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

The Road to Oregon

By Miranda Mayhall, incoming graduate student, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

There are moments in our individual lifetimes that we can define as noteworthy and right now, as I prepare to start my graduate career within the Marine Mammal Institute (MMI) at OSU, I would say this is it for me. As I sit down to write this blog and document how surreal my future adventure is, I simultaneously feel this path is felicitous. After a year of being cooped up due to COVID, time presently seems to be going by at rocket speed. I am moving constantly in through my day to continue running my current life, while simultaneously arranging all that will encompass my new life. And while I answer questions to my 10-year-old daughter who is doing geometry homework in the living room, while hollering “That is not yours!” to the kitchen where the recently adopted feral dog is sticking his entire head under the trash can lid, while arranging our books in a cardboard box at the packing station I set up on the dining room table, I cannot deny a sense of serenity. This moment in my life, becoming a part of the GEMM Lab and MMI, and relocating to Corvallis is great.

This moment’s noteworthiness is emphasized by embarking on probably the most variable-heavy road trip I have planned to date. Since the age of 19, when I left my small mountain town on the Appalachian trail in Pennsylvania, I have transferred locations ~20 times. Due to extensive travel while serving in the Army (various Army trainings and overseas mission deployments), I have bounced around the US and to other countries often. Over time, one becomes acclimated to the hectic nature of this sort of lifestyle, and yet this new adventure holds significance. 

So here are the details of the adventure trip that lies ahead: I will drive my 2002 Jeep Grand Cherokee across the country; from Charlottesville, Virginia to Corvallis, Oregon. My projected route will extend 2,822 miles and take ~43 driving hours total. The route will fall within the boundaries of 11 states (see Figure 1.)

 Figure 1. Blue Line indicates route from Charlottesville to Corvallis (Google Maps)

Attached to the hitch of the Jeep will be a 6×12 rented cargo trailer containing our treasured books, furniture and things. Inside the Jeep will be three living variables: Mia (the 10-year-old), Angus (hyperactive border collie/ pit bull mix) and Mr. Gibbs (feral pirate dog); all three will need to be closely monitored for potential hiccups in the plan.

If we are going to make it to our destination hotel/Airbnb each night of the trip, I must be organized and calculate road time each day while factoring in breaks to the loo and fueling up. These calculations need to be precise, with little margin for error. I cannot play it too safely either, or it will take us too long to get across the country (I must start my graduate work after all). On the other hand, I cannot realistically expect too many road hours in a day. I think at this point I have got it worked out (Table 1.)

Table 1. Driving Hours and Miles Per Day

When I look back on my career, I had no idea that my not-so-smooth road would lead me to my dream goal of studying marine mammals. I took the Army placement tests at the age of 19, which led me to the field of “information operations” where I earned a great knowledge base in data analysis and encountered fantastic leaders whom I might not have known otherwise. I learned immensely on this path and it set me up very well for moving forward into research and collaboration in the sciences. I am so grateful that my life took this journey because working in the military provided me with the utmost respect for my opportunities and greater empathy for others. This route had many extreme obstacles and was intensely intimidating at times, but I am all the better for it. And I was never able to shake the dream of where I wanted to be (see Figures 2 & 3.) Timing is everything.

Figure 2 & 3. Two of the images of the Pacific coast I have hung up in my house. Keeping my eye on the prize, so to speak. 

It will feel great to cross over the Oregon state line. I cannot wait to meet GEMM Lab in-person and all the other wonderful researchers and staff at MMI and Hatfield Marine Science Center. I am eager to step onto the RV Pacific Storm and begin my thesis research on the magnificent cetaceans off the Oregon coast, and hopefully do some good in the end. As I evaluate the logistics of my trip from Charlottesville to Corvallis, I feel relieved rather than overwhelmed. We could attribute this relief to my not-so-smooth road to get to where I am. Looking ahead, of course, I see a road that will require focus, attention, passion, care, and lots of fuel. Even if this road is not completely smooth, I will have my hands on 10 and 2, and feel so grateful and ready to be on it.

Making predictions: A window into ecological forecast models

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

“What is the weather going to be like tomorrow?” “How long will it take to drive there, with traffic?” We all rely on forecasts to make decisions, such as whether to bring a rain jacket, when to get in the car to arrive at a certain destination on time, or any number of situations where we want a prediction of what will happen in the near future. Statistical models underpin many of these examples, using past data to inform future predictions.

Early on in graduate school, I was told that “all models are wrong, but some models work.” Any model is essentially a best approximation, using mathematical relationships, of how we understand a pattern. Models are powerful tools in ecology, enabling us to distill complex, dynamic, and interacting systems into terms and parameters that can be quantified. This ability can help us better understand our study systems and use that understanding to make predictions. We will never be able to describe every nuance of an ecosystem. Instead, the challenge is to collect enough information to build an informed model that can enhance our understanding, without over-simplifying or unnecessarily complicating the system we aim to describe. As Dr. Simon Levin stated in his 1989 seminal paper:

A good model does not attempt to reproduce every detail of the biological system; the system itself suffices for that purpose as the most detailed model of itself. Rather, the objective of a model should be to ask how much detail can be ignored without producing results that contradict specific sets of observations, on particular scales of interest.”1

Species distribution models (SDMs) are the particular branch of models that underpin much of my PhD research on blue whale ecology and distribution in New Zealand. SDMs are mathematical algorithms that correlate observations of a species with environmental conditions at their observed locations to gain ecological insight and predict spatial distributions of the species (Fig. 1)2. The model is a best attempt to quantify and describe the relationships between predictors, e.g., temperature and the observed species distribution pattern. For example, blue whale occurrence is higher in areas of lower temperatures and greater krill availability, and these relationships can be described with models3. So, a model essentially takes all the data available, and synthesizes that information in terms of the relationships between the predictors (environment) and response (species occurrence). Then, we can look at the fitted relationships to ask what we would expect from the species distribution pattern when temperature, or krill availability, or any other predictor, is at a particular value. 

Figure 1. A schematic of a species distribution model (SDM) illustrating how the relationship between mapped species and environmental data (left) is compared to describe “environmental space” (center), and then map predictions from a model using only environmental predictors (right). Note that inter-site distances in geographic space might be quite different from those in environmental space—a and c are close geographically, but not environmentally. The patterning in the predictions reflects the spatial autocorrelation of the environmental predictors. Figure reproduced from Elith and Leathwick (2009).

So, if a model is simply a mathematical description of how terms interact to produce a particular outcome, how do predictions work? To make a spatial prediction, e.g., a map of the probability of a species being present, you need two things: a model describing the functional relationships between species presence and your environmental predictors, and the values of your predictor variables on the day you are interested in predicting to. For example, you may need to obtain a map of sea surface temperature, productivity, temperature anomaly, and surface currents on a day you want to know where whales are expected to be. Your model is the applied across that stack of spatial environmental layers and, based on the functional relationships derived by the model, you get an estimate of the probability of species occurrence based on the temperature, productivity, anomaly, and surface current values at each location. By applying the model over a range of values, you can obtain a continuous surface with the probability of presence, in the form of a map. These maps are typically for the past or present because that is when we can typically acquire spatial environmental layers. However, to make predictions for a future time of interest, we need to have spatial environmental layers for the future.

Forecasts are predictions for the future. Recent advances in technology and computing have led to an emergence of environmental and ecological forecasting tools that are being developed around the world to produce marine forecasts. These tools include predictions of the physical environment such as ocean temperatures or currents, and biological patterns such as where species will be distributed in space and timing of events like salmon spawning or lobster landings4. The ability to generate forecast of marine ecosystems is of particular interest to resource users and managers because it can allow them to be proactive rather than reactive. Forecasts enable us to anticipate events or patterns and prepare, rather than having to respond in real-time or after the fact.

The South Taranaki Bight region in New Zealand is an area where blue whale foraging habitat frequently coincides with industry pressures, including petroleum and mineral extraction, exploration for petroleum reserves using seismic airgun surveys, vessel traffic between ports, and even an ongoing proposal for seabed mining5. Static spatial restrictions to mitigate impacts from these activities on blue whales may be met with resistance from industry user groups, but dynamic spatial management6–8 of blue whale habitat could be more attractive and acceptable. The key for successful dynamic management is knowing where and when to put those boundaries; and this is where ecological forecast models can show their strength. If we can predict suitable blue whale habitat for the future, proactive regulations can be applied to enhance conservation management in the region. Can we develop reliable and useful ecological forecasts for the South Taranaki Bight? Well, given that we have already developed robust models of the relationships between blue whales and their habitat3 and have documented the spatial and temporal lags between wind, upwelling, and blue whales9, we feel confident that we can develop forecast models to predict where blue whales will be in the STB region. As we continue working hard toward this goal, we invite you to check back for our findings in the future. So, consider this blog post a forecast of sorts, and stay tuned!  

Figure 2. A blue whale surfaces in front of an oil extraction platform in the South Taranaki Bight, demonstrating the overlap between whales and industry in the region. Photo by D. Elvines.

References:

1.        Levin, S. A. The problem of pattern and scale. Ecology 73, 1943–1967 (1992).

2.        Elith, J. & Leathwick, J. R. Species Distribution Models: Ecological Explanation and Prediction Across Space and Time. Annu. Rev. Ecol. Evol. Syst. 40, 677–697 (2009).

3.        Barlow, D. R., Bernard, K. S., Escobar-Flores, P., Palacios, D. M. & Torres, L. G. 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 (2020).

4.        Payne, M. R. et al. Lessons from the first generation of marine ecological forecast products. Front. Mar. Sci. 4, 1–15 (2017).

5.        Torres, L. G. Evidence for an unrecognised blue whale foraging ground in New Zealand. New Zeal. J. Mar. Freshw. Res. 47, 235–248 (2013).

6.        Hyrenbach, K. D., Forney, K. A. & Dayton, P. K. Marine protected areas and ocean basin management. Aquat. Conserv. Mar. Freshw. Ecosyst. 10, 437–458 (2000).

7.        Maxwell, S. M. et al. Dynamic ocean management: Defining and conceptualizing real-time management of the ocean. Mar. Policy 58, 42–50 (2015).

8.        Oestreich, W. K., Chapman, M. S. & Crowder, L. B. A comparative analysis of dynamic management in marine and terrestrial systems. Front. Ecol. Environ. 18, 496–504 (2020).

9.        Barlow, D. R., Klinck, H., Ponirakis, D., Garvey, C. & Torres, L. G. Temporal and spatial lags between wind, coastal upwelling, and blue whale occurrence. Sci. Rep. 11, (2021).

Wave riders or deep divers: what do cetaceans do in stormy weather?

By Lisa Hildebrand¹ and Samara Haver²

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

²Postdoctoral Scholar, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Cooperative Institute for Marine Resources Studies, Hatfield Marine Science Center

Many aspects of studying cetacean ecology, behavior, population dynamics, health, and sociality depend on being able to see and/or sample cetaceans when they come to the surface. While this research is not necessarily easy given that cetaceans spend the majority of their time underwater out of human sight, it is definitely feasible, as evidenced by decades of cetacean research. However, in order for researchers to observe cetaceans at the surface they need to get out to sea, and this boat-based effort can realistically only be done in good ocean conditions. Any sea-going individual likely uses the Beaufort sea state (BSS) scale as a measure of ocean conditions. For a full breakdown and excellent explanation of what the BSS is, check out our beloved Alexa’s blog; but for the purposes of this blog all you really need to know is that the smaller the BSS (which starts at 0), the calmer the ocean, and the higher the BSS, the rougher & stormier the ocean. There are two main reasons for conducting cetacean research in low BSS: 1) above a certain threshold (usually BSS 4) it becomes difficult to reliably spot and recognize cetaceans at the surface, thus compromising good data collection, and/or 2) to ensure safety and comfort of the research team. 

So, when the BSS gets too high, us humans usually do not go out to sea to study cetaceans, which means that the cetaceans, for the most part, go unobserved. So, many questions arise about what cetaceans are doing during these rough ocean conditions. What does an increased BSS mean for them? Are they unfazed by big waves and strong winds, or are they affected by the weather and take longer dives or seek out fairer seas? A conversation among friends sparked our curiosity of what cetaceans do in stormy conditions and inspired us to collaborate on this blog. Here, we report on what is and is not known about cetaceans in storms, and discuss some ideas about how best to quantify the effects of rough sea conditions on cetaceans.

Slide the arrows to compare sea conditions (BSS 1 [left] vs BSS 6 [right]) experienced by Alexa, the GEMM Lab marine mammal observer on the May 2019 Northern California Current cruise onboard NOAA ship Bell M. Shimada. Source: A. Kownacki/GEMM Lab.

A literature search of cetaceans during storms did not generate many results, which was not surprising to us given the above reasons about researchers not being able to survey in rough sea conditions. However, we did find a couple of interesting studies about cetacean behavior and distribution after storms.

Changes in foraging behavior

Autumnal storms in Maryland, USA resulted in less frequent and shorter encounters of bottlenose dolphins in the US Mid-Atlantic Bight. However, dolphins spent a significantly higher percentage of their encounters feeding after storms than they did before or during them (Fandel et al. 2020). Similarly, bottlenose dolphins in Mississippi Sound displayed an approximately 15% increase in foraging activity for up to 2 years following Hurricane Katrina (Smith et al. 2013). These changes in foraging behavior are attributed to shifts in distributions and behavior of dolphin prey species as a result of altered environmental conditions (primarily sea surface temperature and salinity) following the hurricanes.

Out-of-habitat events and strandings

An out-of-habitat event occurs when an animal is displaced out of its typical habitat. Seven of these events were reported following Hurricane Rita, which hit the southwest Louisiana coast in 2005, with bottlenose dolphins found in flooded roadside ditches, canals, shallow flooded fields, and a natural creek area (Rosel & Watts 2008). These locations ranged from 2.5 to 11 km inland from the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, where these dolphins were displaced from. It is believed that the animals were carried inland on the storm surge that accompanied Hurricane Rita and were left stranded in areas that held water the longest once it started receding (Rosel & Watts 2008).

One of the roadside ditches where a bottlenose dolphin was trapped in Louisiana following Hurricane Rita. Taken from Rosel & Watts (2008).

There have been two mass strandings of pygmy killer whales that are believed to have been a result of hurricanes. In 1995, five pygmy killer whales stranded (three of which died, while two were successfully refloated) in the British Virgin Islands a day after Hurricane Marilyn (Mignucci-Giannoni et al. 1999). In 2006, six pygmy killer whales (five of which died) stranded in New Caledonia during and after Hurricane Jim (Clua et al. 2014). Both studies hypothesize that increased energetic costs, as a result of attempting to evade the hurricanes, coupled with animals becoming disoriented and ending up in shallow waters, is what caused them to strand. 

While these studies reveal post-storm effects on cetaceans, we still do not know exactly how these individuals behaved during the storms. Did they attempt longer dives to stay away from the rough conditions at the surface, thus becoming disoriented? Or were they behaving normally (i.e. foraging, travelling) and were simply “pushed” into waters that they did not intend to go into? Given that very stormy sea conditions do not allow for visual, boat-based surveys, we need to employ different technologies to study cetacean behavior and distribution during storms.

Passive acoustic monitoring (PAM) is a great tool that can monitor ocean environments for us when the seas are too stormy. Using fixed or mobile platforms, underwater PAM listening devices (hydrophone and data storage) can record sounds in the ocean for us to listen and analyze from shore. With PAM we are able to track the vocalizations of marine mammals as well as other sounds in the environment, such as waves crashing and rain. Anecdotally, we have spent many days at sea in conditions that were too rough for visual observations, but we could safely use our PAM tools to detect cetaceans. So, just because the seas may be too rough to see cetaceans, this fact does not mean that we cannot observe them – we just need to listen instead of look. 

There are many tools that can be used to record underwater sounds, including passive acoustic monitoring (PAM; shown in orange), real-time acoustic data collection (green), and active acoustics (blue.) Source: NOAA Fisheries.

A number of studies have investigated whether whales change their vocalization behavior differently in response to changing ambient sound conditions (for example: Dunlop et al. 2010; Fournet et al. 2018). While research on ocean sound levels is often focused on the impact of human-generated or anthropogenic noise, there are also natural, abiotic sound sources (e.g. wind, rain, ice) that can elevate ambient sound levels. One potential animal response to elevated ambient sound levels is to vocalize at a higher intensity, called the Lombard (or cocktail party) effect. This phenomenon is common for us humans – have you ever been at a party and at some point you realize that you are shouting to someone in order to be heard above the noise of the room? That’s the Lombard effect! Humpback whales in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska, exhibited the Lombard effect in response to both natural and man-made sounds, but the probability of calling was lower when vessels were present compared to times with only natural sounds (Fournet et al. 2018). It is also possible that whales may vocalize at different frequencies, times, or for shorter durations when the ocean becomes louder, which we can easily track with PAM. Unfortunately, PAM is limited to what we are able to hear, so if we do not hear whales we cannot determine if this result is because their vocalizations are masked by higher intensity sounds, if they stopped vocalizing, or if they left the listening area. 

Animal-borne tags are another kind of autonomous observation tool that could help us understand cetacean behavior and distribution in storms. Admittedly, the logistics of applying tags before an imminent storm are probably complex. However, the development of medium-duration archival tags may provide a good trade-off between deploying tags long enough before a storm begins, thus providing safe working conditions for the research team, while minimizing potential physical impacts to the animals (Szesciorka et al. 2016). There are currently no published tag studies that document cetacean behavior during storms, but a study of a gray-headed albatross, fitted with a satellite transmitter, that successfully foraged during an Antarctic storm (Catry et al. 2004) shows the promise of using animal-borne tags to answer these questions.  

As with many questions about animal behavior, our best option is to combine all of our research tools to piece together evidence about what might be going on in the deep, dark, stormy ocean. Simultaneously collecting acoustic and movement & behavior data through PAM and animal-borne tags, respectively, could allow us to determine how cetaceans behave during storms. While we are probably not poised to tackle these questions right now, perhaps another curious graduate student can take it on for their own PhD research…

References

Catry, P., Phillips, R.A., and J.P. Croxall. Sustained fast travel by a gray-headed albatross (Thalassarchie chrysostoma) riding an Antarctic storm. The Auk 121(4):1208-1213.

Clua, E.E., Manire, C.A., and C. Garrigue. 2014. Biological data of pygmy killer whales (Feresa attenuata) from a mass stranding in New Caledonia (South Pacific) associated with Hurricane Jim in 2006. Aquatic Mammals 40(2):162-172.

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Cetacean strandings and unusual mortality events: Why do cetaceans beach?

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

When a cetacean (whales and dolphins) is ashore or trapped in nearshore waters and cannot return to the open waters, it is considered stranded. Frequently, the stranded animal is in distress, dying, or dead. Although rare, the stranded cetacean can be a healthy animal trapped due to changes in tide or disorientation. Every year many cetacean strandings are reported from along the coasts around the world, and likely many more stranding events go unnoticed when they occur in remote areas. In all cases, the question is: why do cetaceans beach?

Southern right whales stranded at the coast of Peninsula Valdés, Patagonia-Argentina. Photo: Matias DiMartino / Southern Right Whale Health Monitoring Program.

There may be different causes for whales and dolphins to strand on beaches, either dead or alive. Understanding and investigating the causes of cetaceans strandings is critical because they can be indicators of ocean health, can help identify anthropogenic sources of disturbance, and can give insights into larger environmental issues that may also have implications for human health (NOAA). In this context, when scientists are analyzing a stranding event, they consider both possibilities that the event was natural or human-caused and classify strandings according to specific characteristics to study the causes of these events.

Types of cetacean strandings:

Live or Dead Stranding:

A stranding can involve live animals or dead animals if the death occurs in the sea and the body is thrown ashore by wind or currents. In live strandings, when they occur near urbanized areas, usually significant efforts are made to rescue and return the animals to the water; with small odontocetes, sometimes there is success, and animals can be rescued. However, when large whales are beached alive, their own weight out of the water can compress their organs and can cause irreversible internal damage. Although not externally visible, such damage can sometimes cause the death of the animal even after returning to the sea.

According to the number of individuals:

Single strandings occur when only a single specimen is affected at the time. The cetaceans that most frequently strand individually are the baleen (or mysticete) whales, such as right and humpback whales, due to their often solitary habits.

Mass strandings comprise two or more specimens, and in some cases, it can involve tens or even a few hundred animals. The mass strandings are more frequently observed for the odontocetes, such as pilot whales, false killer whales, and sperm whales with more complex social structures and gregarious habits.

Left: Single southern right whale calf stranded at the coast of Peninsula Valdés, Patagonia-Argentina. Ph.: Mariano Sironi / ICB. Right: Mass stranding of common dolphins in Patagonia-Argentina. Photo: www.elpais.com

Unusual Mortality Events

The Marine Mammal Protection Act defines an unusual mortality event (UME) as a stranding event that is unexpected, involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population, and demands immediate response. Seven criteria make a mortality event “unusual.” Source: https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov.

  1. A marked increase in the magnitude or a marked change in morbidity, mortality, or strandings when compared with prior records.
  2. A temporal change in morbidity, mortality, or strandings is occurring.
  3. A spatial change in morbidity, mortality, or strandings is occurring.
  4. The species, age, or sex composition of the affected animals is different than that of animals that are normally affected.
  5. Affected animals exhibit similar or unusual pathologic findings, behavior patterns, clinical signs, or general physical condition (e.g., blubber thickness).
  6. Potentially significant morbidity, mortality, or stranding is observed in species, stocks, or populations that are particularly vulnerable (e.g., listed as depleted, threatened, or endangered, or declining). For example, stranding of three or four right whales may be cause for great concern, whereas stranding of a similar number of fin whales may not.
  7. Morbidity is observed concurrent with or as part of an unexplained continual decline of a marine mammal population, stock, or species.

The purpose of the classification of a mortality event as a UME is to activate an emergency response that aims to minimize deaths, determine the event cause, or causes, determine the effect of the event on the population, and identify the role of environmental parameters in the event. Such classification authorizes a federal investigation that is led by the expertise of the Working Group on Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Events to investigate the event. This working group is comprised of experts from scientific and academic institutions, conservation organizations, and state and federal agencies, all of whom work closely with stranding networks and have a wide variety of experience in biology, toxicology, pathology, ecology, and epidemiology.

Southern right whale necropsy and external measurements. Source: Southern Right Whale Health Monitoring Program / ICB.

What can be learned from strandings and UMEs?

Examining stranded marine mammals can provide valuable insight into marine mammal health and identify environmental factors leading to strandings. Through forensic examinations, the aim is to identify possible risks to whales’ health and evaluate their susceptibility to diseases, pollutants, and other stressors. This information can contribute to cetacean conservation through informed management strategies. However, the quality of the data derived from a necropsy (the postmortem examination of carcasses) is highly contingent upon how early the stranding event is reported. As soon as the animal is deceased, decomposition starts, hindering the possibilities of detailed investigations of the cause of death.

Therefore, a solid network that can report and respond quickly to a stranding event is fundamental; this includes trained personnel, infrastructure, funding, and expertise to respond in a manner that provides for animal welfare (in the case of live strandings) and obtains data on marine mammal health and causes of death. Moreover, a coordinated international organization that integrates national marine mammal stranding networks has also been identifying as a critical aspect to enable adequate response to such mortality events. In many locations and countries around the world, funding, logistical support, and training remain challenging to stranding response.

In response to these concerns and needs, at the last World Marine Mammal Conference, which took place in Barcelona in December of 2019, The Global Stranding Network was founded to “enhance and strengthen international collaboration to (1) ensure consistent, high-quality response to stranded marine mammals globally, and (2) support conservation efforts for species under threat of extinction.” Monitoring marine mammal health worldwide can guide conservation and help identify priority areas for management (Gulland and Stockin, 2020).

What to do in case of finding a whale or dolphin on the beach?

When strandings occur, it is essential to know how to act. Unfortunately, untrained people, often with good intentions, can worsen the situation of stress and injury to the animal or can put themselves at risk of injury or exposure to pathogens. If you find a cetacean alive or dead on the beach, the most important things to do are:

  1. Record information about the location and the animal´s characteristics (the species, if known; the animal’s approximate size; and status (alive or dead)).
  2. Give immediate notice to the responsible authorities so that specialized help arrives as soon as possible. Report a Stranded or Injured Marine Animal.
  3. Keep at a safe distance: the animal may appear dead to the naked eye and not be. It is important to remember that cetaceans are wild animals and that in stressful situations such as strandings, they can try to defend themselves.
  4. Do not touch the animal: one of the causes of strandings is diseases; therefore, it is advisable not to contact the individuals to avoid exposure to potential pathogens.
  5. If the animal is alive, keep a distance from the animal, especially from its head and tail. Prevent children or dogs from approaching the animal.
  6. Keep calm and do not make noise that could disturb the stranded animal.
  7. Do not take the animal out of the water if it is on the shore or return it to the sea if it is on the beach: Such movement could cause serious injuries, or even death.
  8. Do not feed the animal or give it water: keep the blowhole clear because it is where they breathe.

Source: Whale Conservation Institute of Argentina

Important contacts in case of reporting a Stranded or injured Marine Mammal:

  1. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  2. Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network

References:

https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/national/marine-mammal-protection/marine-mammal-unusual-mortality-events

https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/insight/understanding-marine-mammal-unusual-mortality-events#what_criteria_define_an_ume?

https://ballenas.org.ar/programa-de-monitoreo-sanitario-ballena-franca-austral-pmsbfa/

https://globalstrandingnetwork.com/about

https://iwc.int/strandings

Proceedings of the workshop “Harmonizing Global Stranding Response.” (2020) World marine mammal Conference Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. Editors: Gulland F and Stockin K; Ecs Special Publication Series No. 62.

Mazzariol S., Siebert U., Scheinin A., Deaville R., Brownlow A., Uhart M.., Marcondes M., Hernandez G., Stimmelmayr R., Rowles T., Moore K., Gulland F., Meyer M., Grover D., Lindsay P., Chansue N., Stockin K. (2020). Summary of Unusual Cetaceans Strandings Events worldwide (2018-2020). SC-68B/E/09 Rev1.