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)

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