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).

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

New Zealand blue whale research in the time of COVID

By Grace Hancock, Undergraduate Student at Kalamazoo College MI, GEMM Lab Intern (June 2020 to present)

It feels safe to say that everyone’s plans for the summer of 2020 went through a roller coaster of changes due to the pandemic. Instead of the summer research or travel plans that many undergraduate students, including myself, expected, many of us found ourselves at home, quarantining, and unsure of what to do with our time. Although it was unexpected, all that extra time brought me serendipitously to the virtual doorstep of the GEMM Lab. A few zoom calls and many, many emails later I am now lucky to be a part of the New Zealand Blue Whale photo-ID team. Under Leigh’s and Dawn’s guidance, I picked up the photo identification project where they had left it and am helping to advance this project to its next stage.

The skin of a blue whale is covered by distinct markings similar to a unique fingerprint. Thus, these whales can have a variety of markings that we use to identify them, including mottled pigmentation, pock marks (often caused by cookie cutter sharks), blisters, and even holes in the dorsal fins and flukes.

Figure 1. Examples of skin conditions that help in matching demonstrated on a photo of NZBW052 on the 10/9/2015

True blue blog fans may remember that in 2016 Dawn began the very difficult work of creating a photo ID catalog of all the blue whales that the GEMM Lab had encountered during field work in the South Taranaki Bight in New Zealand. Since that post, the catalog has grown and become an incredibly useful tool. When I came to the lab, I received a hard drive containing all the work Dawn had done to-date with the catalog, as well as two years of photos from various whale watching trips in the Hauraki Gulf of New Zealand. The goal of my internship was to integrate these photos into the GEMM catalog Dawn had created and, hopefully, identify some matches of whales between the two datasets.  If there were any matches – and if I found no matches – we would gain information about whale movement patterns and abundance in New Zealand waters.

Before we could dive into this exciting matching work, there was lots of data organization to be done. Most of the photos I analyzed were provided by the Auckland Whale and Dolphin Safari (AWADS), an eco-tourism company that does regular whale watching trips in the Hauraki Gulf, off the North Island of New Zealand. The photos I worked with were taken by people with no connection to the lab and, because of this, were often filled with pictures of seals, birds, and whatever else caught the whale watcher’s eye. This dataset led to hours of sorting, renaming, and removing photos. Next, I evaluated each photo of a whale to determine photo-quality (focus, angle to the camera, lighting) and then I used the high-quality photos where markings are visible to begin the actual matching of the whales.

Figure 2. The fluke of NZBW013 taken on 2/2/2016 with examples of unique nicks and markings that could be used to match

Blue whales are inarguably massive organisms. For this reason, it can be hard to know what part of the whale you’re looking at. To match the photos to the catalog, I found the clearest pictures that included the whale’s dorsal fin. For each whale I tried to find a photo from the left side, the right side, and (if possible) an image of its fluke. I could then compare these photos to the ones organized in the catalog developed by Dawn.

The results from my matching work are not complete yet, but there are a few interesting tidbits that I can share with our readers today. From the photos submitted by AWADS, I was able to identify twenty-two unique individual whales. We are in the process of matching these whales to the catalog and, once this is done, we will know how many of these twenty-two are whales we have seen before and how many are new individuals. One of the most exciting matches I made so far is of a whale known in our catalog as individual NZBW072. Part of what made this whale so exciting was the fact that it is the calf of NZBW031 who was spotted eight times from 2010-2017, in the Hauraki Gulf, off Kaikoura, and in the South Taranaki Bight. As it turns out, NZBW072 took after her mother and has been spotted a shocking nine times from 2010 to 2019, all in the Hauraki Gulf region. Many of the whales in our catalog have only been spotted once, so encountering two whales with this kind of sighting track record that also happen to be related is like hitting the jackpot.

Figure 3. NZBW072 photographed on 11/8/2010 (top photo taken by Rochelle Constantine in the Hauraki Gulf) and on 10/3/2019 (bottom photo taken by the Auckland Whale and Dolphin Safari) with marks circled in red or yellow to highlight the matched features.

Once I finish comparing and matching the rest of these photos, the catalog will be substantially more up-to-date. But that is not where the work stops. More photos of blue whales in New Zealand are frequently being captured, either by whale watchers in the Hauraki Gulf, fellow researchers on the water, keen workers on oil and gas rigs, or the GEMM Lab. Furthermore, the GEMM Lab contributes these catalog photos to the International Whaling Commission (IWC) Southern Hemisphere Blue Whale Catalog, which compiles all photos of blue whales in the Southern Ocean and enables interesting and critical conservation questions to be addressed, like “How many blue whales are there in the Southern Ocean?” Once I complete the matching of these 22 individuals, I will upload and submit them to this IWC collaborative database on behalf of the GEMM Lab. This contribution will expand the global knowledge of these whales and motivates me to continue this important photo ID work. I am so excited to be a part of this effort, through which I have learned important skills like the basics of science communication (through writing this blog post) and attention to detail (from working very closely with the photos I was matching). I know both of these skills, and everything else I have learned from this process, will help me greatly as I begin my career in the next few years. I can tell big things will come from this catalog and I will forever be grateful for the chance I have had to contribute to it.

What we know now about New Zealand blue whales

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

For my PhD, I am using a variety of data sources and analytical tools to study the ecology and distribution of blue whales in New Zealand. I live on the Oregon Coast, across the world and in another season from the whales I study. I love where I live and I am passionate about my work, but I do sometimes feel removed from the whales and the ecosystem that are the focus of my research.

A pair of blue whales surface in the South Taranaki Bight region of New Zealand. Drone piloted by Todd Chandler during the 2017 field season.

Recently, I have turned my attention to processing acoustic data recorded in our study region in New Zealand between 2016 and 2018. In the fall, I developed detector algorithms to identify possible blue whale vocalizations in the recording period, and now I am going through each of the detections to validate whether it is indeed a blue whale call or not. Looking closely at spectrograms for hours and hours is a change of pace from the analysis and writing I have been doing recently. Namely, I am looking at biological signals – not lines of code and numbers on a screen, but depictions of sounds that blue whales produced. I have to say, it is the “closest” I have felt to these whales in a long time. Scrolling through thousands of spectrograms of blue whale calls leaves room for my mind to wander, and I recently had the realization that those whales have absolutely no idea that on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, there are a few scientists dedicating years of their lives to understand and protect them. Which led me to another realization: we know so much more about blue whales in New Zealand now than we did 10 years ago. In fact, we know so much more than we did even a year ago.

Screenshot of the process of reviewing blue whale D call detections in the acoustic analysis program Raven.

Nine years ago, Dr. Leigh Torres had a cup of coffee with a colleague who recounted observer reports of several blue whales during a seismic survey of the South Taranaki Bight region (STB) of New Zealand. This conversation sparked her curiosity, and led to the formulation of a hypothesis that the STB was in fact an unrecognized feeding ground for blue whales in the southern hemisphere (Torres 2013).

A blue whale surfaces in front of an oil rig in the South Taranaki Bight. Compiling opportunistic sightings like this one was an important step in realizing the importance of the region for blue whales. Photo by Deanna Elvines.

After three field seasons and several years of dedicated work, the hypothesis that the STB region is important for blue whales was validated. By drawing together multiple data streams and lines of evidence, we now know that New Zealand is home to a unique population of blue whales, which are genetically distinct from all other documented populations in the Southern Hemisphere. Furthermore, they use the STB for multiple critical life history functions such as feeding, nursing and calf raising, and they are present there year-round (Barlow et al. 2018).

Once we documented the New Zealand population, we were left with perhaps even more questions than we started with. Where do they feed, and why? Are they feeding and breeding there? Does their distribution change seasonally? What is the health of the population? Are they being impacted by industrial activity and human impacts such as noise in the region? We certainly do not have all the answers, but we have been piecing together an increasingly comprehensive story about these whales and their ecology.

For example, we now know that blue whales in New Zealand average around 19 meters in length, which we calculated by measuring images taken via drones and using an analysis program developed in the GEMM Lab (Burnett et al. 2018). The use of drones has opened up a whole new world for studying health and behavior in whales, and we recently used video footage to better understand the movement and kinematics of how blue whales engulf their krill prey. Furthermore, we know that blue whales may preferentially feed on dense krill aggregations at the surface, and that this surface feeding strategy may be an energetically favorable strategy in this part of the world (Torres et al. 2020).

We have also assessed one aspect of the health of blue whales by describing their skin condition. By analyzing thousands of photographs, we now know that nearly all blue whales in New Zealand bear the scars of cookie cutter shark bites, which they seem more likely to acquire at more northerly latitudes, and that 80% are affected by blister lesions (Barlow et al. 2019). Next, we are beginning to draw together multiple data streams such as body condition and hormone analysis, paired with skin condition, to form a detailed understanding about the health of this population.

Most recently we have produced a study describing how oceanography, prey and blue whales are connected within this region of New Zealand. The STB region is home to a wind-driven upwelling system that drives productivity and leads to aggregations of krill, which in turn provide sustenance for blue whales to feed on. By compiling data on oceanography and water column structure, krill availability, and blue whale distribution, we now have a solid understanding of this trophic pathway: how oceanography structures prey, and how blue whales respond to both prey and oceanography (Barlow et al. 2020). Furthermore, we are beginning to understand how those relationships may look under changing ocean conditions, with global sea temperatures rising and the increasing frequency and intensity of marine heatwaves.

The knowledge we have accumulated better enables managers to make informed decisions for the conservation of these blue whales and the ecosystem they inhabit. To me, there are several take-away messages from the story that continues to unfold about these blue whales. One is the importance of following a hunch, and then gathering the necessary tools and team to explore and tackle challenging questions. An idea that started over a cup of coffee and many years of hard work and dedication have led to a whole new body of knowledge. Another message is that the more questions you ask and the more questions you try to answer, the more questions you are often left with. That is a beautiful truth about scientific inquiry – the questions we ask drive the knowledge we uncover, but that process is never complete because new questions continue to emerge. Finally, it is easy to get swept up in details, outputs, timelines, and minutia, and every now and then it is important to take a step back. I have appreciated taking a step back and musing on the state of our knowledge about these whales, about how much we have learned in less than 10 years, and mostly about how many answers and new questions are still waiting to be uncovered.

A victorious field team celebrates a successful end to the 2017 field season with an at-sea sunset dance party. A good reminder of sunny, salty days on the water and where the data come from!

References

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

Barlow DR, Pepper AL, Torres LG (2019) Skin Deep: An Assessment of New Zealand Blue Whale Skin Condition. Front Mar Sci.

Barlow DR, Torres LG, Hodge KB, Steel D, Baker CS, Chandler TE, Bott N, Constantine R, Double MC, Gill P, Glasgow D, Hamner RM, Lilley C, Ogle M, Olson PA, Peters C, Stockin KA, Tessaglia-hymes CT, Klinck H (2018) Documentation of a New Zealand blue whale population based on multiple lines of evidence. Endanger Species Res 36:27–40.

Burnett JD, Lemos L, Barlow DR, Wing MG, Chandler TE, Torres LG (2018) Estimating morphometric attributes on baleen whales using small UAS photogrammetry: A case study with blue and gray whales. Mar Mammal Sci.

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

Torres LG, Barlow DR, Chandler TE, Burnett JD (2020) Insight into the kinematics of blue whale surface foraging through drone observations and prey data. PeerJ.

Snacks at the surface: New GEMM Lab publication reveals insights into blue whale surface foraging through drone observations and prey data

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

As the largest animals on the planet, blue whales have massive prey requirements to meet energy demands. Despite their enormity, blue whales feed on a tiny but energy-rich prey source: krill. Furthermore, they are air-breathing mammals searching for aggregations of prey in the expansive and deep ocean, and must therefore budget breath-holding and oxygen consumption, the travel time it takes to reach prey patches at depth, the physiological constraints of diving, and the necessary recuperation time at the surface. Additionally, blue whales employ an energetically demanding foraging strategy known as lunge feeding, which is only efficient if they can locate and target dense prey aggregations that compensate for the energetic costs of diving and lunging. In our recent paper, published today in PeerJ, we examine how blue whales in New Zealand optimize their energy use through preferentially feeding on dense krill aggregations near the water’s surface.

Figure 1. A blue whale lunges on a dense aggregation of krill at the surface. Note the krill jumping away from the mouth of the onrushing whale. UAS piloted by Todd Chandler.
Figure 2. Survey tracklines in 2017 in the South Taranaki Bight (STB) with locations of blue whale sightings, and where surface lunge feeding was observed, denoted. Inset map shows location of the STB within New Zealand. Figure reprinted from Torres et al. 2020.

To understand how predators such as blue whales optimize foraging strategies, knowledge of predator behavior and prey distribution is needed. In 2017, we surveyed for blue whales in New Zealand’s South Taranaki Bight region (STB, Fig. 2) while simultaneously collecting prey distribution data using an echosounder, which allowed us to identify the location, depth, and density of krill aggregations throughout the region. When blue whales were located, we observed their behavior from the research vessel, recorded their dive times, and used an unmanned aerial system (UAS; “drone”) to assess their body condition and behavior.

Much of what is known about blue whale foraging behavior and energetics comes from extensive studies off the coast of California, USA using accelerometer tags to track fine-scale kinematics (i.e., body movements) of the whales. In the California Current, the krill species targeted by blue whales are denser at depth, and therefore blue whales regularly dive to depths of 300 meters to lunge on the most energy-rich prey aggregations. However, given the reduced energetic costs of feeding closer to the surface, optimal foraging theory predicts that blue whales should only forage at depth when the energetic gain outweighs the cost. In New Zealand, we found that blue whales foraged where krill aggregations were relatively shallow and dense compared to the availability of krill across the whole study area (Fig. 3). Their dive times were quite short (~2.5 minutes, compared to ~10 minutes in California), and became even shorter in locations where foraging behavior and surface lunge feeding were observed.

Figure 3. Density contours comparing the depth and density (Sv) of krill aggregations at blue whale foraging sightings (red shading) and in absence of blue whales (gray shading). Density contours: 25% = darkest shade, 755 = medium shade, 95% = light shade. Blue circles indicate krill aggregations detected within 2 km of the sighting of the UAS filmed surface foraging whale analyzed in this study. Figure reprinted from Torres et al. 2020.
Figure 4. Kinematics of a blue whale foraging dive derived from a suction cup tag. Upper panel shows the dive profile (yellow line), with lunges highlighted (green circles), superimposed on a prey field map showing qualitative changes in krill density (white, low; blue, medium; red, high). The lower panels show the detailed kinematics during lunges at depth. Here, the dive profile is shown by a black line. The orange line shows fluking strokes derived from the accelerometer data, the green line represents speed estimated from flow noise, and the grey circles indicate the speed calculated from the vertical velocity of the body divided by the sine of the body pitch angle, which is shown by the red line. Figure and caption reprinted from Goldbogen et al. 2011.

Describing whale foraging behavior and prey in the surface waters has been difficult due to logistical limitations of conventional data collection methods, such as challenges inferring surface behavior from tag data and quantifying echosounder backscatter data in surface waters. To compliment these existing methods and fill the knowledge gap surrounding surface behavior, we highlight the utility of a different technological tool: UAS. By analyzing video footage of a surface lunge feeding sequence, we obtained estimates of the whale’s speed, acceleration, roll angle, and head inclination, producing a figure comparable to what is typically obtained from accelerometer tag data (Fig. 4, Fig. 5). Furthermore, the aerial perspective provided by the UAS provides an unprecedented look at predator-prey interactions between blue whales and krill. As the whale approaches the krill patch, she first observes the patch with her right eye, then turns and lines up her attack angle to engulf almost the entire prey patch through her lunge. Furthermore, we can pinpoint the moment when the krill recognize the impending danger of the oncoming predator—at a distance of 2 meters, and 0.8 seconds before the whale strikes the patch, the krill show a flee response where they leap away from the whale’s mouth (see video, below).

Figure 5. Body kinematics during blue whale surface lunge feeding event derived from Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) image analysis. (A) Mean head inclination and roll (with CV in shaded areas), (B) relative speed and acceleration, and (C) distance from the tip of the whale’s rostrum to the nearest edge of krill patch. Blue line on plots indicate when krill first respond to the predation event, and the purple dashed lines indicate strike at time = 0. The orange lines indicate the time at which the whale’s gape is widest, head inclination is maximum, and deceleration is greatest. Figure reprinted from Torres et al. 2020

In this study, we demonstrate that surface waters provide important foraging opportunities and play a key role in the ecology of New Zealand blue whales. The use of UAS technology could be a valuable and complimentary tool to other technological approaches, such as tagging, to gain a comprehensive understanding of foraging behavior in whales.

To see the spectacle of a blue whale surface lunge feeding, we invite you to take a look at the video footage, below:

The publication is led by GEMM Lab Principal Investigator Dr. Leigh Torres. I led the prey data analysis portion of the study, and co-authors include our drone pilot extraordinaire Todd Chandler and UAS analysis guru Dr. Jonathan Burnett. We are grateful to all who assisted with fieldwork and data collection, including Kristin Hodge, Callum Lilley, Mike Ogle, and the crew of the R/V Star Keys (Western Workboats, Ltd.). Funding for this research was provided by The Aotearoa Foundation, The New Zealand Department of Conservation, The Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University, Greenpeace New Zealand, OceanCare, Kiwis Against Seabed Mining, The International Fund for Animal Welfare, and The Thorpe Foundation.

Read Oregon State University’s press release about the publication here.

Marine heatwaves and their impact on marine mammals

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

In recent years, anomalously warm ocean temperatures known as “marine heatwaves” have sparked considerable attention and concern around the world. Marine heatwaves (MHW) occur when seawater temperatures rise above a seasonal threshold (greater than the 90th percentile) for five consecutive days or longer (Hobday et al. 2016; Fig. 1). With global ocean temperatures continuing to rise, we are likely to see more frequent and more intense MHW conditions in the future. Indeed, the global prevalence of MHWs is increasing, with a 34% rise in frequency, a 17%  increase in duration, and a 54% increase in annual MHW days globally since 1925 (Oliver et al. 2018). With sustained anomalously warm water temperatures come a range of ecological, sociological, and economic consequences. These impacts include changes in water column structure, primary production, species composition, marine life distribution and health, and fisheries management including closures and quota changes (Oliver et al. 2018).

Figure 1. Illustration of how marine heatwaves are defined. Source: marineheatwaves.org

The notorious “warm blob” was an MHW event that plagued the northeast Pacific Ocean from 2014-2016. Some of the most notable consequences of this MHW were extremely high levels of domoic acid, extreme changes in the biodiversity of pelagic species, and an unprecedented delay in the opening of the Dungeness crab fishery, which is an important and lucrative fishery for the West Coast of the United States (Santora et al. 2020). The “warm blob” directly impacted the California Current ecosystem, which is typically a highly productive coastal area driven by seasonal upwelling. Yet, as a consequence of the 2014-2016 MHW, upwelling habitat was compressed and constricted to the coastal boundary, resulting in a contraction in available habitat for humpback whales and a shift in their prey (Santora et al. 2020; Fig. 2).

Figure 2. A figure from Santora et al. 2020 illustrating the compression in available upwelling habitat, defined by areas with SST<12°C (delineated by the black line), during the 2014-2016 marine heatwave in the California Current ecosystem.

Shifting to an example from another part of the world, the austral summer of 2015-2016 coincided with a strong regional MHW in the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand, which lasted for 251 days and had a maximum intensity of 2.9°C above the climatological average (Oliver et al. 2017). Subsequently, the conditions were linked to a significant shift in zooplankton species composition and abundance in Australia (Evans et al. 2020). Ocean warming, including MHWs, also appears to decrease primary production in the Tasman Sea and large portions of New Zealand’s marine ecosystem (Chiswell & Sutton 2020). In New Zealand’s South Taranaki Bight region, where we study the ecology of blue whales, we observed a shift in blue whale distribution in the MWH conditions of February 2016 relative to more typical ocean conditions in 2014 and 2017 (Fig. 3). The first chapter of my dissertation includes a detailed analysis of the impacts of the 2016 MHW on New Zealand oceanography, krill, and blue whales, documenting how the warm, stratified water column of 2016 led to consequences across multiple trophic levels, from phytoplankton, to zooplankton, to whales.

Figure 3. Maps showing monthly sea surface temperature (SST) in the South Taranaki Bight region of New Zealand during our three years of survey effort to document blue whale distribution (February 2014, 2016, and 2017). Vessel tracklines are shown in black, with blue whale sighting locations shown in dark red. Red circles are scaled by the number of blue whales observed at each sighting. The color ramp of SST values is consistent across the three maps, making the dramatically warmer ocean conditions of 2016 evident.

The response of marine mammals is tightly linked to shifts in their environment and prey (Silber et al. 2017). With MHWs and changing ocean conditions, there will likely be “winners” and “losers” among marine predators including large whales. Blue whales are highly selective krill specialists (Nickels et al. 2019), whereas other species of whales, such as humpback whales, have evolved flexible feeding tactics that allow them to switch target prey species when needed (Cade et al. 2020). In California, humpback whales have been shown to switch their primary prey from krill to fish during warm years (Fossette et al. 2017, Santora et al. 2020). By contrast, blue whales shift their distribution in response to changing krill availability during warm years (Fossette et al. 2017), however this strategy comes with increased risk and energetic cost associated with searching for prey in new areas. Furthermore, in instances when a prey resource such as krill becomes increasingly scarce for a multi-year period (Santora et al. 2020), krill specialist predators such as blue whales are at a considerable disadvantage. It is also important to acknowledge that although the humpbacks in California may at first seem to have a winning strategy for adaptation by switching their food source, this tactic may come with unforeseen consequences. Their distribution overlapped substantially with Dungeness crab fishing gear during MHW conditions in the warm blob years, resulting in record numbers of entanglements that may have population-level repercussions (Santora et al. 2020).

While this is certainly not the most light-hearted blog topic, I believe it is an important one. As warming ocean temperatures contribute to the increase in frequency, intensity, and duration of extreme conditions such as MHW events, it is paramount that we understand their impacts and take informed management actions to mitigate consequences, such as lethal entanglements as a result of compressed whale habitat. But perhaps more importantly, even as we do our best to manage consequences, it is critical that we as individuals realize the role we have to play in reducing the root cause of warming oceans, by being conscious consumers and being mindful of the impact our actions have on the climate. 

References

Cade DE, Carey N, Domenici P, Potvin J, Goldbogen JA (2020) Predator-informed looming stimulus experiments reveal how large filter feeding whales capture highly maneuverable forage fish. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA.

Chiswell SM, Sutton PJH (2020) Relationships between long-term ocean warming, marine heat waves and primary production in the New Zealand region. New Zeal J Mar Freshw Res.

Evans R, Lea MA, Hindell MA, Swadling KM (2020) Significant shifts in coastal zooplankton populations through the 2015/16 Tasman Sea marine heatwave. Estuar Coast Shelf Sci.

Fossette S, Abrahms B, Hazen EL, Bograd SJ, Zilliacus KM, Calambokidis J, Burrows JA, Goldbogen JA, Harvey JT, Marinovic B, Tershy B, Croll DA (2017) Resource partitioning facilitates coexistence in sympatric cetaceans in the California Current. Ecol Evol.

Hobday AJ, Alexander L V., Perkins SE, Smale DA, Straub SC, Oliver ECJ, Benthuysen JA, Burrows MT, Donat MG, Feng M, Holbrook NJ, Moore PJ, Scannell HA, Sen Gupta A, Wernberg T (2016) A hierarchical approach to defining marine heatwaves. Prog Oceanogr.

Nickels CF, Sala LM, Ohman MD (2019) The euphausiid prey field for blue whales around a steep bathymetric feature in the southern California current system. Limnol Oceanogr.

Oliver ECJ, Benthuysen JA, Bindoff NL, Hobday AJ, Holbrook NJ, Mundy CN, Perkins-Kirkpatrick SE (2017) The unprecedented 2015/16 Tasman Sea marine heatwave. Nat Commun.

Oliver ECJ, Donat MG, Burrows MT, Moore PJ, Smale DA, Alexander L V., Benthuysen JA, Feng M, Sen Gupta A, Hobday AJ, Holbrook NJ, Perkins-Kirkpatrick SE, Scannell HA, Straub SC, Wernberg T (2018) Longer and more frequent marine heatwaves over the past century. Nat Commun.

Santora JA, Mantua NJ, Schroeder ID, Field JC, Hazen EL, Bograd SJ, Sydeman WJ, Wells BK, Calambokidis J, Saez L, Lawson D, Forney KA (2020) Habitat compression and ecosystem shifts as potential links between marine heatwave and record whale entanglements. Nat Commun.

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

It all starts with the wind: The importance of upwelling

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

The focus of my PhD research is on the ecology and distribution of blue whales in New Zealand. However, it has been a long time since I’ve seen a blue whale, and much of my time recently has been spent thinking about wind. What does wind matter to a blue whale? It actually matters a whole lot, because the wind drives an important biological process in many coastal oceans called upwelling. Wind blowing along shore, paired with the rotation of the earth, leads to a net movement of surface waters offshore (Fig. 1). As the surface water is pushed away, it is replaced by cold, nutrient-rich water from much deeper. When those nutrients become exposed to sunlight, they provide sustenance for the little planktonic lifeforms in the ocean, which in turn provide food for much larger predators including marine mammals such as blue whales. This “wind-to-whales” trophic pathway was coined by Croll et al. (2005), who demonstrated that off the West Coast of the United States, aggregations of whales could be expected downstream of upwelling centers, in concert with high productivity and abundant krill prey.

Figure 1. Graphic of the upwelling process, illustrating that when the wind blows along shore, surface waters are replaced by deeper water that is cold and nutrient rich. Source: NOAA
Figure 2. Map of New Zealand, with the South Taranaki Bight region (STB) denoted by the black box.

Much of what is understood today about upwelling comes from decades of research on the California Current ecosystem off the West Coast of the United States. Yet, the focus of my research is on an upwelling system on the other side of the world, in the South Taranaki Bight region (STB) of New Zealand (Fig. 2). In the case of the STB, westerly winds over Kahurangi Shoals lead to decreased sea level nearshore, forcing cold, nutrient rich waters to rise to the surface. The wind, along with the persistence of the Westland Current, then pushes a cold and productive plume of upwelled waters around Cape Farewell and into the STB (Fig. 3; Shirtcliffe et al. 1990).

Figure 3. Satellite image of the cold water plume in the South Taranaki Bight, indicative of upwelling. The origin of the upwelling at Kahurangi Shoals, Cape Farewell, and the typical path of the upwelling plume are denoted.

Through research conducted by the GEMM Lab over the years, we have demonstrated that blue whales utilize the STB region for foraging (Torres 2013, Barlow et al. 2018). Recent research on the oceanography of the STB region has further illuminated the mechanisms of this upwelling system, including the path and persistence of the upwelling plume in the STB across years and seasons (Chiswell et al. 2017, Stevens et al. 2019). However, the wind-to-whales pathway has not yet been described for this part of the world, and that is where the next section of my PhD research comes in. The whole system does not respond instantaneously to wind; the pathway from wind to whales takes time. But how much time is required for each step? How long after a strong wind event can we expect aggregations of feeding blue whales? These are some of the questions I am trying to tackle. For example, we hypothesize that some of the mechanisms and their respective lag times can be sketched out as follows:

Figure 4. The wind-to-whales trophic pathway, and hypothesized lags between steps.

All of these questions involve integrating oceanography, satellite imagery, wind data, and lag times, leading me to delve into many different analytical approaches including time series analysis and predictive modeling. If we are able to understand the lag times along this series of events leading to blue whale feeding opportunities, then we may be able to forecast blue whale occurrence in the STB based on the current wind and upwelling conditions. Forecasting with some amount of lead time could be a very powerful management tool, allowing for protection measures that are dynamic in space and time and therefore more effective in conserving this blue whale population and balancing human impacts.

Figure 5. A blue whale lunges on a patch of krill. The end of the wind-to-whales pathway. Drone piloted by Todd Chandler.

References:

Barlow DR, Torres LG, Hodge KB, Steel D, Baker CS, Chandler TE, Bott N, Constantine R, Double MC, Gill P, Glasgow D, Hamner RM, Lilley C, Ogle M, Olson PA, Peters C, Stockin KA, Tessaglia-hymes CT, Klinck H (2018) Documentation of a New Zealand blue whale population based on multiple lines of evidence. Endanger Species Res 36:27–40.

Chiswell SM, Zeldis JR, Hadfield MG, Pinkerton MH (2017) Wind-driven upwelling and surface chlorophyll blooms in Greater Cook Strait. New Zeal J Mar Freshw Res.

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

Shirtcliffe TGL, Moore MI, Cole AG, Viner AB, Baldwin R, Chapman B (1990) Dynamics of the Cape Farewell upwelling plume, New Zealand. New Zeal J Mar Freshw Res 24:555–568.

Stevens CL, O’Callaghan JM, Chiswell SM, Hadfield MG (2019) Physical oceanography of New Zealand/Aotearoa shelf seas–a review. New Zeal J Mar Freshw Res.

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

Detecting blue whales from acoustic data

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

In January of 2016, five underwater recording units were dropped to the seafloor in New Zealand to listen for blue whales (Fig. 1). These hydrophones sat listening for two years, brought to the surface only briefly every six months to swap out batteries and offload the data. Through all seasons and conditions when scientists couldn’t be on the water, they recorded the soundscape, generating a wealth of acoustic data with the potential to greatly expand our knowledge of blue whale ecology

Figure 1. Locations of the five Marine Autonomous Recording Units (MARUs) in the South Taranaki Bight region of New Zealand.

We have established that blue whales are present in New Zealand waters year-round 1. However, many questions remain regarding their distribution across daily, seasonal, and yearly scales. Our two-year acoustic dataset from five hydrophones throughout the STB region is a goldmine of information on blue whale occurrence patterns and the soundscape they inhabit. Having year-round occurrence data will allow us to examine what environmental and anthropogenic factors may influence blue whale distribution patterns. The hydrophones were listening for whales around the clock, every day, while we were on the other side of the world awaiting the recovery of the data to answer our questions.

Before any questions of seasonal distribution or anthropogenic impacts and noise can be addressed, however, we need to know something far more basic: when and where did we record blue whale vocalizations? This may seem like a simple, stepping-stone question, but it is actually quite involved, and the reason I spent the last month working with a team of acousticians at Cornell University’s Center for Conservation Bioacoustics. The expert research group here at Cornell, led by Dr. Holger Klinck, have been instrumental in our New Zealand blue whale research, including developing and building the recording units, hydrophone deployment and recovery, data processing, analysis, and advice. I am thrilled to work with all of them, and had an incredibly productive month of learning about acoustics from the best.

Blue whales produce multiple vocalizations that we are interested in documenting. The New Zealand song (Fig. 2A) is highly stereotyped and unique to the Southwest Pacific Ocean 2,3. Low-frequency downsweeps, or “D calls” (Fig. 2B), are far more variable and produced by blue whale populations around the world 4. Furthermore, Antarctic blue whales produce a highly-stereotyped “Z call” (Fig. 2C) and are known to be present in New Zealand waters occasionally 5.

Figure 2. Spectrograms of (A) the New Zealand blue whale song, (B), D calls, and (C) Antarctic Z calls.

One way to determine when blue whales were vocalizing is for an analyst to manually review the entirety of the two years of sound recordings for each of the five hydrophones by hand to scan for and select individual vocalizations. An alternative approach is to develop a detector algorithm to locate calls in the data based on their stereotypical characteristics. Over the past month I built, tested, and ran detectors for each blue whale call type using what is called a data template detector. This technique uses example signals from the data that the analyst selects as templates. The templates should be clear signals, and representative of the variation in calls contained in the dataset. Then, by comparing pixel characteristics between the template spectrograms and the spectrogram of the recording of interest using certain matching criteria (e.g. threshold for spectrogram correlation, detection frequency range), the algorithm searches for other signals like the templates in the full dataset. For example, in Fig. 3 you can see units of blue whale song I selected as templates for my detector.

Figure 3. Spectrogram of selected sound clips of New Zealand blue whale song, with units used as templates for a detector shown inside the teal boxes.

Testing the performance of a detector algorithm is critical. Therefore, a dataset is needed where calls were identified by an analyst and then used as the “ground truth”, to which the detector results are compared. For my ground truth dataset, I took a subset of 52 days and hand-browsed the spectrograms to identify and log New Zealand blue whale song, D calls, and Antarctic Z calls. In evaluating detector performance, there are three important metrics that need to be weighed: precision (the proportion of detections that are true), recall (the proportion of true calls identified by the detector), and false alarm rate (the number of false positive detections per hour). Ideally, the detector should be optimized to maximize precision and recall and minimize the false positives.

The STB region is highly industrial, and our two-year acoustic dataset contains periods of pervasive seismic airgun noise from oil and gas exploration. Ideally, a detector would be able to identify blue whale vocalizations even in the presence of airgun operations that dominate the soundscape for months. For blue whale song, the detector did quite well! With a precision of 0.91 and recall of 0.93, the detector could pick out song units over airgun noise (Fig. 4). A false alarm rate of 8 false positives per hour is a sacrifice worth making to identify song during seismic operations (and the false positives will be removed in a subsequent step). For D calls, seismic survey activity presented a different challenge. While the detector did well at identifying D calls during airgun operation, the first several detector attempts also logged every single airgun blast as a blue whale vocalization—clearly problematic. Through an iterative process of selecting template signals, and adjusting the number of templates used and the correlation threshold, I was able to come up with a detector which selected D calls and missed most airgun blasts. This success felt like a victory.

Figure 4. An example of spectrograms of simultaneous recordings from the five hydrophones illustrating seismic airgun noise (strong broadband signals that appear as repetitive black, vertical lines) overlapping New Zealand blue whale song. The red boxes are detection events selected by the detector, demonstrating its ability to capture song even during airgun operation.

After this detector development and validation process, I ran each detector on the full two-year acoustic dataset for all five recording units. This step was a good exercise in patience as I eagerly awaited the outputs for the many hours they took to run. The next step in the process will be for me to go through and validate each detector event to eliminate any false positives. However, running the detectors on the full dataset has allowed for exciting preliminary examinations of seasonal blue whale acoustic patterns, which need to be refined and expanded upon as the analysis continues. For example, sometimes the New Zealand song dominates the recordings on all hydrophones (Fig. 5), whereas other times of year song is less common. Similarly, there appear to be seasonal patterns in D calls and Antarctic Z calls, with peaks and dips in detections during different times of year.

Figure 5. An example spectrogram of simultaneous recordings from all five hydrophones during a time when New Zealand blue whale song dominated the recordings, with numerous, overlapping calls.

As with many things, the more questions you ask, the more questions you come up with. From preliminary explorations of the acoustic data my head is buzzing with ideas for further analysis and with new questions I hadn’t thought to ask of the data before. My curiosity has been fueled by scrolling through spectrograms, looking, and listening, and I am as excited as ever to continue researching blue whale ecology. I would like to thank the team at the Center for Conservation Bioacoustics for their support and guidance over the past month, and I look forward to digging deeper into the stories being told in the acoustic data!

Figure 6. A pair of blue whales observed in February 2017 in the South Taranaki Bight. Photo: L. Torres.

References

1.          Barlow, D. R. et al. Documentation of a New Zealand blue whale population based on multiple lines of evidence. Endanger. Species Res. 36, 27–40 (2018).

2.          McDonald, M. A., Mesnick, S. L. & Hildebrand, J. A. Biogeographic characterisation of blue whale song worldwide: using song to identify populations. J. Cetacean Res. Manag. 8, 55–65 (2006).

3.          Balcazar, N. E. et al. Calls reveal population structure of blue whales across the Southeast Indian Ocean and the Southwest Pacific Ocean. J. Mammal. 96, 1184–1193 (2015).

4.          Oleson, E. M. et al. Behavioral context of call production by eastern North Pacific blue whales. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 330, 269–284 (2007).

5.          McDonald, M. A. An acoustic survey of baleen whales off Great Barrier Island, New Zealand. New Zeal. J. Mar. Freshw. Res. 40, 519–529 (2006).


Eyes from Space: Using Remote Sensing as a Tool to Study the Ecology of Blue Whales

By Christina Garvey, University of Maryland, GEMM Lab REU Intern

It is July 8th and it is my 4th week here in Hatfield as an REU intern for Dr. Leigh Torres. My name is Christina Garvey and this summer I am studying the spatial ecology of blue whales in the South Taranaki Bight, New Zealand. Coming from the east coast, Oregon has given me an experience of a lifetime – the rugged shorelines continue to take my breath away and watching sea lions in Yaquina Bay never gets old. However, working on my first research project has by far been the greatest opportunity and I have learned so much in so little time. When Dr. Torres asked me to contribute to this blog I was unsure of how I would write about my work thus far but I am excited to have the opportunity to share the knowledge I have gained with whoever reads this blog post.

The research project that I will be conducting this summer will use remotely sensed environmental data (information collected from satellites) to predict blue whale distribution in the South Taranaki Bight (STB), New Zealand. Those that have read previous blogs about this research may remember that the STB study area is created by a large indentation or “bight” on the southern end of the Northern Island. Based on multiple lines of evidence, Dr. Leigh Torres hypothesized the presence of an unrecognized blue whale foraging ground in the STB (Torres 2013). Dr. Torres and her team have since proved that blue whales frequent this region year-round; however, the STB is also very industrial making this space-use overlap a conservation concern (Barlow et al. 2018). The increasing presence of marine industrial activity in the STB is expected to put more pressure on blue whales in this region, whom are already vulnerable from the effects of past commercial whaling (Barlow et al. 2018) If you want to read more about blue whales in the STB check out previous blog posts that talk all about it!

Figure 1. A blue whale surfaces in front of a floating production storage and offloading vessel servicing the oil rigs in the South Taranaki Bight. Photo by D. Barlow.

Figure 2. South Taranaki Bight, New Zealand, our study site outlined by the red box. Kahurangi Point (black star) is the site of wind-driven upwelling system.

The possibility of the STB as an important foraging ground for a resident population of blue whales poses management concerns as New Zealand will have to balance industrial growth with the protection and conservation of a critically endangered species. As a result of strong public support, there are political plans to implement a marine protected area (MPA) in the STB for the blue whales. The purpose of our research is to provide scientific knowledge and recommendations that will assist the New Zealand government in the creation of an effective MPA.

In order to create an MPA that would help conserve the blue whale population in the STB, we need to gather a deeper understanding of the relationship between blue whales and this marine environment. One way to gain knowledge of the oceanographic and ecological processes of the ocean is through remote sensing by satellites, which provides accessible and easy to use environmental data. In our study we propose remote sensing as a tool that can be used by managers for the design of MPAs (through spatial and temporal boundaries). Satellite imagery can provide information on sea surface temperature (SST), SST anomaly, as well as net primary productivity (NPP) – which are all measurements that can help describe oceanographic upwelling, a phenomena that is believed to be correlated to the presence of blue whales in the STB region.

Figure 3. The stars of the show: blue whales. A photograph captured from the small boat of one animal fluking up to dive down as another whale surfaces close by. (Photo credit: L. Torres)

Past studies in the STB showed evidence of a large upwelling event that occurs off the coast of Kahurangi Point (Fig. 2), on the northwest tip of the South Island (Shirtcliffe et al. 1990). In order to study the relationship of this upwelling to the distribution of blue whales, I plan to extract remotely sensed data (SST, SST anomaly, & NPP) off the coast of Kahurangi and compare it to data gathered from a centrally located site within the STB, which is close to oil rigs and so is of management interest. I will first study how decreases in sea surface temperature at the site of upwelling (Kahurangi) are related to changes in sea surface temperature at this central site in the STB, while accounting for any time differences between each occurrence. I expect that this relationship will be influenced by the wind patterns, and that there will be changes based on the season. I also predict that drops in temperature will be strongly related to increases in primary productivity, since upwelling brings nutrients important for photosynthesis up to the surface. These dips in SST are also expected to be correlated to blue whale occurrence within the bight, since blue whale prey (krill) eat the phytoplankton produced by the productivity.

Figure 4. A blue whale lunges on an aggregation of krill. UAS piloted by Todd Chandler.

To test the relationships I determine between remotely sensed data at different locations in the STB, I plan to use blue whale observations from marine mammal observers during a seismic survey conducted in 2013, as well as sightings recorded from the 2014, 2016, and 2017 field studies led by Dr. Leigh Torres. By studying the statistical relationships between all of these variables I hope to prove that remote sensing can be used as a tool to study and understand blue whale distribution.

I am very excited about this research, especially because the end goal of creating an MPA really gives me purpose. I feel very lucky to be part of a project that could make a positive impact on the world, if only in just a little corner of New Zealand. In the mean time I’ll be here in Hatfield doing the best I can to help make that happen.

References: 

Barlow DR, Torres LG, Hodge KB, Steel D, Baker CS, Chandler TE, Bott N, Constantine R, Double MC, Gill P, Glasgow D, Hamner RM, Lilley C, Ogle M, Olson PA, Peters C, Stockin KA, Tessaglia-hymes CT, Klinck H (2018) Documentation of a New Zealand blue whale population based on multiple lines of evidence. Endanger Species Res 36:27–40.

Shirtcliffe TGL, Moore MI, Cole AG, Viner AB, Baldwin R, Chapman B (1990) Dynamics of the Cape Farewell upwelling plume, New Zealand. New Zeal J Mar Freshw Res 24:555–568.

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

The “demon whale-biter”, and why I am learning about an elusive little shark

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

There is an ancient Samoan legend that upon entry into a certain bay in Samoa, tuna would sacrifice pieces of their flesh to the community chief1. This was the explanation given for fish with circular shaped wounds where a plug of flesh had been removed. Similar round wounds are also observed on swordfish2, sharks3, and marine mammals including whales4,5, dolphins6, porpoises7, and pinnipeds8,9. In 1971, Everet C. Jones posited that the probable cause of these crater wounds was a small shark only 42-56 cm in length, Isistius brasiliensis1. The species was nicknamed “demon whale-biter” by Stewart Springer, who subsequently popularized the common name for the species, cookie cutter shark.

Figure 1. A yellowfin tuna with a circular bite, characteristic of a cookie cutter shark (Isistius brasiliensis). Photo: John Soward.

I am currently preparing a manuscript on blue whale skin condition. While this is only tangentially related to my doctoral research, it is an exciting side project that has encouraged me to stretch my comfort zone as an ecologist. This analysis of skin condition is part of a broader health assessment of blue whales in New Zealand, where we will be linking skin lesion severity with stress and reproductive hormone levels as well as body condition. Before I continue, I owe a major shout-out to Acacia Pepper, a senior undergraduate student at Oregon State University who has been working with me for nearly the past year through the Fisheries and Wildlife mentorship program. Acacia’s rigor in researching methodologies led us to develop a comprehensive protocol that can be applied widely to any cetacean photo-identification catalog. This method allows us to quantify prevalence and severity of different marking types in a standardized manner. Her passion for marine mammal science and interest in the subject matter is enough to excite this ecologist into fascination with wound morphology and blister concavity. Next thing you know, we are preparing a paper for publication together with P.I. Dr. Leigh Torres on a comprehensive skin condition assessment of blue whales that includes multiple markings and lesion types, but for the purpose of this blog post, I will share just a “bite-sized” piece of the story.

Figure 2. Jaws of a cookie cutter shark. Photo: George Burgess.

Back to the demon whale-biter. What do we know about cookie cutter sharks? Not a whole lot, it turns out. They are elusive, and are thought to live in deep (>1,000 m), offshore waters. They are considered to be both an ectoparasite and an ambush predator. Their distribution is tropical and sub-tropical. Much of what we know and assume about their distribution comes from the bite wounds they leave on their prey2.

In New Zealand where we study a unique population of blue whales10, the southernmost record of cookie cutter sharks is ~ 39⁰S11. We found that in our dataset of 148 photo-identified blue whales, 96% were affected by cookie cutter shark bites. Furthermore, 38% were categorized as having “severe” cookie cutter bite wounds or scars. The latitude of our blue whale sightings ranges from 29-48⁰S and blue whales are highly mobile, so any of the whales in our dataset could theoretically swim in and out of the known range of cookie cutter sharks. In our skin condition assessment, we also categorized cookie cutter bite “freshness” and phase of healing as follows:

We wanted to know if the freshness of cookie cutter shark bites was related in to the latitude at which the whales were photographed. Of the whales photographed north of 39⁰S (n=46), 76% had phase 1 or 2 cookie cutter shark bites present. In contrast, 57.1% of whales photographed south of 39⁰S (n=133) had phase 1 or 2 cookie cutter shark bites. It therefore appears that in New Zealand, the freshness of cookie cutter shark bites on blue whales is related to the latitude at which the whales were sighted, with fresher bites being more common at more northerly latitudes.

Figure 3. A whale with fresh cookie cutter shark bites, photographed in the Bay of Islands, latitude 35.164⁰S. Photo courtesy of Dr. Catherine Peters.

Figure 4. A whale with mostly healed cookie cutter shark bites, photographed off of Kaikoura, latitude 42.464⁰S. Photo courtesy of Jody Weir.

In the midst of a PhD on distribution modeling and habitat use of blue whales, I find myself reading about Samoan legends of tuna with missing flesh and descriptions of strange circular lesions from whaling records, and writing a paper about blue whale skin condition. Exciting “side projects” like this one emerge from rich datasets and good collaboration.

References

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