foraging ground have smaller morphology. Biology Letters, 19(8). https://doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2023.0043
Gardner, J. L., Peters, A., Kearney, M. R., Joseph, L., & Heinsohn, R. (2011). Declining body size: A third universal response to warming? Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 26(6), 285–291. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2011.03.005
As you may remember, last year’s field season was a remarkable summer for our team. We were pleasantly surprised to find an increased number of whales in our study area compared to previous years and were even more excited that many of them were old friends. As we started this field season, we were all curious to know if this year would be a repeat. And it’s my pleasure to report that this season was even better!
We started the season with an exciting day (6 known whales! see Lisa’s blog) and the excitement (and whales) just kept coming. This season we saw 71 individual whales across 215 sightings! Of those 71, 44 were whales we saw last year, and 10 were new to our catalog, meaning that we saw 17 whales this season that we had not seen in at least two years! There is something extra special about seeing a whale we have not seen in a while because it means that they are still alive, and the sighting gives us valuable data to continue studying health and survival. Another cool note is that 7 of our 12 new whales from last year came back this year, indicating recruitment to our study region.
Included in that group of 7 whales are the two calves from last year! Again, indicating good recruitment of new whales to our study area. We saw both Lunita and Manta (previously nick-named ‘Roly-poly’) throughout this season and we were always happy to see them back in our area and feeding on their own.
We had an especially remarkable encounter with Lunita at the end of this season when we found this whale surface feeding on porcelain crab larvae (video 1)! This is a behavior that we rarely observe, and we’ve never seen a juvenile whale use this behavior before, inspiring questions around how Lunita knew how to perform this behavior.
Not only did we resight our one-year-old friends, but we found two new calves born to well-known mature females (Clouds and Spotlight). We had previously documented Clouds with a calf (Cheetah) in 2016 so it was exciting to see her with a new calf and to meet Cheetah’s sibling! Cheetah has become one of our regulars so we’re curious to see if this new calf joins the regular crew as well. We’re also hoping that Spotlight’s calf will stick around; and we’re optimistic since we observed it feeding alone later in the season.
Of course, 71 whales means heaps of data! We spent 226 hours on the water, conducted 132 drone flights (a record!), and collected 61 fecal samples! Those 132 flights were over 64 individual whales, with Casper and Pacman tying for “best whale to fly over” with 10 flights each. We collected 61 fecal samples from 26 individual whales with a three-way tie for “best pooper” between Hummingbird, Scarlett, and Zorro with 6 fecal samples each. And we continued to collect valuable prey and habitat data through 80 GoPro drops and 79 zooplankton net tows.
And if you were about to ask, “but what about tagging?!”, fear not! We continued our suction cup tagging effort with a successful window in July where we were joined by collaborators John Calambokidis from Cascadia Research Collective and Dave Cade from Hopkins Marine Station and deployed four suction-cup tags.
It’s hard to believe all the work we’ve accomplished in the past five months, and I continue to be honored and proud to be on this incredible team. But as this season has come to a close, I have found myself reflecting on something else. Learning. Over the past several years we have learned so much about not only these whales in our study system but about how to conduct field work. And while learning is continuous, this season in particular has felt like an exciting time for both. In the past year our group has published work showing that we can detect pregnancy in gray whales using fecal samples and drone imagery (Fernandez Ajó et al., 2023), that PCFG gray whales are shorter and smaller than ENP whales (Bierlich et al., 2023), and that gray whales are consuming high levels of microplastics (Torres et al., 2023). We also have several manuscripts in review focused on our behavior work from drones and tags. While this information does not directly affect our field work, it does mean that while we’re observing these whales live, we better understand what we’re observing and we can come up with more specific, in-depth questions based on this foundation of knowledge that we’re building. I have enjoyed seeing our questions evolve each year based on our increasing knowledge and I know that our collaborative, inquisitive chats on the boat will only continue inspiring more exciting research.
On top of our gray whale knowledge, we have also learned so much about field work. When I think back to the early days compared to now, there is a stark difference in our knowledge and our confidence. We do a lot on our little boat! And so many steps that we once relied on written lists to remember to do are now just engrained in our minds and bodies. From loading the boat, to setting up at the dock, to the go pro drops, fecal collections, drone operations, photo taking, and photo ID, our team has become quite the well-oiled machine. We were also given the opportunity to reflect on everything we’ve learned over the past years when it was our turn to train our new team member, Nat! Nat is a new PhD student in the GEMM lab who is joining team GRANITE. Teaching her all the ins and outs of our fieldwork really emphasized how much we ourselves have learned.
On a personal note, this was my third season as a drone pilot, and honestly, I was pleasantly surprised by my experience this season. Since I started piloting, I have experienced pretty intense nerves every time I’ve flown the drone. From stress dreams, to mild nausea, and an elevated heart rate, flying the drone was something that I didn’t necessarily look forward to. Don’t get me wrong – it’s incredibly valuable data and a privilege to watch the whales from a bird’s eye view in real time. But the responsibility of collecting good data, while keeping the drone and my team members safe was something that I felt viscerally. And while I gained confidence with every flight, the nerves were still as present as ever and I was starting to accept that I would never be totally comfortable as a pilot. Until this season, when the nerves finally cleared, and piloting became as innate as all the other field work components. While there are still some stressful moments, the nerves don’t come roaring back. I have finally gone through enough stressful situations to not be fazed by new ones. And while I am fully aware that this is just how learning works, I write this reflection as a reminder to myself and anyone going through the process of learning any new skill to push through that fear. Remember there can be a disconnect between the time when you know how to do something well, or well-enough, and the time when you feel comfortable doing it. I am just as proud of myself for persevering as I am of the team for collecting so much incredible data. And as I look ahead to my next scary challenge (finishing my PhD!), this is a feeling that I am trying to hold on to.
Stay tuned for updates from team GRANITE!
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Bierlich, K. C., Kane, A., Hildebrand, L., Bird, C. N., Fernandez Ajo, A., Stewart, J. D., Hewitt, J., Hildebrand, I., Sumich, J., & Torres, L. G. (2023). Downsized: Gray whales using an alternative foraging ground have smaller morphology. Biology Letters, 19(8), 20230043. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2023.0043
Fernandez Ajó, A., Pirotta, E., Bierlich, K. C., Hildebrand, L., Bird, C. N., Hunt, K. E., Buck, C. L., New, L., Dillon, D., & Torres, L. G. (2023). Assessment of a non-invasive approach to pregnancy diagnosis in gray whales through drone-based photogrammetry and faecal hormone analysis. Royal Society Open Science, 10(7), 230452. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.230452
Torres, L. G., Brander, S. M., Parker, J. I., Bloom, E. M., Norman, R., Van Brocklin, J. E., Lasdin, K. S., & Hildebrand, L. (2023). Zoop to poop: Assessment of microparticle loads in gray whale zooplankton prey and fecal matter reveal high daily consumption rates. Frontiers in Marine Science, 10. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmars.2023.1201078
On Saturday, June 10, Dr. Roger Payne passed away. Throughout his remarkable life, he made impactful contributions to the study, understanding, and conservation of whales. His passion, research, and advocacy efforts played a pivotal role in reshaping public perception, and thus promoting the conservation of these giants, profoundly influencing generations of researchers in the field of conservation biology, including myself.
Roger in Patagonia where here found his love for Southern Right Whales. Credit: Dr. Mariano Sironi / ICB.
In 1970, Roger and his first wife Katy Paine began the Southern Right Whale (SRW) Research Program in Patagonia, Argentina, which in 1996 was continued by the Whale Conservation Institute of Argentina (the ICB) , becoming the longest continually running research program on a great whale (based on known individuals) in existence. In this study, Dr. Payne recognized that individual whales can be identified by the unique marks on their heads, establishing an important milestone for photo-ID, a technique that forms the bedrock of whale science.
I am proud to say that I am part of his legacy, as a member of the ICB. With the SRW program, I continued advancing research on SRW through my doctoral dissertation by advancing methods in conservation physiology (see blog post) to understand the underlaying mechanisms affecting young whales’ mortality in Patagonia (see blog post ).
Probably, one of the most remarkable contributions of Dr. Payne to the field and to whale conservation was his groundbreaking discovery of the humpback whale song. In the mid-20th century, the world’s whale populations were intensively killed by commercial whalers, threatening their extinction. In the late 1960s, Payne and his collaborators unveiled the melodic symphonies of humpback whales, marking the start of modern whale biology and catalyzing the global conservationist movement “Save the Whales”. These haunting songs connected humans with these enigmatic animals in an emotional manner, raising public opinion and support for whale conservation that ultimately led to the global moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982.
Listen to this story on NPR featuring Roger Payne’s LP, ‘Songs of the Humpback Whale,’ released in 1970, which played a pivotal role in sparking the global environmental movement “Save the Whales”, helping whale populations on the brink of extinction. Photo: Ocean Alliance.
While he continued to believe that science provides essential information about the necessary changes needed to protect whales, Dr. Payne strongly believe in that the paths to accelerate these changes often involve a combination of activism and creative arts.
“…All of the great movements in human history have been based not on data but on emotion and passion, and a dream of a better society and a better life. For unless people connect emotionally with a problem they won’t connect with the numbers and the data that describe its dimensions…”
“…It seems highly likely that the changes we so desperately need will only come by invoking emotions, and that is something that poets, musicians, writers, playwrights, sculptors, painters, dancers, composers—in fact, creative people of every stripe do well, but that scientists do at their peril. For the real challenge here is to get the world to fall so deeply in love with Nature that we will no longer tolerate the destruction of creation, and will risk our careers and our lives to save all plankton, mosses, ferns, trees, flowers, jellyfish, crinoids, nautiloids, crabs, bees, butterflies, beetles, squid, fishes, frogs, turtles, birds, and mammals—in other words, we will fight to save all of the non-human “Other”…”
Roger Payne’s influence and legacy continue to inspire generations of scientists and conservationists. His work expanded our understanding of whales, deepened our empathy for these creatures, and paved the way for international collaborations aimed at protecting marine life and preserving our oceans. Today, there are many of us who, inspired by Roger, dedicate our lives to research, environmental education, and conservation. And following Roger’s teachings, we constantly ask questions to seek answers that allow us to continue learning about whales in a changing world.
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The winds are consistently (and sometimes aggressively) blowing from the north here on the Oregon coast, which can only mean one thing – summer has arrived! Since mid-May, the GRANITE (Gray whale Response to Ambient Noise Informed by Technology and Ecology) team has been looking for good weather windows to survey for gray whales and we have managed to get five great field work days already. In today’s blog post, I am going to share what (and who) we have seen so far.
On our first day of the field season, PI Leigh Torres, postdoc KC Bierlich and myself, were joined by a special guest: Dr. Andy Read. Andy is the director of the Duke University Marine Lab, where he also runs his own lab, which focuses on conservation biology and ecology of marine vertebrates. Andy was visiting the Hatfield Marine Science Center as part of the Lavern Weber Visiting Scientist program and was hosted here by Leigh. For those of you that do not know, Andy was Leigh’s graduate school advisor at Duke where she completed her Master’s and doctoral degrees. It felt very special to have Andy on board our RHIB Ruby for the day and to introduce him to some friends of ours. The first whale we encountered that day was “Pacman”. While we are always excited to re-sight an individual that we know, this sighting was especially mind-blowing given the fact that Leigh had “just” seen Pacman approximately two months earlier in Guerrero Negro, one of the gray whale breeding lagoons in Mexico (read this blog about Leigh and Clara’s pilot project there). Aside from Pacman, we saw five other individuals, all of which we had seen during last year’s field season.
Since that first day on the water, we have conducted field work on four additional days and so far, we have only encountered known individuals in our catalog. This fact is exciting because it highlights the strong site fidelity that Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) gray whales have to areas within their feeding range. In fact, I am examining the residency and space use of each individual whale we have observed in our GRANITE study for one of my PhD chapters to better understand the level of fidelity individuals have to the central Oregon coast. Furthermore, this site fidelity underpins the unique, replicate data set on individual gray whale health and ecology that the GRANITE project has been able to progressively build over the years. So far during this field season in 2023, we have seen 13 unique individuals, flown the drone over 10 of them and collected four fecal samples from two, which represent critical data points from early on in the feeding season.
Our sightings this year have not only highlighted the high site fidelity of whales to our study area but have also demonstrated the potential for internal recruitment of calves born to “PCFG mothers” into the PCFG. Recruitment to a population can occur in two ways: externally (individuals immigrate into a population from another population) or internally (calves born to females that are part of the population return to, or stay, within their mothers’ population). Three of the whales we have seen so far this year are documented calves from females that are known to consistently use the PCFG range, including our central Oregon coast study area. In fact, we documented one of these calves, “Lunita”, just last year with her mother (see Clara’s recap of the 2022 field season blog for more about Lunita). The average calf survival estimate between 1997-2017 for the PCFG was 0.55 (Calambokidis et al. 2019), though it varied annually and widely (range: 0.34-0.94). Considering that there have been years with calf survival estimates as low as ~30%, it is therefore all the more exciting when we re-sight a documented calf, alive and well!
We have also been collecting data on the habitat and prey in our study system by deploying our paired GoPro/RBR sensor system. We use the GoPro to monitor the benthic substrate type and relative prey densities in areas where whales are feeding. The RBR sensor collects high-frequency, in-situ dissolved oxygen and temperature data, enabling us to relate environmental metrics to relative prey measurements. Furthermore, we also collect zooplankton samples with a net to assess prey community and quality. On our five field work days this year, we have predominantly collected mysid shrimp, including gravid (a.k.a. pregnant) individuals, however we have also caught some Dungeness and porcelain crab larvae. The GEMM Lab is also continuing our collaboration with Dr. Susanne Brander’s lab at OSU and her PhD student Lauren Kashiwabara, who plan on conducting microplastic lab experiments on wild-caught mysid shrimp. Their plan is to investigate the growth rates of mysid shrimp under different temperature, dissolved oxygen, and microplastic load conditions. However, before they can begin their experiments, they need to successfully culture the mysids in the lab, which is why we collect samples for them to use as their ‘starter culture’. Stay tuned to hear more about this project as it develops!
So, all in all, it has been an incredibly successful start to our field season, marked by the return of many familiar flukes and flanks! We are excited to continue collecting rock solid GRANITE data this summer to increase our efforts to understand gray whale ecology and physiology.
Calambokidis, J., Laake, J., and Perez, A. (2019). Updated analyses of abundance and population structure of seasonal gray whales in the Pacific Northwest, 1996-2017. IWC, SC/A17/GW/05 for the Workshop on the Status of North Pacific Gray Whales. La Jolla: IWC.
By Annie Doron, Undergraduate Intern, Oregon State University, GEMM Laboratory
Hey up! My name is Annie Doron, and I am an undergraduate Environmental Science student from the University of Sheffield (UK) on my study year abroad. One of my main motivations for undertaking this year abroad was to gain experience working in a marine megafauna lab. Whales in particular have always captivated my interest, and I have been lucky enough to observe humpback whales in Iceland and The Azores, and even encountered one whilst diving in Australia! For the past 10 months, I have had the unique opportunity to work in the GEMM Lab analyzing Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) gray whales off the Oregon Coast (Figure 1). I must admit, it has been simply wonderful!
Figure 1. Aerial image of a PCFG gray whale off the Oregon Coast.
How did I end up getting involved with the GEMM Lab? I was first accepted into Scarlett Arbuckle’s research-based class in fall term 2022, which is centered around partnering with a mentor for a research project. Having explored the various fields of research at HMSC, I contacted Leigh Torres with interest in getting involved in the GEMM Lab and to establish a research project suitable for a totally inexperienced, international, undergraduate student. Thankfully, Leigh forwarded my email to KC Bierlich who offered to be my mentor for the class, and the rest is history! I first began analyzing drone imagery to measure length and body condition of PCFG gray whales, which provided an opportunity to get involved with the lab and gain experience using the photogrammetry software MorphoMetriX (Torres & Bierlich, 2020) (see KC’s blog), which is used to make morphometric measurements of whales. Viewing drone imagery of whales sparked my interest in how they use their blowholes (otherwise called ‘nares’) to replenish their oxygen stores; this led to us establishing a research project for the class where we tested if we could use MorphoMetriX to measure blowholes from drone imagery.
Extending this project into winter and spring terms (via research credits) has enabled me to continue working with Leigh and KC, as well as to collaborate with Clara Bird and Jim Sumich. Thanks to KC, who has patiently guided me through the ins and outs of working on a research project, I now feel more confident handling and manipulating large datasets, analyzing drone footage (i.e., differentiating between behavioral states, recording breathing sequences, detecting when a whale is exhaling vs inhaling, etc.), and speaking in public (although I still get pretty bad stage fright, but I think that is a typical conundrum undergrads face). Whatsmore, applying R – a programming language used for statistical analysis and data visualization, which I have been trying to wrap my head around for years – to my own dataset has helped me greatly enhance my skills using it.
So, what exciting things have we been working on this year? Given that we often cannot simply study a whale from inside a laboratory – due to size-related logistical implications – we must use proxies (i.e., a variable that is representative of an immeasurable variable). Since cetaceans must return to the surface to offload carbon dioxide and replenish their oxygen stores, measuring their breath frequency and magnitude is one way to study a whale’s oxygen consumption, in turn offering insight into its energy expenditure (Williams, 1999). Blowholes are one proxy we can use to study breath magnitude. Blowholes can be utilized in this way by measuring inhalation duration (the amount of time a whale is inhaling, which is based on a calculation developed by Jim Sumich) and blowhole area (the total area of a blowhole) to gauge variations in tidal volume (the amount of air flowing in and out of the lungs).
Measuring inhalation duration and blowhole area is important because a larger blowhole area (i.e., one that is more dilated) and a longer inhalation duration is indicative of higher oxygen intake, which can infer stress. For example, in this population, higher stress levels are associated with increased vessel traffic (Lemos et al., 2022), and skinnier whales have higher stress levels compared to chubby, healthy whales (Lemos, Olsen, et al., 2022). Hence, measuring the variation around blowholes could be utilized to predict challenges whales face from climate change and anthropogenic disturbance, including fishing (Scordino et al., 2017) and whale watching industry threats (Sullivan & Torres, 2018) (see Clara’s blog), as well as to inform effective management strategies. Furthermore, measuring the variables inhalation duration and blowhole area could help to identify whether whales are taking larger breaths associated with certain ‘gross behavior states’, otherwise known as ‘primary states’, which include: travel, forage, rest, social (Torres et al., 2018). This could enable us to assess the energetic costs of different foraging tactics (i.e., head standing, side-swimming, and bubble blasting (Torres et al., 2018), as well as consequences of disturbance events, on an individual and population health perspective.
Inhalation duration has been explored in the past by using captive animals. For example, there have been studies on heart rate and breathing of bottlenose dolphins in human care facilities (Blawas et al., 2021; Fahlman et al., 2015). Recently, Nazario et al. (2022) was able to measure inhalation duration and blowhole area using suction-cup video tags. Her study led us to consider if it was possible to measure the parameters and variation around respiration by measuring blowhole area and inhalation duration of PCFGs from drone imagery. We employed MorphoMetriX to study the length, width, and area of a blowhole (Figure 2). Preliminary analyses verified that the areas of the left and right blowholes are very similar (Figure 3); this finding saved us a lot of time because from thereon we only measured either the left or right side. Interestingly, we see some variation in blowhole area within and across individuals (Figure 4). This variation changes within individuals based on primary state. For example, the whales “Glacier”, “Nimbus”, and “Rat” show very little variation whilst traveling but a large amount whilst foraging. Comparatively, “Dice” shows little variation whilst foraging and large variation whilst traveling. Whilst considering cross-individual comparisons, we can see that “Sole”, “Rat”, “Nimbus”, “Heart”, “Glacier”, “Dice”, and “Coal” each exhibit relatively large amounts of variation, yet “Mahalo”, “Luna”, “Harry”, “Hummingbird” and “Batman” exhibit very little. One potential reason for some individuals displaying higher levels of variation than others could be higher levels of exposure to disturbance events that we were unable to measure or evaluate in this study.
Figure 2. How we measured the length, width, and area of a blowhole using MorphoMetriX.
Figure 3. Data driven evidence that the left and the right blowhole areas are very similar.
Figure 4. Variation in blowhole area amongst individual PCFG whales. The hollow circles represent the means, and the color represents the primary state the whale is exhibiting, foraging (purple) vs. traveling (blue), which will be further explored in Clara’s PhD.
Now, we are venturing into June and are at a stage where we (KC, Clara, Jim, Leigh, and I) are preparing to publish a manuscript! What a way to finish such a fantastic year! The transition from a 3-month-long pilot study to a much larger data analysis and eventual preparation for a manuscript has been a monumental learning experience. If anybody had told me a year ago that I would be involved in publishing a body of work – especially one that is so meaningful to me – I would simply not have believed them! We hope this established methodology for measuring blowholes will help other researchers carry out blowhole measurements using drone imagery across different populations and species. Further research is required to explore the differences in inhalation duration and blowhole area between different primary states, specifically across different foraging tactics.
It has been a great privilege working with the GEMM Lab these past months, and I was grateful to be included in their monthly lab meetings, during which members gave updates and we discussed recently published papers. Seeing such an enthusiastic, kind, and empathic group of people working together taught me what working in a supportive lab could look and feel like. In spite of relocating from Corvallis to Bend after my first term, I was happy to be able to continue working remotely for the lab for the remainder of my time (even though I was ~200 miles inland). I thoroughly enjoyed living in Corvallis, highlights of which were scuba diving adventures to the Puget Sound and coastal road trips with friends. The appeal to move arose from Bend’s reputation as an adventure hub – with unlimited opportunities for backcountry ski access – as well as its selection of wildlife ecology courses (with a focus on species specific to central Oregon). I moved into ‘Bunk & Brew’ (Bend’s only hostel, which is more like a big house of friends with occasional hostel guests) on January 1st after returning from spending Christmas with friends in my old home in Banff, Canada. I have since been enjoying this wonderful multifaceted lifestyle; working remotely in the GEMM Lab, attending in-person classes, working part-time at the hostel, as well as skiing volcanoes (Mount Hood, Middle and South Sister (Figure 5) or climbing at Smith Rock during my days off. Inevitably, I do miss the beautiful Oregon coast, and I will always be grateful for this ideal opportunity and hope this year marks the start of my marine megafauna career!
Figure 5. What I get up to when I’m not studying blowholes! (This was taken at 5am on the long approach to Middle and North Sister. North Sister is the peak featured in the backdrop).
Blawas, A. M., Nowacek, D. P., Allen, A. S., Rocho-Levine, J., & Fahlman, A. (2021). Respiratory sinus arrhythmia and submersion bradycardia in bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). Journal of Experimental Biology, 224(1), jeb234096. https://doi.org/10.1242/jeb.234096
Fahlman, A., Loring, S. H., Levine, G., Rocho-Levine, J., Austin, T., & Brodsky, M. (2015). Lung mechanics and pulmonary function testing in cetaceans. Journal of Experimental Biology, 218(13), 2030–2038. https://doi.org/10.1242/jeb.119149
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. (2022). Effects of vessel traffic and ocean noise on gray whale stress hormones. Scientific Reports, 12(1), 18580. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-14510-5
Lemos, L. S., Olsen, A., Smith, A., Burnett, J. D., Chandler, T. E., Larson, S., Hunt, K. E., & Torres, L. G. (2022). Stressed and slim or relaxed and chubby? A simultaneous assessment of gray whale body condition and hormone variability. Marine Mammal Science, 38(2), 801–811. https://doi.org/10.1111/mms.12877
Nazario, E. C., Cade, D. E., Bierlich, K. C., Czapanskiy, M. F., Goldbogen, J. A., Kahane-Rapport, S. R., van der Hoop, J. M., San Luis, M. T., & Friedlaender, A. S. (2022). Baleen whale inhalation variability revealed using animal-borne video tags. PeerJ, 10, e13724. https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.13724
Scordino, J., Carretta, J., Cottrell, P., Greenman, J., Savage, K., & Scordino, J. (2017). Ship Strikes and Entanglements of Gray Whales in the North Pacific Ocean. Cambridge: International Whaling Commission, 1924–2015.
Sullivan, F. A., & Torres, L. G. (2018). Assessment of vessel disturbance to gray whales to inform sustainable ecotourism: Vessel Disturbance to Whales. The Journal of Wildlife Management, 82(5), 896–905. https://doi.org/10.1002/jwmg.21462
Sumich, J. L. (1994). Oxygen extraction in free-swimming gray whale caves. Marine Mammal Science, 10(2), 226–230. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-7692.1994.tb00266.x
Torres, W., & Bierlich, K. (2020). MorphoMetriX: A photogrammetric measurement GUI for morphometric analysis of megafauna. Journal of Open Source Software, 5(45), 1825. https://doi.org/10.21105/joss.01825
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 Science, 5, 319. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2018.00319 Williams, T. M. (1999). The evolution of cost efficient swimming in marine mammals: Limits to energetic optimization. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences, 354(1380), 193–201. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.1999.0371
Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the Effects of Climate Change on the World’s Ocean (ECCWO) conference. This meeting brought together experts from around the world for one week in Bergen, Norway, to gather and share the latest information on how oceans are changing, what is at risk, responses that are underway, and strategies for increasing climate resilience, mitigation, and adaptation. I presented our recent findings from the EMERALD project, which examines gray whale and harbor porpoise distribution in the Northern California Current over the past three decades. Beyond sharing my postdoctoral research widely for the first time and receiving valuable feedback, the ECCWO conference was an incredibly fruitful learning experience. Marine mammals can be notoriously difficult to study, and often the latest methodological approaches or conceptual frameworks take some time to make their way into the marine mammal field. At ECCWO, I was part of discussions at the ground floor of how the scientific community can characterize the impacts of climate change on the ecosystems, species, and communities we study.
One particular theme became increasingly apparent to me throughout the conference: as the oceans warm, what are “anomalous conditions”? There was an interesting dichotomy between presentations focusing on “extreme events,” “no-analog conditions,” or “non-stationary responses,” compared with discussions about the overall trend of increasing temperatures due to climate change. Essentially, the question that kept arising was, what is our frame of reference? When measuring change, how do we define the baseline?
Marine heatwaves have emerged as an increasingly prevalent phenomenon in recent years (see previous GEMM Lab blogs about marine heatwaves here and here). The currently accepted and typically applied definition of a marine heatwave is when water temperatures exceed a seasonal threshold (greater than the 90th percentile) for a given length of time (five consecutive days or longer) (Hobday et al. 2016). These marine heatwaves can have substantial ecosystem-wide impacts including changes in water column structure, primary production, species composition, distribution, and health, and fisheries management such as closures and quota changes (Cavole et al. 2016, Oliver et al. 2018). Through some of our own previous research, we documented that blue whales in Aotearoa New Zealand shifted their distribution (Barlow et al. 2020) and reduced their reproductive effort (Barlow et al. 2023) in response to marine heatwaves. Concerningly, recent projections anticipate an increase in the frequency, intensity, and duration of marine heatwaves under global climate change (Frölicher et al. 2018, Oliver et al. 2018).
However, as the oceans continue to warm, what baseline do we use to define anomalous events like marine heatwaves? Members of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Ecosystem Task Force recently put forward a comment article in Nature, proposing revised definitions for marine heatwaves under climate change, so that coastal communities have the clear information they need to adapt (Amaya et al. 2023). The authors posit that while a “fixed baseline” approach, which compares current conditions to an established period in the past and has been commonly used to-date (Hobday et al. 2016), may be useful in scenarios where a species’ physiological limit is concerned (e.g., coral bleaching), this definition does not incorporate the combined effect of overall warming due to climate change. A “shifting baseline” approach to defining marine heatwaves, in contrast, uses a moving window definition for what is considered “normal” conditions. Therefore, this shifting baseline approach would account for long-term warming, while also calculating anomalous conditions relative to the current state of the system.
Why bother with these seemingly nuanced definitions and differences in terminology, such as fixed versus shifting baselines for defining marine heatwave events? The impacts of these events can be extreme, and potentially bear substantial consequences to ecosystems, species, and coastal communities that rely on marine resources. With the fixed baseline definition, we may be headed toward perpetual heatwave conditions (i.e., it’s almost always hotter than it used to be), at which point disentangling the overall warming trends from these short-term extremes becomes nearly impossible. What the shifting baseline definition means in practice, however, is that in the future temperatures would need to be substantially higher than the historical average in order to qualify as a marine heatwave, which could obscure public perception from the concerning reality of warming oceans. Yet, the authors of the Nature comment article claim, “If everything is extremely warm all of the time, then the term ‘extreme’ loses its meaning. The public might become desensitized to the real threat of marine heatwaves, potentially leading to inaction or a lack of preparedness.” Therefore, clear messaging surrounding both long-term warming and short-term anomalous conditions are critically important for adaptation and resource allocation in the face of rapid environmental change.
While the findings presented and discussed at an international climate change conference could be considered quite disheartening, I left the ECCWO conference feeling re-invigorated with hope. Crown Prince Haakon of Norway gave the opening plenary and articulated that “We need wise and concerned scientists in our search for truth”. Later in the week, I was a co-convenor of a session that gathered early-career ocean professionals, where we discussed themes such as how we deal with uncertainty in our own climate change-related ocean research, and importantly, how do we communicate our findings effectively. Throughout the meeting, I had formal and informal discussions about methods and analytical techniques, and also about what connects each of us to the work that we do. Interacting with driven and dedicated researchers across a broad range of disciplines and career stages gave me some renewed hope for a future of ocean science and marine conservation that is constructive, collaborative, and impactful.
Now, as I am diving back in to understanding the impacts of environmental conditions on harbor porpoise and gray whale habitat use patterns through the EMERALD project, I am keeping these themes and takeaways from the ECCWO conference in mind. The EMERALD project draws on a dataset that is about as old as I am, which gives me some tangible perspective on how things have things changed in the Northern California Current during my lifetime. We are grappling with what “anomalous” conditions are in this dynamic upwelling system on our doorstep, whether these anomalies are even always bad, and how conditions continue to change in terms of cyclical oscillations, long-term trends, and short-term events. Stay tuned for what we’ll find, as we continue to disentangle these intertwined patterns of change.
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Amaya DJ, Jacox MG, Fewings MR, Saba VS, Stuecker MF, Rykaczewski RR, Ross AC, Stock CA, Capotondi A, Petrik CM, Bograd SJ, Alexander MA, Cheng W, Hermann AJ, Kearney KA, Powell BS (2023) Marine heatwaves need clear definitions so coastal communities can adapt. Nature 616:29–32.
Barlow DR, Bernard KS, Escobar-Flores P, Palacios DM, Torres LG (2020) Links in the trophic chain: Modeling functional relationships between in situ oceanography, krill, and blue whale distribution under different oceanographic regimes. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 642:207–225.
Barlow DR, Klinck H, Ponirakis D, Branch TA, Torres LG (2023) Environmental conditions and marine heatwaves influence blue whale foraging and reproductive effort. Ecol Evol 13:e9770.
Cavole LM, Demko AM, Diner RE, Giddings A, Koester I, Pagniello CMLS, Paulsen ML, Ramirez-Valdez A, Schwenck SM, Yen NK, Zill ME, Franks PJS (2016) Biological impacts of the 2013–2015 warm-water anomaly in the northeast Pacific: Winners, losers, and the future. Oceanography 29:273–285.
Frölicher TL, Fischer EM, Gruber N (2018) Marine heatwaves under global warming. Nature 560.
Hobday AJ, Alexander L V., Perkins SE, Smale DA, Straub SC, Oliver ECJ, Benthuysen JA, Burrows MT, Donat MG, Feng M, Holbrook NJ, Moore PJ, Scannell HA, Sen Gupta A, Wernberg T (2016) A hierarchical approach to defining marine heatwaves. Prog Oceanogr.
Oliver ECJ, Donat MG, Burrows MT, Moore PJ, Smale DA, Alexander L V., Benthuysen JA, Feng M, Sen Gupta A, Hobday AJ, Holbrook NJ, Perkins-Kirkpatrick SE, Scannell HA, Straub SC, Wernberg T (2018) Longer and more frequent marine heatwaves over the past century. Nat Commun 9:1–12.
It’s a tale as old as time: where there’s prey, there’ll be predators.
As apex predators, cetaceans act as top-down regulators of ecosystem function. While baleen whales act as “ecosystem engineers,” facilitating nutrient cycling in the ocean (Roman et al., 2014), toothed whales, or “odontocetes,” can impart keystone-level effects — that is, they disproportionately control the marine community’s food-web structure (Valls, Coll, & Christensen, 2015). The menus of prey vary widely by species — ranging from mircronekton to fish to squid – and by extension, vary widely across trophic levels.
So, it naturally follows the old adage: where there’s an abundance of prey, there’ll be an abundance of cetaceans. Yet, creating models that accurately depict this predator-prey relationship is, perhaps unsurprisingly, not as straightforward.
Detecting the ‘Predator’ Half of the Equation
Scientists have successfully documented cetacean presence drawing upon a myriad of methods, each bearing its unique advantages and limitations.
Visual surveys — spanning viewpoints from land, boats, and air — can attain precise spatial data and species ID. However, this data can be constrained by “availability bias” — that is, scientists can only observe cetaceans visible at the surface, not those obscured by the ocean’s depths. Species that spend less time near the surface are more likely to elude the observer’s line of sight, thereby being missed in the data. Consequently, visual surveys have historically undersampled deep-diving species. For instance, since its discovery by western science in 1945, the Hubb’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon carlshubbi) has only been observed alive twice by OSU MMI’s very own Bob Pitman, once in 1994 and another time in 2021.
Scientists have also been increasingly conducting acoustic surveys to document cetacean presence. Acoustic recorders can “hear” each cetacean species at different ranges. Baleen whales, which bellow low-frequency calls, can be heard as far as across ocean basins (Munk et al., 1994). Toothed whales whistle, echolocate, and buzz at frequencies so high they’re considered ultrasonic. But it comes at a trade-off: high-frequency sounds have shorter wavelengths, meaning they are heard across smaller ranges. This high variability, which scientists refer to as “detection range,” translates to not always knowing where the vocalizing cetacean that was recorded is: as such, acoustic data can lack the high-resolution spatial precision often achieved by visual surveys. Nevertheless, acoustic data triumphs in temporal extent, sometimes managing to record continuously at six months at a time. Additionally, animals can elude visual detection in poor weather conditions or if they have a cryptic surface expression, but detected in acoustic surveys (e.g., North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) (Ganley, Brault, & Mayo, 2019; Clark et. al, 2010). Thus, acoustic surveys may be especially optimal for recording elusive deep-dwellers that occupy the often rough Oregon waters, such as beaked whales, the focus of my research in collaboration with the GEMM Lab.
Detecting the ‘Prey’ Half of the Equation
Prey can be measured by numerous methods. Most directly, prey can be measured “in-situ” — that is, prey is collected directly from the site where the cetaceans are detected or observed. A 2020 study combined fish trawls with a towed hydrophone array to identify which fish species odontocetes along the continental shelf of West Ireland (e.g., pilot whales, sperm whales, and Sowerby’s beaked whales) were feasting; the results found that odontocetes primarily fed upon mesopelagic fish and cephalopods (Breen et al., 2020). While trawls can glean species ID of prey, associating this prey data with depth and biomass can prove challenging.
Alternatively, prey can be detected via active acoustics. Echosounders release an acoustic signal that descends through the water column and then echoes back once it hits a sound-scattering organism. Beaked whales forage within deep scattering layers typically composed of myctophid fish and squid, both of which can echo back echosounder pings (Hazen et al., 2011). Thus, echosounder data can map prey density through the water column. When mapping prey density of beaked whales, Hazen et al. 2011 found a strong positive correlation among prey density, ocean vertical structure, and clicks primarily produced while foraging – suggesting beaked whales forage at depth when encountering large, multi-species aggregations of prey.
Most relevant to the HALO Project, prey is measured using proximate indices, which are more easily quantifiable metrics of ocean conditions, such as collected from ships via CTD casts or via satellite imagery, that are indirectly related to prey abundance. CTD data can provide information related to the water column structure, including depth and strength of the thermocline, depth of the mixed layer, depth of the euphotic zone, and total chlorophyll concentration in the euphotic zone (Redfern et al. 2006). Satellite imagery can characterize the dynamic patterns of the surface later, including sea surface temperature (SST), salinity, surface chlorophyll a, sea surface height (SSH), and sea surface currents (Virgili et al., 2022; Redfern et al., 2006). Ocean model data products can, such as the Regional Ocean Modeling System (ROMS) which models how an oceanic region of interest responds to physical processes, can provide water column variables related to eddy kinetic energy (EKE) and average temperature gradients (Virgili et al., 2022). In the case of my research with the HALO Project, we will be using oceanographic data collected through the Ocean Observatories Initiative to inform odontocete species distribution models.
Connecting the Dots: Linking Deep-Dwelling Top Predators and Prey
While scientists have made significant advances with collecting both cetacean and prey data, connecting the dots between the ecology of deep-dwelling odontocetes and the oceanographic parameters indicative of their prey still remains a challenge.
In the absence of in situ sampling, species distribution models of marine top predators often derive proxies for “prey data” from static bathymetric and dynamic surface water variables (Virgili et al., 2022). However, surface variables may be irrelevant to toothed whale prey inhabiting great depths (Virgili et al., 2022). Within the HALO Project, the deepest Rockhopper acoustic recording unit is recording odontocetes at nearly 3,000 m below the surface, putting into question the relevance of oceanographic parameters collected at the surface.
In my research, I am setting out to estimate which oceanographic variables are optimal for explaining deep-dwelling odontocete presence. A 2022 study using visual survey data found that surface, subsurface, and static variables best explained beaked whale presence, whereas only surface and deep-water variables – not static – best explained sperm whale presence (Virgili et al., 2022). These results are associated with each species’ distinct foraging ecologies; beaked whales may truly only rely on organisms that live near the seabed, whereas sperm whales also feast upon meso-to-bathypelagic organisms, so they may be more sensitive to changes in water column conditions (Virgili et al., 2022). This study expanded the narrative: deep-water variables can also be key to predicting deep-dwelling odontocete presence. The oceanographic variables must be tailored to the ecology of each species of interest.
In the months ahead, I seek to build on this study by investigating which parameters best predict odontocete presence using an acoustic approach instead — I am looking forward to the results to come!
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