Rock-solid GRANITE: Scaling the disturbance response of individual whales up to population level impacts

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

Since early May, much of the GEMM Lab has been consumed by the GRANITE project, which stands for Gray whale Response to Ambient Noise Informed by Technology and Ecology. Two weeks ago, PhD student Clara Bird discussed our field work preparations, and since May 20th we have conducted five successful days of field work (and one unsuccessful day due to fog). If you are now expecting a blog about the data we have collected so far and whales we encountered, I am sorry to disappoint you. Rather, I want to take a big step back and provide the context of the GRANITE project as a whole, explain why this project and data collection is so important, and discuss what it is that we hope to achieve with our ever-growing, multidisciplinary dataset and team.

We use the Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) of gray whales that forage off the Oregon coast as our study system to better understand the ecological and physiological response of baleen whales to multiple stressors. Our field methodology includes replicate physiological and ecological sampling of this accessible baleen whale population with synoptic measurement of multiple types of stressors. We collect fecal samples for hormone analysis, conduct drone overflights of whales to collect body condition and behavioral data, record the ambient soundscape through deployment of two hydrophones, and conduct whale photo-identification to link all data streams to each individual whale of known sex, estimated age, and reproductive status. We resample these data from multiple individuals within and between summer foraging seasons, while exposed to different potential stressors occurring at different intensities and temporal periods and durations. The hydrophones are strategically placed with one in a heavily boat-trafficked (and therefore noisy) area close to the Port of Newport, while the second is located in a relatively calm (and therefore quieter) spot near the Otter Rock Marine Reserve (Fig. 1). These hydrophones provide us with information about both natural (e.g. killer whales, wind, waves) and anthropogenic (e.g. boat traffic, seismic survey, marine construction associated with PacWave wave energy facility development) noise that may affect gray whales. During sightings with whales, we also drop GoPro cameras and sample for prey to better understand the habitats where whales forage and what they might be consuming.

Figure 1. Map of GRANITE study area from Seal Rock to Lincoln City with gray whale sightings (yellow circles) and and fecal samples collected (red triangles) from the 2020 field season. Green stars represent the two hydrophone locations. Source: L. Torres.

GEMM Lab PI Dr. Leigh Torres initiated this research project in 2015 and established partnerships with acoustician Dr. Joe Haxel and (then) PhD student Dr. Leila Lemos. Since then, the team working on this project has grown considerably to provide expertise in the various disciplines that the project integrates. Leigh is currently joined at the GRANITE helm by 4 co-PIs: Dr. Haxel, endocrinologist Dr. Kathleen Hunt, biological statistician Dr. Leslie New, and physiologist Dr. Loren Buck. Drs. Alejandro Fernandez Ajo, KC Bierlich and Enrico Pirotta are postdoctoral scholars who are working on the endocrinology, photogrammetry, and biostatistical modelling components, respectively. Finally, Clara and myself are partially funded through this project for our PhD research, with Clara focusing on the links between behavior, body condition, individualization, and habitat, while I am tackling questions about the recruitment and site fidelity of the PCFG (more about these topics below). 

Faculty Research Assistant Todd Chandler supervises PhD student Clara Bird during her maiden drone flight over a whale. Source: L. Torres.

The ultimate goal of this project is to use the PCFG as a case study to quantify baleen whale physiological response to different stressors and model the subsequent impacts on the population by implementing our long-term, replicate dataset into a framework called Population consequences of disturbance (PCoD; Fig. 2). PCoD is built upon the underlying concept that changes in behavior and/or physiology caused by disturbance (i.e. noise) affect the fitness of individuals by impacting their health and vital rates, such as survival, reproductive success, and growth rate (Pirotta et al. 2018). These impacts at the individual level may (or may not) affect the population as a whole, depending on what proportion of individuals in the population are affected by the disturbance and the intensity of the disturbance effect on each individual. The PCoD framework requires quantification of four stages: a) the physiological and/or behavioral changes that occur as a result of exposure to a stressor (i.e. noise), b) the acute effects of these physiological and/or behavioral responses on individual vital rates, and their chronic effects via individual health, c) the way in which changes in health may affect the vital rates of individuals, and d) how changes in individual vital rates may affect population dynamics (Fig. 2; Pirotta et al. 2018). While four stages may not sound like a lot, the amount and longevity of data needed to quantify each stage is immense. 

Figure 2. Conceptual framework of the population consequences of disturbance (PCoD). Letters (A-D) represent the four stages that require quantification in order for PCoD to be implemented. Each colored box represents external (ecological drivers, stressors) and internal (physiology, health, vital rates, behavior) factors that can change over time that are measured for each individual whale (dashed grey boundary line). The effects are then integrated across all individuals in the population to project their effects on the population’s dynamics. Figure and caption adapted from Pirotta et al. 2018.

The ability to detect a change in behavior or physiology often requires an understanding of what is “normal” for an individual, which we commonly refer to as a baseline. The best way to establish a baseline is to collect comprehensive data over a long time period. With our data collection efforts since 2015 of fecal samples, drone flights and photo identification, we have established useful baselines of behavioral and physiological data for PCFG gray whales. These baselines are particularly impressive since it is typically difficult to collect repeated measurements of hormones and body condition from the same individual baleen whale across multiple years. These repeated measurements are important because, like all mammals, hormones and body condition vary across life history phases (i.e., with pregnancy, injury, or age class) and across time (i.e., good or bad foraging conditions). To achieve these repeated measurements, GRANITE exploits the high degree of intra- and inter-annual site fidelity of the PCFG, their accessibility for study due to their affinity for nearshore habitat use, and the long-term sighting history of many whales that provides sex and approximate age information. Our work to-date has already established a few important baselines. We now know that the body condition of PCFG gray whales increases throughout a foraging season and can fluctuate considerably between years (Soledade Lemos et al. 2020). Furthermore, there are significant differences in body condition by reproductive state, with calves and pregnant females displaying higher body conditions (Soledade Lemos et al. 2020). Our dataset has also allowed us to validate and quantify fecal steroid and thyroid hormone metabolite concentrations, providing us with putative thresholds to identify a stressed vs. not stressed whale based on its hormone levels (Lemos et al. 2020).

PhD student Lisa Hildebrand and GRANITE co-PI Dr. Kathleen Hunt collecting a fecal sample. Source: L. Torres.

We continue to collect data to improve our understanding of baseline PCFG physiology and behavior, and to detect changes in their behavior and physiology due to disturbance events. All these data will be incorporated into a PCoD framework to scale from individual to population level understanding of impacts. However, more data is not the only thing we need to quantify each of the PCoD stages. The implementation of the PCoD framework also depends on understanding several aspects of the PCFG’s population dynamics. Specifically, we need to know whether recruitment to the PCFG population occurs internally (calves born from “PCFG mothers” return to the PCFG) or externally (immigrants from the larger Eastern North Pacific gray whale population joining the PCFG as adults). The degree of internal or external recruitment to the PCFG population should be included in the PCoD model as a parameter, as it will influence how much individual level disturbance effects impact the overall health and viability of the population. Furthermore, knowing residency times and home ranges of whales within the PCFG is essential to understand exposure durations to disturbance events. 

To assess both recruitment and residency patterns of the PCFG, I am undertaking a large photo-identification effort, which includes compiling sightings and photo data across many years, regions, and collaborators. Through this effort we aim to identify calves and their return rate to the population, the rate of new adult recruits to the population, and the spatial residency of individuals in our study system. Although photo-id is a basic, commonplace method in marine mammal science, its role is critical to tracking individuals over time to understand population dynamics (in a non-invasive manner, no less). A large portion of my PhD research will focus on the tedious yet rewarding task of photo-id data management and matching in order to address these pressing knowledge gaps on PCFG population dynamics needed to implement the PCoD model that is an ultimate goal of GRANITE. I am just beginning this journey and have already pinpointed many analytical and logistical hurdles that I need to overcome. I do not anticipate an easy path to addressing these questions, but I am extremely eager to dig into the data, reveal the patterns, and integrate the findings into our rock-solid GRANITE project.  

Funding for the GRANITE project comes from the Office of Naval Research, the Department of Energy, Oregon Sea Grant, the NOAA/NMFS Ocean Acoustics Program, and the OSU Marine Mammal Institute.

References

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

Pirotta, E., Booth, C.G., Costa, D.P., Fleishman, E., Kraus, S.D., Lusseau, D., Moretti, D., New, L.F., Schick, R.S., Schwarz, L.K., Simmons, S.E., Thomas, L., Tyack, P.L., Weise, M.J., Wells, R.S., and J. Harwood. 2018. Understanding the population consequences of disturbance. Ecology and Evolution 8(19):9934-9946.

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

The complex relationship between behavior and body condition

Clara Bird, Masters Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Imagine that you are a wild foraging animal: In order to forage enough food to survive and be healthy you need to be healthy enough to move around to find and eat your food. Do you see the paradox? You need to be in good condition to forage, and you need to forage to be in good condition. This complex relationship between body condition and behavior is a central aspect of my thesis.

One of the great benefits of having drone data is that we can simultaneously collect data on the body condition of the whale and on its behavior. The GEMM lab has been measuring and monitoring the body condition of gray whales for several years (check out Leila’s blog on photogrammetry for a refresher on her research). However, there is not much research linking the body condition of whales to their behavior. Hence, I have expanded my background research beyond the marine world to looked for papers that tried to understand this connection between the two factors in non-cetaceans. The literature shows that there are examples of both, so let’s go through some case studies.

Ransom et al. (2010) studied the effect of a specific type of contraception on the behavior of a population of feral horses using a mixed model. Aside from looking at the effect of the treatment (a type of contraception), they also considered the effect of body condition. There was no difference in body condition between the treatment and control groups, however, they found that body condition was a strong predictor of feeding, resting, maintenance, and social behaviors. Females with better body condition spent less time foraging than females with poorer body condition. While it was not the main question of the study, these results provide a great example of taking into account the relationship between body condition and behavior when researching any disturbance effect.

While Ransom et al. (2010) did not find that body condition affected response to treatment, Beale and Monaghan (2004) found that body condition affected the response of seabirds to human disturbance. They altered the body condition of birds at different sites by providing extra food for several days leading up to a standardized disturbance. Then the authors recorded a set of response variables to a disturbance event, such as flush distance (the distance from the disturbance when the birds leave their location). Interestingly, they found that birds with better body condition responded earlier to the disturbance (i.e., when the disturbance was farther away) than birds with poorer body condition (Figure 1). The authors suggest that this was because individuals with better body condition could afford to respond sooner to a disturbance, while individuals with poorer body condition could not afford to stop foraging and move away, and therefore did not show a behavioral response. I emphasize behavioral response because it would have been interesting to monitor the vital rates of the birds during the experiment; maybe the birds’ heart rates increased even though they did not move away. This finding is important when evaluating disturbance effects and management approaches because it demonstrates the importance of considering body condition when evaluating impacts: animals that are in the worst condition, and therefore the individuals that are most vulnerable, may appear to be undisturbed when in reality they tolerate the disturbance because they cannot afford the energy or time to move away.

Figure 1.  Figure showing flush distance of birds that were fed (good body condition) and unfed (poor body condition).

These two studies are examples of body condition affecting behavior. However, a study on the effect of habitat deterioration on lizards showed that behavior can also affect body condition. To study this effect, Amo et al. (2007) compared the behavior and body condition of lizards in ski slopes to those in natural areas. They found that habitat deterioration led to an increased perceived risk of predation, which led to an increase in movement speed when crossing these deteriorated, “risky”, areas. In turn, this elevated movement cost led to a decrease in body condition (Figure 2). Hence, the lizard’s behavior affected their body condition.


Figure 2. Figure showing the difference in body condition of lizards in natural and deteriorated habitats.

Together, these case studies provide an interesting overview of the potential answers to the question: does body condition affect behavior or does behavior affect body condition? The answer is that the relationship can go both ways. Ransom et al. (2004) showed that regardless of the treatment, behavior of female horses differed between body conditions, indicating that regardless of a disturbance, body condition affects behavior. Beale and Monaghan (2004) demonstrated that seabird reactions to disturbance differed between body conditions, indicating that disturbance studies should take body condition into account. And, Amo et al. (2007) showed that disturbance affects behavior, which consequently affects body condition.

Looking at the results from these three studies, I can envision finding similar results in my gray whale research. I hypothesize that gray whale behavior varies by body condition in everyday circumstances and when the whale is disturbed. Yet, I also hypothesize that being disturbed will affect gray whale behavior and subsequently their body condition. Therefore, what I anticipate based on these studies is a circular relationship between behavior and body condition of gray whales: if an increase in perceived risk affects behavior and then body condition, maybe those affected individuals with poor body condition will respond differently to the disturbance. It is yet to be determined if a sequence like this could ever be detected, but I think that it is important to investigate.

Reading through these studies, I am ready and eager to start digging into these hypotheses with our data. I am especially excited that I will be able to perform this investigation on an individual level because we have identified the whales in each drone video. I am confident that this work will lead to some interesting and important results connecting behavior and health, thus opening avenues for further investigations to improve conservation studies.

References

Beale, Colin M, and Pat Monaghan. 2004. “Behavioural Responses to Human Disturbance: A Matter of Choice?” Animal Behaviour 68 (5): 1065–69. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.anbehav.2004.07.002.

Ransom, Jason I, Brian S Cade, and N. Thompson Hobbs. 2010. “Influences of Immunocontraception on Time Budgets, Social Behavior, and Body Condition in Feral Horses.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 124 (1–2): 51–60. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2010.01.015.

Amo, Luisa, Pilar López, and José Martín. 2007. “Habitat Deterioration Affects Body Condition of Lizards: A Behavioral Approach with Iberolacerta Cyreni Lizards Inhabiting Ski Resorts.” Biological Conservation 135 (1): 77–85. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2006.09.020.