Marine Mammal Ecology Lab


Madison's Blog

Madison Gard, undergraduate student

1 November 2022

October has flown by! It’s been a blast getting to know our new lab members through observations at Whatcom Creek and open work hours in the lab. This is my favorite time of year because love observing the harbor seals in the creek along with migrating salmon returning to their spawning grounds. This has been such a special experience for me over the last three years, and I’m bummed it’ll likely be my final fall season involved as an undergraduate on the project. I’m hoping to become more involved with Whatcom Creek for the remainder of this academic year and assist with the project’s transition to set it up for success next year. Kate recently trained me in how to do photo identification of individual harbor seals using their unique facial markings. I’m excited to help with that portion of data analysis moving forward!

This month, I started to think ahead for graduation in the spring of June 2023. It looks like I’ll graduate with two majors in environmental science with marine emphasis and Spanish, as well as a minor in honors interdisciplinary studies. For my honors senior thesis project, I am planning to conduct increased observations of seal activity in Whatcom Creek before, during, and after the Chinook salmon smolt release from the hatchery in May. I’m hoping to document whether or not there is increased activity of harbor seals during and immediately following the release of juveniles from the hatchery to make inferences about predation pressures.

With that to look forward to in the spring, it is crunch time for completing a finished draft of the qPCR manuscript before finals week. It’s certainly an attainable goal, and a matter of putting in consistent work sessions throughout the rest of the quarter. As of now, the introduction and methods sections are close to another round of revision from collaborators. Big things are happening!

Maddie Gard

Victoria's Blog

Victoria Vinecke, graduate student

1 November 2022

Hello again!

I am amazed with how fast October came and went! Everything seems to be ramping up drastically as the quarter continues to fly by. The current undergraduate lab managers for the Marine Mammal Ecology Lab, Kate and Bri have graciously taken me under their wing to teach me everything regarding the Whatcom Creek study system. It has been such a treat getting to know all of the undergraduates that work for the MMEL and seeing first-hand what different scientific backgrounds can bring to the table.

plan on getting out into the field starting tomorrow to begin collecting environmental DNA (eDNA) samples which is extremely exciting! The plan is to kayak into Whatcom Creek and sample water downstream of the harbor seals! It is hard to wrap my head around the idea of being able to incorporate one of my favorite hobbies into my thesis project, it is honestly a dream come true. I am so thankful to have the opportunity to combine my love for genetics, marine mammals, and kayaking into a scientific research project!

Overall, I have been finding my footing as a graduate student by working on my thesis project, finding my style of teaching, bonding with the 1st year biology cohort, and learning how to juggle a busy schedule. It has been a very busy and rewarding month! I did find time to carve a pumpkin to celebrate Halloween during the MMEL weekly meeting in which we bonded over cookie decorating, pumpkin carving, and listening to an Orca related podcast!

I am sure I will have some amazing kayak action pictures for next month's blog!

Until then,
Victoria Vinecke

Sea lion pumpkin carving.

Holland's Blog

Holland Conwell, undergraduate student

1 November 2022

Happy autumn! I never thought I’d miss the gray skies and rain but after weeks of unusually warm, October weather, I’m pretty much over the moon. This month was all about ending one chapter in my research journey and starting another. As the conclusion to my time in the Summer Undergraduate Research Program, I presented my summer research findings at the Biology Department’s fall poster session earlier this month. This encapsulated my PERMANOVA results regarding harbor seal diet, as well as a discussion relating these to spatiotemporal trends in the distribution of male and female harbor seals. Communicating my findings to others and talking about marine science with people interested in the Marine Mammal Ecology Lab was so much fun, and my parents also got to see me in action for the first time! This was such a sweet end to the summer research program, and I also really enjoyed seeing how people’s projects turned out within this community that we established over the summer.

Shifting my attention towards my projects for this academic year, I started getting the ball rolling on my independent project with the log pond this last month. I’ve been doing some background research and trying to dig into my question; I’m very intrigued by how harbor seal numbers will be influenced by the massive removal of log booms from the log pond and along the pier. I’m especially curious about how this change in habitat will influence behavior, as I’m already seeing what some have affectionately named “seal cubbies”. I have photographic proof now of some tenacious harbor seals hauled out in vertical slots along a wall with rectangular inlets, reminiscent of preschool cubbies. Since I’ve been told of even more instances of seals utilizing the infrastructure to haul out in the absence of log booms, I certainly want to look more into that.

As far as my diet analysis project, I’m hard at work on manuscript writing! I finished my first draft of the results section after lots of additional work calculating rates and percentages to characterize diet on the order and species levels. I’ve also done my first round of edits on the introduction and methods, and I just recently compiled these with the results and sent them off for some feedback. In the meantime, I’m rethinking some figures, and I’ll be starting my discussion pretty soon! I’ve got plenty to keep me busy, and I’m excited to see what this next month brings!

Alexandrea's Blog

Alexandrea Otto, graduate student

1 November 2022

Hello again,

Summer has officially left Bellingham and now comes the rain! Coming from a very long past of Midwestern weather, I am excited to experience and embrace something different up here in the Pacific Northwest!

Following theme with most past graduate students’ second blog posts, this past month flew by! There have been so many different moving parts in the beginning of this quarter. Slowly I am finding my groove as a teaching assistant and have been enjoying working alongside some amazing instructors and veteran graduate teaching assistants. Additionally, I am searching for my last thesis committee member and my own courses are ramping up. The seal observations are in full swing now, as well as our Marine Mammal Ecology Lab (MMEL) meetings! It has been incredible so far to meet with the undergraduates in the lab and hear about their own passions in marine biology! Additionally, the undergraduate lab managers have been an absolute dream-team to learn from and work with! So far in lab meetings we have balanced meeting topics in professional development, such as CV review and internships/jobs resources, with bonding over celebrating the end of an exam week with some Halloween festivities!

As for my thesis project, potential exciting new developments have arisen this past month! We have met with a former MMEL graduate student of Alejandro’s and a local agency to discuss the potential to collaborate! This collaboration could have big implications in regards to working with similar scat samples and SNP methodologies to increase sample size and data. I am excited also to have the opportunity to work alongside Alejandro’s former graduate student and learn from them in regards to their extensive background and expertise. The meeting itself was encouraging to be a part of, as meeting professionals in the field and listening to ideas of collaboration and shared goals is inspirational in conservation/research efforts! With this meeting, I continue to move forward with my thesis onto another draft of my outline!

It has been a busy yet undeniably exciting past month, and I cannot wait to see what next month has in store!

Till next time,

Kate's Blog

Kate Clayton, undergraduate student

1 November 2022

Hello again,

Happy November!

This month I was able to train the majority of our students on photo cropping and photo ID. Getting everyone more involved in the lab and passionate about the seals is my favorite part of our research! So far, everyone has been doing an awesome job and it is so rewarding watching people improve their skills and put hard work into our lab. We have a wonderful group of research assistants this fall and I am excited to continue working with them!

Observations have been going well. So far, the seal counts seem to be following the same general pattern as last year (with ~3-4 seals seen a day in October with the occasional fish being caught). It is interesting that we did not see more of a peak in October given the large number of fish visible in the creek, but I am hopeful the seal counts will ramp up in November and we will get to see some more activity.

Our weekly lab meetings have been going great. Although I miss lab meetings with Alejandro, it has been a wonderful experience participating in lab meetings with my fellow managers. It has been a pleasure getting to know and learn from Alex and Victoria, and Holland and Bri are as solid as ever. Bri has been especially helpful in keeping the lab organized as well as sending out biweekly schedules and reminder emails. A couple of fun things we have gotten to do during lab meetings include hosting a Halloween themed meeting where we invited all our students to carve pumpkins and decorate cookies, and creating a lab logo contest for the Marine Mammal Ecology Lab. We will find out what the winning design is this week! (Thank you again to everyone who submitted a design! They are all fantastic!)

As for side projects, I have been spending some extra time searching for nearby, accessible haul-out sites to see if we can figure out where our Whatcom Creek seal population hauls out. I am hoping to observe at the Log Pond site with my fellow managers and see if we can get close enough to ID any seals. In the past, we have been unsuccessful on trying to ID while on land, so we are hoping to use a kayak to go downstream and get closer to the site to try to make field IDs. I am also hoping to find some more sites in Chuckanut Bay while the salmon season is peaking, but I am unsure if that will work. In addition to haul out work, Maddie has expressed interest in conducting a study looking at seal counts during the Chinook smolt release in the spring. I am hoping to help her get all the resources she needs before I graduate.

As for the manuscript, Kathleen and I (but mostly Kathleen) have spent this month tirelessly editing, condensing, and rewriting. She is doing amazing work and the paper is coming along beautifully! In a few days, Kathleen will receive edits back from the co-authors and will move forward with the editing process. I am so grateful I was given a chance to work with Kathleen on this project in addition to publishing a paper with her. I miss her as my fellow Whatcom Creek lab manager, but I cannot wait to see what great things she does next!

Untile next time,