New publication by GEMM Lab reveals sub-population health differences in gray whales 

Dr. KC Bierlich, Postdoctoral Scholar, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, & Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna (GEMM) Lab

In a previous blog, I discussed the importance of incorporating measurement uncertainty in drone-based photogrammetry, as drones with different sensors, focal length lenses, and altimeters will have varying levels of measurement accuracy. In my last blog, I discussed how to incorporate photogrammetric uncertainty when combining multiple measurements to estimate body condition of baleen whales. In this blog, I will highlight our recent publication in Frontiers in Marine Science ( led by GEMM Lab’s Dr. Leigh TorresClara Bird, and myself that used these methods in a collaborative study using imagery from four different drones to compare gray whale body condition on their breeding and feeding grounds (Torres et al., 2022).

Most Eastern North Pacific (ENP) gray whales migrate to their summer foraging grounds in Alaska and the Arctic, where they target benthic amphipods as prey. A subgroup of gray whales (~230 individuals) called the Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG), instead truncates their migration and forages along the coastal habitats between Northern California and British Columbia, Canada (Fig. 1). Evidence from a recent study lead by GEMM Lab’s Lisa Hildebrand (see this blog) found that the caloric content of prey in the PCFG range is of equal or higher value than the main amphipod prey in the Arctic/sub-Arctic regions (Hildebrand et al., 2021). This implies that greater prey density and/or lower energetic costs of foraging in the Arctic/sub-Arctic may explain the greater number of whales foraging in that region compared to the PCFG range. Both groups of gray whales spend the winter months on their breeding and calving grounds in Baja California, Mexico. 

Figure 1. The GEMM Lab field team following a Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) gray whale swimming in a kelp bed along the Oregon Coast during the summer foraging season. 

In January 2019 an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) was declared for gray whales due to the elevated numbers of stranded gray whales between Mexico and the Arctic regions of Alaska. Most of the stranded whales were emaciated, indicating that reduced nutrition and starvation may have been the causal factor of death. It is estimated that the population dropped from ~27,000 individuals in 2016 to ~21,000 in 2020 (Stewart & Weller, 2021).

During this UME period, between 2017-2019, the GEMM Lab was using drones to monitor the body condition of PCFG gray whales on their Oregon coastal feeding grounds (Fig. 1), while Christiansen and colleagues (2020) was using drones to monitor gray whales on their breeding grounds in San Ignacio Lagoon (SIL) in Baja California, Mexico. We teamed up with Christiansen and colleagues to compare the body condition of gray whales in these two different areas leading up to the UME. Comparing the body condition between these two populations could help inform which population was most effected by the UME.

The combined datasets consisted of four different drones used, thus different levels of photogrammetric uncertainty to consider. The GEMM Lab collected data using a DJI Phantom 3 Pro, DJI Phantom 4, and DJI Phantom 4 Pro, while Christiansen et al., (2020) used a DJI Inspire 1 Pro. By using the methodological approach described in my previous blog (here, also see Bierlich et al., 2021a for more details), we quantified photogrammetric uncertainty specific to each drone, allowing cross-comparison between these datasets. We also used Body Area Index (BAI), which is a standardized relative measure of body condition developed by the GEMM Lab (Burnett et al., 2018) that has low uncertainty with high precision, making it easier to detect smaller changes between individuals (see blog here, Bierlich et al., 2021b). 

While both PCFG and ENP gray whales visit San Ignacio Lagoon in the winter, we assume that the photogrammetry data collected in the lagoon is mostly of ENP whales based on their considerably higher population abundance. We also assume that gray whales incur low energetic cost during migration, as gray whale oxygen consumption rates and derived metabolic rates are much lower during migration than on foraging grounds (Sumich, 1983). 

Interestingly, we found that gray whale body condition on their wintering grounds in San Ignacio Lagoon deteriorated across the study years leading up to the UME (2017-2019), while the body condition of PCFG whales on their foraging grounds in Oregon concurrently increased. These contrasting trajectories in body condition between ENP and PCFG whales implies that dynamic oceanographic processes may be contributing to temporal variability of prey available in the Arctic/sub-Arctic and PCFG range. In other words, environmental conditions that control prey availability for gray whales are different in the two areas. For the ENP population, this declining nutritive gain may be associated with environmental changes in the Arctic/sub-Arctic region that impacted the predictability and availability of prey. For the PCFG population, the increase in body condition across years may reflect recovery of the NE Pacific Ocean from the marine heatwave event in 2014-2016 (referred to as “The Blob”) that resulted with a period of low prey availability. These findings also indicate that the ENP population was primarily impacted in the die-off from the UME. 

Surprisingly, the body condition of PCFG gray whales in Oregon was regularly and significantly lower than whales in San Ignacio Lagoon (Fig. 2). To further investigate this potential intrinsic difference in body condition between PCFG and ENP whales, we compared opportunistic photographs of gray whales feeding in the Northeastern Chukchi Sea (NCS) in the Arctic collected from airplane surveys. We found that the body condition of PCFG gray whales was significantly lower than whales in the NCS, further supporting our finding that PCFG whales overall have lower body condition than ENP whales that feed in the Arctic (Fig. 3). 

Figure 2. Boxplots showing the distribution of Body Area Index (BAI) values for gray whales imaged by drones in San Ignacio Lagoon (SIL), Mexico and Oregon, USA. The data is grouped by phenology group: End of summer feeding season (departure Oregon vs. arrival SIL) and End of wintering season (arrival Oregon vs. departure SIL). The group median (horizontal line), interquartile range (IQR, box), maximum and minimum 1.5*IQR (vertical lines), and outliers (dots) are depicted in the boxplots. The overlaid points represent the mean of the posterior predictive distribution for BAI of an individual and the bars represents the uncertainty (upper and lower bounds of the 95% HPD interval). Note how PCFG whales at then end of the feeding season (dark green) typically have lower body condition (as BAI) compared to ENP whales at the end of the feeding season when they arrive to SIL after migration (light brown).
Figure 3. Boxplots showing the distribution of Body Area Index (BAI) values of gray whales from opportunistic images collected from a plane in Northeaster Chukchi Sea (NCS) and from drones collected by the GEMM Lab in Oregon. The boxplots display the group median (horizontal line), interquartile range (IQR box), maximum and minimum 1.5*IQR (vertical lines), and outlies (dots). The overlaid points are the BAI values from each image. Note the significantly lower BAI of PCFG whales on Oregon feeding grounds compared to whales feeding in the Arctic region of the NCS.

This difference in body condition between PCFG and ENP gray whales raises some really interesting and prudent questions. Does the lower body condition of PCFG whales make them less resilient to changes in prey availability compared to ENP whales, and thus more vulnerable to climate change? If so, could this influence the reproductive capacity of PCFG whales? Or, are whales that recruit into the PCFG adapted to a smaller morphology, perhaps due to their specialized foraging tactics, which may be genetically inherited and enables them to survive with reduced energy stores?

These questions are on our minds here at the GEMM Lab as we prepare for our seventh consecutive field season using drones to collect data on PCFG gray whale body condition. As discussed in a previous blog by Dr. Alejandro Fernandez Ajo, we are combining our sightings history of individual whales, fecal hormone analyses, and photogrammetry-based body condition to better understand gray whales’ reproductive biology and help determine what the consequences are for these PCFG whales with lower body condition.

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Bierlich, K. C., Hewitt, J., Bird, C. N., Schick, R. S., Friedlaender, A., Torres, L. G., … & 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, 1729.

Bierlich, K. C., Schick, R. S., Hewitt, J., Dale, J., Goldbogen, J. A., Friedlaender, A.S., et al. (2021b). Bayesian Approach for Predicting Photogrammetric Uncertainty in Morphometric Measurements Derived From Drones. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 673, 193–210. doi: 10.3354/meps13814

Burnett, J. D., Lemos, L., Barlow, D., Wing, M. G., Chandler, T., & Torres, L. G. (2018). Estimating morphometric attributes of baleen whales with photogrammetry from small UASs: A case study with blue and gray whales. Marine Mammal Science35(1), 108–139.

Christiansen, F., Rodrı́guez-González, F., Martı́nez-Aguilar, S., Urbán, J., Swartz, S., Warick, H., et al. (2021). Poor Body Condition Associated With an Unusual Mortality Event in Gray Whales. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 658, 237–252. doi:10.3354/meps13585

Hildebrand, L., Bernard, K. S., and 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. Front. Mar. Sci. 8. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2021.683634

Stewart, J. D., and Weller, D. (2021). Abundance of Eastern North Pacific Gray Whales 2019/2020 (San Diego, CA: NOAA/NMFS)

Sumich, J. L. (1983). Swimming Velocities, Breathing Patterns, and Estimated Costs of Locomotion in Migrating Gray Whales, Eschrichtius Robustus. Can. J. Zoology. 61, 647–652. doi: 10.1139/z83-086

Torres, L.G., Bird, C., Rodrigues-Gonzáles, F., Christiansen F., Bejder, L., Lemos, L., Urbán Ramírez, J., Swartz, S., Willoughby, A., Hewitt., J., Bierlich, K.C. (2022). Range-wide comparison of gray whale body condition reveals contrasting sub-population health characteristics and vulnerability to environmental change. Frontiers in Marine Science. 9:867258.

Hope lies in cooperation: the story of a happy whale!

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

I wrote my last blogpost in the midst of winter and feeling overwhelmed as I was trying to fly to the US at the peak of the omicron pandemic… Since then, morale has improved exponentially. I have spent two months in the company of my delightful GEMM lab friends, nerding over statistics, sharing scientific conversations, drinking (good!) beer and enjoying the company of this great group of people. During that stay, I was able to focus on my OPAL project more than I have ever been able to, as I set myself the goal of not getting distracted by anything else during my stay in Newport.

The only one distraction that I do not regret is a post I read one morning on the Cetal Fauna Facebook page, a group of cetacean experts and lovers who share news, opinions, photos… anything cetacean related! Someone was posting a photo of a humpback whale stranded in the 1990s’ on Peregian beach, on the east coast of Australia, which is known as a major humpback whale migratory corridor. The story said that (probably with considerable effort) the whale was refloated by many different individuals and organizations present at the beach on that day, specifically Sea World Research, Rescue & Conservation.

I felt very touched by this story and the photo that illustrated it (Figure 1). Seeing all these people come together in this risky operation to save this sea giant is quite something. And the fact that they succeeded was even more impressive! Indeed, baleen whales strand less commonly than toothed whales but their chances of survival when they do so are minimal. In addition to the actual potential damages that might have caused the whale to strand in the first place (entanglements, collisions, diseases etc.), the beaching itself is likely to hurt the animal in a permanent way as their body collapses under their own weight usually causing a cardiovascular failure (e.g., Fernández et al., 2005)⁠. The rescue of baleen whales is also simply impaired by the sheer size and weight of these animals. Compared to smaller toothed whales such as pilot whales and false killer whales that happen to strand quite frequently over some coastlines, baleen whales are almost impossible to move off the beach and getting close to them when beached can be very dangerous for responders. For these reasons, I found very few reports and publications mentioning successful rescues of beached baleen whales (e.g., Priddel and Wheeler, 1997; Neves et al., 2020).⁠

Figure 1: Stranded humpback whale in Peregian Beach, East Australia, on Aug 16th 1991. Look at the size of the fluke compared to the men who are trying to rescue her! Luckily, that risky operation ended well. Credit: Sea World Research, Rescue and Conservation. Photo posted by P. Garbett on – February 26, 2022)

Now the story gets even better… the following day I received an email from Ted Cheeseman, director and co-founder of Happywhale, a collaborative citizen science tool to share and match photographes of cetaceans (initially only humpback whales but has extended to other species) to recognize individuals based on the unique patterns of the their fluke or dorsal fin. The fluke of the whale stranded in Australia in 1991 had one and only match within the Happywhale immense dataset… and that match was to a whale seen in New Caledonia (Figure 2). “HNC338” was the one!

Figure 2: Happy whale page showing the match of HNC338 between East Australia and New Caledonia.;enc=284364?fbclid=IwAR1QEG_6JkpH_k2UrF-qp-9qrOboHYakKjlTj0lLbDFygjN5JugkkKVeMQw

Since I conducted my PhD on humpback whale spatial ecology in New Caledonia, I have continued working on a number of topics along with my former PhD supervisor, Dr Claire Garrigue, in New Caledonia. Although I do not remember each and every whale from her catalogue (composed of more than 1600 humpback whales as of today), I do love a good “whale tale” and I was eager to know who this HNC338 was. I quickly looked into Claire’s humpback whale database and sure enough I found it there: encountered at the end of the 2006 breeding season on September 12th, at a position of 22°26.283’S and 167°01.991’E and followed for an hour. Field notes reported a shy animal that kept the boat at a distance. But most of all, HNC338 was genetically identified as a female and was accompanied by a calf during that season! The calf was particularly big, as expected at this time of the season. What an inspiring thing to think that this whale, stranded in 1991, was resighted 15 years later in a neighboring breeding ground, apparently healthy and raising a calf of her own.

As genetic paternity analysis have been conducted on many New Caledonia calf biopsy samples as part of the Sexy Singing project conducted with our colleagues from St Andrews University in Scotland, we might be able to identify the calf’s father in this breeding stock. Thanks to the great amount of data shared and collected through Happywhale, we are discovering more and more about whale migratory patterns and behavior. It might as well be that this calf’s father was one of those whales that seem to roam over several different breeding grounds (New Caledonia and East Australia). This story is far from finished…

Figure 3: A (pretty bad!) photo of HNC338’s fluke. Luckily the Happywhale matching algorithm is very efficient and was able to detect the similarities of the fluke’s trailing edge compared to figure 1 (Cheeseman et al., 2021)⁠. Also of note, see that small dorsal fin popping out of the waters behind big mama’s fluke? That’s her calf!

From the people who pulled this whale back into the water in 1991, to the scientists and cetacean enthusiasts who shared their data and whale photos online, this story once again shows us that hope lies in cooperation! Happywhale was only created in 2015 but since then it has brought together the general public and the scientists to contribute over 465,000 photos allowing the identification of 75,000 different individuals around the globe. In New Caledonia, in Oregon and elsewhere, I hope that these collective initiatives grow more and more in the future, to the benefit of biodiversity and people.

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Cheeseman, T., Southerland, K., Park, J., Olio, M., Flynn, K., Calambokidis, J., et al. (2021). Advanced image recognition: a fully automated, high-accuracy photo-identification matching system for humpback whales. Mamm. Biol. doi:10.1007/s42991-021-00180-9.

Fernández, A., Edwards, J. F., Rodríguez, F., Espinosa De Los Monteros, A., Herráez, P., Castro, P., et al. (2005). “Gas and fat embolic syndrome” involving a mass stranding of beaked whales (Family Ziphiidae) exposed to anthropogenic sonar signals. Vet. Pathol. 42, 446–457. doi:10.1354/vp.42-4-446.

Neves, M. C., Neto, H. G., Cypriano-Souza, A. L., da Silva, B. M. G., de Souza, S. P., Marcondes, M. C. C., et al. (2020). Humpback whale (megaptera novaeangliae) resighted eight years after stranding. Aquat. Mamm. 46, 483–487. doi:10.1578/AM.46.5.2020.483.

Priddel, D., and Wheeler, R. (1997). Rescue of a Bryde’s whale Balaenoptera edeni entrapped in the Manning River, New South Wales: Unmitigated success or unwarranted intervention? Aust. Zool. 30, 261–271. doi:10.7882/AZ.1997.002.

Marine megafauna as ecosystem sentinels: What animals can tell us about changing oceans

By Dawn Barlow1 and Will Kennerley2

1PhD Candidate, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

2MS Student, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Seabird Oceanography Lab

The marine environment is dynamic, and mobile animals must respond to the patchy and ephemeral availability of resource in order to make a living (Hyrenbach et al. 2000). Climate change is making ocean ecosystems increasingly unstable, yet these novel conditions can be difficult to document given the vast depth and remoteness of most ocean locations. Marine megafauna species such as marine mammals and seabirds integrate ecological processes that are often difficult to observe directly, by shifting patterns in their distribution, behavior, physiology, and life history in response to changes in their environment (Croll et al. 1998, Hazen et al. 2019). These mobile marine animals now face additional challenges as rising temperatures due to global climate change impact marine ecosystems worldwide (Hazen et al. 2013, Sydeman et al. 2015, Silber et al. 2017, Becker et al. 2019). Given their mobility, visibility, and integration of ocean processes across spatial and temporal scales, these marine predator species have earned the reputation as effective ecosystem sentinels. As sentinels, they have the capacity to shed light on ecosystem function, identify risks to human health, and even predict future changes (Hazen et al. 2019). So, let’s explore a few examples of how studying marine megafauna has revealed important new insights, pointing toward the importance of monitoring these sentinels in a rapidly changing ocean.

Cairns (1988) is often credited as first promoting seabirds as ecosystem sentinels and noted several key reasons why they were perfect for this role: (1) Seabirds are abundant, wide-ranging, and conspicuous, (2) although they feed at sea, they must return to land to nest, allowing easier observation and quantification of demographic responses, often at a fraction of the cost of traditional, ship-based oceanographic surveys, and therefore (3) parameters such as seabird reproductive success or activity budgets may respond to changing environmental conditions and provide researchers with metrics by which to assess the current state of that ecosystem.

The unprecedented 2014-2016 North Pacific marine heatwave (“the Blob”) caused extreme ecosystem disruption over an immense swath of the ocean (Cavole et al. 2016). Seabirds offered an effective and morbid indication of the scale of this disruption: Common murres (Uria aalge), an abundant and widespread fish-eating seabird, experienced widespread breeding failure across the North Pacific. Poor reproductive performance suggested that there may have been fewer small forage fish around and that these changes occurred at a large geographic scale. The Blob reached such an extreme as to kill immense numbers of adult birds, which professional and community scientists found washed up on beach-surveys; researchers estimate that an incredible 1,200,000 murres may have died from starvation during this period (Piatt et al. 2020). While the average person along the Northeast Pacific Coast during this time likely didn’t notice any dramatic difference in the ocean, seabirds were shouting at us that something was terribly wrong.

Happily, living seabirds also act as superb ecosystem sentinels. Long-term research in the Gulf of Maine by U.S. and Canadian scientists monitors the prey species provisioned by adult seabirds to their chicks. Will has spent countless hours over five summers helping to conduct this research by watching terns (Sterna spp.) and Atlantic puffins (Fratercula arctica) bring food to their young on small islands off the Maine coast. After doing this work for multiple years, it’s easy to notice that what adults feed their chicks varies from year to year. It was soon realized that these data could offer insight into oceanographic conditions and could even help managers assess the size of regional fish stocks. One of the dominant prey species in this region is Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus), which also happens to be the focus of an economically important fishery.  While the fishery targets four or five-year-old adult herring, the seabirds target smaller, younger herring. By looking at the relative amounts and sizes of young herring collected by these seabirds in the Gulf of Maine, these data can help predict herring recruitment and the relative number of adult herring that may be available to fishers several years in the future (Scopel et al. 2018).  With some continued modelling, the work that we do on a seabird colony in Maine with just a pair of binoculars can support or maybe even replace at least some of the expensive ship-based trawl surveys that are now a popular means of assessing fish stocks.

A common tern (Sterna hirundo) with a young Atlantic herring from the Gulf of Maine, ready to feed its chick (Photo courtesy of the National Audubon Society’s Seabird Institute)

For more far-ranging and inaccessible marine predators such as whales, measuring things such as dietary shifts can be more challenging than it is for seabirds. Nevertheless, whales are valuable ecosystem sentinels as well. Changes in the distribution and migration phenology of specialist foragers such as blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) and North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) can indicate relative changes in the distribution and abundance of their zooplankton prey and underlying ocean conditions (Hazen et al. 2019). In the case of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, their recent declines in reproductive success reflect a broader regime shift in climate and ocean conditions. Reduced copepod prey has resulted in fewer foraging opportunities and changing foraging grounds, which may be insufficient for whales to obtain necessary energetic stores to support calving (Gavrilchuk et al. 2021, Meyer-Gutbrod et al. 2021). These whales assimilate and showcase the broad-scale impacts of climate change on the ecosystem they inhabit.

Blue whales that feed in the rich upwelling system off the coast of California rely on the availability of their krill prey to support the population (Croll et al. 2005). A recent study used acoustic monitoring of blue whale song to examine the timing of annual population-level transition from foraging to breeding migration compared to oceanographic variation, and found that flexibility in timing may be a key adaptation to persistence of this endangered population facing pressures of rapid environmental change (Oestreich et al. 2022). Specifically, blue whales delayed the transition from foraging to breeding migration in years of the highest and most persistent biological productivity from upwelling, and therefore listening to the vocalizations of these whales may be valuable indicator of the state of productivity in the ecosystem.

Figure reproduced from Oestreich et al. 2022, showing relationships between blue whale life-history transition and oceanographic phenology of foraging habitat. Timing of the behavioral transition from foraging to migration (day of year on the y-axis) is compared to (a) the date of upwelling onset; (b) the date of peak upwelling; and (c) total upwelling accumulated from the spring transition to the end of the upwelling season.

In a similar vein, research by the GEMM Lab on blue whale ecology in New Zealand has linked their vocalizations known as D calls to upwelling conditions, demonstrating that these calls likely reflect blue whale foraging opportunities (Barlow et al. 2021). In ongoing analyses, we are finding that these foraging-related calls were drastically reduced during marine heatwave conditions, which we know altered blue whale distribution in the region (Barlow et al. 2020). Now, for the final component of Dawn’s PhD, she is linking year-round environmental conditions to the occurrence patterns of different blue whale vocalization types, hoping to shed light on ecosystem processes by listening to the signals of these ecosystem sentinels.

A blue whale comes up for air in the South Taranaki Bight of New Zealand. photo by L. Torres.

It is important to understand the widespread implications of the rapidly warming climate and changing ocean conditions on valuable and vulnerable marine ecosystems. The cases explored here in this blog exemplify the importance of monitoring these marine megafauna sentinel species, both now and into the future, as they reflect the health of the ecosystems they inhabit.

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Social turmoil due to the approval of an offshore oil exploration project off the coast of Argentina.

Dr. Alejandro A. Fernández Ajó, Postdoctoral Scholar, Marine Mammal Institute – OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, & Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna (GEMM) Lab.

I just returned to my home country, Argentina, after over 2 years without leaving the USA due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. Being back with my family, my friends, my culture, and speaking my native language feels great and relaxing. However, I returned to a country struggling to rebound from the coronavirus pandemic. I am afraid this post pandemic scenario places Argentina in a vulnerable situation. The need for economic growth could result in decisions or policies that, in the long term, hurt the country, leaving environmental damage for potential economic growth.

Argentina holds extensive oil and gas deposits, including the world’s second largest gas formation, Vaca Muerta. Although offshore (i.e., in the ocean) oil exploration and exploitation are not yet extensively developed, the intention of offshore gas and oil drilling is on the agenda. In July 2021, a public hearing was held with the purpose to consider the environmental impact assessment for carrying out seismic exploration in the North Argentinian basin off the southern coast of the Buenos Aires province. Over 90% of the participants, including scientists, researchers, technicians from various institutions, non-governmental organizations and representatives of the fishing sector spoke against the project and highlighted the negative impacts that such activity can generate on marine life, and to other socioeconomic activities such as tourism and fishing, not only in Argentina but at the regional level.

Thousands of people marched along the beaches and the main coastal cities of Argentina to protest against the approval for a seismic explorations project in the Argentinian basin. Photo source:

Seismic prospections are usually done with the purpose for oil and gas exploitation and less frequently for research purposes. In seismic prospections, ships carry out explosions with airguns, whose sound waves reach the seabed, bounce back and are captured by receivers on the ships to map the petroleum deposits in seafloor and identify potential areas for hydrocarbon extractions. The sound emitted by the seismic airguns can reach extremely loud levels of sounds that travel for thousands of miles underwater. Such extreme high levels of sound can alter the behavior of many marine species, from the smallest planktonic species, to the largest marine mammals, masking their communication, causing physical and physiological stress, interfering with their vital functions, and reducing the local availability of prey (Di Iorio & Clark, 2010; Hildebrand, 2009; Weilgart, 2018).

Here you can listen to a short audio clip of a seismic airgun firing every ~8 seconds, a typical pattern. Close your eyes and imagine you are a whale living in this environment. Now, put the clip on loop and play it for three months straight. This would be the soundscape that whales living in a region of oil and gas exploration hear, as seismic surveys often last 1-4 months (see our previous post “Hearing is believing” for more details).

Despite the public rejection and the mounting evidence about the negative impacts and environmental risks associated with such activities, the government approved the initiation of the seismic prospection off the southern coast of Buenos Aires. In response, thousands of people marched along the beaches and the main coastal cities of Argentina to protest against the oil exploration project. The areas where the seismic surveys will be carried out overlap largely with the southern right whale’s migration routes and feeding areas during their spring and summer (Figure 1). Likewise, the area overlaps with highly productive areas in the ocean that hosts great biodiversity of species of ecological and commercial importance, including the feeding areas of seabirds, turtles and other marine mammals. Additionally, the seismic activity will endanger the health of the beaches of the coast of Buenos Aires and Uruguay where thousands of tourists spend the summer to escape from the large cities.

Figure 1. The map on the left is showing (light blue squares CAN_100, CAN_108, and CAN_114) the areas where seismic prospections are proposes. The map on the right is showing the individual satellite track lines for eleven individual southern right whales (SRW) during the feeding season. You can observe that the proposed area for seismic explorations overlaps with critical feeding habitat for the SRW. Source: Whale Conservation Institute of Argentina (ICB).

The impacts of these activities to marine wildlife are difficult to control and monitor (Elliott et al. 2019, Gordon et al, 2003), especially for large whales that are a very challenging taxa to study (Hunt et al. 2013). We know that the ability to perceive biologically important sounds is critical to marine mammals, and acoustic disturbance through human-generated noise can interfere with their natural functions. Sounds from seismic surveys are intense and have peak frequency bands overlapping those used by baleen whales (Di Lorio & Clark, 2010); however, evidence of interference with baleen whale acoustic communication, and the effects on their health and physiology are sparse. In this context, the GEMM Lab project GRANITE (Gray Whale Response to Ambient Noise Informed by Technology and Ecology), plans to generate information to fulfill these knowledge gaps and provide tools to aid conservation and management decisions in terms of allowable noise level in whale habitats. I am hopeful such information will reach decision makers and influence their decisions, however, sometimes it is frustrating to see how evidence-based information generated with high quality standards are often ignored.

The recent approval of the seismic exploration in Argentina is an example of my frustration. There is no way that the oil industry can guarantee a low-risk of impact on biodiversity and the environment. There are too many examples of environmental catastrophes related to the oil industries at sea that speak for themselves. Moreover, the promotion of such activities goes against the compromises assumed by the country to work to mitigate the effects of Climate Change, and to achieve the reductions of the greenhouse gas emissions to comply with the Paris Agreement. Decades of research help recognized the areas that would be impacted by these seismic activities as key habitat for the life cycle of whales, penguins, seals and more. But, apparently all these scientific data are ignored at the time of weighing the tradeoffs between “economic development” and environmental impacts. As a conservation biologist, I am questioning what can be done in order to be heard and significantly influence such decisions.

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  • Di Iorio, L., & Clark, C. W. (2010). Exposure to seismic survey alters blue whale acoustic communication. Biology Letters, 6(1), 51–54.
  • Weilgart, L. (2018). The impact of ocean noise pollution on fish and invertebrates. Report for OceanCare, Switzerland.
  • Elliott, B. W., Read, A. J., Godley, B. J., Nelms, S. E., & Nowacek, D. P. (2019). Critical information gaps remain in understanding impacts of industrial seismic surveys on marine vertebrates. In Endangered Species Research (Vol. 39, pp. 247–254). Inter-Research.
  • Gordon, J., Gillespie, D., Potter, J., Frantzis, A., Simmonds, M. P., Swift, R., & Thompson, D. (2003). A review of the effects of seismic surveys on marine mammals. Marine Technology Society Journal37(4), 16-34.
  • Hunt, K. E., Moore, M. J., Rolland, R. M., Kellar, N. M., Hall, A. J., Kershaw, J., Raverty, S. A., Davis, C. E., Yeates, L. C., Fauquier, D. A., Rowles, T. K., & Kraus, S. D. (2013). Overcoming the challenges of studying conservation physiology in large whales: a review of available methods. Conservation Physiology, cot006–cot006.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 2. An asp viper

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

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

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

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

Madsen, T., & Shine, R. (1999). The adjustment of reproductive threshold to prey abundance in a capital breeder. Journal of Animal Ecology68(3), 571–580.

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

Rahman, M. M., Kelley, J. L., & Evans, J. P. (2013). Condition-dependent expression of pre- and postcopulatory sexual traits in guppies. Ecology and Evolution3(7), 2197–2213.

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

Stelle, L. L., Megill, W. M., & Kinzel, M. R. (2008). Activity budget and diving behavior of gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) in feeding grounds off coastal British Columbia. Marine Mammal Science24(3), 462–478.

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

Let me introduce you to… dugongs!

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

Today let me take you on a journey into the tropical waters of the Indo-Pacific Ocean, far from Oregon’s beautiful coasts. Although I have been working as a postdoc on the OPAL project for a year, the pandemic has prevented me from moving to the US as planned. Like so many around the globe, I have been working remotely from my study area (Oregon coastal waters), imagining my study species (blue, fin and humpback whales) gently swimming and feeding along the productive California Current system. One day, I’ll get to see these amazing animals for real, that’s for sure.

But in the meantime, I have taken this year as an opportunity to work with the GEMM lab, while continuing to enjoy the marvels of New Caledonia, a French overseas territory where I have lived for more than 6 years now. Among the animals that I get to approach and observe regularly in the coral reef lagoons that surround the island, the dugong (Dugon dugon) is perhaps the most emblematic and intriguing. This marine mammal is listed as vulnerable in the IUCN Red list of threatened species and has been the focus of important research and conservation efforts in New Caledonia over the last two decades1–3. During my previous post-doctoral position at the French Institute of Research for Sustainable Development, I contributed to some recent research involving satellite tracking of dugongs in the region. This work has led to a publication, now in review4, and will be the topic of my oral presentation at the 7th International Bio-Logging Science Symposium hosted in Hawaii in a couple weeks.

While I was analyzing dugong satellite tracks, writing this paper with my colleagues and preparing for the symposium, I learned a lot about these strange “sea cows”. Dugongs belong to the Sirenian marine mammal order, just like manatees (West Indian, Amazonian and West African species), which they are often mistaken for (watch out: Google Images will misleadingly suggest hundreds of manatee pictures if you make a “dugong” keyword search). The physiology and anatomy of dugongs is actually quite different from that of manatees (Figure 1). They also live in a different part of the world as they are broadly distributed in the Indo-Pacific coastal and island waters. Dugongs form separate populations, some of which are very isolated and at high risk of extirpation. They are found in 37 different countries, with Australia being home to the largest populations by far (exceeding 70,000 individuals5).

Figure 1: Manatee vs Dugong, can you tell them apart? Among other things, dugongs and manatees have a very different body shape. As the famous Sirenian specialist Helene Marsh said, a dugong essentially looks like “a manatee that goes to the gym”5! Illustration by S. Derville.

Sea cow or sea elephant?

Through the tree of evolution, the dugong and manatee’s closest relative is not the one you would think… other marine mammals like cetaceans or pinnipeds. Indeed, molecular genetic analyses have placed the Sirenians in the Afrotheria Superorder of mammals. Therefore, it appears that dugongs are more closely related to elephant and golden moles than to whales and dolphins!

As a memory aid to help remember this ancient origin, we may notice that both elephants and dugongs have tusks. Mature male and female dugongs have erupted tusks, although the females’ only erupt rarely and at a very old age. Interestingly, tusks are used by scientists to determine age. Analyses of growth layers in bisected dugong tusks have revealed that dugongs are long-lived, with a maximum longevity record of 73 years (estimated from a female individual found in Western Australia5).

An (almost) vegetarian marine mammal

Dugongs and manatees are the only predominantly herbivorous aquatic mammals. Given that manatees use both marine and fresh water ecosystems they tend to have a broader diet, eating many kinds of submerged, floating or emergent algae and seagrass (even bank growth!). On the other hand, dugongs are a strictly marine species and primarily feed on seagrass, which may look very similar to seaweeds, but are in fact marine flowering plants. Seagrass tend to form underwater shallow meadows that are among the most productive ecosystems in the world6. In fact, dugong grazing influences the biomass, species composition and nutritional quality of seagrass meadows7,8. Just like we take care of our gardens, dugongs regulate seagrass ecosystems. But there is more. Recent research conducted in the Great Barrier Reef indicates that seagrass seeds that have been digested by dugongs germinate at a faster rate9. As well as playing a role in dispersal10, it appears that dugongs are pooping seeds with enhanced germination potential, hence participating to seagrass meadow resilience.

Figure 2: Dugong mother and calf feeding on a dense seagrass bed (a) and solitary adult foraging in a very sparce seagrass bed (b). Seagrass grows in many different types of meadows, which may vary in density, species composition and substrate. For instance, seagrass species of the Halophila genus are among the preferred dugong’s meals although may be very thinly distributed (c). Photo credit: Serge Andréfouët, New Caledonia.

Unlike manatees, dugongs cannot feed over the whole water column and are strictly bottom feeders. They use their deflected snout (Figure 1) to search the seabed for their favorite food (Figure 2). The feeding trails left by dugongs in dense seagrass meadows are easily detectable from above, just like the sediment clouds that they generate when searching muddy bottoms. Although seagrass is undoubtedly the main component of the dugong’s diet, they may incidentally (or not) ingest algae and invertebrates5.

A legendary animal

The etymology for the word Sirenian comes from the mermaids, or “sirens” of the Greek mythology. These aquatic creatures with the upper body of a female human would sing to lure sailors towards the shore… and towards a certain death. The morphology of dugongs and manatees shares some resemblance with mermaids, at least enough for desperate and lonely sailors to think so!

In addition to having a scientific name rooted in legends, dugongs are also important to contemporary human cultures. In tropical islands and coastal communities, marine megafauna species such as dugongs are considered heritage, due to the strong bond that their people have forged with the ocean5. Dugongs may play an important cultural role because they can be part of the socio-symbolic organization of societies, associated with the imaginary world, or simply because they are seen as companions of the sea, which people frequently encounter. For New Caledonia’s indigenous people, the Kanaks, dugongs can be totem to tribes. Like other large marine species (whales, sharks), the dugong is also considered as an embodiment of ancestors11.

Dugongs have been hunted throughout their range since prehistoric times. Archaeological excavations such as those conducted on the island of Akab in the United Arab Emirates12, indicate that dugong hunting played a role in ancient rituals, in addition to providing a large quantity of meat. The cultural value of dugongs is recognized by multiple countries, which have therefore authorized indigenous dugong hunting, sometimes under quotas. For instance, in Australia, dugongs may be legally hunted by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (Figure 3) under section 211 of the Native Title Act 1993.

In New Caledonia, the dugong has been protected since 1962 and its hunting is only authorized in one province, with a dispensation for traditional Kanak celebrations13. However, in view of the critical situation in which the New Caledonian dugong population finds itself, estimated at around 700 individuals in 2008-201214, no hunting exemptions have been issued since 2004.

Figure 3: “Naath” (dugong hunting platform), hand colored linocut by Torres Strait Islander artist Dennis Nona. The art piece represents traditional dugong hunting where the hunter is guided by the phosphorescent glow the dugong would leave in the water at night.

What future for dugongs?

Despite legislations to forbid dugong meat consumption outside specific traditional permits, poaching persists, in New Caledonia and in many of the “low-income” countries that are home to dugongs. As climate change and demography intensifies risks to food security, scientists and stakeholders fear for dugongs. Moreover, dugongs entirely rely on seagrass ecosystems that are also disappearing at an alarming rate (7% per year6) as a result of coastal development, pollution and overfishing.

Can we preserve dugongs in regions of high climate vulnerability and where people still have low levels of access to basic needs? Can dugongs play the role of “umbrellas” for the conservation of the ecosystem they live in? I do not have the answer to these questions but I certainly believe that people’s well-being and environmental conservation are tightly intertwined. I hope that rising transdisciplinary approaches such as those supported by the “One Health” framework will help reconnect human populations to their environment, and achieve the goal of optimal health for everyone, humans and animals.


1.        Garrigue, C., Patenaude, N. & Marsh, H. Distribution and abundance of the dugong in New Caledonia, southwest Pacific. Mar. Mammal Sci. 24, 81–90 (2008).

2.        Cleguer, C., Grech, A., Garrigue, C. & Marsh, H. Spatial mismatch between marine protected areas and dugongs in New Caledonia. Biol. Conserv. 184, 154–162 (2015).

3.        Cleguer, C., Garrigue, C. & Marsh, H. Dugong (Dugong dugon) movements and habitat use in a coral reef lagoonal ecosystem. Endanger. Species Res. 43, 167–181 (2020).

4.        Derville, S., Cleguer, C. & Garrigue, C. Ecoregional and temporal dynamics of dugong habitat use in a complex coral reef lagoon ecosystem. Sci. Rep. (In review)

5.        Marsh, H., O’Shea, T. J. & Reynolds, J. E. I. Ecology and conservation of the Sirenia: dugongs and manatees, Vol 18. (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2011).

6.        Unsworth, R. K. F. & Cullen-Unsworth, L. C. Seagrass meadows. Curr. Biol. 27, R443–R445 (2017).

7.        Aragones, L. V., Lawler, I. R., Foley, W. J. & Marsh, H. Dugong grazing and turtle cropping: Grazing optimization in tropical seagrass systems? Oecologia 149, 635–647 (2006).

8.        Preen, A. Impacts of dugong foraging on seagrass habitats: observational and experimental evidence for cultivation grazing. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 124, 201–213 (1995).

9.        Tol, S. J., Jarvis, J. C., York, P. H., Congdon, B. C. & Coles, R. G. Mutualistic relationships in marine angiosperms: Enhanced germination of seeds by mega-herbivores. Biotropica (2021) doi:10.1111/btp.13001.

10.      Tol, S. J. et al. Long distance biotic dispersal of tropical seagrass seeds by marine mega-herbivores. Sci. Rep. 7, 1–8 (2017).

11.      Dupont, A. Évaluation de la place du dugong dans la société néo-calédonienne. (Mémoire Master. Encadré par L. Gardes (Agence des Aires Marines Protégées) et C. Sabinot (IRD), 2015).

12.      Méry, S., Charpentier, V., Auxiette, G. & Pelle, E. A dugong bone mound: The Neolithic ritual site on Akab in Umm al-Quwain, United Arab Emirates. Antiquity 83, 696–708 (2009).

13.      Leblic, I. Vivre de la mer, vivre de la terre… en pays kanak. Savoirs et techniques des pêcheurs kanak du sud de la Nouvelle-Calédonie. (Société des Océanistes, 2008).

14.      Hagihara, R. et al. Compensating for geographic variation in detection probability with water depth improves abundance estimates of coastal marine megafauna. PLoS One 13, e0191476 (2018).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whales are amazing, and also provide amazing benefits to our oceans and human society

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

Whales are among the most amazing and enigmatic animals in the world. Whales are not only fascinating, they are also biologically special. Due to their key ecological role and unique biological traits (i.e., their large body size, long lifespans, and sizable home ranges), whales are extremely important in helping sustain the entire marine ecosystem.

Working towards the conservation of marine megafauna, and large charismatic animals in general, is often seen as a mere benevolent effort that conservationist groups, individuals, and governments do on behalf of the individual species. However, mounting evidence demonstrates that restoring populations of marine megafauna, including large whales, can help buffer marine ecosystems from destabilizing stresses like human driven CO2 emissions and global change due to their ability to sequester carbon in their bodies (Pershing et al. 2010). Furthermore, whales can enhance primary production in the ocean through their high consumption and defecation rates, which ultimately provides nutrients to the ecosystem and improves fishery yields (Roman-McCarthy, 2010; Morissette et al. 2012).

Relationships between humans and whales have a long history, however, these relationships have changed. For centuries, whales were valued in terms of the number of oil barrels they could yield, and the quality of their baleen and meat. In the North Atlantic, whaling started as early as 1000 AD with “shore whaling” of North Atlantic right whales by Basque whalers. This whaling was initially limited to the mother and calve pairs that were easy to target due to their coastal habits and the fact that calves are more vulnerable and slower (Reeves-Smith, 2006). Once the calving populations of near-shore waters off Europe were depleted, offshore whaling began developing. Whalers of multiple nations (including USA, British, French, Norwegian, Portuguese, and Dutch, among others), targeted whales around the world, mainly impacting the gray whale populations, and all three right whale species along with the related bowhead whale. Later, throughout the phase of modern whaling using industrialized methods, the main target species consisted of the blue, fin, humpback, minke, sei and sperm whale (Schneider- Pearce, 2004).

By the early twentieth century, many of the world´s whale populations where reduced to a small fraction of their historical numbers, and although pre-whaling abundance of whale stocks is a subject of debate, recent studies estimate that at least the 66%, and perhaps as high as 90% for some whale species and populations (Branch-Williams 2006; Christensen, 2006), where taken during this period. This systematic and serial depletion of whale papulations reduced the biomass and abundance of great whales around the world, which has likely altered the structure and function of the oceans (Balance et al. 2006; Roman et al. 2014; Croll, et al. 2006).

After centuries of unregulated whale hunting, commercial whaling was banned in the mid-twentieth century. This ban was the result of multiple factors including reduced whale stocks below the point where commercial whaling would be profitable, and a fortunate shift in public perception of whales and the emergence of conservation initiatives (Schneider- Pearce, 2004). Since this moratorium on whaling, several whale populations have recovered around the world, and some populations that were listed as endangered have been delisted (i.e., the Eastern North Pacific gray whale) and some populations are estimated to have re-bounced to their pre-whaling abundance.

Although, the recovery of some populations has motivate some communities or nations to obtain or extend their whaling quotas (see Blog Post by Lisa Hildebrand), it is important to acknowledge that the management of whale populations is arguably one of the most complicated tasks, and is distinguished from management of normal fisheries due to various biological aspects. Whales are long living mammals with slow reproduction rates, and on average a whale can only produce a calf every two or three years. Hence, the gross addition to the stock rarely would exceed 25% of the number of adults (Schneider- Pearce, 2004), which is a much lower recovery rate that any fish stock. Also, whales usually reach their age of sexual maturity at 6-10 years old, and for many species there are several uncertainties about their biology and natural history that make estimations of population abundance and growth rate even harder to estimate.

Fig 1: Human relationship with whales has changed through history. Once valued for their meat and oil, now they are a natural attraction that amaze and attract crowds to whale watching destinations all over the globe. Photo: Stephen Johnson, Península Valdés-Argentina.

Moreover, while today´s whales are generally not killed directly by hunting, they are exposed to a variety of other increasing human stressors (e.g., entanglement in fishing gear, vessel strikes, shipping noise, and climate change). Thus, scientists must develop novel tools to overcome the challenges of studying whales and distinguish the relative importance of the different impacts to help guide conservation actions that improve the recovery and restoration of whale stocks (Hunt et al. in press). With the restoration of great whale populations, we can expect positive changes in the structure and function of the world’s oceans (Chami et al. 2019; Roman et al. 2010).

So, why it is worth keeping whales healthy?

Whales facilitate the transfer of nutrients by (1) releasing nutrient-rich fecal plumes near the surface after they have feed at depth and (2) by moving nutrients from highly productive, polar and subpolar latitude feeding areas to the low latitude calving areas (Roman et al. 2010). In this way, whales help increase the productivity of phytoplankton that in turn support zooplankton production, and thus have a bottom up effect on the productivity of many species including fish, birds, and marine mammals, including whales. These fertilization events can also facilitate mitigation of the negative impacts of climate change. The amount of iron contained in the whales’ feces can be 10 million times greater than the level of iron in the marine environment, triggering important phytoplankton blooms, which in turn sequester thousands of tons of carbon from, and release oxygen to, the atmosphere annually (Roman et al. 2016; Smith et al. 2013; Willis, 2007). Furthermore, when whales die, their massive bodies fall to the seafloor, making them the largest and most nutritious source of food waste, which is capable of sustaining a succession of macro-fauna assemblages for several decades, including some invertebrate species that are endemic to whale carcasses (Smith et al. 2015).

Figure 2. The figure shows a conceptual model of the “whale pump”. From Roman-McCarthy, 2010.

Despite the several environmental services that whales provide, and the positive impact on local economies that depend on whale watching tourism, which has been valued in millions of dollars per year (Hoyt E., 2001), the return of whales and other marine mammals has often been implicated in declines in fish populations, resulting in conflicts with human fisheries (Lavigne, D.M. 2003). Yet there is insufficient direct evidence for such competition (Morissette et al. 2010). Indeed, there is evidence of the contrary: In ecosystem models where whale abundances are reduced, fish stocks show significant decreases, and in some cases the presence of whales in these models result in improved fishery yields. Consistent with these findings, several models have shown that alterations in marine ecosystems resulting from the removal of whales and other marine mammals do not lead to increases in human fishery yields (Morissette et al. 2010; 2012). Although the environmental services and benefits provided by great whales, which potentially includes the enhancement of fisheries yields, and enhancement on ocean oxygen production and capturing carbon, are evident and make a strong argument for improved whale conservation, it is overwhelming how little we know about many aspects of their lives, their biology, and particularly their physiology.

Figure 3: Whales are the most fascinating animals in the world, but they are not only amazing animals. They are also extremely important in sustaining the entire marine ecosystem. Photo: Alejandro Fernández Ajó -Instituto de Conservación de ballenas.

This lack of knowledge is because whales are really hard to study. For many years research was limited to the observation of the brief surfacing of the whales, yet most of their lives occurs beneath the surface and were completely unknown. Fortunately, new technologies and the creativity of whale researchers are helping us to better understand many aspects of their lives that were cryptic to us even a decade ago. I am committed to filling some of these knowledge gaps. My research examines how different environmental and anthropogenic impacts affect whale health, and particularly how these impacts may relate to cases of large whale mortalities and declines in whale populations. I am applying novel methods in conservation physiology for measuring hormone levels that promise to improve our understanding of the relationship between different (extrinsic and intrinsic) stressors and the physiological response of whales. Ultimately, this research will help address important conservation questions, such as the causes of unusual whale mortality events and declines in whale populations.


Ballance LT, Pitman RL, Hewitt R, et al. 2006. The removal of large whales from the Southern Ocean: evidence for long-term ecosystem effects. In: Estes JA, DeMaster DP, Doak DF, et al. (Eds). Whales, whaling and ocean ecosystems. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Branch TA and Williams TM. 2006. Legacy of industrial whaling. In: Estes JA, DeMaster DP, Doak DF, et al. (Eds). Whales, whaling and ocean ecosystems. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Chami, R. Cosimano, T. Fullenkamp, C. & Oztosun, S. (2019). Nature’s solution to climate change. Finance & Development, 56(4).

Christensen LB. 2006. Marine mammal populations: reconstructing historical abundances at the global scale. Vancouver, Canada: University of British Columbia.

Croll DA, Kudela R, Tershy BR (2006) Ecosystem impact of the decline of large whales in the North Pacific. In: Estes JA, DeMaster DP, Doak DF, Williams TM, BrownellJr RL, editors. Whales, Whaling, and Ocean Ecosystems. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 202–214.

Hoyt, E. 2001. Whale Watching 2001: Worldwide Tourism Numbers, Expenditures and Expanding Socioeconomic Benefits

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

Lavigne, D.M. 2003. Marine mammals and fisheries: the role of science in the culling debate. In: Gales N, Hindell M, and Kirkwood R (Eds). Marine mammals: fisheries, tourism, and management issues. Melbourne, Australia: CSIRO.

Morissette L, Christensen V, and Pauly D. 2012. Marine mammal impacts in exploited ecosystems: would large scale culling benefit fisheries? PLoS ONE 7: e43966.

Morissette L, Kaschner K, and Gerber LR. 2010. “Whales eat fish”? Demystifying the myth in the Caribbean marine ecosystem. Fish Fish 11: 388–404.

Pershing AJ, Christensen LB, Record NR, Sherwood GD, Stetson PB (2010) The impact of whaling on the ocean carbon cycle: Why bigger was better. PLoS ONE 5(8): e12444.

Reeves, R. and Smith, T. (2006). A taxonomy of world whaling. In DeMaster, D. P., Doak, D. F., Williams, T. M., and Brownell Jr., R. L., eds. Whales, Whaling, and Ocean Ecosystems. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Roman, J. Altman I, Dunphy-Daly MM, et al. 2013. The Marine Mammal Protection Act at 40: status, recovery, and future of US marine mammals. Ann NY Acad Sci; doi:10.1111/nyas.12040.

Roman, J. and McCarthy, J.J. 2010. The whale pump: marine mammals enhance primary productivity in a coastal basin. PLoS ONE. 5(10): e13255.

Roman, J. Estes, J.A. Morissette, L. Smith, C. Costa, D. McCarthy, J. Nation, J.B. Nicol, S. Pershing, A.and Smetacek, V. 2014. Whales as marine ecosystem engineers. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 12(7). 377-385.

Roman, J. Nevins, J. Altabet, M. Koopman, H. and McCarthy, J. 2016. Endangered right whales enhance primary productivity in the Bay of Fundy. PLoS ONE. 11(6): e0156553.

Schneider, V. Pearce, D. What saved the whales? An economic analysis of 20th century whaling. Biodiversity and Conservation 13, 543–562 (2004). https://doi

Smith LV, McMinn A, Martin A, et al. 2013. Preliminary investigation into the stimulation of phyto- plankton photophysiology and growth by whale faeces. J Exp Mar Biol Ecol 446: 1–9.

Smith, C.R. Glover, A.G. Treude, T. Higgs, N.D. and Amon, D.J. 2015. Whale-fall ecosystems: Recent insights into ecology, paleoecology, and evolution. Annu. Rev. Marine. Sci. 7:571-596.

Willis, J. 2007. Could whales have maintained a high abundance of krill? Evol Ecol Res 9: 651–662.

Vaquita: a porpoise caught between people and money

By: Alexa Kownacki, Ph.D. Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

When I first learned of the critically endangered vaquita in early 2015, there were an estimated 97 individuals remaining as reported by CIRVA* (Morell 2014). I was a recent graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology, and I, of all people, had never heard of the vaquita. Today, there are an estimated 19 vaquita left (Roth 2019).

Digital painting of a vaquita mother with her calf (Image Source: Aquarium of the Pacific).

The vaquita (Phocoena sinus) is a small porpoise endemic to the Sea of Cortez in the northern region of the Gulf of California, Mexico. It is the most endangered marine mammal and has been for many years, and yet, I had not heard of the vaquita. It wasn’t until I listened to a lunchtime seminar hosted by NOAA Fisheries, that I heard about the porpoise. As a young scientist, “in the field”, I was shocked to realize that I was just learning about an animal, let alone a cetacean, actively going extinct in my lifetime. I believe it’s our job to inform those around us of news in our expertise, and I had failed. I wasn’t informed. As much as I tried in the past four years to describe the decline of the smallest cetacean to anyone who’d listen, I was only reaching a few people at a time. But, today, the vaquita is finally capturing the public’s eye thanks to celebrity support and a feature-length film.

A rare photo of a vaquita (Image Source: Tom Jefferson via the Marine Mammal Center)

From executive producer, Leonardo DiCaprio, comes the Sundance Film Festival Audience Award winner, “Sea of Shadows”. The story of the vaquita truly is an “eco-thriller” and one worth watching. This is not your typical plot line of an endangered species tragically going extinct without action. The vaquita’s story boasts big-name players, such as the Mexican Navy, internationally recognized scientists, Mexican cartels, Chinese mafia, celebrities, the National Marine Mammal Foundation, and Sea Shepherd. At the center of this documentary is the elusive vaquita. The vaquita is not hunted, in fact, this species is not desirable for fisherman. The animal is not aggressive and, in contrast, is notoriously shy, only surfacing to breathe. Furthermore, its name roughly translates into “little cow” because of the rings around its eyes and its docile nature. So, why is this cute creature on the road to extinction? The answer: the wrong place at the wrong time.

“Sea of Shadows” official trailer by National Geographic

The vaquita occupy a small part of the Sea of Cortez where totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi), a large fish in the drum family, is also endemic. If you’re wondering what a small porpoise and a large fish have in common, then you’d be close to recognizing that is the key to understanding this tragedy. Both species are roughly the same size, one to two meters in length with similar girths. The totoaba, although said to have tender meat, is caught for only one organ: the swim bladder. Now referred to as the “cocaine of the sea”, the dried swim bladders of the totoaba are sold to Mexican cartels who then export the product to China. Once in China, illegal markets sell the swim bladders for up to $100,000USD. Unfortunately, the nets used to illegally catch totoaba, also catch the vaquita. The porpoise has no economic value to the fishermen and therefore are tossed as bycatch. The vaquita is the innocent bystander in a war for money and power.

A man displays the catch from an illegal gillnet, including the totoaba in his arms, and a vaquita, below, that was bycatch (Image Source: Omar Vidal via Aquarium of the Pacific/NOAA Fisheries).

Watching a charismatic species severely decline because of human greed is horrific. The film, however, focuses on the effort of a few incredible organizations that band together in the fight to save the vaquita. Moreover, the multimillion-dollar project, Vaquita CPR, is still ongoing. On a more positive note, in October of 2019, scientists spotted six vaquita during continued conservation and monitoring efforts (Blust & Desk 2019). The path to saving a critically endangered species, especially one that is thought not to do well in captivity, is challenging. The vaquita’s recovery path has many complicated connections which for what appears to be an uphill battle. But, we, the people, are responsible for this. We must support research and conservation by using our voice to share what is happening, for a porpoise and for the world.

*Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la Vaquita (International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita)


Blust, Kendal, and Fronteras Desk. “Photo Sparks Increased Concern over Fishing in Vaquita Refuge.” Arizona Public Media, 25 Oct. 2019,

Morell, Virginia. “Vaquita Porpoise Faces Imminent Extinction-Can It Be Saved?” National Geographic, 15 Aug. 2014,

Roth, Annie. “The ‘Little Cow’ of the Sea Nears Extinction.” National Geographic, 17 Sept. 2019,

The significance of blubber hormone sampling in conservation and monitoring of marine mammals

By: Alexa Kownacki, Ph.D. Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Marine mammals are challenging to study for many reasons, and specifically because they inhabit the areas of the Earth that are uninhabited by people: the oceans. Monitoring marine mammal populations to gather baselines on their health condition and reproductive status is not as simple as trap and release, which is a method often conducted for terrestrial animals. Marine mammals are constantly moving in vast areas below the surface. Moreover, cetaceans, which do not spend time on land, are arguably the most challenging to sample.

One component of my project, based in California, USA, is a health assessment analyzing hormones of the bottlenose dolphins that frequent both the coastal and the offshore waters. Therefore, I am all too familiar with the hurdles of collecting health data from living marine mammals, especially cetaceans. However, the past few decades have seen major advancements in technology both in the laboratory and with equipment, including one tool that continues to be critical in understanding cetacean health: blubber biopsies.

Biopsy dart hitting a bottlenose dolphin below the dorsal fin. Image Source: NMFS

Blubber biopsies are typically obtained via low-powered crossbow with a bumper affixed to the arrow to de-power it once it hits the skin. The arrow tip has a small, pronged metal attachment to collect an eraser-tipped size amount of tissue with surface blubber and skin. I compare this to a skin punch biopsies in humans; it’s small, minimally-invasive, and requires no follow-up care. With a small team of scientists, we use small, rigid-inflatable vessels to survey the known locations of where the bottlenose dolphins tend to gather. Then, we assess the conditions of the seas and of the animals, first making sure we are collecting from animals without potentially lowered immune systems (no large, visible wounds) or calves (less than one years old). Once we have photographed the individual’s dorsal fin to identify the individual, one person assembles the biopsy dart and crossbow apparatus following sterile procedures when attaching the biopsy tips to avoid infection. Another person prepares to photograph the animal to match the biopsy information to the individual dolphin. One scientist aims the crossbow for the body of the dolphin, directly below the dorsal fin, while the another photographs the biopsy dart hitting the animal and watches where it bounces off. Then, the boat maneuvers to the floating biopsy dart to recover the dart and the sample. Finally, the tip with blubber and skin tissue is collected, again using sterile procedures, and the sample is archived for further processing. A similar process, using an air gun instead of a crossbow can be viewed below:

GEMM Lab members using an air gun loaded with a biopsy dart to procure marine mammal blubber from a blue whale in New Zealand. Video Source: GEMM Laboratory.

Part of the biopsy process is holding ourselves to the highest standards in our minimally-invasive technique, which requires constant practice, even on land.

Alexa practicing proper crossbow technique on land under supervision. Image Source: Alexa Kownacki

Blubber is the lipid-rich, vascularized tissue under the epidermis that is used in thermoregulation and fat storage for marine mammals. Blubber is an ideal matrix for storing lipophilic (fat-loving) steroid hormones because of its high fat content. Steroid hormones, such as cortisol, progesterone, and testosterone, are naturally circulating in the blood stream and are released in high concentrations during specific events. Unlike blood, blubber is less dynamic and therefore tells a much longer history of the animal’s nutritional state, environmental exposure, stress level, and life history status. Blubber is the cribs-notes version of a marine mammal’s biography over its previous few months of life. Blood, on the other hand, is the news story from the last 24 hours. Both matrices serve a specific purpose in telling the story, but blubber is much more feasible to obtain from a cetacean and provides a longer time frame in terms of information on the past.

A simplified depiction of marine mammal blubber starting from the top (most exterior surface) being the skin surface down to the muscle (most interior). Image Source:

I use blubber biopsies for assessing cortisol, testosterone, and progesterone in the bottlenose dolphins. Cortisol is a glucocorticoid that is frequently associated with stress, including in humans. Marine mammals utilize the same hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis that is responsible for the fight-or-flight response, as well as other metabolic regulations. During prolonged stressful events, cortisol levels will remain elevated, which has long-term repercussions for an animal’s health, such as lowered immune systems and decreased ability to respond to predators. Testosterone and progesterone are sex hormones, which can be used to indicate sex of the individual and determine reproductive status. This reproductive information allows us to assess the population’s composition and structure of males and females, as well as potential growth or decline in population (West et al. 2014).

Alexa using a crossbow from a small boat off of San Diego, CA. Image Source: Alexa Kownacki

The coastal and offshore bottlenose dolphin ecotypes of interest in my research occupy different locations and are therefore exposed to different health threats. This is a primary reason for conducting health assessments, specifically analyzing blubber hormone levels. The offshore ecotype is found many kilometers offshore and is most often encountered around the southern Channel Islands. In contrast, the coastal ecotype is found within 2 kilometers of shore (Lowther-Thieleking et al. 2015) where they are subjected to more human exposure, both directly and indirectly, because of their close proximity to the mainland of the United States. Coastal dolphins have a higher likelihood of fishery-related mortality, the negative effects of urbanization including coastal runoff and habitat degradation, and recreational activities (Hwang et al. 2014). The blubber hormone data from my project will inform which demographics are most at-risk. From this information, I can provide data supporting why specific resources should be allocated differently and therefore help vulnerable populations. Further proving that the small amount of tissue from a blubber biopsy can help secure a better future for population by adjusting and informing conservation strategies.

Literature Cited:

Hwang, Alice, Richard H Defran, Maddalena Bearzi, Daniela. Maldini, Charles A Saylan, Aime ́e R Lang, Kimberly J Dudzik, Oscar R Guzo n-Zatarain, Dennis L Kelly, and David W Weller. 2014. “Coastal Range and Movements of Common Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops Truncatus) off California and Baja California, Mexico.” Bulletin of the Southern California Academy of Sciences 113 (1): 1–13.

Lowther-Thieleking, Janet L., Frederick I. Archer, Aimee R. Lang, and David W. Weller. 2015. “Genetic Differentiation among Coastal and Offshore Common Bottlenose Dolphins, Tursiops Truncatus, in the Eastern North Pacific Ocean.” Marine Mammal Science 31 (1): 1–20.

West, Kristi L., Jan Ramer, Janine L. Brown, Jay Sweeney, Erin M. Hanahoe, Tom Reidarson, Jeffry Proudfoot, and Don R. Bergfelt. 2014. “Thyroid Hormone Concentrations in Relation to Age, Sex, Pregnancy, and Perinatal Loss in Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops Truncatus).” General and Comparative Endocrinology 197: 73–81.