The Pinniped Ecology Applied Research Laboratory (PEARL) lab at Hatfield Marine Science Center examines the physiological and behavioral adaptations of pinnipeds to their environment. As a member of the PEARL lab, Sheanna is interested in examining the behavior of Pacific harbor seals, Phoca vitulina richardsi, in relation to the localized zone of hypoxia, or low-oxygen water off of the Oregon coast.
Oregon’s unique low-oxygen zone forms annually in the summer months, when coastal winds switch directions, causing wind-driven upwelling (bringing to the surface) of cold, nutrient-rich water from the bottom of the water column. However, the Oregon coast has been experiencing lower than normal levels of dissolved oxygen for approximately the last ten summers. In addition, low-oxygen water has begun to encroach far upon the continental shelf, which is not a normal process of Oregon’s hypoxic zone. Abnormal hypoxia has the potential to strongly impact coastal ecosystems at a large scale, as organisms redistribute to escape dangerously low oxygen levels. In the most severe cases, hypoxia has the capacity to cause large-scale mortalities in organisms that fail to escape oxygen-deprived water.
Steingass's study will involve fitting several harbor seal individuals with telemetry and oceanographic-sensing devices in order to observe their foraging behavior before, during, and after the formation of the hypoxic zone. By analyzing this data, she will be able to examine behavioral changes of Pacific harbor seals in relation to hypoxia, and gain a better understanding of the ecosystem-level effects of worsening hypoxia. This will be one of the first studies examining the potential impacts of localized coastal hypoxia on upper trophic level predators.