Marine Mammal Ecology Lab


Kyra's Blog

Kyra Bankhead, undergraduate student

1 January 2021

Merry Christmas!

After the end of classes, I was able to get a lot more data analysis done. I wrote my results based on Alejandro’s paper on the nocturnal haul-out patterns of harbor seals related to airborne noise levels. Although I don’t have enough data to reject my null hypothesis of haul-out numbers being the same across noise levels, I started my results section on results I have found or am hoping to find. s]So far, it doesn’t seem like harbor seal haul-out numbers significantly differ from the null distribution within each site, but more harbor seals hauled-out at the lower noise site at Semiahmoo than the louder noise site of the Bellingham bay waterfront. Overall, the average number of harbor seal haul-outs were lower at the Waterfront than at the Marina. I hope to find that based on the p-values, the best model fit for the variable number of harbor seals hauled-out will include an interaction between noise level and location. I also hope to find that at both locations, the number of harbor seals hauled out decreases as noise levels increase. I found that anthropogenic disturbances represented 72% of surveys at the waterfront and 32% of surveys at the Marina. Harbor seals also visibly reacted to humans by jumping into the water; at the waterfront, this behavior was seen in 10% of the anthropogenic disturbances, whereas it was never seen at the Marina.

In the middle of December, an incident happened at the creek where a man aggressively approached a student demanding that she delete a picture of him that was never taken. Because of this, students need to work in pairs for their safety against sketchy characters like this. This is very unfortunate, as a lot of data will be lost, and I will have to ask a lot more from my students. I have already had students complain and ask to work alone, but this is no longer an option. I am still trying to find a timetable that will work for everyone, but as every student has a different schedule, this is proving to be difficult. Hopefully, I will be able to get everyone on a schedule that suits them.

Until then,
Kyra Bankhead

Grace's Blog

Grace Freeman, graduate student

1 January 2021

The busy field season is over! There were days in the beginning when I thought we would never get to this point. Managing 19 students – some volunteers, some taking credit, some local, some working remotely – and their COVID safety precautions felt like a fulltime job and a half. I’m proud of the work I did in organizing people and managing logistics, but I’m also extremely grateful for this team we’ve put together. These students rolled with the punches of this season and stood in the rain for hours without complaint. To see their excitement on the craziest days with seals capturing salmon seemingly every minute reminded me of why I wanted to pursue science in the first place.

Beyond working with my students, I appreciated meeting people in the field who were simply at the park for a walk or a family outing. Answering their questions and discussing the details of my project helped reinforce just how far I’ve come. Further still, I fielded inquiries from a variety of media outlets looking to tell the story of the seals and salmon at the creek: I gave interviews to The Planet Student Magazine, The Window Magazine, the Western Alumni Foundation, and even spoke with a Netflix documentary team. The closure of the fishing season, implementation of the TAST hazing device, and our continued presence at the site seem to have garnered some public attention, and I’m glad to be able to share what I know about the site and its inhabitants.

Even with the busiest days behind us, we will continue to observe at the creek a few times per week. These observations are typically much quieter with only 1-2 seals present and the salmon run over. As things slow and become more routine, I will begin passing management responsibility to fellow-grad, Kathleen, and our fabulous assistant lab-manager, Kate. They have been instrumental in the functioning of the lab this fall - while maintaining my sanity! - and I’m eager to give them the ownership they have so fully earned. It’s quite a relief to know that after my graduation, the lab will be in very capable hands!

Speaking of graduation, it’s still a ways off, but I’m going to dive into my thesis more fully this quarter. Instead of managing the lab, taking a class, teaching two labs, working on my fellowship, and trying to write, I will get to focus more fully on teaching and writing. Yes, the fellowship continues, and I will still be teaching while taking a 1-credit class – I thrive on being busy! – but I’m setting my schedule for winter to have blocks of time devoted to writing. I have a decent intro, methods, and results draft but myriad edits left to make and an entire discussion to write, and I’m excited to see it all come together.

When I started this whole thing, I was working fulltime in Wisconsin as an environmental educator and leading trips to the UP of Michigan while reading papers and jotting notes on the weekend. I knew virtually nothing about Whatcom Creek or estuarian community ecology. It’s safe to say that I’m now an expert on this one very small system, and the story is mine to tell. I’m proud of the progress I’ve made to learn this story and I’m grateful for the opportunity to tell it.

Until then,

Bobbie's Blog

Bobbie Buzzell, graduate student

1 January 2021

December was devoted to organizing, analyzing, and partying with my 2019 fish data I received from Bill (aka “fish guy”) earlier this month. I am very excited to have a complete year’s data set for my thesis versus only having the spring portion of data (I will not have 2018 fish results in time for my thesis as previously thought in the last blog). In the last blog, I gave a general overview of the fish results based on a preliminary look at the data. Now I am pulling together a complete results section: tables, figures, and the written portion. I’ve also utilized my new-found “ArcGIS Pro” skills gained while auditing a course from fall quarter to create a map of my study area, which will be added to the methods section. “R” (the computer program) has also become a good friend of mine and has allowed me to format beautiful graphs. I’ve also chosen an appropriate color palette (think green crab colors). Even during winter break, my continued work gets me one step closer to a fully written thesis.

Kathleen's Blog

Kathleen McKeegan, graduate student

1 January 2021

We have finally come to the end of a rather tumultuous and stressful year. I’m sure I speak for many folks when I say, “Goodbye and good riddance 2020!” It’s been a crazy and busy year and a crazy and busy fall quarter, but I’m looking forward to winter quarter starting soon.

At the moment, I am in the process of developing my new research question focused on the Targeted Acoustic Startle Technology hazing device (TAST) that was deployed in Whatcom Creek in November. Over winter break, I met with the researchers and scientists at Ocean’s Initiative (OI) in order to discuss the goals of their project and what specific questions I can pursue that will best complement their work rather than duplicate it. Based on this conversation, I will be focusing on the effects of the TAST at an individual level, specifically looking at how the foraging success and behavior of individual harbor seals is impacted by the implementation of the TAST. To answer this question, I will be using photo identification protocols to ID harbor seals seen this season during experimental days (when the TAST was on) and on control days (when the TAST was off). Once identified, I will utilize the behavior and predation success data collected by our lab and by OI to determine foraging success rates and behavioral responses of individual seals. I will be comparing this individual data to baseline data collected in previous years (Grace Freeman’s thesis).

With my new question in hand, I can finally begin writing my thesis proposal. Based on my committee meeting, it seems like my biggest challenge will be data analysis, specifically a potential sparseness in the data. Luckily, most of my data has already been collected so I can begin diving in and working through any issues that come up. Beyond thesis work, I am focusing my efforts on finding funding to help support my research and fund my summer. Of course, I’m also taking time to eat cookies, snowboard, and relax during this break (all the important things). Although everything will still be virtual this winter quarter, I am looking forward to starting classes and my TAship soon!

Zoë's Blog

Zoë Lewis, graduate student

1 January 2021

I’m happy to report that I survived my first quarter as a graduate student, and came out relatively unscathed! I spent my break resting, recharging, and catching up on all the other work that I had been behind on while working on finals.

Outside of my thesis project, I have been helping Dr. Acevedo-Gutiérrez and Dr. Schwarz with sex-determination of samples for a different project in partnership with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. To determine the sex of predator with their scat, we use qPCR to look for X and Y chromosomes for each sample. This involves a lot of time in lab pipetting and waiting for the qPCR machine to finish reading the results, which takes about 1 hour per 96 samples. So, I’ve been catching up on my podcasts and working on my proposal writing in between. It’s nice to be able to spend time in the lab, but it does get lonely over the break/with COVID-19 restrictions… I’m used to a lab environment where there is someone always around to chat!

As I look forward to winter quarter and remote classes, I hope to find a time to go to Neah bay and help with some of the scat collections. This next week, I will be meeting Adrianne to pick up Steller Sea Lion and Harbor seal scats collected in December so that I can get started with the scat processing. After a quarter of practicing and validating scat cleaning and molecular methods, I’m excited to get started on collecting data for my project.

Kate's Blog

Kate Clayton, undergraduate student

1 January 2021

Despite being on break for most of this past month, I have tried my best to still be productive. There seems to be a never-ending list of things to do which is stressful, but I am trying my best. I have spent multiple hours working on photo cropping and IDing. I have also spent a lot of time working on the hazing device project with Kathleen to figure out logistics. I am excited to solidify my role in the project and to get to work!

On another note, I am planning on applying to an internship for this summer at the Wolf Hollow Wildlife Rehabilitation center. If my proposal is not chosen for the scholarship to do research over the summer at Western, this could be a nice backup. It is also in an area that I think I may be interested in for a future career so it could be a nice opportunity. This internship could be a wonderful opportunity to explore the rehabilitation branch of biology. I am excited to discover if this is the field I want to go into once I graduate. Hopefully I can get my application turned in by next week.

The rest of my month has consisted of finishing up Fall quarter and coming home for Christmas break. It is always great to see the family, but the time flies by far too fast. Plus, Covid has made everything more difficult. I am trying my best to balance productivity and relaxation, but I feel that I am epically failing. Hopefully good things will come in this next month and this new year.