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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 2. An asp viper

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

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

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

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References

Green, A. J. (2001). Mass/Length Residuals: Measures of Body Condition or Generators of Spurious Results? Ecology82(5), 1473–1483. https://doi.org/10.1890/0012-9658(2001)082[1473:MLRMOB]2.0.CO;2

Madsen, T., & Shine, R. (1999). The adjustment of reproductive threshold to prey abundance in a capital breeder. Journal of Animal Ecology68(3), 571–580. https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1365-2656.1999.00306.x

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

Rahman, M. M., Kelley, J. L., & Evans, J. P. (2013). Condition-dependent expression of pre- and postcopulatory sexual traits in guppies. Ecology and Evolution3(7), 2197–2213. https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.632

Rahman, M. M., Turchini, G. M., Gasparini, C., Norambuena, F., & Evans, J. P. (2014). The Expression of Pre- and Postcopulatory Sexually Selected Traits Reflects Levels of Dietary Stress in Guppies. PLOS ONE9(8), e105856. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0105856

Stelle, L. L., Megill, W. M., & Kinzel, M. R. (2008). Activity budget and diving behavior of gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) in feeding grounds off coastal British Columbia. Marine Mammal Science24(3), 462–478. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-7692.2008.00205.x

Torres, L. G., Nieukirk, S. L., Lemos, L., & Chandler, T. E. (2018). Drone up! Quantifying whale behavior from a new perspective improves observational capacity. Frontiers in Marine Science5(SEP). https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2018.00319

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blue whales offshore of Monterey, California. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gray whales off Newport, Oregon

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

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

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

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

References: 

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

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

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

Torres, L. G., Nieukirk, S. L., Lemos, L., & Chandler, T. E. (2018). Drone up! Quantifying whale behavior from a new perspective improves observational capacity. Frontiers in Marine Science5, 319.

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

How much energy does that mouthful cost?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Literature cited

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

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

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

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

Hildebrand, L., Bernard, K. S., & Torres, L. G. 2021. Do gray whales count calories? Comparing energetic values of gray whale prey across two different feeding grounds in the eastern North Pacific. Frontiers in Marine Science 1008. doi:10.3389/fmars.2021.683634.

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

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

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

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

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

Torres, L.G., Nieukirk, S.L., Lemos, L., and T.E. Chandler. 2018. Drone Up! Quantifying Whale Behavior From a New Perspective Improves Observational Capacity. Frontiers in Marine Science: https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2018.00319.

 

Supporting marine life conservation as an outsider: Blue whales and earthquakes

By Mateo Estrada Jorge, Oregon State University undergraduate student, GEMM Lab REU Intern

Introduction

My name is Mateo Estrada and this past summer I had the pleasure of working with Dawn Barlow and Dr. Leigh Torres as a National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) intern. I had the chance to proactively learn about the scientific method in the marine sciences by studying the acoustic behaviors of pygmy blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus brevicauda) that are documented residents of the South Taranaki Bight region in New Zealand (Torres 2013, Barlow et al. 2018). I’ve been interested in conducting scientific research since I began my undergraduate education at Oregon State University in 2015. Having the opportunity to apply the skills I gained through my education in this REU has been a blessing. I’m a physics and computer science major, but more than anything I’m a scientist and my passion has taken me in new, unexpected directions that I’m going to share in this blog post. My message for any students who feel like they haven’t found their path yet is: hang in there, sometimes it takes time for things to take shape. That has been my experience and I’m sure it’s been the experience of many people interested in the sciences. I’m a Physics and Computer Science student, so why am I studying blue whales, and more specifically, how can I be doing marine science research having only taken intro to biology 101?

My background

I decided to apply for the REU in the Spring 2021 because it was a chance to use my programming skills in the marine sciences. I’m also passionate about conservation and protecting the environment in a pragmatic way, so I decided to find a niche where I could put my technical skills to good use. Finally, I wanted to explore a scientific field outside of my area of expertise to grow as a student and to learn from other researchers. I was mostly inspired by anecdotal tales of Physicist Richard Feynman who would venture out of the physics department at Caltech and into other departments to learn about what other scientists were investigating to inspire his own work. This summer, I ventured into the world of marine science, and what I found in my project was fascinating.

Whale watching tour

Figure 1. Me standing on a boat on the Pacific Ocean off Long Beach, CA.

To get into the research mode, I decided to go on a whale watching tour with the Aquarium of the Pacific. The tour was two hours long and the sunburn was worth it because we got to see four blue whales off the Long Beach coast in California. I got to see the famous blue whale blow and their splashes. It was the first time I was on a big boat in the ocean, so naturally I got seasick (Fig 1). But it was exciting to get a chance to see blue whales in action (luckily, I didn’t actually hurl). The marine biologist onboard also gave a quick lecture on the relative size of blue whales and some of their behaviors. She also pointed out that they don’t use Sonar to locate whales as this has been shown to disturb their calling behaviors. Instead, we looked for a blow and splashing. The tour was a wonderful experience and I’m glad I got to see some whales out in nature. This experience also served as a reminder of the beauty of marine life and the responsibility I feel for trying to understand and help conserving it.

Context of blue whale calling

Sound plays a significant role in the marine environment and is a critical mode of communication for many marine animals including baleen whales. Blue whales produce different vocalizations, otherwise known as calls.  Blue whale song is theorized to be produced by males of the species as a form of reproductive behavior, similar to how male peacocks engage females by displaying their elongated upper tail covert feathers in iridescent colors as a courtship mechanism. Then there are “D calls” that are associated with social mechanisms while foraging, and these calls are made by both female and male blue whales (Lewis et al. 2018) (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Spectrogram of Pygmy blue whale D calls manually (and automatically) selected, frequency 0-150 Hz.

Understanding research on blue whales

The most difficult part about coming into a project as an outsider is catching up. I learned how anthropogenetic (human made) noise affects blue whale communication. For example, it has been showing that Mid Frequency Active Sonar signals employed by the U.S. Navy affect blue whale D calling patterns (Melcón 2012). Furthermore, noise from seismic airguns used for oil and gas exploration has also impact blue whale calling behavior (Di Lorio, 2010). Understanding the environmental context in which the pygmy blue whales live and the anthropogenic pressures they face is essential in marine conservation. Protecting the areas in which they live is important so they can feed, reproduce and thrive effectively. What began as a slowly falling snowflake at the start of a snowstorm turned into a cascading avalanche of knowledge pouring into my mind in just two weeks.

Figure 3. The white stars show the hydrophone locations (n = 5). A bathymetric scale of the depth is also given.

The research question I set out to tackle in my internship was: do blue whales change their calling behavior in response to natural noise events from earthquake activity? To do this, I used acoustic recordings from five hydrophones deployed in the South Taranaki Bight (Fig. 3), paired with an existing dataset of all recorded earthquakes in New Zealand (GeoNet). I identified known earthquakes in our acoustic recordings, and then examined the blue whale D calls during 4 hours before and after each earthquake event to look for any change in the number of calls, call energy, entropy, or bandwidth.

A great mentor and lab team

The days kept passing and blending into each other, as they often do with remote work. I began to feel isolated from the people I was working with and the blue whales I was studying. The zoom calls, group chats, and working alongside other remote interns kept me afloat as I adapted to a work world fully online. Nevertheless, I was happy to continue working on this project because I felt like I was slowly becoming part of the GEMM Lab. I would meet with my mentor Dawn Barlow at least once a week and we would spend time talking about the project and sorting out the difficult details of data processing. She always encouraged my curiosity to ask questions. Even if they were silly questions, she was happy to ponder them because she is a curious scientist like myself.

What we learned

Pygmy blue whales from the South Taranaki Bight region do not change their acoustic behavior in response to earthquake activity. The energy of the earthquake, magnitude, depth, and distance to the origin all had no influence on the number of blue whale D calls, the energy of their calling, the entropy, and the bandwidth. A likely reason for why the blue whales would have no acoustic response to earthquakes (magnitude < 5) is that the STB region is a seismically active region due to the nearby interface of the Australian and Pacific plates. Because of the plate tectonics, the region averages about 20,000 recorded earthquakes per year (GeoNet: Earthquake Statistics). Given that pygmy blue whales are present in the STB region year-round (Barlow et al. 2018), the blue whales may have adapted to tolerate the earthquake activity (Fig 4).

Figure 4. Earthquake signal from MARU (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) and blue whale D calls, Frequency 0-150 Hz.

Looking at the future

I presented my work at the end of my REU internship program, which was a difficult challenge for me because I am often intimidated by public speaking (who isn’t?). Communicating science has always been a big interest of me. I love reading news articles about new breakthroughs and being a small part of that is a huge privilege for me. Finding my own voice and having new insights to contribute to the scientific world has always been my main objective. Now I will get to deliver a poster presentation of my REU work at the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO) Conference in March 2022. I am both excited and nervous to take on this new adventure of meeting seasoned professionals, communicating my results, and learning about the ocean sciences. I hope to gain new inspirations for my future academic and professional work.

References:

About Earthquake Drums – GeoNet. geonet.Org. Retrieved June 23, 2021, from https://www.geonet.org.nz/about/earthquake/drums

Barlow, D. R., Torres, L. G., Hodge, K. B., Steel, D., Scott Baker, C., Chandler, T. E., Bott, N., Constantine, R., Double, M. C., Gill, P., Glasgow, D., Hamner, R. M., Lilley, C., Ogle, M., Olson, P. A., Peters, C., Stockin, K. A., Tessaglia-Hymes, C. T., & Klinck, H. (2018). Documentation of a New Zealand blue whale population based on multiple lines of evidence. Endangered Species Research, 36, 27–40. https://doi.org/10.3354/esr00891

Di Iorio, L., & Clark, C. W. (2010). Exposure to seismic survey alters blue whale acoustic communication. Biology Letters, 6(3), 334–335. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2009.0967

Lewis, L. A., Calambokidis, J., Stimpert, A. K., Fahlbusch, J., Friedlaender, A. S., McKenna, M. F., Mesnick, S. L., Oleson, E. M., Southall, B. L., Szesciorka, A. R., & Sirović, A. (2018). Context-dependent variability in blue whale acoustic behaviour. Royal Society Open Science, 5(8). https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.180241

Melcón, M. L., Cummins, A. J., Kerosky, S. M., Roche, L. K., Wiggins, S. M., & Hildebrand, J. A. (2012). Blue whales respond to anthropogenic noise. PLoS ONE, 7(2), 1–6. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0032681

Torres LG. 2013 Evidence for an unrecognised blue whale foraging ground in New Zealand. NZ J. Mar. Freshwater Res. 47, 235–248. (doi:10. 1080/00288330.2013.773919)

Where are all the whales: Thoughts from the first half of the Port Orford project 2021

By Damian Amerman-Smith, Pacific High School senior, GEMM Lab summer intern

Left to right: Damian, Nadia, Jasen. The group scans the ocean looking for whales, while Damian puts on sunscreen. Source: A. Dawn. 

Growing up in Port Orford, a short ten-minute walk from the Pacific Ocean, has certainly shaped my life a lot. It has given me a great regard for the ocean, the diversity of life within it, and how life seems to bypass human derived borders in order to go wherever it can. I often marvel at all the beautiful, intricate ecosystems that are able to exist inside of our planet’s vast oceanic expanses. Along with my love of the ocean has come a great regard for marine mammals and the novelties of these animals that allow them to live entirely in the ocean despite not having gills. Every new discovery of these beautiful ocean creatures brings me such simple and pure joy, such as my very recent discovery that baleen whales have two blow holes. These blow holes look so peculiar on the top of their bodies, like a short upside-down nose. 

Photo of a gray whale’s blow hole. Source: NOAA.

My interest in the ocean and its inhabitants was a large part of what made me so enthused to take a part in the gray whale foraging ecology (GWFE) project in Port Orford this summer. When Elizabeth Kelly, my friend and a previous intern for the GWFE project mentioned her experiences from the previous summer, I was very happy when she put me in contact with Lisa Hildebrand and Leigh Torres so that I could apply to be an intern. Since then, I have been very ecstatically awaiting the beginning of the project and could hardly believe it when it finally began, and I was able to meet my fellow team members: Lisa Hildebrand, the PhD student who has been leading the GWFE project for the last four years; Allison Dawn, a Master’s student who is going to take over the project in Lisa’s stead; Nadia Leal, an OSU undergrad hoping to further pursue the field of marine biology; and Jasen White, an OSU undergrad whose time in the Navy has made him a very steeling presence while out on the water. 

The three weeks that we have spent together learning the procedures that make up the project have been well spent, teaching all of us a lot of new things, such as what a theodolite is, how to operate a dissolved oxygen sensor, and (for me) how to use Excel. The first two weeks were largely spent just learning about how we collect data and improving our field skills, but as we have become more comfortable with our skills, we have also begun looking beyond the procedures, towards the data itself and what it can mean. Primarily, we started to notice the distinct lack of gray whales and almost complete lack of zooplankton prey for any gray whales in the area to eat. 

A calm & beautiful, yet whale-less, view from the cliff site. Source: L. Hildebrand.

As we pass the halfway point in the project, we have only witnessed two whales inside our study area. While in the beginning it was not surprising that there were no whales, it has started to become concerning to me. We have a strong working hypothesis about why there have not been many whale sightings in our monitored sites of Mill Rocks and Tichenor’s Cove: there is not nearly enough zooplankton prey to attract them. Monday, August 9th is a good example to support this hypothesis. On that day, when we pulled up our sample net at Tichenor Cove station #1, we collected fifty-three individual Neomysis mysid shrimp, which are a tasty treat for gray whales. However, all the other prey samples from the remaining eleven kayak sampling stations had perhaps a maximum of five assorted zooplankton each, which is certainly not enough to attract the attention of such a large predator as Eschrichtius robustus (a gray whale). Unfortunately, we have yet to see much change in zooplankton prey availability in our sampling nets over the season so far, but we are hopeful that swarms of zooplankton in the area will resurge and the gray whales will begin using the area around the port as their August feeding grounds.

Our hopes aside, it is intriguing to think about why there has been so few zooplankton at our sampling sites. A main factor is likely the decrease of Port Orford’s kelp forests over the past few years. Kelp is very important to zooplankton, particularly mysids, as it allows them to seek shelter from predators. Declines in kelp forests have been documented all along the southern Oregon coast, and are believed to be fueled by many factors (ORKA, 2021). A combination of warming waters with decreasing amount of nutrients available to the kelp (Richardson 2008), and the increasing abundances of purple sea urchins that eat the kelp has vastly impacted the amount of kelp in the area. The decline in local kelp forests may be the reason that we are seeing fewer mysid swarms than in previous years. This reduced kelp and mysid availability could, in turn, be making Port Orford waters an unappetizing area for hungry whales to visit this year. While this trophic cascade is still just an educated hypothesis, it is important for us and others to keep watch on the situation, and to see how it changes. There are organizations such as the Oregon Kelp Alliance (ORKA) that are working hard to study why the kelp populations are hurting and how we can help. We will power through the season with the hopes that the gray whales will come. It is still very possible that the zooplankton will resurge and the whales will return with plenty to feed on.

References

Richardson, Anthony J. 2008. In hot water: zooplankton and climate change, ICES Journal of Marine Science, Volume 65, Issue 3, Pages 279–295, https://doi.org/10.1093/icesjms/fsn028

ORKA, 2021. “Kelp.” Oregon Kelp Alliancewww.oregonkelp.com/.

Food for thought: conscious reasoning among foraging gray whales

By Nadia Leal, GEMM Lab summer intern, OSU senior, Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences

The OSU GEMM Lab gray whale foraging ecology project in Port Orford is in its seventh year of research. I have the honor to serve as a field assistant for the project as part of Team “Heck Yeah” for the summer 2021 field season. In doing so, I have been presented with the opportunity to take part in its enduring legacy. It is a legacy characterized by novel discovery, distinguished leadership, and endless adventure. These particular aspects motivated me to pursue this internship. Further, the desire to seek out gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) — a species epitomizing the ability to exhibit resilience in the face of adversity after having experienced two unusual mortality events (UME) in the past two decades and having recovered from historically low population abundances due to whaling — sparked immeasurable excitement.

Figure 1. Nadia operating the theodolite to calculate the location of a gray whale. Source: A. Dawn.

The skills we are acquiring during this field season are essential to master so that I can pursue my aspirations of becoming a marine conservation biologist. For example, we have learned how to operate a theodolite, which is a surveying tool used regularly in marine mammal research to accurately calculate the location of cetaceans and track their movements (Figure 1). We are also learning how to operate a number of other research equipment, to navigate a tandem kayak using a GPS, to process various forms of data, and to identify gray whales! I have especially enjoyed collecting prey samples and navigating our tandem kayak, as kayaking is a summer tradition for my family and the opportunity to kayak in this context is certainly the high point of this internship. The kayak is named “Robustus” after the scientific name of the gray whale: Eschrichtius robustus! (Figure 2). 

Figure 2. Nadia navigating Robustus, the research kayak.

The Port Orford project aims to determine how gray whale foraging is affected by prey quantity and quality. In fact, gray whales exhibit specificity in their selection of prey on the basis of caloric content (Hildebrand 2020). I am particularly interested in the underlying implications these findings imply: the notion of conscious reasoning and decision-making by individual whales as they seek the most suitable prey for its dietary needs among other options to maximize its survivability. Are gray whales in possession of an awareness that allows them to exhibit intentional preference? Can the behavior be attributed to instinct and/or learned behavior, or to cognition comparable to human preference? These and similar questions are my motivation for studying the realm of marine mammal biology. These questions concern intelligence and evolution, which can be effectively investigated through an analysis of cetacean brain structure, as it likely has compelling relationships to their extensive behavioral abilities (Hof and Van Der Gucht 2007). 

For instance, the brain of the gray whale has expanded and developed extensively over evolutionary time in response to distinct selection pressures. Evidence affirms that the behavioral challenges associated with foraging exert strong selection pressures on the evolution of their brain size and structure (Muller and Montgomery 2019)! Selection pressures associated with social cognition are also believed to have contributed to such growth (Connor et al. 1998; Marino 2002; Shultz and Dunbar 2010 ). Further, their neural organization has increased in complexity, leading to greater function and usage of the cortical portion of the brain, which is the portion responsible for higher level activity (Oelschläger and Oelschläger 2002). 

Figure 3. Structure of humpback whale brain representative of baleen species used to infer about gray whales (Hof and Van Der Gucht 2007). 

Though research about baleen whale brain morphology is not as pervasive as that of toothed whales (due to increased susceptibility of toothed whales to captivity given the feasibility of their capture and subsequent analysis in lab/controlled setting), studies have indicated that the brain of baleen whales share similarities to those of humans (Wade et. al 2012). In particular, similarities exist in the frontal lobe of the brain, which is responsible for the complex activities of self-awareness, reasoning, and behavior, as well as for problem-solving and motivation (Hof and Van Der Gucht 2007) (Figure 3). These findings indicate that baleen whales, including the gray whale, have the capability to exhibit intentional preference and take part in conscious decision-making in the recognition of different prey species. The mechanisms responsible for how gray whales may discern prey likely involve a number of the sensory systems, differing in respect to spatial scale (Torres 2017). Thus, gray whales likely rely on various sensory methods, such as vision, sound perception/reception, chemoreception, or an oceanographic stimulus, at differing scales to locate and discern prey. The sensory method employed is dependent on their distance from prey. 

Though we cannot yet confirm whether and/or how gray whales are capable of distinguishing between prey species, what is certain, is that the gray whale is intelligent and quite similar to us. Moreover, they are representative of strength and endurance, providing lessons we can learn from and qualities we can embody. Despite the threats to the species from fishing gear entanglement, ship collisions, climate change, oil industry developments, and being historically hunted, they have remarkably persisted. Thus, we must ensure the existence of the gray whale so they too may thrive for the rest of time, with healthy lives and habitat that is rightfully theirs.

P.S. I would like to thank the GEMM Lab, Oregon State University, Shalynn Pack, Port Orford Sustainable Seafood, Port Orford Co-op, South Coast Tours, Nicki’s Knick Knacks, Leigh Torres, Lisa Hildebrand, Allison Dawn, Clara Bird, Tom Calvanese, Maddie English, Jasen White, and Damian Amerman-Smith for making the internship as special and memorable as it is/was. 

References

Connor, R. C., Mann, J., Tyack, P. L., and Whitehead, H. (1998). Social evolution in toothed whales. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 13(6): 228– 232. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0169‐5347(98)01326‐3 

Hildebrand, L. (2020). Tonight’s specials include mysids, amphipods, and more: an examination of the zooplankton prey of Oregon gray whales and its impact on foraging choices and prey selection. Master’s thesis, Oregon State University. 

Hof, P.R., and Van Der Gucht, E. (2007). Structure of the cerebral cortex of the humpback whale, Megaptera novaengliae(Cetacea, Mysticeti, Balaenopteridae). The Anatomical Record 290:1-31 doi: 10.1002/ar.a.20407

Marino, L. (2002). Convergence of complex cognitive abilities in cetaceans and primates. Brain, Behavior, and Evolution59: 21–32. doi:  https://doi. org/10.1159/000063731 

Oelschläger, H.A., and Oelschläger, J.S. (2002). Brains. In: Perrin WF, Wu¨ rsig B, Thewissen JGM, editors. Encyclopedia of marine mammals. San Diego, CA: Academic Press. p 133–158.            

Shultz, S., & Dunbar, R. (2010). Encephalization is not a universal macroevolutionary phenomenon in mammals but is associated with sociality. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 107(50): 21582–21586. doi: https://doi.org/10.1073/ pnas.1005246107 

Torres, L.G. (2017). A sense of scale: foraging cetaceans’ use of scale-dependent multimodal sensory systems. Marine Mammal Science 33: 1170-1193. doi:  10.1111/mms.12426 

Wade, P.R., Reeves, R.R., and Mesnick, S.L. (2012). Social and behavioral factors in cetacean responses to overexploitation: are odontocetes less “resilient” than mysticetes?. The Journal of Marine Biology 2012: 1-15. doi:10.1155/2012/567276

The early phases of studying harbor seal pup behavior along the Oregon coast

By Miranda Mayhall, Masters Student, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Recently, when expected to choose a wildlife species for behavioral observation for one of my Oregon State University graduate courses, I immediately chose harbor seals as my focus. Harbor seals (Fig 1) are an abundant species and in proximity to the Hatfield Marine Science Center (HMSC) (Steingass et al., 2019) where I will be spending much of my time this summer, making logistics easy. Studying pinnipeds (marine mammals with a finned foot, seals, walrus, and sea lions) is appealing due to their undeniably cute physique, floppy nature on land, and super agile nature in the water. I am working to iron out my methods for this study, which I hope to work through in this initial phase of my research project.

Figure 1. Harbor seal hauling out to rest on rocks off Oregon Coast near HMSC.

Behaviors:

At times it can appear that the most interesting harbor seal behaviors occur under water, and the haul out time is simply time for resting. During mating season, most adult seal behaviors take place in the water, such as the incredible vocal acoustics displayed by the males to attract the females (Matthews et al., 2018). However, I hypothesize that young pups can capitalize on haul out time by practicing becoming adults (while the adults are taking that time to rest) and therefore I plan to observe their haul out behaviors in their first summer of life. Specifically, I will document seal pup vocal behavior to evaluate how they are learning to use sound. I am beginning this study in late July, which is just after pupping season (Granquist et al., 2016). This should give me the opportunity to find pups along the Oregon coast near HMSC, so I intend to visit several locations where harbor seals are known to frequently haul out. Knowing that field work and animal behavior is unpredictable, there is no telling what behaviors I will observe on a given day, or if I will see seals at all. Some days I could come home with lots of seal data and great photos, and other days I could come home with little to report. This will be my first hurdle combined with my time limit (strictly completing this observation in the next five weeks). I intend to schedule at least eight hours of field observation at haul-out sites over the next two weeks and will adjust my schedule based on my success in data collection at that point.  

Figure 2. Harbor Seals hauling out on rocks not too far from HMSC.

Timing:

Prior knowledge on harbor seal haul-out sites along the Oregon coast is clearly important for this project’s success, but I must also pay close attention to the tide cycles. During low tides, haul out locations are exposed and occupied by seals. When the tide is high, the seals are less likely to haul-out (Patterson et al., 2008). Furthermore, according to a recent study conducted on harbor seals residing on the Oregon coast, these seals spend on average 71% of their time in the water and will haul-out for the remainder of their time (Steingass et al., 2019). Therefore, it is crucial to maximize my observation time of hauled out pups wisely.

Concerning timing, I also need to observe locations and periods without too many tourists who can get near the haul-out site. As I learned recently, when children show up and start throwing rocks into the water near where harbor seals are swimming, the seals will recede from the area and no longer be available for observation. As an experiment, I waited for the noisy crowds with unchecked children to leave and only myself, my trusty sidekick (my daughter), and one quiet photographer were left on the beach. Once that happened, we noticed more and more seal heads popping up out of the water. Then they came closer and closer to the beach, splashing around doing somersaults visibly on the surface of the water. It was quite a show. I will either need to account for the presence of humans when evaluating seal behavior or assess only periods without disturbance. Seal pups are easily disturbed by humans, so I will keep a non-invasive distance while positioning myself to hear the vocals.

Figure 3. Hauled-out adult harbor seal on the Oregon coast near HMSC. 

Data Collection and Analysis Approach:

The aspect of this project I am still working out is how to quantify pup vocalizations and their associated behaviors. As I mentioned, I will go out each week for eight hours and record each time I notice a pup exhibiting vocal behavior. I will categorize and describe the sound produced by the pup, and document any associated behavior of the pup or behavioral responses from nearby adult seals. Prior research has found that harbor seals are much attuned to vocal behavior. Mother harbor seals learn to quickly distinguish their own pup’s call within a few days of their birth (Sauve et al. 2015). I hypothesize that pups themselves can discern and use vocalizations, and I am excited to watch them develop over the course of my field observations.

Figure 4. Seal pup on the far-left rock, watching the adults as they appear to rest.

References

Granquist, S.M., & Hauksson, E. (2016). Seasonal, meteorological, tidal, and diurnal effects on haul-out patterns of harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) in Iceland. Polar Biology, 39 (12), 2347-2359.

Matthews, L.P., Blades, B., Parks, S. (2018). Female harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) behavioral response to playbacks of underwater male acoustic advertisement displays. PeerJ, 6, e4547.

Patterson, J., Acevedo-Gutierrez, A. (2008). Tidal influence on the haul-out behavior of harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) At all time levels. Northwestern Naturalist, 89 (1), 17-23.

Sauve, C., Beauplet, G., Hammil, M., Charrier, I. (2015). Mother-pup vocal recognition in harbour seals: influence of maternal behavior, pup voice and habitat sound properties. Animal Behavior, 105 (July 2015), 109-120

Steingass, S., Horning, M., Bishop, A. (2019). Space use of Pacific harbor seals (Phoca vitulina richardii) from two haulout locations along the Oregon coast. PloS one. 14 (7), e0219484.

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.

Roger that, we are currently enamored

Blog by 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

Figures by Dawn Barlow, PhD Candidate, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Hello from the RV Bell M. Shimada! We are currently sampling at an inshore station on the Heceta Head Line, which begins just south of Newport and heads out 45 nautical miles west into the Pacific Ocean. We’ll spend 10 days total at sea, which have so far been full of great weather, long days of observing, and lots of whales.

Dawn and Rachel in matching, many-layered outfits, 125 miles offshore on the flying bridge of the RV Bell M. Shimada.

Run by NOAA, this Northern California Current (NCC) cruise takes place three times per year. It is fabulously interdisciplinary, with teams concurrently conducting research on phytoplankton, zooplankton, seabirds, and more. The GEMM Lab will use the whale survey, krill, and oceanographic data to fuel species distribution models as part of Project OPAL. I’ll be working with this data for my PhD, and it’s great to be getting to know the region, study system, and sampling processes.

I’ve been to sea a number of times and always really enjoyed it, but this is my first time as part of a marine mammal survey. The type and timing of this work is so different from the many other types of oceanographic science that take place on a typical research cruise. While everyone else is scurrying around, deploying instruments and collecting samples at a “station” (a geographic waypoint in the ocean that is sampled repeatedly over time), we – the marine mammal team – are taking a break because we can only survey when the boat is moving. While everyone else is sleeping or relaxing during a long transit between stations, we’re hard at work up on the flying bridge of the ship, scanning the horizon for animals.

Top left: marine mammal survey effort (black lines), and oceanographic sampling stations (red diamonds). Top right: humpback whale sighting locations. Bottom left: fin whale sighting locations. Bottom right: pacific white-sided dolphin sighting locations.

During each “on effort” survey period, Dawn and I cover separate quadrants of ocean, each manning either the port or starboard side. We continuously scan the horizon for signs of whale blows or bodies, alternating between our eyes and binoculars. During long transits, we work in chunks – forty minutes on effort, and twenty minutes off effort. Staring at the sea all day is surprisingly tiring, and so our breaks often involve “going to the eye spa,” which entails pulling a neck gaiter or hat over your eyes and basking in the darkness.  

Dawn has been joining these NCC cruises for the last four years, and her wealth of knowledge has been a great resource as I learn how to survey and identify marine mammals. Beyond learning the telltale signs of separate species, one of the biggest challenges has been learning how to read the sea better, to judge the difference between a frothy whitecap and a whale blow, or a distant dark wavelet and a dorsal fin. Other times, when conditions are amazing and it feels like we’re surrounded by whales, the trick is to try to predict the positions and trajectory of each whale so we don’t double-count them.

Over the last week, all our scanning has been amply rewarded. We’ve seen pods of dolphins play in our wake, and spotted Dall’s porpoises bounding alongside the ship. Here on the Heceta Line, we’ve seen a diversity of pinnipeds, including Northern fur seals, Stellar sea lions, and California sea lions. We’ve been surprised by several groups of fin whales, farther offshore than expected, and traveled alongside a pod of about 12 orcas for several minutes, which is exactly as magical as it sounds.

Killer whales traveling alongside the Bell M. Shimada, putting on a show for the NCC science team and ship crew. Photo by Dawn Barlow.

Notably, we’ve also seen dozens of humpbacks, including along what Dawn termed “the humpback highway” during our transit offshore of southern Oregon. One humpback put on a huge show just 200 meters from the ship, demonstrating fluke slapping behavior for several minutes. We wanted to be sure that everyone onboard could see the spectacle, so we radioed the news to the bridge, where the officers control the ship. They responded with my new favorite radio call ever: “Roger that, we are currently enamored.”

A group of humpbacks traveling along the humpback highway. Photo by Dawn Barlow.
A humpback whale fluke slapping. Photo by Dawn Barlow.

Even with long days and tired eyes, we are still constantly enamored as well. It has been such a rewarding cruise so far, and it’s hard to think of returning back to “real life” next week. For now, we’re wishing you the same things we’re enjoying – great weather, unlimited coffee, and lots of whales!

SpeciesNumber of sightingsTotal number observed
California Sea Lion26
Dall’s Porpoise325
Fin Whale1118
Humpback Whale140218
Killer Whale321
Northern Fur Seal99
Northern Right Whale Dolphin28
Pacific White-sided Dolphin13145
Steller Sea Lion33
Unidentified Baleen Whale104127
Unidentified Dolphin628
Unidentified Whale22