Marine Mammal Ecology Lab


Kyra's Blog

Kyra Bankhead, undergraduate student

1 November 2020

As fall quarter moves forward, I am learning a lot about biological data analysis. For instance, my project assumes that the Semiahmoo Marina and Bellingham Waterfront only differ in noise level, so the Semiahmoo Marina will consistently have more hauled-out seals than the Bellingham Waterfront for this reason only. This seems fair given that the haul-out locations are available at all tide levels and temperature does not vary from place to place as well as other factors. The problem lies in the analysis of haul-out correlation to noise level changes in each location, meaning that both site's haul-out numbers should correlate to relative ambient noise level. This is much harder to measure as there are many variables affecting seal haul-out, such as tide level, season, and time of day. The question might be whether the variability in number of hauled-out seals will be higher in the Waterfront than the Marina site, if I can find that the noise level ranges are larger in the Waterfront.

I’d also like to talk about how patient my students have been with Biology department changes. Every time we get into a comfortable routine, mandates change and throw us for a loop. I am not saying this is the Biology department’s fault as COVID has been hard for everyone to organize research. Now my students must get tested often to ensure fieldwork safety and they need to complete an on-site personnel quiz and check in on weekly department updates. I am very thankful that they have been patient with my constant emails and policy changes.

Kyra Bankhead

Kathleen's Blog

Kathleen McKeegan, graduate student

1 November 2020

I can’t believe it’s already November! Things are moving fast, even in this bizarre virtual learning environment. This past month, I was busy taking classes, writing grant proposals, figuring out how to be a TA, and developing my thesis project. Probably the most exciting part of the quarter so far has been working in the field gathering data on harbor seal foraging behaviors at Whatcom Creek. Grace, Kate, and I have been leading observations with our amazing team of undergraduate researchers and volunteers since early October. I was just at the creek the other day and we saw several harbor seals actively hunting and pursuing prey (although no successful prey captures that day), so things are really getting exciting! In addition to our regular protocol, I’m hoping to start implementing drone observations with the help of Professor David Wallin. We’ll be conducting some test flights this week and then I’ll begin doing regular flights at the creek so we can capture aerial footage of harbor seal behavior.

Besides the field season, my project is going well. I’ve narrowed my focus down to cooperative hunting behaviors in harbor seals and how that relates to predation success on salmonids. At the moment, I am solidifying my research outline so that I can begin writing my research proposal. Essentially, this involves a lot of thinking, a lot of reading, and a LOT of outline drafts. I am also conducting interviews in order to find committee members for my thesis project. Hopefully by my next blog, I will have my committee members decided, my research topic and plan of study approved, and be well on my way towards a completed research proposal. Then again, this is 2020, so who knows what will happen. Either way, I am excited to continue conducting field observations throughout November and hopefully see my first harbor seal eating a salmon!

Grace's Blog

Grace Freeman, graduate student

1 November 2020

It’s October and as the temperature cools off, things are starting to heat up at Whatcom Creek. That’s right… it’s the salmon run, folks! This annual event occurs every fall when salmon return to the waters where they were born to complete their life’s journey and spawn the next generation. In Whatcom Creek, virtually of the adults are hatchery-raised chum, so they need go no farther than the mouth of the creek where my students and I go for observations. This time at the creek is always exciting and can bring dozens of individual seals to the creek who we don’t see during the rest of the year. In fact, my preliminary data analysis has shown me that there are only 3-4 of our 159 named individual who visit the creek during the non-run season (defined as January – September).

The run is also an exciting time for my students. With shifting circumstances and Covid protocols, I ended up taking on a few new students in October. I now have 20 undergraduate students on my team (12 in Bellingham and 8 working remotely) and keeping track of them and their schedules has been a fulltime job and then some! Thankfully, our new grad student, Kathleen McKeegan, and undergraduate assistant lab manager, Kate Clayton, have been keeping me sane and helping with the flurry of emails and logistics required to manage a team of this size. We’re currently going out for 4-5 observations a week to capture the creek during this unique phase, but I must admit, I’m secretly looking forward to the time in a few weeks when things slow down and I can breathe again.

If you remember last month’s blog, I promised more information about the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (WDFW) project taking place concurrently at the creek. WDFW has partnered with a group from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland that has invented a hazing device designed to keep predators away from fish ladders and hatchery approaches. To test the device, they needed to find a place where a relatively large number of salmon return to a hatchery located in a pinch point (such as a narrow creek) and face predation by pinnipeds such as harbor seals. After some complicated logistics and trying other sites first, they’ve landed at Whatcom Creek. The device was installed on Monday and will now be tested off and on for the next several weeks. The idea behind it is that a sound will be emitted from the device that elicits a fear response in the seals without causing them physical pain or lasting damage. The team that’s partnered with WDFW for the field work has obtained some baseline data of seal activity at the creek, and now they will turn the device on in alternating periods of three days: three days on during which they will count the number of seals at the creek followed by three days off to serve as the control. It’s not a permanent installation since the device has to return to Scotland in the spring, but this project could serve as a ‘proof of concept’ for this kind of non-lethal deterrent, a hot topic in wildlife management right now.

As you may have guessed, this project will likely affect my own data collection. If seals are being scared away from the study site, their behavior could be severely affected. Or if the device works well, there could be no seals at all! That said, we’re keeping careful watch and upping the number of observations during this testing period to monitor how the seals respond and hopefully allow us to compare their activity during this unusual year to that of past seasons and future runs to come.

As always, there’s a lot going on, and I’m sure there will be much more to share come November.

Until then,

Zoë's Blog

Zoë Lewis, graduate student

1 November 2020

I’ve noticed a common theme in the student blogs; most of us are always so shocked at how quickly a month goes by! October was no different… midterms snuck up faster than I anticipated, and after taking a gap year, I forgot how quickly the quarter system moves.

I’ve made my way into the lab these past few weeks and finally feel like I’m starting to get my feet under me as a graduate student. I’m excited to have a slight on campus presence (and get out of my apartment a couple times a week!) and get started on working on my methods for my thesis.

I was able to make a trip down to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to look for samples of known Steller sea lion sex to verify some molecular methods. Due to COVID-19, there are very few volunteers allowed on their campus, so I spent my day digging through their 6 archive freezers to find the appropriate samples. It was very cool to see the catalog of all of the stranding samples they have collected over the years; the marine mammal stranding network is an invaluable resource to any marine mammal research in the area.

I’ve been doing a fair amount of literature review and moved forward to drafting my proposal… so balancing lab time and writing is a nice balance and I’m definitely never bored.

Bobbie's Blog

Bobbie Buzzell, graduate student

1 November 2020

While writing a thesis uses technical language and avoids fluffy explanations, I find it very similar to writing any story (of which I have experience in the creative writing field). The beginning sets the stage for the rest of the paper, providing necessary details to inform of an issue and how to go about solving it (or attempting to solve it). The plot is set in the introduction and methods, and the results are the climax. While it is not the intention of academic authors to bring you to the “edge of your seat”, although the contrary could be argued, they are written to bring your attention to an issue and provide evidence to hopefully answer the underlying question.

As I continue to grind away at the tasks of my thesis, namely writing and trying how to best present my data in figure format, I think about this story writing process unfolding with my own project. I’m currently working on the climax, and what message is the most important to convey to readers. Many things get left unsaid in the miniscule processes that bring the results section into a readable format for a broader audience. So much thought goes into formatting, font, borders, etc.… and this thought process is currently where I am. Not the most eventful, but it has to happen at some time. Yes, I’ve done some overthinking, but not necessarily in vain. I’ve really appreciated the time to be able to really mull things over with what I found this summer through the prey ID process. After all, you can’t rush the writing process.

Kate's Blog

Kate Clayton, undergraduate student

1 November 2020

This past month has been a chaotic one and I am trying to keep my head above water! Finding a balance in between school and the lab has been a big test but I think I am starting to figure it out. I am settling into my role as assistant lab manager which is a relief now that I know what I am doing. I have been working with Grace and Kathleen a lot which has been awesome to get to know them and figure things out together as a team. I think I am taking control of making the observation schedules soon which will help take some things off of Grace’s plate and increase my contribution in the lab, so I am excited.

Most of this month I have spent training our new students in observations. It has been so nice to get to know them all and be surrounded by their enthusiasm. It is a welcome break in between schoolwork to get to go outside, hang out with seals, and be surrounded by people that have similar interests. I am excited to continue to get to know them all.

Besides trainings, I have also been trying to develop my hazing research project with Alejandro. I just finalized my outline and am now moving on to collecting sources and writing the introduction. I am quickly seeing how humbling it is to create a project! I have been making multiple drafts each step and I still feel clueless as to what I am doing, but Alejandro has been a huge help and makes sure to keep things positive which is a big help! The next step is sifting through scientific papers to find sources which I am not looking forward to but hopefully will be able to knock out in the next couple weeks.

The hazing device was just installed in the creek, so I can begin getting some of the data for my project, yay! I am excited to see how effective it is and observe some of the initial changes in the creek. So far, we have seen some dips in the seals’ presence so it will be interesting to continue observing their behavior. I am curious to see if the seals start to figure out to come on the days the device is not active and avoid the creek during the other times.

Whether the seals are at the creek or not, November will be a busy month with the salmon run and lots of observations so hopefully I can stay on top of everything.

Nathan's Blog

Nathan Guilford, graduate student

1 November 2020

This month I have been able to finalize my pre-defense meeting date with my committee and begin to schedule my final defense in November! My time has mostly been spent working at my new lab job and editing my thesis with my committee, and I am looking forward to drawing this project to a close. Overall, I feel confident that we have shown that direct sequencing is an affordable and scalable method for tracking individual seals, however the diet analysis may be more complicated and require future investigations such as feeding trials and digestion correlation factors. However, this method for seal identification can be combined with more robust, intensive diet analysis methods, still streamlining techniques for investigating individual seal diets throughout time. Moving forward, I will continue to look for opportunities to utilize and expand on my skills I have developed in genomics research, and I am very thankful for the things I have learned at WWU.

While COVID-19 has made my last quarter a little more hectic and isolated than anticipated, I still have been able to stay in contact with my cohort as we all navigate our new lives, and I’m looking forward to seeing all of them finish and defend in the near future as well!

Jonathan's Blog

Jonathan Blubaugh, graduate student

4 November 2020

I’m excited about the end of October because I have finally scheduled my pre-defense meeting (Nov. 9th) and tentative defense date (Nov. 24th). I spent all of October writing and editing my thesis, getting feedback, and editing my thesis again. I submitted my thesis to my committee just before October ended for so I could get feedback at my pre-defense meeting. I have started on my thesis presentation and am excited to finally be finished with my degree at the end of November. Hopefully all goes well!