Reflecting on a solitary journey surrounded by an incredible team

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

Graduate school is an odd phase of life, at least in my experience. You spend years hyperfocused on a project, learning countless new skills – and the journey is completely unique to you. Unlike high school or undergrad, you are on your own timeline. While you may have peers on similar timelines, at the end of day your major deadlines and milestone dates are your own. This has struck me throughout my time in grad school, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately as I approach my biggest, and final milestone – defending my PhD! 

I defend in just about two months, and to be honest, it’s very odd approaching a milestone like this alone. In high school and college, you count down to the end together. The feelings of anticipation, stress, excitement, and anticipatory grief that can accompany the lead-up to graduation are typically shared. This time, as I’m in an intense final push to the end while processing these emotions, most of the people around me are on their own unique timeline. At times grad school can feel quite lonely, but this journey would have been impossible without an incredible community of people.

A central contradiction of being a grad student is that your research is your own, but you need a variety of communities to successfully complete it. Your community of formal advisors, including your advisor and committee members, guide you along the way and provide feedback. Professors help you fill specific knowledge and skill gaps, while lab mates provide invaluable peer mentorship. Finally, fellow grad students share the experience and can celebrate and commiserate with you. I’ve also had the incredible fortune of having the community of the GRANITE team, and I’ve recently been reflecting on how special the experience has been.

To briefly recap, GRANITE stands for Gray whale Response to Ambient Noise Informed by Technology and Ecology (read this blog to learn more). This project is one of the GEMM lab’s long-running gray whale projects focused on studying gray whale behavior, physiology, and health to understand how whales respond to ocean noise. Given the many questions under this project, it takes a team of researchers to accomplish our goals. I have learned so much from being on the team. While we spend most of the year working on our own components, we have annual meetings that are always a highlight of the year. Our team is made up of ecologists, physiologists, and statisticians with backgrounds across a range of taxa and methodologies. These meetings are an incredible time to watch, and participate in, scientific collaboration in action. I have learned so much from watching experts critically think about questions and draw inspiration from their knowledge bases. It’s been a multi-year masterclass and a critically important piece of my PhD. 

The GRANITE team during our first in person meeting

These annual meetings have also served as markers of the passage of time. It’s been fascinating to observe how our discussions, questions, and ideas have evolved as the project progressed. In the early years, our presentations shared proposed research and our conversations focused on working out how on earth we were going to tackle the big questions we were posing. In parallel, it was so helpful to work out how I was going to accomplish my proposed PhD questions as part of this larger group effort. During the middle years, it was fun to hear progress updates and to learn from watching others go through their process too. In grad school, it’s easy to feel like your setbacks and stumbles are failures that reflect your own incompetence, but working alongside and learning from these scientists has helped remind me that setbacks and stumbles are just part of the process. Now, in the final phase, as results abound, it feels extra exciting to celebrate with this team that has watched the work, and me grow, from the beginning. 

The GRANITE team taking a beach walk after our second in person meeting.

We just wrapped up our last team meeting of the GRANITE project, and this year provided a learning experience in a phase of science that isn’t often emphasized in grad school. For graduate students, our work tends to end when we graduate. While we certainly think about follow-up questions to our studies, we rarely get the opportunity to follow through. In our final exams, we are often asked to think of next steps outside the constraints of funding or practicality, as a critical thinking exercise. But it’s a different skillset to dream up follow-up questions, and to then assess which of those questions are feasible and could come together to form a proposal. This last meeting felt like a cool full-story moment. From our earliest meetings determining how to answer our new questions, to now deciding what the next new questions are, I have learned countless lessons from watching this team operate. 

The GRANITE team after our third in person meeting.

There are a few overarching lessons I’ll take with me. First and foremost, the value of patience and kindness. As a young scientist stumbling up the learning curve of many skills all at once, I am so grateful for the patience and kindness I’ve been shown. Second, to keep an open mind and to draw inspiration from anything and everything. Studying whales is hard, and we often need to take ideas from studies on other animals. Which brings me to my third takeaway, to collaborate with scientists from a wide range of backgrounds who can combine their knowledges bases with yours, to generate better research questions and approaches to answering them.

I am so grateful to have worked with this team during my final sprint to the finish. Despite the pressure of the end nearing, I’m enjoying moments to reflect and be grateful. I am grateful for my teachers and peers and friends. And I can’t wait to share this project with everyone.

P.S. Interested in tuning into my defense seminar? Keep an eye on the GEMM lab Instagram (@gemm_lab) for the details and zoom link.

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A MOSAIC of species, datasets, tools, and collaborators

By Dr. Dawn Barlow, Postdoctoral Scholar, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Imagine you are 50 nautical miles from shore, perched on the observation platform of a research vessel. The ocean is blue, calm, and seems—for all intents and purposes—empty. No birds fly overhead, nothing disturbs the rolling swells except the occasional whitecap from a light breeze. The view through your binoculars is excellent, and in the distance, you spot a disturbance at the surface of the water. As the ship gets closer, you see splashing, and a flurry of activity emerges as a large group of dolphins leap and dive, likely chasing a school of fish. They swim along with the ship, riding the bow-wave in a brief break from their activity. Birds circle in the air above them and float on the water around them. Together with your team of observers, you rush to record the species, the number of animals, their distance to the ship, and their behavior. The research vessel carries along its pre-determined trackline, and the feeding frenzy of birds and dolphins fades off behind you as quickly as it came. You return to scanning the blue water.

Craig Hayslip and Dawn Barlow scan for marine mammals from the crow’s nest (elevated observation platform) of the R/V Pacific Storm.

The marine environment is highly dynamic, and resources in the ocean are notoriously patchy. One of our main objectives in marine ecology is to understand what drives these ephemeral hotspots of species diversity and biological activity. This objective is particularly important now as the oceans warm and shift. In the context of rapid global climate change, there is a push to establish alternatives to fossil fuels that can support society’s energy needs while minimizing the carbon emissions that are a root cause of climate change. One emergent option is offshore wind, which has become a hot topic on the West Coast of the United States in recent years. The technology has the potential to supply a clean energy source, but the infrastructure could have environmental and societal impacts of its own, depending on where it is placed, how it is implemented, and when it is operational.

Northern right whale dolphins leap into the air. Photo by Craig Hayslip.

Any development in the marine environment, including alternative energy such as offshore wind, should be undertaken using the best available scientific knowledge of the ecosystem where it will be implemented. The Marine Mammal Institute’s collaborative project, Marine Offshore Species Assessments to Inform Clean energy (MOSAIC), was designed for just this reason. As the name “MOSAIC” implies, it is all about using different tools to compile different datasets to establish crucial baseline information on where marine mammals and seabirds are distributed in Oregon and Northern California, a region of interest for wind energy development.

A MOSAIC of species

The waters of Oregon and Northern California are rich with life. Numerous cetaceans are found here, from the largest species to ever live, the blue whale, to one of the smallest cetaceans, the harbor porpoise, with many species filling in the size range in between: fin whales, humpback whales, sperm whales, killer whales, Risso’s dolphins, Pacific white-sided dolphins, northern right whale dolphins, and Dall’s porpoises, to name a few. Seabirds likewise rely on these productive waters, from the large, graceful albatrosses that feature in maritime legends, to charismatic tufted puffins, to the little Leach’s storm petrels that could fit in the palm of your hand yet cover vast distances at sea. From our data collection efforts so far, we have already documented 16 cetacean species and 64 seabird species.

A Laysan albatross glides over the water’s surface. Photo by Will Kennerley.

A MOSAIC of data and tools

Schematic of the different components of the MOSAIC project. Graphic created by Solene Derville.

Through the four-year MOSAIC project, we are undertaking two years of visual surveys and passive acoustic monitoring from Cape Mendocino to the mouth of the Columbia River on the border of Oregon and Washington and seaward to the continental slope. Six comprehensive surveys for cetaceans and seabirds are being conducted aboard the R/V Pacific Storm following a carefully chosen trackline to cover a variety of habitats, including areas of interest to wind energy developers.

These dedicated surveys are complemented by additional surveys conducted aboard NOAA research vessels during collaborative expeditions in the Northern California Current, and ongoing aerial surveys in partnership with the United States Coast Guard through the GEMM Lab’s OPAL project. Three bottom-mounted hydrophones were deployed in August 2022, and are recording cetacean vocalizations and the ambient soundscape, and these recordings will be complemented by acoustic data that is being collected continuously by the Oceans Observing Initiative. In addition to these methods to collect broad-scale species distribution information, concurrent efforts are being conducted via small boats to collect individual identification photographs of baleen whales and tissue biopsy samples for genetic analysis. Building on the legacy of satellite tracking here at the Marine Mammal Institute, the MOSAIC project is breathing new life into tag data from large whales to assess movement patterns over many years and determine the amount of time spent within our study area.

A curious fin whale approaches the R/V Pacific Storm during one of the visual surveys. Photo by Craig Hayslip.
Survey tracklines extending between the Columbia River and Cape Mendocino, designed for the MOSAIC visual surveys aboard the R/V Pacific Storm.

The resulting species occurrence data from visual surveys and acoustic monitoring will be integrated to develop Species Distribution Models for the many different species in our study region. Identification photographs of individual baleen whales, DNA profiles from whale biopsy samples, and data from satellite-tagged whales will provide detailed insight into whale population structure, behavior, and site fidelity (i.e., how long they typically stay in a given area), which will add important context to the distribution data we collect through the visual surveys and acoustic monitoring. The models will be implemented to produce maps of predicted species occurrence patterns, describing when and where we expect different cetaceans and seabirds to be under different environmental conditions.

With five visual surveys down, the MOSAIC team is gearing up for one final survey this month. The hydrophones will be retrieved this summer. Then, with data in-hand, the team will dive deep into analysis.

A MOSAIC of collaborators

The MOSAIC-4 team waves from the crow’s nest (observation platform) of the R/V Pacific Storm. Photo by Craig Hayslip.

The collaborative MOSAIC team brings together a diverse set of tools. The depth of expertise here at the Marine Mammal Institute spans a broad range of disciplines, well-positioned to provide robust scientific knowledge needed to inform alternative energy development in Oregon and Northern California waters.  

I have had the pleasure of participating in three of the six surveys aboard the R/V Pacific Storm, including leading one as Chief Scientist, and have collected visual survey data aboard NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada and from United States Coast Guard helicopters over the years that will be incorporated in the MOSAIC of datasets for the project. This ecosystem is one that I feel deeply connected to from time spent in the field. Now, I am thrilled to dive into the analysis, and will lead the modeling of the visual survey data and the integration of the different components to produce species distribution maps for cetaceans and seabirds our study region.

This project is funded by the United States Department of Energy. The Principal Investigator is the Institute’s Director Dr. Lisa Ballance, and Co-Principal Investigators include Scott Baker, Barbara Lagerquist, Rachael Orben, Daniel Palacios, Kate Stafford, and Leigh Torres of the Marine Mammal Institute; John Calambokidis of the Cascadia Research Collective; and Elizabeth Becker of ManTech International Corp. For more information, please visit the project website, and stay tuned for updates as we enter the analysis phase.

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An ‘X’travaganza! Introducing the Marine Mammal Institute’s Center of Drone Excellence (CODEX)

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

Drones are becoming more and more prevalent in marine mammal research, particularly for non-invasively obtaining morphological measurements of cetaceans via photogrammetry to identify important health metrics (see this and this previous blog). For example, the GEMM Lab uses drones for the GRANITE Project to study Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) gray whales and we have found that PCFG whales are skinnier and morphologically shorter with smaller skulls and flukes compared to the larger Eastern North Pacific (ENP) population. The GEMM Lab has also used drones to document variation in body condition across years and within a season, to diagnose pregnancy, and even measure blowholes.

While drone-based photogrammetry can provide major insight into cetacean ecology, several drone systems and protocols are used across the scientific community in these efforts, and no consistent method or centralized framework is established for quantifying and incorporating measurement uncertainty associated with these different drones. This lack of standardization restricts comparability across datasets, thus hindering our ability to effectively monitor populations and understand the drivers of variation (e.g., pollution, climate change, injury, noise).

We are excited to announce the Marine Mammal Institute’s (MMI) Center of Drone Excellence (CODEX), which focuses on developing analytical methods for using drones to non-invasively monitor marine mammal populations. CODEX is led by GEMM Lab member’s KC Bierlich, Leigh Torres, and Clara Bird and consists of other team members within and outside OSU. We draw from many years of trials, errors, headaches, and effort working with drones to study cetacean ecology in a variety of habitats and conditions on many different species.

Already CODEX has developed several open-source hardware and software tools. We developed, produced, and published LidarBoX (Bierlich et al., 2023), which is a 3D printed enclosure for a LiDAR altimeter system that can be easily attached and swapped between commercially available drones (i.e., DJI Inspire, DJI Mavic, and DJI Phantom) (Figure 1). Having a LidarBoX installed helps researchers obtain altitude readings with greater accuracy, yielding morphological measurements with less uncertainty. Since we developed LidarBoX, we have received over 35 orders to build this unit for other labs in national and international universities.

Figure 1. A ‘LidarBoX’ attached to a DJI Inspire 2. The LidarBoX is a 3D printed enclosure containing a LiDAR altimeter to help obtain more accurate altitude readings.

Additionally, CODEX recently released MorphoMetriX version 2 (v2), an easy-to-use photogrammetry software that provides users with the flexibility to obtain custom morphological measurements of megafauna in imagery with no knowledge of any scripting language (Torres and Bierlich, 2020). CollatriX is a user-friendly software for collating multiple MorphoMetriX outputs into a single dataframe and linking important metadata to photogrammetric measurements, such as altitude measured with a LidarBoX (Bird and Bierlich, 2020). CollatriX also automatically calculates several body condition metrics based on measurements from MorphoMetriX v2. CollatriX v2 is currently in beta-testing and scheduled to be released late Spring 2024. 

Figure 2. An example of a Pygmy blue whale imported into MorphoMetriX v2, open-source photogrammetry software. 

CODEX also recently developed two automated tools to help speed up the laborious manual processing of drone videos for obtaining morphological measurements (Bierlich & Karki et al., in revision). DeteX is a graphical user interface (GUI) that uses a deep learning model for automated detection of cetaceans in drone-based videos. Researchers can input their drone-based videos and DeteX will output frames containing whales at the surface. Users can then select which frames they want to use for measuring individual whales and then input these selected frames into XtraX, which is a GUI that uses a deep learning model to automatically extract body length and body condition measurements of cetaceans (Figure 4). We found automated measurements from XtraX to be similar (within 5%) of manual measurements. Importantly, using DeteX and XtraX takes about 10% of the time it would take to manually process the same videos, demonstrating how these tools greatly speed up obtaining key morphological data while maintaining accuracy, which is critical for effectively monitoring population health.

Figure 3. An example of an automated body length (top) and body condition (bottom) measurement of a gray whale using XtraX (Bierlich & Karki et al., in revision).

CODEX is also in the process of developing Xcertainty, an R package that uses a Bayesian statistical model to quantify and incorporate uncertainty associated with measurements from different drones (see this blog). Xcertainty is based on the Bayesian statistical model developed by Bierlich et al., (2021b; 2021a), which has been utilized by many studies with several different drones to compare body condition and body morphology across individuals and populations  (Bierlich et al., 2022; Torres et al., 2022; Barlow et al., 2023). Rather than a single point-estimate of a length measurement for an individual, Xcertainty produces a distribution of length measurements for an individual so that the length of a whale can be described by the mean of this distribution, and its uncertainty as the the variance or an interval around the mean (Figure 4). These outputs ensure measurements are robust and comparable across different drones because they provide a measure of the uncertainty around each measurement. For instance, a measurement with more uncertainty will have a wider distribution. The uncertainty associated with each measurement can be incorporated into analyses, which is key when detecting important differences or changes in individuals or populations, such as changes in body condition (blog).

Figure 4. An example of a posterior predictive distribution for total length of an individual blue whale produced by the ‘Xcertainty’ R package. The black bars represent the uncertainty around the mean value (the black dot) – the longer black bars represent the 95% highest posterior density (HPD) interval, and the shorter black bars represent the 65% HPD interval. 

CODEX has integrated all these lessons learned, open-source tools, and analytical approaches into a single framework of suggested best practices to help researchers enhance the quality, speed, and accuracy of obtaining important morphological measurements to manage vulnerable populations. These tools and frameworks are designed to be accommodating and accessible to researchers on various budgets and to facilitate cross-lab collaborations. CODEX plans to host workshops to educate and train researchers using drones on how to apply these tools within this framework within their own research practices. Potential future directions for CODEX include developing a system for using drones to drop suction-cup tags on whales and to collect thermal imagery of whales for health assessments. Stay up to date with all the CODEX ‘X’travaganza here: https://mmi.oregonstate.edu/centers-excellence/codex.  

Huge shout out to Suzie Winquist for designing the artwork for CODEX!

References

Barlow, D.R., Bierlich, K.C., Oestreich, W.K., Chiang, G., Durban, J.W., Goldbogen, J.A., Johnston, D.W., Leslie, M.S., Moore, M.J., Ryan, J.P. and Torres, L.G., 2023. Shaped by Their Environment: Variation in Blue Whale Morphology across Three Productive Coastal Ecosystems. Integrative Organismal Biology, [online] 5(1). https://doi.org/10.1093/iob/obad039.

Bierlich, K., Karki, S., Bird, C.N., Fern, A. and Torres, L.G., n.d. Automated body length and condition measurements of whales from drone videos for rapid assessment of population health. Marine Mammal Science.

Bierlich, K.C., Hewitt, J., Bird, C.N., Schick, R.S., Friedlaender, A., Torres, L.G., Dale, J., Goldbogen, J., Read, A.J., Calambokidis, J. and Johnston, D.W., 2021a. Comparing Uncertainty Associated With 1-, 2-, and 3D Aerial Photogrammetry-Based Body Condition Measurements of Baleen Whales. Frontiers in Marine Science, 8. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2021.749943.

Bierlich, K.C., Hewitt, J., Schick, R.S., Pallin, L., Dale, J., Friedlaender, A.S., Christiansen, F., Sprogis, K.R., Dawn, A.H., Bird, C.N., Larsen, G.D., Nichols, R., Shero, M.R., Goldbogen, J., Read, A.J. and Johnston, D.W., 2022. Seasonal gain in body condition of foraging humpback whales along the Western Antarctic Peninsula. Frontiers in Marine Science, 9(1036860), pp.1–16. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2022.1036860.

Bierlich, K.C., Schick, R.S., Hewitt, J., Dale, J., Goldbogen, J.A., Friedlaender, A.S. and Johnston, D.W., 2021b. Bayesian approach for predicting photogrammetric uncertainty in morphometric measurements derived from drones. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 673, pp.193–210. https://doi.org/10.3354/meps13814.

Bird, C. and Bierlich, K.C., 2020. CollatriX: A GUI to collate MorphoMetriX outputs. Journal of Open Source Software, 5(51), pp.2323–2328. https://doi.org/10.21105/joss.02328.

Torres, L.G., Bird, C.N., Rodríguez-González, F., Christiansen, F., Bejder, L., Lemos, L., Urban R, J., Swartz, S., Willoughby, A., Hewitt, J. and Bierlich, K.C., 2022. Range-Wide Comparison of Gray Whale Body Condition Reveals Contrasting Sub-Population Health Characteristics and Vulnerability to Environmental Change. Frontiers in Marine Science, 9(April), pp.1–13. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2022.867258.

Torres, W. and Bierlich, K.C., 2020. MorphoMetriX: a photogrammetric measurement GUI for morphometric analysis of megafauna. Journal of Open Source Software, 5(45), pp.1825–1826. https://doi.org/10.21105/joss.01825.

The Dark Side of Upwelling: It’s getting harder and harder to breathe off the Oregon coast

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

The depths of the productive coastal Oregon ecosystem have long held a mystery – an increasing paucity in the concentration of dissolved oxygen at depth. When dissolved oxygen concentrations dips low enough, the condition “hypoxia” can alter biogeochemical cycling in the ocean environment and threaten marine life. Essentially, organisms can’t get enough oxygen from the water, forcing them to try to escape to more favorable waters, stay and change their behavior, or suffer the consequences and potentially suffocate.

Recent work has illuminated the cause of this mysterious rise in hypoxic waters: an increase in the wind-driven oceanographic process of upwelling (Barth et al., 2024). The seasonal upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich waters underlies the incredible productivity of the Oregon coast, but its dark twin is hypoxia: when organic material in the upper layer of the water column sinks, microbial respiration processes consume dissolved oxygen in the surrounding water. In addition, the deep waters brought to the surface by upwelling are depleted in oxygen compared to the aerated surface waters. These effects combine to form an oxygen-poor water layer over the continental shelf, which typically lasts from May until October in the Northern California Current (NCC) region. The spatial extent of this layer is highly variable – hypoxic bottom waters cover 10% of the shelf in some years and up to 62% in others, presenting challenging conditions for life occupying the Oregon shelf (Peterson et al., 2013).

Figure 1. An article in The Oregonian from 2004 documents research on a hypoxia-driven “dead zone” off the Oregon coast.

While effects of hypoxia on benthic communities and some fish species are well-documented, is unclear how increasing levels of hypoxia off Oregon may impact highly mobile, migratory organisms like whales. A primary pathway is likely through their prey – particularly species that occupy hypoxic regions and depths, like the zooplankton krill. Over the continental shelf and slope, which are important krill habitat, seasonally hypoxic waters tend to extend from about 150 meters depth to the bottom. The vertical center of krill distribution in the NCC region is around 170 meters depth, suggesting that these animals encounter hypoxic conditions regularly.

Interestingly, the two main krill species off the Oregon coast, Euphausia pacifica and Thysanoessa spinifera, use different strategies to deal with hypoxic conditions. Thysanoessa spinifera krill decrease their oxygen consumption rate to better tolerate ambient hypoxia, a behavioral modification strategy called “oxyconformity”. Euphausia pacifica, on the other hand, use “oxyregulation” to maintain the same, quite high, oxygen utilization rate regardless of ambient levels – which may indicate that this species will be less able to tolerate increasingly hypoxic waters (Tremblay et al., 2020).

Figure 2. This figure from Barth et al. 2024 maps the concentration of dissolved oxygen (uM/kg; cooler colors indicate less dissolved oxygen) to show an increase in hypoxic conditions over the continental shelf and slope (green and blue colors) across seven decades in the NCC region.

Over long time scales, such environmental pressures shape species physiology, life history, and evolution. The krill species Euphausia mucronate is endemic to the Humboldt Current System off the coast of South America, which includes a region of year-round upwelling and a persistent Oxygen Minimum Zone (OMZ). Fascinatingly, Humboldt krill can live in the core of the OMZ, using metabolic adaptations that even let them survive in anoxic conditions (i.e., no oxygen in the water). Humboldt krill abundances actually increase with shallower OMZ depths and lower levels of dissolved oxygen, pointing to the huge success of this species in evolving to thrive in conditions that challenge other local krill species (Díaz-Astudillo et al., 2022).

Back home in the NCC region, will Euphausia pacifica and Thysanoessa spinifera be pressured to adapt to continually increasing levels of hypoxia? If so, will they be able to adapt? One of krill’s many superpowers is an ability to tolerate a wide range of environmental conditions, including the dramatic gradients in temperature, water density, and dissolved oxygen that they encounter during their daily vertical migrations through the water column. Both species have strategies to deal with hypoxic conditions, and this capacity has allowed them to thrive in the active upwelling region that is the NCC. Now, the question is whether increasingly hypoxic waters will eventually force a threshold that compromises the capacity of krill to adapt – and then, what will happen to these species, and the foragers dependent on them?

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References

Barth, J. A., Pierce, S. D., Carter, B. R., Chan, F., Erofeev, A. Y., Fisher, J. L., Feely, R. A., Jacobson, K. C., Keller, A. A., Morgan, C. A., Pohl, J. E., Rasmuson, L. K., & Simon, V. (2024). Widespread and increasing near-bottom hypoxia in the coastal ocean off the United States Pacific Northwest. Scientific Reports, 14(1), 3798. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-024-54476-0

Díaz-Astudillo, M., Riquelme-Bugueño, R., Bernard, K. S., Saldías, G. S., Rivera, R., & Letelier, J. (2022). Disentangling species-specific krill responses to local oceanography and predator’s biomass: The case of the Humboldt krill and the Peruvian anchovy. Frontiers in Marine Science, 9, 979984. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2022.979984

Peterson, J. O., Morgan, C. A., Peterson, W. T., & Lorenzo, E. D. (2013). Seasonal and interannual variation in the extent of hypoxia in the northern California Current from 1998–2012. Limnology and Oceanography, 58(6), 2279–2292. https://doi.org/10.4319/lo.2013.58.6.2279

Tremblay, N., Hünerlage, K., & Werner, T. (2020). Hypoxia Tolerance of 10 Euphausiid Species in Relation to Vertical Temperature and Oxygen Gradients. Frontiers in Physiology, 11, 248. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2020.00248

Learning from the unexpected: the first field season of the SAPPHIRE project

By Dr. Dawn Barlow, Postdoctoral Scholar, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

The SAPPHIRE project’s inaugural 2024 field season has officially wrapped up, and the team is back on shore after an unexpected but ultimately fruitful research cruise. The project aims to understand the impacts of climate change on blue whales and krill, by investigating their health under variable environmental conditions. In order to assess their health, however, a crucial first step is required: finding krill, and finding whales. The South Taranaki Bight (STB) is a known foraging ground where blue whales typically feed on krill found in the cool and productive upwelled waters. This year, however, both krill and blue whales were notoriously absent from the STB, leaving us puzzled as we compulsively searched the region in between periods of unworkable weather (including an aerial survey one afternoon).

A map of our survey effort during the 2024 field season. Gray lines represent our visual survey tracklines, with the aerial survey shown in the dashed line. Red points show blue whale sighting locations. Purple stars are the deployment locations of two hydrophones, which will record over the next year.

The tables felt like they were turning when we finally found a blue whale off the west coast of the South Island, and were able to successfully fly the drone to collect body condition information, and collect a fecal sample for genetic and hormone analysis. Then, we returned to the same pattern. Days of waiting for a weather window in between fierce winds, alternating with days of searching and searching, with no blue whales or krill to be found. Photogrammetry measurements of our drone data over the one blue whale we found determined it to be quite small (only ~17 m) and in poor body condition. The only krill we were able to find and collect were small and sparsely mixed in to a massive gelatinous swarm of salps. Where were the whales? Where was their prey?

Above: KC Bierlich and Dawn Barlow search for blue whales. Below: salps swarm beneath the surface.

Then, a turn of events. A news story with the headline “Acres of krill washing up on the coastline” made its way to our inboxes and news feeds. The location? Kaikoura. On the other side of the Cook Strait, along the east coast of the South Island. With good survey coverage in the STB resulting in essentially no appearances of our study species, this report of krill presence along with a workable weather forecast in the Kaikoura area had our attention. In a flurry of quick decision-making (Leigh to Captain: “Can we physically get there?” Captain to Leigh: “Yes, we can.” Leigh to Captain: “Let’s go.”), we turned the vessel around and surfed the swells to the southeast at high speed.

The team in action aboard the R/V Star Keys, our home for the duration of the three-week survey.

Twelve hours later we arrived at dusk and anchored off the small town of Kaikoura, with plans to conduct a net tow for krill before dawn the next morning. But the krill came to us! In the wee hours of the morning, the research vessel was surrounded by swarming krill. The dense aggregation made the water appear soup-like, and attracted a school of hungry barracuda. These abundant krill were just what was needed to run respiration experiments on the deck, and to collect samples to analyze their calories, proteins, and lipids back in the lab.

Left: An illuminated swarm of krill just below the surface. Right: A blue whale comes up for air with an extended buccal pouch, indicating a recent mouthful of krill. Drone piloted by KC Bierlich.

With krill in the area, we were anxious to find their blue whale predators, too. Once we began our visual survey effort, we were alerted by local whale watchers of a blue whale sighting. We headed straight to this location and got to work. The day that followed featured another round of krill experiments, and a few more blue whale sightings. Predator and prey were both present, a stark contrast to our experience in the previous weeks within the STB and along the west coast of the South Island. The science team and crew of the R/V Star Keys fell right into gear, carefully maneuvering around these ocean giants to collect identification photos, drone flights, and fecal samples, finding our rhythm in what we came here to do. We are deeply grateful to the regional managers, local Iwi representatives, researchers, and tourism operators that supported making our time in Kaikoura so fruitful, on just a moment’s notice.

The SAPPHIRE 2024 field team on a day of successful blue whale sightings. Clockwise, starting top left: Dawn Barlow and Leigh Torres following a sunset blue whale sighting, Mike Ogle in position for biopsy sample collection, Kim Bernard collecting blue whale dive times, KC Bierlich collecting identification photos.

What does it all mean? It’s hard to say right now, but time and data analysis will hopefully tell. While this field season was certainly unexpected, it was valuable in many ways. Our experiences this year emphasize the pay-off of being adaptable in the field to maximize time, money, and data collection efforts (during our three-week cruise we slept in 10 different ports or anchorages, did an aerial survey, and rapidly changed our planned study area). Oftentimes, the cases that initially “don’t make sense” are the ones that end up providing key insights into larger patterns. No doubt this was a challenging and at times frustrating field season, but it could also be the year that provides the greatest insights. After two more years of data collection, it will be fascinating to compare this year’s blue whale and krill data in the greater context of environmental variability.

A blue whale comes up for air. Photo by Dawn Barlow.

One thing is clear, the oceans are without question already experiencing the impacts of global climate change. This year solidified the importance of our research, emphasizing the need to understand how krill—a crucial marine prey item—and their predators are being affected by warming and shifting oceans.  

A blue whale at sunset, off Kaikoura. Photo by Leigh Torres.

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Migrating back east

By: Kate Colson, MSc Oceans and Fisheries, University of British Columbia, Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, Marine Mammal Research Unit

With the changing of the season, gray whales are starting their southbound migration that will end in the lagoons off the Baja California Mexico. The migration of the gray whale is the longest migration of any mammal—the round trip totals ~10,000 miles (Pike, 1962)! 

Map of the migration route taken by gray whales along the west coast of North America. (Image credit: Angle, Asplund, and Ostrander, 2017 https://www.slocoe.org/resources/parent-and-public-resources/what-is-a-california-gray-whale/california-gray-whale-migration/)

Like these gray whales, I am also undertaking my own “migration” as I leave Newport to start my post-Master’s journey. However, my migration will be a little shorter than the gray whale’s journey—only ~3,000 miles—as I head back to the east coast. As I talked about in my previous blog, I have finished my thesis studying the energetics of gray whale foraging behaviors and I attended my commencement ceremony at the University of British Columbia last Wednesday. As my time with the GEMM Lab comes to a close, I want to take some time to reflect on my time in Newport. 

Me in my graduation regalia (right) and my co-supervisor Andrew Trites holding the university mace (left) after my commencement ceremony at the University of British Columbia rose garden. 

Many depictions of scientists show them working in isolation but in my time with the GEMM Lab I got to fully experience the collaborative nature of science. My thesis was a part of the GEMM Lab’s Gray whale Response to Ambient Noise Informed by Technology and Ecology (GRANITE) project and I worked closely with the GRANITE team to help achieve the project’s research goals. The GRANITE team has annual meetings where team members give updates on their contributions to the project and flush out ideas in a series of very busy days. I found these collaborative meetings very helpful to ensure that I was keeping the big picture of the gray whale study system in mind while working with the energetics data I explored for my thesis. The collaborative nature of the GRANITE project provided the opportunity to learn from people that have a different skill set from my own and expose me to many different types of analysis. 

GRANITE team members hard at work thinking about gray whales and their physiological response to noise. 

This summer I also was able to participate in outreach with the partnership of the Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institute and the Eugene Exploding Whales (the alternate identity of the Eugene Emeralds) minor league baseball team to promote the Oregon Gray Whale License plates. It was exciting to talk to baseball fans about marine mammals and be able to demonstrate that the Gray Whale License plate sales are truly making a difference for the gray whales off the Oregon coast. In fact, the minimally invasive suction cup tags used in to collect the data I analyzed in my thesis were funded by the OSU Gray Whale License plate fund!

Photo of the GEMM Lab promoting Oregon Gray Whale License plates at the Eugene Exploding Whales baseball game. If you haven’t already, be sure to “Put a whale on your tail!” to help support marine mammal research off the Oregon Coast. 

Outside of the amazing science opportunities, I have thoroughly enjoyed the privilege of exploring Newport and the Oregon coast. I was lucky enough to find lots of agates and enjoyed consistently spotting gray whale blows on my many beach walks. I experienced so many breathtaking views from hikes (God’s thumb was my personal favorite). I got to attend an Oregon State Beavers football game where we crushed Stanford! And most of all, I am so thankful for all the friends I’ve made in my time here. These warm memories, and the knowledge that I can always come back, will help make it a little easier to start my migration away from Newport. 

Me and my friends outside of Reser Stadium for the Oregon State Beavers football game vs Stanford this season. Go Beavs!!!
Me and my friends celebrating after my defense. 

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References

Pike, G. C. (1962). Migration and feeding of the gray whale (Eschrichtius gibbosus). Journal of the Fisheries Research Board of Canada19(5), 815–838. https://doi.org/10.1139/f62-051

Blue whales, krill, and climate change: introducing the SAPPHIRE project

By Dr. Dawn Barlow, Postdoctoral Scholar, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

The world is warming. Ocean ecosystems are experiencing significant and rapid impacts of climate change. However, the cascading effects on marine life are largely unknown. Thus, it is critical to understand how – not just if – environmental change impacts the availability and quality of key prey species in ocean food webs, and how these changes will impact marine predator health and population resilience. With these pressing knowledge gaps in mind, we are thrilled to launch a new project “Marine predator and prey response to climate change: Synthesis of Acoustics, Physiology, Prey, and Habitat in a Rapidly changing Environment (SAPPHIRE).”  We will examine how changing ocean conditions affect the availability and quality of krill, and thus impact blue whale behavior, health, and reproduction. This large-scale research effort is made possible with funding from the National Science Foundation.

The SAPPHIRE project takes place in the South Taranaki Bight (STB) region of Aotearoa New Zealand, and before diving into our new research plans, let’s reflect briefly on what we know so far about this study system based on our previous research. Our collaborative research team has studied blue whales in the STB since 2013 to document the population, understand their ecology and habitat use, and inform conservation management. We conducted boat-based surveys and used hydrophones to record the underwater soundscape, and found the following:

  • Blue whales in Aotearoa New Zealand are a unique population, genetically distinct from all other known populations in the Southern Hemisphere, with an estimated population size of 718 (95% CI = 279 – 1926).1
  • Blue whales reside in the STB region year-round, with feeding and breeding vocalizations detected nearly every day of the year.2,3
  • Wind-driven upwelling over Kahurangi shoals moves a plume of cold, nutrient-rich waters into the STB, supporting aggregations of krill, and thereby critical feeding opportunities for blue whales in spring and summer.4–6
  • We developed predictive models to forecast blue whale distribution up to three weeks in advance, providing managers with a real-time tool in the form of a desktop application to produce daily forecast maps for dynamic management.7
  • During marine heatwaves, blue whale feeding activity was substantially reduced in the STB. Interestingly, their breeding activity was also reduced in the following season when compared to the breeding season following a more productive, typical foraging season. This finding indicates that shifting environmental conditions, such as marine heatwaves and climate change, may have consequences to not just foraging success, but the population’s reproductive patterns.3
A blue whale comes up for air in the South Taranaki Bight. Photo by Leigh Torres.

Project goals

Building on this existing knowledge, we aim to gain understanding of the health impacts of environmental change on krill and blue whales, which can in turn inform management decisions. Over the next three years (2024-2026) we will use multidisciplinary methods to collect data in the field that will enable us to tackle these important but challenging goals. Our broad objectives are to:

  1. Assess variation in krill quality and availability relative to rising temperatures and different ocean conditions,
  2. Document how blue whale body condition and hormone profiles change relative to variable environmental and prey conditions,
  3. Understand how environmental conditions impact blue whale foraging and reproductive behavior, and
  4. Integrate these components to develop novel Species Health Models to predict predator and prey whale population response to rapid environmental change.

Kicking off fieldwork

This coming January, we will set sail aboard the R/V Star Keys and head out in search of blue whales and krill in the STB! Five of our team members will spend three weeks at sea, during which time we will conduct surveys for blue whale occurrence paired with active acoustic assessment of krill availability, fly Unoccupied Aircraft Systems (UAS; “drones”) over whales to determine body condition and potential pregnancy, collect tissue biopsy samples to quantify stress and reproductive hormone levels, deploy hydrophones to record rates of foraging and reproductive calls by blue whales, and conduct on-board controlled experiments on krill to assess their response to elevated temperature.

The team in action aboard the R/V Star Keys in February 2017. Photo by L. Torres.

The moving pieces are many as we work to obtain research permits, engage in important consultation with iwi (indigenous Māori groups), procure specialized scientific equipment, and make travel and shipping arrangements. The to-do lists seem to grow just as fast as we can check items off; such is the nature of coordinating an international, multidisciplinary field effort. But it will pay off when we are underway, and I can barely contain my excitement to back on the water with this research team.

Our team has not collected data in the STB since 2017. We know so much more now than we did when studies of this blue whale population were just beginning. For example, we are eager to put our blue whale forecast tool to use, which will hopefully enable us to direct survey effort toward areas of higher blue whale density to maximize data collection. We are keen to see what new insights we gain, and what new questions and challenges arise.

Research team

The SAPPHIRE project will only be possible with the expertise and coordination of the many members of our collaborative group. We are all thrilled to begin this research journey together, and eager to share what we learn.

Principal Investigators:

Research partners and key collaborators:

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References:

1.          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. Documentation of a New Zealand blue whale population based on multiple lines of evidence. Endanger Species Res. 2018;36:27–40.

2.          Barlow DR, Klinck H, Ponirakis D, Holt Colberg M, Torres LG. Temporal occurrence of three blue whale populations in New Zealand waters from passive acoustic monitoring. J Mammal. 2022;

3.          Barlow DR, Klinck H, Ponirakis D, Branch TA, Torres LG. Environmental conditions and marine heatwaves influence blue whale foraging and reproductive effort. Ecol Evol. 2023;13:e9770.

4.          Barlow DR, Klinck H, Ponirakis D, Garvey C, Torres LG. Temporal and spatial lags between wind, coastal upwelling, and blue whale occurrence. Sci Rep. 2021;11(6915):1–10.

5.          Barlow DR, Bernard KS, Escobar-Flores P, Palacios DM, Torres LG. 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. 2020;642:207–25.

6.          Torres LG, Barlow DR, Chandler TE, Burnett JD. Insight into the kinematics of blue whale surface foraging through drone observations and prey data. PeerJ. 2020;8:e8906.

7.          Barlow DR, Torres LG. Planning ahead: Dynamic models forecast blue whale distribution with applications for spatial management. J Appl Ecol. 2021;58(11):2493–504.

A smaller sized gray whale: recent publication finds PCFG whales are smaller than ENP whales

Dr. KC Bierlich, Postdoctoral Scholar, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, & Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna (GEMM) Lab

A recent blog post by GEMM Lab’s PhD Candidate Clara Bird gave a recap of our 8th consecutive GRANITEfield season this year. In her blog, Clara highlighted that we saw 71 individual gray whales this season, 61 of which we have seen in previous years and identified as belonging to the Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG). With an estimated population size of around 212 individuals, this means that we saw almost 1/3 of the PCFG population this season alone. Since the GEMM Lab first started collecting data on PCFG gray whales in 2016, we have collected drone imagery on over 120 individuals, which is over half the PCFG population. This dataset provides incredible opportunity to get to know these individuals and observe them from year to year as they grow and mature through different life history stages, such as producing a calf. A question our research team has been interested in is what makes a PCFG whale different from an Eastern North Pacific (ENP) gray whale, which has a population size around 16,000 individuals and feed predominantly in the Arctic during the summer months? For this blog, I will highlight findings from our recent publication in Biology Letters (Bierlich et al., 2023) comparing the morphology (body length, skull, and fluke size) between PCFG and ENP populations. 

Body size and shape reflect how an animal functions in their environment and can provide details on an individual’s current health, reproductive status, and energetic requirements. Understanding how animals grow is a key component for monitoring the health of populations and their vulnerability to climate change and other stressors in their environment.  As such, collecting accurate morphological measurements of individuals is essential to model growth and infer their health. Collecting such morphological measurements of whales is challenging, as you cannot ask a whale to hold still while you prepare the tape measure, but as discussed in a previous blog, drones provide a non-invasive method to collect body size measurements of whales. Photogrammetry is a non-invasive technique used to obtain morphological measurements of animals from photographs. The GEMM Lab uses drone-based photogrammetry to obtain morphological measurements of PCFG gray whales, such as their body length, skull length (as snout-to-blowhole), and fluke span (see Figure 1). 

Figure 1. Morphological measurements obtained via photogrammetry of a Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) gray whale. These measurements were used to compare to individuals from the Eastern North Pacific (ENP) population. 

As mentioned in this previous blog, we use photo-identification to identify unique individual gray whales based on markings on their body. This method is helpful for linking all the data we are collecting (morphology, hormones, behavior, new scarring and skin conditions, etc.) to each individual whale. An individual’s sightings history can also be used to estimate their age, either as a ‘minimum age’ based on the date of first sighting or a ‘known age’ if the individual was seen as a calf. By combining the length measurements from drone-based photogrammetry and age estimates from photo-identification history, we can construct length-at-age growth models to examine how PCFG gray whales grow. While no study has previously examined length-at-age growth models specifically for PCFG gray whales, another study constructed growth curves for ENP gray whales using body length and age estimates obtained from whaling, strandings, and aerial photogrammetry (Agbayani et al., 2020). For our study, we utilized these datasets and compared length-at-age growth, snout-to-blowhole length, and fluke span between PCFG and ENP whales. We used Bayesian statistics to account and incorporate the various levels of uncertainty associated with data collected (i.e., measurements from whaling vs. drone, ‘minimum age’ vs. ‘known age’). 

We found that while both populations grow at similar rates, PCFG gray whales reach smaller adult lengths than ENP. This difference was more extreme for females, where PCFG females were ~1 m (~3 ft) shorter than ENP females and PCFG males were ~0.5 m (1.5 ft) shorter than ENP males (Figure 2, Figure 3). We also found that ENP males and females have slightly larger skulls and flukes than PCFG male and females, respectively. Our results suggest PCFG whales are shaped differently than ENP whales (Figure 3)! These results are also interesting in light of our previous published study that found PCFG whales are skinnier than ENP whales (see this previous blog post). 

Figure 2. Growth curves (von Bertalanffy–Putter) for length-at-age comparing male and female ENP and PCFG gray whales (shading represents 95% highest posterior density intervals). Points represent mean length and median age. Vertical bars represent photogrammetric uncertainty. Dashed horizontal lines represent uncertainty in age estimates.

Figure 3. Schematic highlighting the differences in body size between Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) and Eastern North Pacific (ENP) gray whales. 

Our results raise some interesting questions regarding why PCFG are smaller: Is this difference in size and shape normal for this population and are they healthy? Or is this difference a sign that they are stressed, unhealthy and/or not getting enough to eat? Larger individuals are typically found at higher latitudes (this pattern is called Bergmann’s Rule), which could explain why ENP whales are larger since they feed in the Arctic. Yet many species, including fish, birds, reptiles, and mammals, have experienced reductions in body size due to changes in habitat and anthropogenic stressors (Gardner et al., 2011). The PCFG range is within closer proximity to major population centers compared to the ENP foraging grounds in the Arctic, which could plausibly cause increased stress levels, leading to decreased growth. 

The smaller morphology of PCFG may also be related to the different foraging tactics they employ on different prey and habitat types than ENP whales. Animal morphology is linked to behavior and habitat (see this blogpost). ENP whales feeding in the Arctic generally forage on benthic amphipods, while PCFG whales switch between benthic, epibenthic and planktonic prey, but mostly target epibenthic mysids. Within the PCFG range, gray whales often forage in rocky kelp beds close to shore in shallow water depths (approx. 10 m) that are on average four times shallower than whales feeding in the Arctic. The prey in the PCFG range is also found to be of equal or higher caloric value than prey in the Arctic range (see this blog), which is interesting since PCFG were found to be skinnier.

It is also unclear when the PCFG formed? ENP and PCFG whales are genetically similar, but photo-identification history reveals that calves born into the PCFG usually return to forage in this PCFG range, suggesting matrilineal site fidelity that contributes to the population structure. PCFG whales were first documented off our Oregon Coast in the 1970s (Figure 4). Though, from examining old whaling records, there may have been PCFG gray whales foraging off the coasts of Northern California to British Columbia since the 1920s.

Figure 4. First reports of summer-resident gray whales along the Oregon coast, likely part of the Pacific Coast Feeding Group. Capital Journal, August 9, 1976, pg. 2.

Altogether, our finding led us to two hypotheses: 1) the PCFG range provides an ecological opportunity for smaller whales to feed on a different prey type in a shallow environment, or 2) the PCFG range is an ecological trap, where individuals gain less energy due to energetically costly feeding behaviors in complex habitat while potentially targeting lower density prey, causing them to be skinnier and have decreased growth. Key questions remain for our research team regarding potential consequences of the smaller sized PCFG whales, such as does the smaller body size equate to reduced resilience to environmental and anthropogenic stressors? Does smaller size effect fecundity and population fitness? Stay tuned as we learn more about this unique and fascinating smaller sized gray whale. 

References

Agbayani, S., Fortune, S. M. E., & Trites, A. W. (2020). Growth and development of North Pacific gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus). Journal of Mammalogy101(3), 742–754. https://doi.org/10.1093/jmammal/gyaa028

Bierlich, K. C., Kane, A., Hildebrand, L., Bird, C. N., Fernandez Ajo, A., Stewart, J. D., Hewitt, J., Hildebrand, I., Sumich, J., & Torres, L. G. (2023). Downsized: gray whales using an alternative foraging ground have smaller morphology. Biology Letters19(8). https://doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2023.0043

Gardner, J. L., Peters, A., Kearney, M. R., Joseph, L., & Heinsohn, R. (2011). Declining body size: A third universal response to warming? Trends in Ecology and Evolution26(6), 285–291. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2011.03.005

Krill Intentions: Bringing Lessons Home from a Winter of Fieldwork

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

Hello from Palmer Station, Antarctica! I’ve spent the last five months here in a kind of parallel universe to that of my normal life in Oregon. It’s spring here at the Western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP), and since May I’ve been part of a team studying Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba) – a big change from the Oregon species I typically study, and one that has already taught me so much.

I am here as part of a project titled “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The effect of autumn diet on winter physiology and condition of juvenile Antarctic krill”. Through at-sea fieldwork and experiments in the lab, we have spent this field season investigating how climate-driven changes in diet impact juvenile and adult krill health during the long polar night. Winter is a crucial time for krill survival and recruitment, and an understudied season in this remote corner of the world.

Figure 1. Recently collected Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba) await identification and measuring.

Within this field season, we have been part of two great research cruises along the WAP, and spent the rest of the time at Palmer Station, running long-term experiments to learn how diet influences krill winter growth and development. The time has passed incredibly fast, and it’s hard to believe that we’ll be heading home in just a couple weeks.

There have been so many wonderful parts to our time here. While at sea, I was constantly aware that each new bay and fjord we sampled was one of the most beautiful places I would ever have the privilege to visit. I was also surprised and thrilled by the number of whales we saw – I recorded over one hundred sightings, including humpbacks, minke, and killer whales. As consumed as I was by looking for whales during the few hours of daylight, it was also rewarding to broaden my marine mammal focus and learn about another krill predator, the crabeater seal, from a great team researching their ecology and physiology.

In between our other work, I have been processing active acoustic (echosounder) data collected during a winter 2022 cruise that visited many of the same regions of the WAP. Antarctic krill have been much more thoroughly studied than the main krill species that occur off the coast of Oregon, Euphausia pacifica and Thysanoessa spinifera, and it has been amazing to draw upon this large body of literature. 

Figure 2. The active acoustic data I’m working with from the Western Antarctic Peninsula, pictured here, was collected along a wiggly cruise track in 2022, giving me the opportunity to learn how to process this type of survey data and appreciate the ways in which a ship’s movements translate to data analysis.

Working with a new flavor of echosounder data has presented me with puzzles that are teaching me to navigate different modes of data collection and their analytical implications, such as for the cruise track data above. I’ll never take data collected along a standardized grid for granted again!

I’ve also learned new techniques that I am excited to apply to my research in the Northern California Current (NCC) region. For example, there are two primary different ways of detecting krill swarms in echosounder data: by comparing the results of two different acoustic frequencies, and by training a computer algorithm to recognize swarms based on their dimensions and other characteristics. After trying a few different approaches with the Antarctic data this season, I developed a way to combine these techniques. In the resulting dataset, two different methods have confirmed that a given area represents krill, which gives me a lot of confidence in it. I’m looking forward to applying this technique to my NCC data, and using it to assess some of my next research questions.

Figure 3. A combination of krill detection techniques selected these long krill aggregations off the coast of the Western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP).

Throughout it all, the highlight of this season has been being part of an amazing field team. I’m here with Kim Bernard (as a co-advised student, I refer to Kim as my “krill advisor” and Leigh as my “whale advisor”), and undergraduate Abby Tomita, who just started her senior year at OSU remotely from Palmer. From nights full of net tows to busy days in the lab, we’ve become a well-oiled machine, and laughed a lot along the way. Working with the two of them makes me sure that we’ll be able to best any difficulties that come up.

Now, our next challenge is wrapping up our last labwork, packing up equipment and samples, and getting ready to say goodbye. Leaving this wild, remote place is always heartbreaking – you never really know if you’ll be back. But there’s a lot to look forward to as we journey north, too: I can’t wait to hug my family and friends, eat a salad, and drive out to Newport to see the GEMM Lab. I’m excited to head back to the world with everything I’ve learned here, and to keep working.

Figure 4. Kim (left), Abby (middle), and I (right) hike on the Marr Ice Piedmont during a gorgeous day off.

Fantastic beasts and how to measure  them! 

Sagar Karki, Master’s student in the Computer Science Department at Oregon State University 

What beasts? Good question! We are talking about gray whales in this article but honestly we can tweak the system discussed in this blog a little and make it usable for other marine animals too.  

Understanding the morphology, such as body area and length, of wild animals and populations can provide important information on animal  behavior and health (check out postdoc Dr. KC Bierlich’s post on this topic). Since 2015, the GEMM Lab has been flying drones over whales to collect aerial imagery to allow for photogrammetric measurements to gain this important morphological data. This photogrammetry data has shed light on multiple important aspects of gray whale morphology, including the facts that the whales feeding off Oregon are skinnier [1] and shorter [2] than the gray whales that feed in the Arctic region.  But, these surprising conclusions overshadow the immense, time-consuming labor that takes place behind the scenes to move from aerial images to accurate measurements.  

To give you a sense of this laborious process, here is a quick run through of the methods: First the 10 to 15 minute videos must be carefully watched to select the perfect frames of a whale (flat and straight at the surface) for measurement. The selected frames from the drone imagery are then imported into MorphoMetriX, which is a custom software developed for photogrammetry measurement [1]. MorphoMetriX is an interactive application that allows an analyst to manually measure the length by clicking points along the centerline of the whale’s body. Based on this line, the whale is divided into a set of sections perpendicular to the centerline, these are used to then measure widths along the body. The analyst then clicks border points at the edge of the whale’s body to delineate the widths following the whale’s body curve. MorphoMetriX then generates a file containing the lengths and widths of the whale in pixels for each measured image. The length and widths of whales are converted from pixels to metric units using a software called CollatriX [4] and this software also calculates metrics of body condition from the length and width measurements. 

While MorphoMetriX [3] and CollatriX [4] are both excellent platforms to facilitate these photogrammetry measurements, each measurement takes time, a keen eye, and attention to detail. Plus, if you mess up one step, such as an incorrect length or width measurement, you have to start from the first step. This process is a bottleneck in the process of obtaining important morphology data on animals. Can we speed this process up and still obtain reliable data? 

What if we can apply automation using computer vision to extract the frames we need and automatically obtain measurements that are as accurate as humans can obtain? Sounds pretty nice, huh? This is where I come into the picture. I am a Master’s student in the Computer Science Department at OSU, so I lack a solid background in marine science, but bring to the table my skills as a computer programmer. For my master’s project, I have been working in the GEMM Lab for the past year to develop automated methods to obtain accurate photogrammetry measurements of whales.  

We are not the first group to attempt to use computers and AI to speed up and improve the identification and detection of whales and dolphins in imagery. Researchers have used deep learning networks to speed up the time-intensive and precise process of photo-identification of  individual whales and dolphins [5], allowing us to more quickly determine animal location, movements and abundance. Millions of satellite images of the earth’s surface are collected daily and scientists are attempting to utilize these images to  benefit marine life by studying patterns of species occurrence, including detection of gray whales in satellite images using deep learning [6]. There has also been success using computer vision to identify whale species and segment out the body area of the whales  from drone imagery [7]. This process involves extracting segmentation masks of the whale’s body followed by length extraction from the mask. All this previous research shows promise for the application of computer vision and AI to assist with animal research and conservation. As discussed earlier, the automation of image extraction and photogrammetric measurement  from drone videos will help researchers collect vital data more quickly so that decisions that impact  the health of whales can be more responsive and effective.For instance,  photogrammetry data extracted from drone images can diagnose pregnancy of the whales [8], thus automation of this information could speed up our ability to understand population trends. 

Computer vision and natural language processing fields are growing exponentially. There are new foundation models like ChatGPT that can do most of the natural language understanding and processing tasks. Foundational models are also emerging for computer vision tasks, such as “the segment anything model” from Meta. Using these foundation models along with other existing research work in computer vision, we have developed and deployed a system that automates the manual and computational tasks of MorphoMetriX and CollatriX systems.  

This system is currently in its testing and monitoring phase, but we are rapidly moving toward a publication to disseminate all the tools developed, so stay tuned for the research paper that will explain in detail the methodologies followed on data processing, model training and test results. The following images give a sneak peak of results. Each image  illustrates a frame from a drone video that was  identified and extracted through automation, followed by another automation process that identified important points along the whale’s body and curvature.  The user interface of the system aims to make the user experience intuitive and easy to follow. The deployment is carefully designed to run on different hardwares, with easy monitoring and update options using the latest open source frameworks. The user has to do just two things. First, select the videos for analysis. The system then generates potential frames for photogrammetric analysis (you don’t need to watch 15 mins of drone footage!). Second, the user selects the frame of choice for photogrammetric analysis and waits for the system to give you measurements. Simple! Our goal is for these softwares to be a massive time-saver while  still providing vital, accurate body measurements  to the researchers in record time. Furthermore, an advantage of this approach is that researchers can follow the methods in our to-be-soon-published research paper to make  a few adjustments enabling the software to measure other marine species, thus expanding the impact of this work to many other life forms.  

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References 

  1. Torres LG, Bird CN, Rodríguez-González F, Christiansen F, Bejder L, Lemos L, Urban R J, Swartz S, Willoughby A, Hewitt J, Bierlich K (2022) Range-Wide Comparison of Gray Whale Body Condition Reveals Contrasting Sub-Population Health Characteristics and Vulnerability to Environmental Change. Front Mar Sci 910.3389/fmars.2022.867258 
  1. Bierlich KC, Kane A, Hildebrand L, Bird CN, Fernandez Ajo A, Stewart JD, Hewitt J, Hildebrand I, Sumich J, Torres LG (2023) Downsized: gray whales using an alternative foraging ground have smaller morphology. Biol Letters 19:20230043 doi:10.1098/rsbl.2023.0043 
  1. Torres et al., (2020). MorphoMetriX: a photogrammetric measurement GUI for morphometric analysis of megafauna. Journal of Open Source Software, 5(45), 1825, https://doi.org/10.21105/joss.01825 
  1. Bird et al., (2020). CollatriX: A GUI to collate MorphoMetriX outputs. Journal of Open Source Software, 5(51), 2328, https://doi.org/10.21105/joss.02328 
  1. Patton, P. T., Cheeseman, T., Abe, K., Yamaguchi, T., Reade, W., Southerland, K., Howard, A., Oleson, E. M., Allen, J. B., Ashe, E., Athayde, A., Baird, R. W., Basran, C., Cabrera, E., Calambokidis, J., Cardoso, J., Carroll, E. L., Cesario, A., Cheney, B. J. … Bejder, L. (2023). A deep learning approach to photo–identification demonstrates high performance on two dozen cetacean species. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, 00, 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1111/2041-210X.14167 
  1. Green, K.M., Virdee, M.K., Cubaynes, H.C., Aviles-Rivero, A.I., Fretwell, P.T., Gray, P.C., Johnston, D.W., Schönlieb, C.-B., Torres, L.G. and Jackson, J.A. (2023), Gray whale detection in satellite imagery using deep learning. Remote Sens Ecol Conserv. https://doi.org/10.1002/rse2.352 
  1. Gray, PC, Bierlich, KC, Mantell, SA, Friedlaender, AS, Goldbogen, JA, Johnston, DW. Drones and convolutional neural networks facilitate automated and accurate cetacean species identification and photogrammetry. Methods Ecol Evol. 2019; 10: 1490–1500. https://doi.org/10.1111/2041-210X.13246 
  1. Fernandez Ajó A, Pirotta E, Bierlich KC, Hildebrand L, Bird CN, Hunt KE, Buck CL, New L, Dillon D, Torres LG (2023) Assessment of a non-invasive approach to pregnancy diagnosis in gray whales through drone-based photogrammetry and faecal hormone analysis. Royal Society Open Science 10:230452