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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Literature cited

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

Experiencing a Physical Manifestation of my PhD at Sea in the NCC

Rachel Kaplan, PhD student, Oregon State University College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

I always have a small crisis before heading into the field, whether for a daytrip or a several-month stint. I’m always dying to go – up until the moment when it is actually time to leave, and I decide I’d rather stay home, keep working on whatever has my current focus, and not break my comfortable little routine.

Preparing to leave on the most recent Northern California Current (NCC) cruise was no different. And just as always, a few days into the cruise, I forgot about the rest of my life and normal routines, and became totally immersed in the world of the ship and the places we went. I learned an exponential amount while away. Being physically in the ecosystem that I’m studying immediately had me asking more, and better, questions to explore at sea and also bring back to land. 

Many of these questions and realizations centered on predator-prey relationships between krill and whales at fine spatial scales. We know that distributions of prey species are a big factor in structuring whale distributions in the ocean, and one of our goals on this cruise was to observe these relationships more closely. The cruise offered an incredible opportunity to experience these relationships in real time: while my labmates Dawn and Clara were up on the flying bridge looking for whales, I was down in the acoustics lab, watching incoming echosounder data in order to identify krill aggregations. 

From left, Clara and Dawn survey for marine mammals on the flying bridge.

We used radios to stay in touch with what we were each seeing in real time, and learned quickly that we tended to spot whales and krill almost simultaneously. Experiencing this coherence between predator and prey distributions felt like a physical manifestation of my PhD. It also affirmed my faith in one of our most basic modeling assumptions: that the backscatter signals captured in our active acoustic data are representative of the preyscape that nearby whales are experiencing.

Being at sea with my labmates also catalyzed an incredible synthesis of our different types of knowledge. Because of the way that I think about whale distributions, I usually just focus on whether a certain type of whale is present or not while surveying. But Clara, with her focus on cetacean behavior, thinks in a completely different way from me. She timed the length of dives and commented on the specific behaviors she noticed, bringing a new level of context to our observations. Dawn, who has been joining these cruises for five years now, shared her depth of knowledge built through returning to these places again and again, helping us understand how the system varies through time.

Observing whale behavior, such as for these humpbacks, provides valuable information on how they are using a given area.

One of the best experiences of the cruise for me was when we conducted a targeted net tow in an area of foraging humpbacks on the Heceta Head Line off the central Oregon coast. The combination of the krill signature I was seeing on the acoustics display, and the radio reports from Dawn and Clara of foraging dives, convinced me that this was an opportunity for a net tow,  if possible, to see exactly what zooplankton was in the water near the whales. Our chief scientist, Jennifer Fisher, and the ship’s officers worked together to quickly turn the ship around and get a net in the water, in an effort to catch krill from the aggregation I had seen.  

This unique opportunity gave me a chance to test my own interpretation of the acoustics data, and compare what we captured in the net with what I expected from the backscatter signal. It also prompted me to think more about the synchrony and differences between what is captured by net tows and echosounder data, two primary ways for looking at whale prey. 

Collecting tiny yet precious krill samples associated with foraging humpbacks!

Throughout the entire cruise, the opportunity to build my intuition and notice ecological patterns was invaluable. Ecosystem modeling gives us the opportunity to untangle incredible complexity and put dynamic relationships in mathematical terms, but being out on the ocean provides the chance to develop a feel for these relationships. I’m so glad to bring this new perspective to my next round of models, and excited to continue trying to tease apart fine-scale dynamics between whales and krill.

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Yonder Whales and Nearby Prey: A New Look at a Familiar System

Rachel Kaplan1, Dawn Barlow2, Clara Bird3

1PhD student, Oregon State University College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

2Postdoctoral Scholar, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

3PhD Candidate, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

What do peanut butter m&ms, killer whales, affogatos, tired eyes, and puffins all have in common? They were all major features of the recent Northern California Current (NCC) ecosystem survey cruise. 

The science party of the May 2022 Northern California Current ecosystem cruise.

We spent May 6–17 aboard the NOAA vessel Bell M. Shimada in northern California, Oregon, and Washington waters. This fabulously interdisciplinary cruise studies multiple aspects of the NCC ecosystem three times per year, and the GEMM lab has put marine mammal observers aboard since 2018.

This cruise was a bit different than usual for the GEMM lab: we had eyes on both the whales and their prey. While Dawn Barlow and Clara Bird observed from sunrise to sunset to sight and identify whales, Rachel Kaplan collected krill data via an echosounder and samples from net tows in order to learn about the preyscape the whales were experiencing. 

From left, Rachel, Dawn, and Clara after enjoying some beautiful sunset sightings. 

We sailed out of Richmond, California and went north, sampling as far north as La Push, Washington and up to 200 miles offshore. Despite several days of challenging conditions due to wind, rain, fog, and swell, the team conducted a successful marine mammal survey. When poor weather prevented work, we turned to our favorite hobbies of coding and snacking.

Rachel attends “Clara’s Beanbag Coding Academy”.

Cruise highlights included several fin whales, sperm whales, killer whales, foraging gray whales, fluke slapping and breaching humpbacks, and a visit by 60 pacific white-sided dolphins. While being stopped at an oceanographic sampling station typically means that we take a break from observing, having more time to watch the whales around us turned out to be quite fortunate on this cruise. We were able to identify two unidentified whales as sei whales after watching them swim near us while paused on station. 

Marine mammal observation segments (black lines) and the sighting locations of marine mammal species observed during the cruise.

On one of our first survey days we also observed humpbacks surface lunge feeding close to the ship, which provided a valuable opportunity for our team to think about how to best collect concurrent prey and whale data. The opportunity to hone in on this predator-prey relationship presented itself in a new way when Dawn and Clara observed many apparently foraging humpbacks on the edge of Heceta Bank. At the same time, Rachel started observing concurrent prey aggregations on the echosounder. After a quick conversation with the chief scientist and the officers on the bridge, the ship turned around so that we could conduct a net tow in order to get a closer look at what exactly the whales were eating.

Success! Rachel collects krill samples collected in an area of foraging humpback whales.

This cruise captured an interesting moment in time: southerly winds were surprisingly common for this time of year, and the composition of the phytoplankton and zooplankton communities indicated that the seasonal process of upwelling had not yet been initiated. Upwelling brings deep, cold, nutrient-rich waters to the surface, generating a jolt of productivity that brings the ecosystem from winter into spring. It was fascinating to talk to all the other researchers on the ship about what they were seeing, and learn about the ways in which it was different from what they expected to see in May.

Experiencing these different conditions in the Northern California Current has given us a new perspective on an ecosystem that we’ve been observing and studying for years. We’re looking forward to digging into the data and seeing how it can help us understand this ecosystem more deeply, especially during a period of continued climate change.

The total number of each marine mammal species observed during the cruise.

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The pathway to advancing knowledge of rorqual whale distribution off Oregon

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

In September 2020, I was hired as a postdoc in the GEMM Lab and was tasked to conduct the analyses necessary for the OPAL project. This research project has the ambitious, yet essential, goal to fill a knowledge gap hindering whale conservation efforts locally: where and when do whales occur off the Oregon coast? Understanding and predicting whale distribution based on changing environmental conditions is a key strategy to assess and reduce spatial conflicts with human activities, specifically the risk of entanglement in fixed fishing gear.

Starting a new project is always a little daunting. Learning about a new region and new species, in an alien research and conservation context, is a challenge. As I have specialized in data science over the last couple of years, I have been confronted many times with the prospect of working with massive datasets collected by others, from which I was asked to tease apart the biases and the ecological patterns. In fact, I have come to love that part of my job: diving down the data rabbit hole and making my way through it by collaborating with others. Craig Hayslip, faculty research assistant in MMI, was the observer who conducted the majority of the 102 helicopter surveys that were used for this study. During the analysis stage, his help was crucial to understand the data that had been collected and get a better grasp of the field work biases that I would later have to account for in my models. Similarly, it took hours of zoom discussions with Dawn Barlow, the GEMM lab’s latest Dr, to be able to clean and process the 75 days of survey effort conducted at sea, aboard the R/V Shimada and Oceanus.

Once the data is “clean”, then comes the time for modeling. Running hundreds of models, with different statistical approaches, different environmental predictors, different parameters etc. etc. That is when you realize what a blessing it is to work with a supervisor like Leigh Torres, head of the GEMM Lab. As an early career researcher, I really appreciate working with people who help me take a step back and see the bigger picture within which the whole data wrangling work is included. It is so important to have someone help you stay focused on your goals and the ecological questions you are trying to answer, as these may easily get pushed back to the background during the data analysis process.

And here we are today, with the first scientific publication from the OPAL project published, a little more than three years after Leigh and Craig started collecting data onboard the United States Coast Guard helicopters off the coast of Oregon in February 2019. Entitled “Seasonal, annual, and decadal distribution of three rorqual whale species relative to dynamic ocean conditions off Oregon, USA”, our study published in Frontiers in Marine Science presents modern and fine-scale predictions of rorqual whale distribution off Oregon, as well as a description of their phenology and a comparison to whale numbers observed across three decades in the region (Figure 1). This research focuses on three rorqual species sharing some ecological and biological traits, as well as similar conservation status: humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus musculus), and fin whales (Balaenoptera physallus); all of which migrate and feed over the US West coast (see a previous blog to learn more about these species here).

Figure 1: Graphical abstract of our latest paper published in Frontiers in Marine Science.

We demonstrate (1) an increase in rorqual numbers over the last three decades in Oregon waters, (2) differences in timing of migration and habitat preferences between humpback, blue, and fin whales, and (3) predictable relationships of rorqual whale distribution based on dynamic ocean conditions indicative of upwellings and frontal zones. Indeed, these ocean conditions are likely to provide suitable biological conditions triggering increased prey abundance. Three seasonal models covering the months of December-March (winter model), April-July (spring) and August-November (summer-fall) were generated to predict rorqual whale densities over the Oregon continental shelf (in waters up to 1,500 m deep). As a result, maps of whale densities can be produced on a weekly basis at a resolution of 5 km, which is a scale that will facilitate targeted management of human activities in Oregon. In addition, species-specific models were also produced over the period of high occurrence in the region;  that is humpback and blue whales between April and November, and fin whales between August and March. 

As we outline in our concluding remarks, this work is not to be considered an end-point, but rather a stepping stone to improve ecological knowledge and produce operational outputs that can be used effectively by managers and stakeholders to prevent spatial conflict between whales and human activities. As of today, the models of fin and blue whale densities are limited by the small number of observations of these two species over the Oregon continental shelf. Yet, we hope that continued data collection via fruitful research partnerships will allow us to improve the robustness of these species-specific predictions in the future. On the other hand, the rorqual models are considered sufficiently robust to continue into the next phase of the OPAL project that aims to assess overlap between whale distribution and Dungeness crab fishing gear to estimate entanglement risk. 

The curse (or perhaps the beauty?) of species distribution modeling is that it never ends. There are always new data to be added, new statistical approaches to be tested, and new predictions to be made. The OPAL models are no exception to this rule. They are meant to be improved in future years, thanks to continued helicopter and ship-based survey efforts, and to the addition of new environmental variables meant to better predict whale habitat selection. For instance, Rachel Kaplan’s PhD research specifically aims at understanding the distribution of whales in relation to krill. Her results will feed into the more general efforts to model and predict whale distribution to inform management in Oregon.

This first publication therefore paves the way for more exciting and impactful research!

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Reference

Derville, S., Barlow, D. R., Hayslip, C. E., and Torres, L. G. (2022). Seasonal, Annual, and Decadal Distribution of Three Rorqual Whale Species Relative to Dynamic Ocean Conditions Off Oregon, USA. Front. Mar. Sci. 9, 1–19. doi:10.3389/fmars.2022.868566.

Acknowledgments

We gratefully acknowledge the immense contribution of the United State Coast Guard sectors North Bend and Columbia River who facilitated and piloted our helicopter surveys. We would like to also thank NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center for the ship time aboard the R/V Bell M. Shimada. We thank the R/V Bell M. Shimada (chief scientists J. Fisher and S. Zeman) and R/V Oceanus crews, as well as the marine mammal observers F. Sullivan, C. Bird and R. Kaplan. We give special recognition and thanks to the late Alexa Kownacki who contributed so much in the field and to our lives. We also thank T. Buell and K. Corbett (ODFW) for their partnership over the OPAL project. We thank G. Green and J. Brueggeman (Minerals Management Service), J. Adams (US Geological Survey), J. Jahncke (Point blue Conservation), S. Benson (NOAA-South West Fisheries Science Center), and L. Ballance (Oregon State University) for sharing validation data. We thank J. Calambokidis (Cascadia Research Collective) for sharing validation data and for logistical support of the project. We thank A. Virgili for sharing advice and custom codes to produce detection functions.

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 (https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2022.867258) 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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References

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. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2022.867258

Dive into Oregon’s underwater forests

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

When I was younger, I aspired to be a marine mammal biologist. I thought it was purely about knowing as much about marine mammal species as possible. However, over time and with experience in this field, I have realized that in order to understand a species, you need to have a holistic understanding of its prey, habitat, and environment. When I first applied to be advised by Leigh in the GEMM Lab, I had no idea how much of my time I would spend looking at tiny zooplankton under a microscope, thinking about the different benefits of different habitat types, or reading about oceanographic processes. But these things have been incredibly vital to my research to date and as a result, I now refer to myself as a marine ecologist. This holistic understanding that I am gaining will only grow throughout my PhD as I am broadly looking at the habitat use, site fidelity, and population dynamics of the Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) of gray whales for my thesis research. 

The PCFG display many foraging tactics and occupy several habitat types along the Oregon coast while they spend their summer feeding seasons here (Torres et al. 2018). Here, I will focus on one of these habitats: kelp. When you hear the word kelp, you probably conjure an image of long, thick stalks that reach from the ocean floor to the surface, with billowing fronds waving around (Figure 1a). However, this type is only one of three basic morphologies (Filbee-Dexter & Scheibling 2014) and it is called canopy kelp, which often forms extensive forests. The other two morphologies are stipitate and prostrate kelps. The former forms midwater stands (Figure 1b) while the latter forms low-lying kelp beds (Figure 1c). All three of these morphologies exist on the Oregon coast and create a mosaic of understory and canopy kelp patches that dot our coastline.

Figure 1. Examples of the three different kelp morphologies. a: bull kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) is a type of canopy kelp and the dominant kelp on the Oregon coast (Source: Oregon Coast Aquarium); b: sea palm (Postelsia palmaeformis) is a type of stipitate kelp that forms mid-water stands (Source: Oregon Conservation Strategy); c: sea cabbage (Saccharina sessilis) is a type of prostrate kelp that is stipeless and forms low-lying kelp beds (Source: Central Coast Biodiversity).

One of the most magnificent things about kelp is that it is not just a species itself, but it provides critical habitat, refuge, and food resources to a myriad of other species due to its high rates of primary production (Dayton 1985). Kelp is often referred to as a foundation species due to all of these critical services it provides. In Oregon, many species of rockfish, which are important commercial and recreational fisheries, use kelp as habitat throughout their life cycle, including as nursery grounds. Lingcod, another widely fished species, forages amongst kelp. A large number of macroinvertebrates can be found in Oregon kelp forests, including anemones, limpets, snails, sea urchins, sea stars, and abalone, to name a fraction of them. 

Kelps grow best in cold, nutrient-rich waters (Tegner et al. 1996) and their growth and distribution patterns are highly naturally variable on both temporal and spatial scales (Krumhansl et al. 2016). However, warm water, low nutrient or light conditions, intensive grazing by herbivores, and severe storm activity can lead to the erosion and defoliation of kelp beds (Krumhansl et al. 2016). While these events can occur naturally in cyclical patterns, the frequency of several of these events has increased in recent years, as a result of climate change and anthropogenic impacts. For example, Dawn’s blog discussed increasing marine heatwaves that represent an influx of warm water for a prolonged period of time. In fact, kelps can be useful sentinels of change as they tend to be highly responsive to changes in environmental conditions (e.g., Rogers-Bennet & Catton 2019) and their nearshore, coastal location directly exposes them to human activities, such as pollution, harvesting, and fishing (Bennett et al. 2016).

Due to its foundational role, changes or impacts to kelp can reverberate throughout the ecosystem and negatively affect many other species. As mentioned previously, kelp is naturally highly variable, and like many other ecological processes, undergoes boom and bust cycles. For over four decades, dense, productive kelp forests have been shown to transition to sea urchin barrens, and back again, in natural cycles (Sala et al. 1998; Pinnegar et al. 2000; Steneck et al. 2002; Figure 2). These transitions are called phase shifts. In a healthy, balanced kelp forest, sea urchins typically passively feed on detrital plant matter, such as broken off pieces of kelp fronds that fall to the seafloor. A phase shift occurs when the grazing intensity of sea urchins increases, resulting in them actively feeding on kelp stalks and fronds to a point where the kelp in an area can become greatly reduced, creating an urchin barren. Sea urchin grazing intensity can change for a number of reasons, including reduction in sea urchin predators (e.g., sea otters, sunflower sea stars) or poor kelp recruitment events (e.g., due to warm water temperature). Regardless of the reason, the phases tend to transition back and forth over time. However, there is concern that sea urchin barrens may become an alternative stable state of the subtidal ecosystem from which kelp in an area cannot recover (Filbee-Dexter & Scheibling 2014). 

Figure 2. Screenshots from GoPro videos from 2016 (left) and 2018 (right) at the same kayak sampling station in Port Orford showing the difference between a dense kelp forest and what appears to be an urchin barren. (Source: GEMM Lab).

For example, in 2014, bull kelp canopy cover in northern California was reduced by >90% and has not shown signs of recovery since (Rogers-Bennet & Catton 2019; Figure 3). This massive decline was attributed to two major events: 1) the onset of sea star wasting disease (SSWD) in 2013 and 2) the “warm blob” of 2014-2016. SSWD affected over 20 sea star species along the coast from Mexico to Alaska, with the predatory sunflower sea star, which consumes purple sea urchins, most affected, including population declines of 80-100% along the coast (Harvell et al. 2019). Following this SSWD outbreak, the “warm blob”, which was an extreme marine heatwave in the Pacific Ocean, caused ocean temperatures to spike. These two events allowed purple sea urchin populations to grow unchecked by their predators, and created nutrient-poor and warm water conditions, which limited kelp growth and productivity. Intense grazing on bull kelp by growing urchin populations resulted in the >90% reduction in bull kelp canopy cover and has left behind widespread urchin barrens instead (Rogers-Bennet & Catton 2019). Consequently, there have been ecological and economic impacts on the ecosystem and communities in northern California. Without bull kelp, red abalone and red sea urchin populations starved, leading to a subsequent loss of the recreational red abalone (estimated value of $44 million/year) and commercial red urchin fisheries in northern California (Rogers-Bennet & Catton 2019).

Figure 3. Surface kelp canopy area pre- and post-impact from sites in Sonoma and Mendocino counties, northern California from aerial surveys (2008, 2014-2016). Figure and figure caption taken from Rogers-Bennett & Catton (2019).

As I mentioned earlier, while phase shifts between kelp forests and urchin barrens are common cycles, the intensity of the events described above in northern California are an example of sea urchin barrens potentially becoming a stable state of the subtidal ecosystem (Filbee-Dexter & Scheibling 2014). Given that marine heatwaves are only expected to increase in intensity and frequency in the future (Frölicher et al. 2018), the events documented in northern California may not be an isolated incidence. 

Considering that parts of the Oregon coast, particularly the southern portion, are very similar to northern California biogeographically, and that it was not exempt from the “warm blob”, similar changes in kelp forests may be occurring along our coast. There are many individuals and groups that are actively working on this issue to examine potential impacts to kelp and the species that depend on the services it provides. For more information, check out the Oregon Kelp Alliance

Figure 4. A gray whale surfaces in a large kelp bed during a foraging bout along the Oregon coast. (Source: GEMM Lab).

So, what does all of this information have to do with gray whales? Given their affinity for kelp habitats (Figure 4) and their zooplankton prey that aggregates there, changes to kelp ecosystems may affect gray whale health and ecology. This aspect of the complex kelp trophic web has not been examined to date; thus one of my PhD chapters focuses on the response of gray whales to changing kelp ecosystems along the southern Oregon coast. To do this, I am examining 6 years of data collected during the TOPAZ/JASPER project in Port Orford, to look at the relationships between kelp health, sea urchin density, zooplankton abundance, and gray whale foraging effort over space and time. Documenting impacts of changing kelp forests on gray whales is important to assist management efforts as healthy and abundant kelp seems critical in providing ample food opportunities for these iconic Pacific Northwest marine predators.

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References

Bennett S, et al. The ‘Great Southern Reef’: Social, ecological and economic value of Australia’s neglected kelp forests. Marine and Freshwater Research 67:47-56.

Dayton PK (1985) Ecology of kelp communities. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 16:215-245.

Filbee-Dexter K, Scheibling RE (2014) Sea uechin barrens as alternative stable states of collapsed kelp ecosystems. Marine Ecology Progress Series 495:1-25.

Frölicher TL, Fischer EM, Gruber N (2018) Marine heatwaves under global warming. Nature 560:360-364.

Harvell CD, et al. (2019) Disease epidemic and a marine heat wave are associated with the continental-scale collapse of a pivotal predator (Pycnopodia helianthoides). Science Advances 5(1) doi:10.1126/sciadv.aau7042.

Krumhansl KA, et al. (2016) Global patterns of kelp forest change over the past half-century. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 113(48):13785-13790.

Pinnegar JK, et al. (2000) Trophic cascades in benthic marine ecosystems: lessons for fisheries and protected-area management. Environmental Conservation 27:179-200.

Rogers-Bennett L, Catton CA (2019) Marine heat wave and multiple stressors tip bull kelp forest to sea urchin barrens. Scientific Reports 9:15050.

Sala E, Boudouresque CF, Harmelin-Vivien M (1998) Fishing, trophic cascades and the structure of algal assemblages; evaluation of an old but untested paradigm. Oikos 82:425-439.

Steneck RS, et al. (2002) Kelp forest ecosystems: biodiversity, stability, resilience and future. Environmental Conservation 29:436-459.

Tegner MJ, Dayton PK, Edwards PB, Riser KL (1996) Is there evidence for the long-term climatic change in southern California kelp forests? California Cooperative Oceanic Fisheries Investigations Report 37:111-126.

Torres LG, Nieukirk SL, Lemos L, Chandler TE (2018) Drone up! Quantifying whale behavior from a new perspective improves observational capacity. Frontiers in Marine Science doi:10.3389/fmars.2019.00319.

A pregnancy test for whales?! Why and how?

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 often receive two reactions when asked what I am currently working on; one is “Wow! That is a very cool job, it must be amazing to work with such incredible animals!”, the other is “How do you do that and why is that important?”. So, today I decided to blog about some of the reasons why it is important to develop a pregnancy test for gray whales and how we are doing this.

In a previous blogpost, I described the many ways in which whales play critical roles in sustaining marine ecosystem. Briefly, whales can enhance marine productivity by vertically and horizontally mixing of ocean waters, promoting primary production, and mitigating climate change by sequestering carbon with their large biomass and long life-span (1-3). Even after they die, their carcasses can contribute to biodiversity creating new habitat on the seafloor (4). But, over several decades, the whaling industry drastically removed whales around the globe, with some species and populations depleted to near extinction (5). Consequently, these depleted whale populations now play a diminished role in ocean ecosystem processes and their recovery is currently challenged by an increasing number of modern anthropogenic impacts. Hence, working towards whale conservation is essential for keeping a healthy marine ecosystem.

Working and designing effective strategies for conservation biology often involves gaining knowledge regarding the reproductive parameters of individual animals in wild populations. This information is critical for understanding population trends and the underlaying mechanisms that affect animal welfare and their potential for recovery. However, getting such information from free-living whales can be challenging (see Hunt et al. 2013). While we know that whales typically have long life-spans, lengthy generation times, extended parental care, and high survival rates, detailed knowledge on the life history and general reproductive biology of free-ranging whales is limited for the majority of the whale populations. In fact, much of what we do know about whale reproduction is derived from whaling records. Only recently, conservation physiology approaches (see our previous post here) have contributed alternative and non-invasive methods for monitoring key physiological processes that can help monitor a whale’s reproductive biology and determine reproductive parameters such as sexual maturity and pregnancy (6-9).

In this clip you can see an example of a fecal sample collection from a gray whale off the Oregon coast. We can look at hormones in the fecal samples which are useful indicators for endocrine assessments of free-swimming whales. Fecal sample and footage filmed under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111.

Gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) in the Eastern North Pacific (ENP) typically undertake annual migrations between their lower latitude breeding grounds in the coastal waters of the Baja California Peninsula, Mexico, and the foraging grounds located on the Bering and Chukchi Seas (10). However, among the ENP whales a distinct subgroup of about 230 whales shorten their migration to feed in the coastal waters of Northern California, Oregon, and southeastern Alaska (11). This group of whales is known as the gray whale Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG).

Since 2016, the GEMM Lab has monitored individual gray whales within the PCFG off the Oregon coast (check the GRANITE project). Gray whales have a distinct mottled skin; and each individual whale presents a unique pigmentation pattern that allows for the individual identification of whales. We can identify who is who among the whales who visit the Oregon coast. In this way, we can keep a detailed record of re-sightings of known individuals (visit our new web site to know more about the lives of individual whales that visit the Oregon coast).  We have high individual re-sighting rates, so this unique opportunity helps us keep a long-term data series for individual whales to monitor their health, body condition, and reproductive status over time, and thus further develop and advance our non-invasive study methods.

We are combining behavioral and feeding ecology with drone photogrammetry and endocrinology of the same individual whales to help us understand the relationships between natural and anthropogenic drivers with biological parameters. In this way, following individual whales, we are developing sensitive biomarkers to monitor and infer about the population health, population trends, and identify stressors that impact their recovery and welfare. In particular, we are now working to develop a noninvasive approach to detect pregnancy in gray whales based on fecal hormone analyses.

In this picture you can see “Rose”, a gray whale calf, on top of her mother “Scarlett”. Scarlett is one of the most recognizable whales from the PCFG, due to a large scar on the right side of her back (not visible in this picture). She has been observed along the Pacific NW coast since 1996, so she is at least 26 years old today. We know 3 of her calves. Following individual whales like Scarlett is helping us to better understand the gray whale reproductive biology. Photo by Alejandro Fernandez Ajo taken under NOAA/NMFS permit #21678.

In marine mammals, the progesterone hormone is secreted in the ovaries during the estrous cycle and gestation, and is the predominant hormone responsible for sustaining pregnancy (12). As the hormones are cleared from the blood into the gut, they are metabolized and eventually excreted in feces; fecal samples represent a cumulative and integrated concentration of hormone metabolites (13-14), which are useful indicators for endocrine assessments of free-swimming whales. Several studies show that changes in hormone concentration correlate in meaningful ways with exposure to stressors (15-16) and changes in reproductive status (17-19). We are using our long data series of fecal hormones and individual life histories to advance our understanding on the gray whales’ reproductive biology. We are close to developing a technique that will allow us to detect pregnancy in whales based in fecal hormones analyses and photogrammetry. Stay tuned for results from this pregnancy test!

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References:

1- 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.

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

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

4- Smith CR, Roman J, Nation JB. A metapopulation model for whale-fall specialists: The largest whales are essential to prevent species extinctions. J. Mar. Res. 77, 283–302 (2019).

5- Branch TA, Williams TM. Legacy of industrial whaling. Whales. Whal. Ocean Ecosyst. 2006, 262–278 (2006).

6- Kellar NM, Keliher J, Trego ML, Catelani KN, Hanns C, George JC, et al. Variation of bowhead whale progesterone concentrations across demographic groups and sample matrices. Endanger Species Res 2013; 22:61–72. https://doi.org/10.3354/esr00537.

7- Pallin L, Robbins J, Kellar N, Berube M, Friedlaender A. Validation of a blubber-based endocrine pregnancy test for humpback whales. Conserv Physiol 2018;6:1 11. https://doi.org/10.1093/conphys/coy031PMID:29942518.

8-Hunt KE, Robbins J, Buck CL, Bérubé M, Rolland RM (2019) Evaluation of fecal hormones for noninvasive research on reproduction and stress in humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae). Gen Comp Endocrinol 280: 24–34.

9-Melica, V., Atkinson, S., Calambokidis, J., Lang, A., Scordino, J., & Mueter, F. (2021). Application of endocrine biomarkers to update information on reproductive physiology in gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus). Plos one, 16(8), e0255368.

10-Swartz SL. Gray Whale. In: Wursig B, Thewissen JGM, Kovacs KM, editors. Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals (Third Edition). Elsevier;2018,p. 422–8.https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-804327-1.00140–0.

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

12- Bronson, F. H. (1989). Mammalian reproductive biology. University of Chicago Press.

13-Wasser SK, Hunt KE, Brown JL, Cooper K, Crockett CM, Bechert U, Millspaugh JJ, Larson S, Monfort SL (2000) A generalized fecal glucocorticoid assay for use in a diverse array of nondomestic mammalian and avian species. Gen Comp Endocrinol120:260–275.

14- Hunt, K.E., Rolland, R.M., Kraus, S.D., Wasser, S.K., 2006. Analysis of fecal glucocorticoids in the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis). Gen. Comp. Endocrinol. 148, 260–272. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ygcen.2006.03.01215.

15- Lemos, L.S., Olsen, A., Smith, A., Burnett, J.D., Chandler, T.E., Larson, S., Hunt, K.E., Torres, L.G., 2021. Stressed and slim or relaxed and chubby? A simultaneous assessment of gray whale body condition and hormone variability. Mar. Mammal Sci. 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1111/mms.12877

16- Rolland, R., McLellan, W., Moore, M., Harms, C., Burgess, E., Hunt, K., 2017. Fecal glucocorticoids and anthropogenic injury and mortality in North Atlantic right whales Eubalaena glacialis. Endanger. Species Res. 34, 417–429. https://doi.org/10.3354/esr00866.

17-Rolland, R.M., Hunt, K.E., Kraus, S.D., Wasser, S.K., 2005. Assessing reproductive status of right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) using fecal hormone metabolites. Gen. Comp. Endocrinol. 142, 308–317. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ygcen.2005.02.002

18- Valenzuela Molina M, Atkinson S, Mashburn K, Gendron D, Brownell RL. Fecal steroid hormones reveal reproductive state in female blue whales sampled in the Gulf of California, Mexico. Gen Comp Endocrinol 2018;261:127–35.https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ygcen.2018.02.015 PMID:29476760.

19- Hunt, K. E., Robbins, J., Buck, C. L., Bérubé, M., & Rolland, R. M. (2019). Evaluation of fecal hormones for noninvasive research on reproduction and stress in humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae). General and Comparative Endocrinology, 280, 24-34.

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 https://www.facebook.com/groups/CetalFauna – 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. https://happywhale.com/individual/78069;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.

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

References

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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References:

Barlow DR, Bernard KS, Escobar-Flores P, Palacios DM, Torres LG (2020) Links in the trophic chain: Modeling functional relationships between in situ oceanography, krill, and blue whale distribution under different oceanographic regimes. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 642:207–225.

Barlow DR, Klinck H, Ponirakis D, Garvey C, Torres LG (2021) Temporal and spatial lags between wind, coastal upwelling, and blue whale occurrence. Sci Rep 11:1–10.

Becker EA, Forney KA, Redfern J V., Barlow J, Jacox MG, Roberts JJ, Palacios DM (2019) Predicting cetacean abundance and distribution in a changing climate. Divers Distrib 25:626–643.

Cairns DK (1988) Seabirds as indicators of marine food supplies. Biol Oceanogr 5:261–271.

Cavole LM, Demko AM, Diner RE, Giddings A, Koester I, Pagniello CMLS, Paulsen ML, Ramirez-Valdez A, Schwenck SM, Yen NK, Zill ME, Franks PJS (2016) Biological impacts of the 2013–2015 warm-water anomaly in the northeast Pacific: Winners, losers, and the future. Oceanography 29:273–285.

Croll DA, Marinovic B, Benson S, Chavez FP, Black N, Ternullo R, Tershy BR (2005) From wind to whales: Trophic links in a coastal upwelling system. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 289:117–130.

Croll DA, Tershy BR, Hewitt RP, Demer DA, Fiedler PC, Smith SE, Armstrong W, Popp JM, Kiekhefer T, Lopez VR, Urban J, Gendron D (1998) An integrated approch to the foraging ecology of marine birds and mammals. Deep Res Part II Top Stud Oceanogr.

Gavrilchuk K, Lesage V, Fortune SME, Trites AW, Plourde S (2021) Foraging habitat of North Atlantic right whales has declined in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada, and may be insufficient for successful reproduction. Endanger Species Res 44:113–136.

Hazen EL, Abrahms B, Brodie S, Carroll G, Jacox MG, Savoca MS, Scales KL, Sydeman WJ, Bograd SJ (2019) Marine top predators as climate and ecosystem sentinels. Front Ecol Environ 17:565–574.

Hazen EL, Jorgensen S, Rykaczewski RR, Bograd SJ, Foley DG, Jonsen ID, Shaffer SA, Dunne JP, Costa DP, Crowder LB, Block BA (2013) Predicted habitat shifts of Pacific top predators in a changing climate. Nat Clim Chang 3:234–238.

Hyrenbach KD, Forney KA, Dayton PK (2000) Marine protected areas and ocean basin management. Aquat Conserv Mar Freshw Ecosyst 10:437–458.

Meyer-Gutbrod EL, Greene CH, Davies KTA, Johns DG (2021) Ocean regime shift is driving collapse of the north atlantic right whale population. Oceanography 34:22–31.

Oestreich WK, Abrahms B, Mckenna MF, Goldbogen JA, Crowder LB, Ryan JP (2022) Acoustic signature reveals blue whales tune life history transitions to oceanographic conditions. Funct Ecol.

Piatt JF, Parrish JK, Renner HM, Schoen SK, Jones TT, Arimitsu ML, Kuletz KJ, Bodenstein B, Garcia-Reyes M, Duerr RS, Corcoran RM, Kaler RSA, McChesney J, Golightly RT, Coletti HA, Suryan RM, Burgess HK, Lindsey J, Lindquist K, Warzybok PM, Jahncke J, Roletto J, Sydeman WJ (2020) Extreme mortality and reproductive failure of common murres resulting from the northeast Pacific marine heatwave of 2014-2016. PLoS One 15:e0226087.

Scopel LC, Diamond AW, Kress SW, Hards AR, Shannon P (2018) Seabird diets as bioindicators of atlantic herring recruitment and stock size: A new tool for ecosystem-based fisheries management. Can J Fish Aquat Sci.

Silber GK, Lettrich MD, Thomas PO, Baker JD, Baumgartner M, Becker EA, Boveng P, Dick DM, Fiechter J, Forcada J, Forney KA, Griffis RB, Hare JA, Hobday AJ, Howell D, Laidre KL, Mantua N, Quakenbush L, Santora JA, Stafford KM, Spencer P, Stock C, Sydeman W, Van Houtan K, Waples RS (2017) Projecting marine mammal distribution in a changing climate. Front Mar Sci 4:413.

Sydeman WJ, Poloczanska E, Reed TE, Thompson SA (2015) Climate change and marine vertebrates. Science 350:772–777.

Wavelet analysis to describe biological cycles and signals of non-stationarity

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

During my second term of graduate school, I have been preparing to write my research proposal. The last two months have been an inspiring process of deep literature dives and brainstorming sessions with my mentors. As I discussed in my last blog, I am interested in questions related to pattern and scale (fine vs. mesoscale) in the context of the Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) of gray whales, their zooplankton prey, and local environmental variables.

My work currently involves exploring which scales of pattern are important in these trophic relationships and whether the dominant scale of a pattern changes over time or space. I have researched which analysis tools would be most appropriate to analyze ecological time series data, like the impressive long-term dataset the GEMM lab has collected in Port Orford as part of the TOPAZ  project, where we have monitored the abundance of whales and zooplankton, as well as environmental variables since 2016. 

A useful analytical tool that I have come across in my recent coursework and literature review is called wavelet analysis. Importantly, wavelet analysis can handle non-stationarity and edge detection in time series data. Non-stationarity is when a dataset’s mean and/or variance can change over time or space, and edge detection is the identification of the change location (in time or space). For example, it is not just the cycles or “ups and downs” of zooplankton abundance I am interested in, but when in time or where in space these cycles of “ups and downs” might change in relation to what their previous values, or distances between values, were. Simply stated, non-stationarity is when what once was normal is no longer normal. Wavelet analysis has been applied across a broad range of fields, such as environmental engineering (Salas et al. 2020), climate science (Slater et al. 2021), and bio-acoustics (Buchan et al. 2021). It can be applied to any time series dataset that might violate the traditional statistical assumption of stationarity. 

In a recent review of climate science methodology, Slater et al. (2021) outlined the possible behavior of time series data. Using theoretical plots, the authors show that data can a) have the same mean and variance over time, or b) have non-stationarity that can be broken into three major groups – trend, step change, or shifts in variance. Figure 1 further demonstrates the difference between stationary vs. non-stationary data in relation to a given variable of interest over time. 

Figure 1. Plots showing the possible magnitude of a given variable across a time series: a) Stationary behavior, b) Non-stationary trend, step-change, and a shift in variance. [Taken from Slater et. al (2021)].

Traditional correlation statistics assumes stationarity, but it has been shown that ecological time series are often non-stationary at certain scales (Cazelles & Hales, 2006). In fact, ecological data rarely meets the requirements of a controlled experiment that traditional statistics require. This non-stationarity of ecological data means that while widely-used methods like generalized linear models and analyses of variances (ANOVAs) can be helpful to assess correlation, they are not always sufficient on their own to describe the complex natural phenomena ecologists seek to explain. Non-stationarity occurs frequently in ecological time series, so it is appropriate to consider analysis tools that will allow us to detect edges to further investigate the cause.

Wavelet analysis can also be conducted across a time series of multiple response variables to assess if these variables share high common power (correlation). When data is combined in this way it is called a cross-wavelet analysis. An interesting paper used cross-wavelet analysis to assess the seasonal response of zooplankton life history in relation to climate warming (Winder et. al 2009). Results from their cross-wavelet analysis showed that warming temperatures over the past two decades increased the voltinism (number of broods per year) of copepods. The authors show that where once annual recruitment followed a fairly stationary pattern, climate warming has contributed to a much more stochastic pattern of zooplankton abundance. From these results, the authors contribute to the hypothesis that climate change has had a temporal impact on zooplankton population dynamics, and recruitment has increasingly drifted out of phase from the original annual cycles. 

Figure 2. Cross-wavelet spectrum for immature and adult Leptodiaptomus ashlandi for 1965 through either 2000 or 2005. Plots show a) immatures and temperature, b) adults and temperature, c) immatures and phytoplankton, and d) adults and phytoplankton. Arrows indicate phase between combined time series. 0 degrees is in-phase and 180 degrees is anti-phase. Black contour lines show “cone of influence” or the 95% significance level, every value within the cone is considered significant. Left axis shows the temporal period, and the color legend shows wavelet frequency power, with low frequencies in blue and high frequencies in red. Plots show strong covariation of high common power at the 12-month period until the 1980s. This pattern is especially evident in plot c) and d). [Taken from (Winder et. al 2009)].

While wavelet and cross-wavelet analyses should not be the only tool used to explore data, due to its limitations with significance testing, it is still worth implementing to gain a better understanding of how time series variables relate to each other over multiple spatial and/or temporal scales. It is often helpful to combine multiple methods of analysis to get a larger sense of patterns in the data, especially in spatio-temporal research.

When conducting research within the context of climate change, where the concentration of CO2 in ppm in the atmosphere is a non-stationary time series itself (Figure 3), it is important to consider how our datasets might be impacted by climate change and wavelet analysis can help identify the scales of change. 

Figure 3. Plot showing the historic fluctuations of CO^2 and the recent deviation from normal levels. Source: https://globalclimate.ucr.edu/resources.html

When considering our ecological time series of data in Port Orford, we want to evaluate how changing ocean conditions may be related to data trends. For example, has the annual mean or variance of zooplankton abundance changed over time, and where has that change occurred in time or space? These changes might have occurred at different scales and might be invisible at other scales. I am eager to see if wavelet analysis can detect these sorts of changes in the abundance of zooplankton across our time series of data, particularly during the seasons of intense heat waves or upwelling. 

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References

Buchan, S. J., Pérez-Santos, I., Narváez, D., Castro, L., Stafford, K. M., Baumgartner, M. F., … & Neira, S. (2021). Intraseasonal variation in southeast Pacific blue whale acoustic presence, zooplankton backscatter, and oceanographic variables on a feeding ground in Northern Chilean Patagonia. Progress in Oceanography, 199, 102709.

Cazelles, B., & Hales, S. (2006). Infectious diseases, climate influences, and nonstationarity. PLoS Medicine, 3(8), e328.

Salas, J. D., Anderson, M. L., Papalexiou, S. M., & Frances, F. (2020). PMP and climate variability and change: a review. Journal of Hydrologic Engineering, 25(12), 03120002.

Slater, L. J., Anderson, B., Buechel, M., Dadson, S., Han, S., Harrigan, S., … & Wilby, R. L. (2021). Nonstationary weather and water extremes: a review of methods for their detection, attribution, and management. Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, 25(7), 3897-3935.

Winder, M., Schindler, D. E., Essington, T. E., & Litt, A. H. (2009). Disrupted seasonal clockwork in the population dynamics of a freshwater copepod by climate warming. Limnology and Oceanography, 54(6part2), 2493-2505.