Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Seals and the Sea Lions. And the Otter.

The Pinniped Cognition and Sensory Systems Lab, based at the Long Marine Lab at UCSC, focuses on sensory, cognitive, and behavioral ecology of marine mammals.  Researchers work closely with the resident animals, training them with operant conditioning and positive reinforcement to voluntarily participate in various projects involving active decision making.  Some past projects include auditory masking, amphibious hearing capabilities, sound localization abilities, and short and long-term memory.  In other words, this place is awesome.  There are two big pools (22,500 gallons each), one of which can be set up to run underwater acoustic experiments.  There are also some smaller pools that house the marine mammals on the compound.  The water that fills these pools is pumped directly from Monterey Bay, and is therefore an accurate representation of nearby environmental conditions.  The lab is also equipped with soundproof acoustic chamber for in-air experiments (check out this video because the chamber is really really cool).

Aerial view of the Long Marine Lab complex.
(Photo: Pinniped Lab)

Right now there are eight marine mammals at the Pinniped Lab, including two California sea lions (Zalophus californianus), a harbor seal (Phoca vitulina), two ringed seals (Phoca hispida), two spotted seals (Phoca largha), and a southern sea otter (Enhydra lutris).

Rio and Ronan, pictured below, are the female two California sea lions.  Rio (on the left) was born in captivity in 1985.  Because Rio's mother did not exhibit normal maternal behavior, she was transferred to Long Marine Lab where she was hand-raised by trainers.  She has participated in LOTS of studies, including some on imprinting, concept formation, visual and acoustic perception, associative learning, and memory.  Rio is pretty well known in the animal behavior and psychology world, primarily because she is the first nonhuman animal to demonstrate "equivalence classification" (a cognitive ability formerly thought to be limited to humans).  You can watch a video of it here.

Ronan (above, right) was born near the Channel Islands in the summer of 2008.  She stranded multiple times in 2008 and 2009, and was eventually recovered by the Marine Mammal Center when she was found walking down Highway 1.  Ronan was deemed unreleasable (reasons being that she had grown accustomed to humans and was unable to forage successfully in the wild) and became a permanent resident of the Long Marine Lab in early 2010.  She is involved in both cognitive and acoustic projects, and recently ran into some youtube fame with her ability to keep the beat with music (see video below, or click here).

Sprouts, the resident male harbor seal, was born at Sea World, San Diego in 1988 and transferred to the Pinniped Lab less than a year later.  He's been involved in lots of sensory experiments, including some on hearing, vision, and vibrissae (whisker) sensitivity.  Recently, Sprouts helped with a joint project between the University of Virginia and UC Santa Cruz focusing on underwater wake detection.  Sprouts is a pretty easy going seal (allows lots of taction and has a great deal of patience with inexperienced animal trainers), so he also helps out with marine mammal education programs.  Here's a link to a video of Sprouts participating in an experiment and then getting his teeth brushed - yes some of the animals get their teeth brushed).

Sprouts participating in an in-air acoustics experiment

Natchek is the male ringed seal at the Pinniped Lab.  He was born in the wild in 1996, but was transferred to Sea World after he stranded as a pup.  Natchek has been with the lab since 2010, and is currently part of the ice seal bioacoustics project.  He's a weird little seal, but he's also pretty cute and loves to play in the kelp that sometimes hangs into his pool.

Nayak is the youngest pinniped at the lab.  She is a female ringed seal that joined the program about a year ago, after stranding as a pup and then spending some time at the Alaska Sea Life Center.  Nayak is also involved in the ice seal bioacoustics project.

Amak (left) and Tunu (right) are two male spotted seals that came to the lab in September of 2010.  Amak (the Alaskan Inuit word for "playful") was abandoned by his mother near King Salmon, Alaska, while Tunu (named after the Yup'ik village Tununak) was born after his mother was legally harvested.  Both pups were rehabilitated at the Alaska Sea Life Center and were later deemed unsuitable for release (permitting restrictions do not allow rehabilitated spotted seals to be re-released).  They are also both involved in the ice seal bioacoustics project.

Last but not least, we have Odin.  Odin is a male southern sea otter who joined the lab in 2009 after a stint at the Sea Otter Research and Conservation Program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  He was born in 2003 and stranded (for the first time) at just a few weeks of age.  He then re-stranded, was re-captured, and re-released several times over the next few years.  Right now Odin is working with the trainers on certain behaviors that will allow them to study specific aspects of sea otter vision.

All info via the Pinniped Lab website and daily conversations with the amazing people who work there.

FUN SCIENCE FACT #35:  The Baikal seal (Pusa sibirica) is one of the few exclusively freshwater seal species; they live only on the coast of Lake Baikal in Russia (Lake Baikal is the deepest lake in the world and is also my favorite lake).  In early autumn, before the lake freezes over, the seals shift their diet to consume primarily sculpin, a fish that inhabits silty areas.  The grit in the stomachs of these fish help to rid the seal's gastrointestinal tract of parasites.

A Baikal seal being adorable.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Atlantic to Pacific

A few weeks ago I got a phone call.  On the other end was the lab coordinator for UCSC's Pinniped Cognition and Sensory Systems Lab, and she was officially offering me a position at the lab for the summer.  Needless to say, I was beyond thrilled.  This lab is doing some pretty fantastic research (definitely check out their website) and this internship is the perfect way for me to get some experience caring for and doing research with captive pinnipeds.

Yes, yes, I know what you're thinking.  "Leanna, I thought you were studying monkeys in Bolivia and then decided to study whales in the Atlantic but now you're studying seals?  WHY DON'T YOU JUST MAKE UP YOUR MIND."  Well I am happy to inform you that I have, in fact, made up my mind (at least for now).  I finally landed on a dissertation topic this past semester.  For the next few years, I will be investigating the effects of anthropogenic (human-generated) noise on pinnipeds.  Given the recent increase in shipping and urbanization, coastal anthropogenic noise has become an issue of heightened concern, and questions surrounding the effects on pinnipeds still remain unanswered.  Ideally, my research questions will address both captive individuals and free-ranging populations.  Hence my excitement about this summer position working with captive pinnipeds...gotta know how to do things with them before I can actually do the things.  Science.  It's a process.

Precious little harbor seal. (Photo: Sean Crane)

So I got this phone call mid-April, and I was scheduled to start my internship on May 7th.  That's not a lot of time and there was still so much to do!  Finish spring classes, reschedule a statistics final, take said final, wrap up TA duties, drive all the way from Syracuse to Santa Cruz, oh yeah, and find a place to live.  Somehow everything fell into place, and on May 1st, I packed the car and headed west (with a slight detour south to take my dog, Rosie, to summer camp at my parents' house).  Four days later, with the Pacific Ocean to my left and redwoods to my right, I arrived at my temporary home.

View of Monterey Bay from Santa Cruz

I've only been working at the lab for two weeks, but I've already met some amazing people and learned a lot about a lot of things.  This internship is definitely work-intensive (facilities management, animal husbandry, and research), but at the rate I'm going, I'll be able to nail down a few more specific captive-animal-related research questions for my project and become a little bit of an animal trainer, all while enjoying the California sunshine and the over-abundance of Mexican food (sorry, Syracuse, but your genuine attempts at tacos just don't quite do it for this displaced Texan).

FUN SCIENCE FACT #34:  Male bearded seals (Erignathus barbatus) produce stereotyped vocalizations that consist of long spiraling trills, shorter sweeps, tonal grunts, and low frequency moans.  As they sing, the males dive slowly in a loose spiral, release bubbles, and then surface in the center of their bubble circle.  This vocalization/behavior combo is only observed in the breeding season, and is therefore thought to be an advertisement to females.  This vocalization is kind of crazy and you should all listen to it.  It does not even sound like an animal.

The bearded seal...aptly named for its whisker "beard"
(Photo: AK Dept. of Fish & Game)

Monday, January 14, 2013

Kinder Waters

It was the day after my Sea Legs adventure.  The weather was decent, so we headed back to the water to find more whales.  Armed with motion sickness meds and a sleeve of saltine crackers, I prepared myself physically and emotionally for another potential oceanic disaster.  The winds and the waves had died down quite a bit overnight, so I was already feeling more confident in my abilities to maintain composure aboard our research vessel.  As we headed offshore, we got a call about a reported right whale that was sighted by a local beach-goer.  We were skeptical (did this person actually see a right whale?), but we decided to check it out just in case.

After a few minutes of searching near the reported location, we spotted something shiny and black off the starboard bow.  Further investigation proved our efforts were not in vain...our beach-goer was right!  We had found the mommy whale and her calf.  Our photo-ID confirmed that this was #2912.  Hydrophones were deployed, video was recorded, and behavioral data was collected.  There were a few bumps along the procedural road, but it was a great day to figure out things that worked well and things that may need to be tweaked in the protocol.  After a few hours with this pair, we deployed the CTD (a device that measures conductivity, temperature, and water depth) and packed up shop.  It was already time to head back for the night.

Overall, I was pleased with our day.  It wasn't perfect, but we have to have days like that to figure out the best way to collect the data that we want.  AND I doubled the number of whales on my "whales I've seen" list, and that, at least to me, is very very exciting.

But now, alas, it is my last night in Fernandina Beach.  I feel like I just got here!  I'm sad to be leaving so soon, but I'm so glad I was able to help out for the past ten days.  Until next time, right whales!

FUN SCIENCE FACT #33: The speed of sound in water is about five times faster than the speed of sound in air (1497 m/s in fresh water, compared to 343 m/s in air).  That's pretty fast.  With all these hydrophones hooked up, it's not uncommon to hear a boat coming before we actually see the boat coming.  Turns out oceans are noisy places.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Sea Legs

To "get one's sea legs" - a maritime catchphrase I have recently added to my ever expanding list of boat-related vocabulary.  Commonly used in association with one's inability to remain poised onboard a moving vessel, this phrase also refers to the issue of motion sickness.  As in, Leanna hadn't found her sea legs before yesterday, so she threw up six times off the back of the boat.  Too much information?  Apologies to any readers with weak stomachs.

The morning of January 11th was very exciting.  It was my first real day on the water!  My first real chance to see some whales!  We topped off the boat's tank at a local gas station, grabbed a quick slice of pizza for lunch, and we were on our way.  After loading all the gear onto the R/V Selkie (R/V for research vessel), we launched the boat out of Fernandina Beach.  Soon after, we got a call from an aerial survey plane that there was a North Atlantic Right Whale mother and calf about 25 miles offshore.  The seas were rough.  Very lumpy.  We charged ahead.  I already knew pizza was a bad idea.

While en route to that pair, we came across a different female with her new calf and decided to stick around to collect some acoustic and behavioral data.  My stomach was unquestionably queasy and my dizziness was rising at a steady pace.  I asked right then about boat-vomit protocol.  "So if I need to throw up, I just do it off the side of the boat?"  There was a unanimous "yes" from my fellow researchers, followed by a couple versions of "make sure you're downwind."  I made sure I was downwind.

We hadn't even started collecting data yet.

As I held on to the boat and waited for the sea sickness to pass, the three others, fully equipped with their sea legs, manned the camera, identified the whale (#2753 if you feel like looking her up in the NARW catalog), and started setting up the hydrophones (underwater microphones).  It was all a blur as I hurled that pre-boat pizza off the port side stern.  Next thing I knew, I was assigned to operate the digital recorder.  There was no way on God's green earth (or I guess, more appropriately, God's blue ocean) that I was going to be able to look at and read that tiny little screen, so I just put on some headphones and crossed my fingers that everything was set properly.  Yay data collection!

We stayed with that mom/calf pair for about an hour, and then it was time to head back to shore.  Once the boat got moving, I started to feel less ill.  The wind on my face, the knowing that solid land was in my near future.  As we arrived back at the dock and I stepped off the boat, I immediately felt better.  Granted, all the pizza and any trace of breakfast was long gone from my system.  But now I know - no pizza before boats.  And maybe next time I'll take a little dramamine (or some non-drowsy equivalent).

Back on land, it finally hit me.  I saw a whale.  I actually saw two whales - one mom and one calf.  Wow.  Those guys are HUGE.  I saw my first whale and it was a North Atlantic Right Whale.  There's only 500 of them in the entire population, and I saw two of them.  It was an awesome experience.  Minus the vomit.

FUN SCIENCE FACT #32:  Some research suggests that individuals require different amounts of time to adjust to "new sensory environments."  In other words, the genes needed to cope with motion sickness turn on faster in some people than in others.  I think I have slow genes.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Right Whales, Wrong Weather

I will be the first to admit that I’ve never really been on a boat.  And that I’ve never been to the Atlantic Ocean.  And that I’ve never actually seen a whale in real life.  But when I had the opportunity to help out my advisor (Susan Parks) with her ongoing North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis) mother/calf study, there was no way I could turn it down…ten days in Florida to play with whales and hydrophones?  Yes, please!  

When I left a very snowy Syracuse a few days ago, I had no idea what to expect with this type of fieldwork.  Whales are pretty big, right?  So how hard could they be to find?  Well, turns out that you don’t actually get to see any whales (or even go out on the boat) when the weather is terrible.  We’ve been unlucky with the weather here so far.  Wind, rain, fog…we just can’t catch a break.  We did go out on the boat this past Saturday though.  We tested some equipment and played with cameras and laser rangefinders.  No whales on Saturday, but we did spot some dolphins near the boat and some ponies on the beach.

The past couple days have been spent getting the rest of our equipment prepped and at least for me, learning how to use all of this equipment.  I also got a crash course in North Atlantic Right Whale identification.  Because there aren’t really that many of these guys left (only about 500), researchers are able to keep up with basically the entire population.  There’s an online catalog of all of the known individuals with photos and drawings of their distinctive markings, and there’s even a matching game if you want to try your hand at matching some whales.  It’s pretty fun once you get into it, but it can also be a terribly time consuming and exhausting process.  My first day of whale matching was full of ups and downs, but we ended up correctly matching about five or so whales….which counts as a success in my book!

It looks like the weather is going to clear up and be lovely this weekend, so hopefully we can get a few good days in on the boat!  I can’t wait to see a whale IN REAL LIFE!  And hopefully see a precious little baby whale.  Little is a relative term…these babies are still like 13-17 ft. long. 

You can find more updates from the field on the Parks Lab Field Blog.

If we can't go out on the boat, might as well enjoy a walk on the beach

FUN SCIENCE FACT #31: Male right whales have the largest testicles of any animal, weighing in at one metric ton (2204.62 pounds).  You never know when facts like these might come in handy on trivia night.