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

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.

Dunlop, R.A., Cato, D.H., and M.J. Noad. 2010. Your attention please: increasing ambient noise levels elicits a change in communication behaviour in humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae). Proceedings of the Royal Society B 277(1693):doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2009.2319. 

Fandel, A.D., Garrod, A., Hoover, A.L., Wingfield, J.E., Lyubchich, V., Secor, D.H., Hodge, K.B., Rice, A.N., and H. Bailey. 2020. Effects of intense storm events on dolphin occurrence and foraging behavior. Scientific Reports 10:19247.

Fournet, M.E.H., Matthews, L.P., Gabriele, C.M., Haver, S., Mellinger, D.K., and H. Klinck. 2018. Humpback whales Megaptera novaeangliae alter calling behavior in response to natural sounds and vessel noise. Marine Ecology Progress Series 607:251-268.

Mignucci-Giannoni, A.A., Toyos-González, G. M., Pérez-Padilla, J., Rodríguez-López, M. A., and J. Overing. 1999. Mass stranding of pygmy killer whales (Feresa attenuata) in the British Virgin Islands. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom 80:759-760.

Rosel, P.E., and H. Watts. 2008. Hurricane impacts on bottlenose dolphins in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Gulf of Mexico Science 25:7.

Smith, C.E., Hurley, B.J., Toms, C.N., Mackey, A.D., Solangi, M., and S.A. Kuczaj II. 2013. Hurricane impacts on the foraging patterns of bottlenose dolphins Tursiops truncatus in Mississippi Sound. Marine Ecology Progress Series 487:231-244.

Szesciorka, A.R., Calambokidis, J., and J.T. Harvey. 2016. Testing tag attachments to increase the attachment duration of archival tags on baleen whales. Animal Biotelemetry 4:18.

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.

Fashionably late: New GEMM Lab publication measures lags between wind, upwelling, and blue whale occurrence

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

To understand the complex dynamics of an ecosystem, we need to examine how physical forcing drives biological response, and how organisms interact with their environment and one another. The largest animal on the planet relies on the wind. Throughout the world, blue whales feed areas where winds bring cold water to the surface and spur productivity—a process known as upwelling. In New Zealand’s South Taranaki Bight region (STB), westerly winds instigate a plume of cold, nutrient-rich waters that support aggregations of krill, and ultimately lead to foraging opportunities for blue whales. This pathway, beginning with wind input and culminating in blue whale occurrence, does not take place instantaneously, however. Along each link in this chain of events, there is some lag time.

Figure 1. A blue whale comes up for air in New Zealand’s South Taranaki Bight. Photo: L. Torres.

Our recent paper published in Scientific Reports examines the lags between wind, upwelling, and blue whale occurrence patterns. While marine ecologists have long acknowledged that lag plays a role in what drives species distribution patterns, lags are rarely measured, tested, and incorporated into studies of marine predators such as whales. Understanding lags has the potential to greatly improve our ability to predict when and where animals will be under variable environmental conditions. In our study, we used timeseries analysis to quantify lag between different metrics (wind speed, sea surface temperature, blue whale vocalizations) at different locations. While our methods are developed and implemented for the STB ecosystem, they are transferable to other upwelling systems to inform, assess, and improve predictions of marine predator distributions by incorporating lag into our understanding of dynamic marine ecosystems.

So, what did we find? It all starts with the wind. Wind instigates upwelling over an area off the northwest coast of the South Island of New Zealand called Kahurangi Shoals. This wind forcing spurs upwelling, leading to the formation of a cold water plume that propagates into the STB region, between the North and South Islands, with a lag of 1-2 weeks. Finally, we measured the density of blue whale vocalizations—sounds known as D calls, which are produced in a social context, and associated with foraging behavior—recorded at a hydrophone downstream along the upwelling plume’s path. D call density increased 3 weeks after increased wind speeds near the upwelling source. Furthermore, we looked at the lag time between wind events and aggregations in blue whale sightings. Blue whale aggregations followed wind events with a mean lag of 2.09 ± 0.43 weeks, which fits within our findings from the timeseries analysis. However, lag time between wind and whales is variable. Sometimes it takes many weeks following a wind event for an aggregation to form, other times mere days. The variability in lag can be explained by the amount of prior wind input in the system. If it has recently been windy, the water column is more likely to already be well-mixed and productive, and so whale aggregations will follow wind events with a shorter lag time than if there has been a long period without wind and the water column is stratified.

Figure 2. Top panel: Map of the study region within the South Taranaki Bight (STB) of New Zealand, with location denoted by the white rectangle on inset map in the upper right panel. All spatial sampling locations for sea surface temperature implemented in our timeseries analyses are denoted by the boxes, with the four focal boxes shown in white that represent the typical path of the upwelling plume originating off Kahurangi shoals and moving north and east into the STB. The purple triangle represents the Farewell Spit weather station where wind measurements were acquired. The location of the focal hydrophone (MARU2) where blue whale D calls were recorded is shown by the green star. (Reproduced from Barlow et al. 2021). Bottom panel: Results of the timeseries cross-correlation analyses, illustrating the lag between some of the metrics and locations examined.

This publication forms the second chapter of my PhD dissertation. However, in reality it is the culmination of a team effort. Just as whale aggregations lag wind events, publications lag years of hard work. The GEMM Lab has been studying New Zealand blue whales since Leigh first hypothesized that the STB was an undocumented foraging ground in 2013. I was fortunate enough to join the research effort in 2016, first as a Masters student and now as a PhD Candidate. I remember standing on the flying bridge of R/V Star Keys in New Zealand in 2017, when early in our field season we saw very few blue whales. Leigh and I were discussing this, with some frustration. Exclamations of “This is cold, upwelled water! Where are the whales?!” were followed by musings of “There must be a lag… It has to take some time for the whales to respond.” In summer 2019, Christina Garvey came to the GEMM Lab as an intern through the NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates program. She did an outstanding job of wrangling remote sensing and blue whale sighting data, and together we took on learning and understanding timeseries analysis to quantify lag. In a meeting with my PhD committee last spring where I presented preliminary results, Holger Klinck chimed in with “These results are interesting, but why haven’t you incorporated the acoustic data? That is a whale timeseries right there and would really add to your analysis”. Dimitri Ponirakis expertly computed the detection area of our hydrophone so we could adequately estimate the density of blue whale calls. Piecing everything together, and with advice and feedback from my PhD committee and many others, we now have a compelling and quantitative understanding of the upwelling dynamics in the STB ecosystem, and have thoroughly described the pathway from wind to whales in the region.

Figure 3. Dawn and Leigh on the flying bridge of R/V Star Keys on a windy day in New Zealand during the 2017 field season. Photo: T. Chandler.

Our findings are exciting, and perhaps even more exciting are the implications. Understanding the typical patterns that follow a wind event and how the upwelling plume propagates enables us to anticipate what will happen one, two, or up to three weeks in the future based on current conditions. These spatial and temporal lags between wind, upwelling, productivity, and blue whale foraging opportunities can be harnessed to generate informed forecasts of blue whale distribution in the region. I am thrilled to see this work in print, and equally thrilled to build on these findings to predict blue whale occurrence patterns.

Reference: 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, 6915 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-86403-y

Lessons learned from (not) going to sea

By Rachel Kaplan1 and Dawn Barlow2

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

2PhD Candidate, Oregon State University Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

“Hurry up and wait.” A familiar phrase to anyone who has conducted field research. A flurry of preparations, followed by a waiting game—waiting for the weather, waiting for the right conditions, waiting for unforeseen hiccups to be resolved. We do our best to minimize unknowns and unexpected challenges, but there is always uncertainty associated with any endeavor to collect data at sea. We cannot control the whims of the ocean; only respond as best we can.

On 15 February 2021, we were scheduled to board the NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada as marine mammal observers for the Northern California Current (NCC) ecosystem survey, a recurring research cruise that takes place several times each year. The GEMM Lab has participated in this multidisciplinary data collection effort since 2018, and we are amassing a rich dataset of marine mammal distribution in the region that is incorporated into the OPAL project. February is the middle of wintertime in the North Pacific, making survey conditions challenging. For an illustration of this, look no further than at the distribution of sightings made during the February 2018 cruise (Fig. 1), when rough sea conditions meant only a few whales were spotted.

Figure 1. (A) Map of marine mammal survey effort (gray tracklines) and baleen whale sightings recorded onboard the NOAA ship R/V Shimada during each of the NCC research cruises to-date and (B) number of individuals sighted per cruise since 2018. Note the amount of survey effort conducted in February 2018 (top left panel) compared to the very low number of whales sighted. Data summary and figures courtesy of Solene Derville.

Now, this is February 2021 and the world is still in the midst of navigating the global coronavirus pandemic that has affected every aspect of our lives. The September 2020 NCC cruise was the first NOAA fisheries cruise to set sail since the pandemic began, and all scientists and crew followed a strict shelter-in-place protocol among other COVID risk mitigation measures. Similarly, we sheltered in place in preparation for the February 2021 cruise. But here’s where the weather comes in yet again. Not only did we have to worry about winter weather at sea, but the inclement conditions across the country meant our COVID tests were delayed in transit—and we could not board the ship until everyone tested negative. By the time our results were in, the marine forecast was foreboding, and the Captain determined that the weather window for our planned return to port had closed.

So, we are still on shore. The ship never left the dock, and NCC February 2021 will go on the record as “NAs” rather than sightings of marine mammal presence or absence. So it goes. We can dedicate all our energy to studying the ocean and these spectacularly dynamic systems, but we cannot control them. It is an important and humbling reminder. But as we have continued to learn over the past year, there are always silver linings to be found.

Even though we never made it to the ship, it turns out there’s a lot you can get done onshore. Dawn has sailed on several NCC cruises before, and one of the goals this time was to train Rachel for her first stint at marine mammal survey work. This began at Dawn’s house in Newport, where we sheltered in place together for the week prior to our departure date.

We walked through the iPad program we use to enter data, looked through field guides, and talked over how to respond in different scenarios we might encounter while surveying for marine mammals at sea. We also joined Solene, a postdoc working on the OPAL project, for a Zoom meeting to edit the distance sampling protocol document. It was great training to discuss the finer points of data collection together, with respect to how that data will ultimately be worked into our species distribution models.

The February NCC cruise is famously rough, and a tough time to sight whales (Fig. 1). This low sighting rate arises from a combination of factors: baleen whales typically spend the winter months on their breeding grounds in lower latitudes so their density in Oregon waters is lower, and the notorious winter sea state makes sighting conditions difficult. Solene signed off our Zoom call with, “Go collect that high-quality absence data, girls!” It was a good reminder that not seeing whales is just as important scientifically as seeing them—though sometimes, of course, it’s not possible to even get out where you can’t see them. Furthermore, all absence data is not created equal. The quality of the absence data we can collect deteriorates along with the weather conditions. When we ultimately use these survey data to fuel species distribution models, it’s important to account for our confidence in the periods with no whale sightings.

In addition to the training we were able to conduct on land, the biggest silver lining came just from sheltering in place together. We had only met over Zoom previously, and spending this time together gave us the opportunity to get to know each other in real life and become friends. The week involved a lot of fabulous cooking, rainy walks, and an ungodly number of peanut butter cups. Even though the cruise couldn’t happen, it was such a rich week. The NCC cruises take place several times each year, and the next one is scheduled for May 2021. We’ll keep our fingers crossed for fair winds and negative COVID tests in May!

Figure 2. Dawn’s dog Quin was a great shelter in place buddy. She was not sad that the cruise was canceled.

Putting Physiological Tools to Work for Whale Conservation

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

About four years ago, I was in Patagonia, Argentina deciding where to focus my research and contribute to whale conservation efforts. At the same time, I was doing fieldwork with the Whale Conservation Institute of Argentina at the “Whale Camp” in Península Valdés. I read tons of papers and talked with my colleagues about different opportunities and gaps in knowledge that I could tackle during my Ph.D. program. One of the questions that caught my attention was about the unknown cause (or causes) for the recurrent high calf mortalities that the Southern Right Whale (SRW) population that breeds at Peninsula Valdés experienced during the 2000s (Rowntree et al. 2013). Still, at that time, I was unsure how to tackle this research question.

Golfo San José, Península Valdés – Argentina. Collecting SRW behavioral data from the cliff’s vantage point. Source: A. Fernandez Ajo.

Between 2003 and 2013, at least 672 SRWs died, of which 91% were calves (Sironi et al. 2014). These mortalities represented an average total whale death per year of 80 individuals in the 2007-2013 period, which vastly exceeded the 8.2 average deaths per year of previous years by a ten-fold increase (i.e., 1993-2002) (Rowntree et al. 2013). In fact, this calf mortality rate was the highest ever documented for any population of large whales. During this period, from 2006 to 2009, I was the Coordinator of the Fauna Area in the Patagonian Coastal Zone Management Plan, and I collaborated with the Southern Right Whale Health Monitoring Program (AKA: The Stranding Program) that conducted field necropsies on stranded whales along the coasts of the Península and collected many different samples including whale baleen.

Southern Right Whale, found stranded in Patagonia Argentina. Source: Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas.

In this process, I learned about the emerging field of Conservation Physiology and the challenges of utilizing traditional approaches to studying physiology in large whales. Basically, the problem is that there is no possible way to obtain blood samples (the gold standard sample type for physiology) from free-swimming whales; whales are just too large! Fortunately, there are currently several alternative approaches for gathering physiological information on large whales using a variety of non-lethal and minimally invasive (or non-invasive) sample matrices, along with utilizing valuable samples recovered at necropsy (Hunt et al. 2013). That is how I learned about Dr. Kathleen Hunt’s novel research studying hormones from whale baleen (Hunt et al., 2018, 2017, 2014). Thus, I contacted Dr. Hunt and started a collaboration to apply these novel methods to understand the case of calf mortalities of the SRW calves in Patagonia utilizing the baleen samples that we recovered with the Stranding program at Península Valdés (see my previous blog post).

What is conservation physiology?

Conservation physiology is a multidisciplinary field of science that utilizes physiological concepts and tools to understand underlying mechanisms of disturbances to solve conservation problems. Conservation physiology approaches can provide sensitive biomarkers of environmental change and allow for targeted conservation strategies. The most common Conservation Physiology applications are monitoring environmental stressors, understanding disease dynamics and reproductive biology, and ultimately reducing human-wildlife conflict, among other applications.

I am now completing the last semester of my Ph.D. program. I have learned much about the amazing field of Conservation Physiology and how much more we need to know to achieve our conservation goals. I am still learning, yet I feel that through my research I have contributed to understanding how different stressors impact the health and wellbeing of whales, and about aspects of their biology that have long been obscured or unknown for these giants. One contribution I am proud of is our recent publication of, “A tale of two whales: putting physiological tools to work for North Atlantic and southern right whales,” which was published in January 2021 as a book chapter in “Conservation Physiology: Applications for Wildlife Conservation and Management” published by Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK.

This book outlines the significant avenues and advances that conservation physiology contributes to the monitoring, management, and restoration of wild animal populations. The book also defines opportunities for further growth in the field and identifies critical areas for future investigation. The text and the contributed chapters illustrate several examples of the different approaches that the conservation physiology toolbox can tackle. In our chapter, “A tale of two whales,” we discuss developments in conservation physiology research of large whales, with the focus on the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) and southern right whale (Eubalaena australis), two closely related species that differ vastly in population status and conservation pressures. We review the advances in Conservation Physiology that help overcome the challenges of studying large whales via a suite of creative approaches, including photo-identification, visual health assessment, remote methods of assessing body condition, and endocrine research using non-plasma sample types such as feces, respiratory vapor, and baleen. These efforts have illuminated conservation-relevant physiological questions for both species, such as discrimination of acute from chronic stress, identification of likely causes of mortality, and monitoring causes and consequences of body condition and reproduction changes.

Book Overview:

This book provides an overview of the different applications of Conservation Physiology, outlining the significant avenues and advances by which conservation physiology contributes to the monitoring, management, and restoration of wild animal populations. By using a series of global case studies, contributors illustrate how approaches from the conservation physiology toolbox can tackle a diverse range of conservation issues, including monitoring environmental stress, predicting the impact of climate change, understanding disease dynamics, and improving captive breeding, and reducing human-wildlife conflict. The variety of taxa, biological scales, and ecosystems is highlighted to illustrate the far-reaching nature of the discipline and allow readers to appreciate the purpose, value, applicability, and status of the field of conservation physiology. This book is an accessible supplementary textbook suitable for graduate students, researchers, and practitioners in conservation science, ecophysiology, evolutionary and comparative physiology, natural resources management, ecosystem health, veterinary medicine, animal physiology, and ecology.

References

Hunt KE, Fernández Ajó A, Lowe C, Burgess EA, Buck CL. 2021. A tale of two whales: putting physiological tools to work for North Atlantic and southern right whales. In: “Conservation Physiology: Integrating Physiology Into Animal Conservation And Management”, ch. 12. Eds. Madliger CL, Franklin CE, Love OP, Cooke SJ. Oxford University press: Oxford, UK.

Sironi, M., Rowntree, V., Di Martino, M. D., Beltramino, L., Rago, V., Franco, M., and Uhart, M. (2014). Updated information for 2012-2013 on southern right whale mortalities at Península Valdés, Argentina. SC/65b/BRG/06 report presented to the International Whaling Commission Scientific Committee, Portugal. <https://iwc.int/home>.

Rowntree, V.J., Uhart, M.M., Sironi, M., Chirife, A., Di Martino, M., La Sala, L., Musmeci, L., Mohamed, N., Andrejuk, J., McAloose, D., Sala, J., Carribero, A., Rally, H., Franco, M., Adler, F., Brownell, R. Jr, Seger, J., Rowles, T., 2013. Unexplained recurring high mortality of southern right whale Eubalaena australis calves at Península Valdés, Argentina. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 493, 275-289. DOI: 10.3354/meps10506

Hunt KE, Moore MJ, Rolland RM, Kellar NM, Hall AJ, Kershaw J, Raverty SA, Davis CE, Yeates LC, Fauquier DA, et al., 2013. Overcoming the challenges of studying conservation physiology in large whales: a review of available methods. Conserv Physiol 1: cot006–cot006.

Hunt, K.E., Stimmelmayr, R., George, C., Hanns, C., Suydam, R., Brower, H., Rolland, R.M., 2014. Baleen hormones: a novel tool for retrospective assessment of stress and reproduction in bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus). Conserv. Physiol. 2, cou030. https://doi.org/10.1093/conphys/cou030

Hunt, K.E., Lysiak, N.S., Moore, M.J., Rolland, R.M., 2016. Longitudinal progesterone profiles in baleen from female North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) match known calving history. Conserv. Physiol. 4, cow014. https://doi.org/10.1093/conphys/cow014

Hunt, K.E., Lysiak, N.S., Robbins, J., Moore, M.J., Seton, R.E., Torres, L., Buck, C.L., 2017. Multiple steroid and thyroid hormones detected in baleen from eight whale species. Conserv. Physiol. 5. https://doi.org/10.1093/conphys/cox061

Hunt, K.E., Lysiak, N.S.J., Matthews, C.J.D., Lowe, C., Fernández Ajó, A., Dillon, D., Willing, C., Heide-Jørgensen, M.P., Ferguson, S.H., Moore, M.J., Buck, C.L., 2018. Multi-year patterns in testosterone, cortisol and corticosterone in baleen from adult males of three whale species. Conserv. Physiol. 6, coy049. https://doi.org/10.1093/conphys/coy049

What makes a species, a species?

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

Over the roughly 2.5 years that I have researched the Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) of gray whales, I have thought more and more about what makes a population, a population. From a management standpoint, the PCFG is currently not considered a separate population or even a sub-population of the Eastern North Pacific (ENP) gray whales. Rather, the PCFG is most commonly referred to as a ‘sub-group’ of the ENP. In my opinion, there are valid arguments both for and against the PCFG being designated as its own population. I will address those arguments briefly at the end of this post, but first, I want you to join on me on a journey that is tangential to my question of ‘what makes a population, a population?’ and one that started at the last Marine Mammal Institute Monthly Meeting (MMIMM).

During 2021’s first MMIMM, our director Dr. Lisa Ballance proposed that we lengthen our monthly meeting duration from 1 hour to 1.5 hours. The additional 30 minutes was to allow for an open-ended, institute-wide discussion of a current hot topic in marine mammal science. This proposal was immediately adopted, and the group dove into a discussion about the discovery of a new baleen whale species in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico: Rice’s whale (Balaenoptera ricei). Let me pause here very briefly to reiterate – the discovery of a new baleen whale species!! The fact that anything as large as 12 m could remain undiscovered in our oceans is really quite fascinating and shows that our scientific quest will likely never run out of discoverable subjects. Anyway, the discovery of this new species is supported by several lines of evidence. Unfortunately (but understandably), MMI’s discussion of these topics had to cease after 30 minutes, however I had more questions. I wanted to know what had sparked the researchers to believe that they had discovered a new cetacean species. 

Scientific illustration of Bryde’s whale. Source: NOAA Fisheries.

I started my research by skimming through some news articles about the Rice’s whale discovery. In a Smithsonian Magazine article, I saw a quote by Dr. Patricia Rosel, the lead author of the study detailing Rice’s whale, that read: “But we didn’t have a skull.”. That quote made me pause. A skull? Is that what it takes to discover and establish a new species? This desired piece of evidence seemed rather puzzling and a little antiquated to me, given that the field of genetics is so advanced now and since it is no longer an accepted practice to kill a wild animal just to study it (i.e., scientific whaling). I backtracked through the article to learn that in the 1990s, renowned marine mammal scientist Dale Rice (after whom Rice’s whale was named) recognized that a small population of baleen whale occurred in the northeastern part of the Gulf of Mexico year-round. At the time, this population was believed to be a sub-population of Bryde’s whale. It wasn’t until 2008, that NOAA scientists were able to conduct a genetic analysis of tissue samples from this population, only to find that these whales were genetically distinct from other Bryde’s whales (Rosel & Wilcox 2014). Yet, this information was not enough for these whales to be established as their own species. A skull really was needed to prove that these whales were in fact a new species. Thankfully (for the scientists) but sadly (for the whale), one of these individuals stranded in Sandy Key, Florida, in 2019, and a dedicated team of stranding responders from Florida Fish and Wildlife, Mote Marine Lab, NOAA, Dolphins Plus, and Marine Animal Rescue Society worked tirelessly in difficult conditions to comprehensively document and preserve this animal. Through the diligent work of this, and previous, stranding response teams, Dr. Rosel and her team were provided the opportunity to examine the skull needed to determine population-status. The science team determined that the bones atop the skull around the blowhole provided evidence that these whales were not only genetically, but also anatomically, different from Bryde’s whales. It was this incident, triggered by that short quote in the Smithsonian article, that brought me to my journey of asking ‘what makes a species, a species?’.

Given that I had just read that Dr. Rosel needed a skull to establish Rice’s whale as its own species, I assumed that my search for ‘how to establish a new species’ would end quickly in me finding a list of requirements, one of which would be ‘must present anatomical/skeletal evidence’. To my surprise, my search did not end quickly, and I did not find a straightforward list of requirements. Instead, I discovered that my question of ‘what makes a species, a species?’ does not have a black-and-white answer and involves a lot of debate.

The skull of this stranded whale was a large piece of evidence in establishing Rice’s whale as its own species. Source: Smithsonian Magazine from NOAA / Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission

Kevin de Queiroz, a vertebrate, evolutionary, and systematic biologist who has published extensively on theoretical and conceptual topics in systematic and evolutionary biology, believes that the issue of species delimitation (‘what makes a species, a species?’) has been made more complicated by a larger issue involving the concept of species itself (‘what is a species?’) (De Queiroz 2007). To date, there are 24 recognized species concepts (Mayden 1997). In other words, there are 24 different definitions of what a species is. Perhaps the most common example is the biological species concept where a species is defined as a group of individuals that are able to produce viable and fertile offspring following natural reproduction. Another example is the ecological species concept whereby a species is a group of organisms adapted to a particular set of resources and conditions, called a niche, in the environment. Problematically, many of these concepts are incompatible with one another, meaning that applying different concepts leads to different conclusions about the boundaries and numbers of species in existence (De Queiroz 2007).

This large number of species concepts is due to the different interests of certain subgroups of biologists. For example, highlighting morphological differences between species is central to paleontologists and taxonomists, whereas ecologists will focus on niche differences. Population geneticists will attribute species differences to genes, while for systematists, monophyly will be paramount. It goes on and on. And so does the debate about the concept of species. It seems that there currently is not one clear, defined consensus on what a species is. Some biologists argue that a species is a species if it is genetically different, while others will insist that skeletal and morphological evidence must be present. From what I can tell, it seems that scientists describe and (attempt to) establish a new species by publishing their lines of evidence, after which experts in the field discuss and evaluate whether a new species should be established. 

In the field of marine mammal science, the Society of Marine Mammalogy’s Taxonomic Committee is charged with maintaining a standard, accepted classification and nomenclature of marine mammals worldwide. The committee annually considers and evaluates new, peer-reviewed literature that proposes changes (including additions) to marine mammal taxonomy. I expect that the case of Rice’s whale will be on the committee’s docket this year. Given that Rosel and co-authors presented geographic, morphological, and genetic evidence to support the establishment of Rice’s whale, I would not be surprised if the committee adds it to their curated list.

After taking this dive into the ‘what makes a species, a species?’ question, let’s see if we can apply some of what we’ve learned to the ‘what makes a population, a population?’ question regarding the PCFG and ENP gray whales. Following the ecological species concept, an argument for the recognition of the PCFG as its own population would be that they occupy an entirely different environment during their summer foraging season than the ENP whales. Not only are the geographic ranges different, but PCFG whales also show behavioral differences in their foraging tactics and targeted prey. The argument against the PCFG being classified as its own population is largely supported by genetic analysis that has revealed ambiguous evidence that the PCFG and ENP are not genetically isolated from one another. While one study has shown that there is maternal cultural affiliation within the PCFG (meaning that calves born to PCFG females tend to return to the PCFG range; Frasier et al. 2011), another has revealed that mixing between ENP and PCFG gray whales on the breeding grounds does occur (Lang et al. 2014). So, even though these two groups feed in areas that are very far apart (ENP: Arctic vs PCFG: US & Canadian west coast) and certain individuals do show a propensity for a specific feeding ground, the genetic evidence suggests that they mix when on their breeding grounds in Baja California, Mexico. Depending on which species concept you align with, you may see better arguments for either side.

PCFG gray whale along the Oregon coast during the GEMM Lab’s 2020 GRANITE summer field season. Image captured under NOAA/NMFS permit #21678. Source: GEMM Lab.

You may be wondering why it is important to even ponder questions like ‘what makes a species, a species?’ and ‘what makes a population, a population?’. Does it really matter if the PCFG are considered their own population? Would anything really change? The answer is, most likely, yes. If the PCFG were to be recognized as their own population, it would likely have an immediate effect on their conservation status and subsequently on how the population needed to be managed. Rather than being under the umbrella of a large, (mostly) stable population of ~25,000 individuals, the PCFG would consist of only ~250 individuals. A group this small would possibly be considered “endangered”, which would require much stricter monitoring and management to ensure that their numbers did not decline from year to year, especially due to anthropogenic activities. 

For a long time, I felt like taxonomy was a bit of an archaic scientific field. In my mind, it was something that biologists had focused their time and energy on in the 18th century (most notably Carl Linnaeus, whose taxonomic classification system is still used today), but something that many biologists have moved on from focusing on in the 21st century. However, as I have developed and grown over the last years as a scientist, I have learned that scientific disciplines are often heavily intertwined and co-dependent on one another. As a result, I am able to see the enormous value and need for taxonomic work as it plays a large part in understanding, managing, and ultimately, conserving species and populations.

Literature cited

De Queiroz, K. 2007. Species concepts and species delimitation. Systematic Biology 56(6):879-886.

Frasier, T. R., Koroscil, S. M., White, B. N., and J. D. Darling. 2011. Assessment of population substructure in relation to summer feeding ground use in the eastern North Pacific gray whale. Endangered Species Research 14:39-48.

Lang, A. R., Calambokidis, J., Scordino, J., Pease, V. L., Klimek, A., Burkanov, V. N., Gearin, P., Litovka, D. I., Robertson, K. M., Mate, B. R., Jacobsen, J. K., and B. L. Taylor. 2014. Assessment of genetic structure among eastern North Pacific gray whales on their feeding grounds. Marine Mammal Science 30(4):1473-1493.

Mayden, R. L. 1997. A hierarchy of species concepts: the denouement of the species problem in The Units of Biodiversity – Species in Practice Special Volume 54 (M. F. Claridge, H. A. Dawah, and M. R. Wilson, eds.). Systematics Association.

Rosel, P. E., and L. A. Wilcox. 2014. Genetic evidence reveals a unique lineage of Bryde’s whale in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico. Endangered Species Research 25:19-34.