NEWPORT, Ore. – Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Program, which has gained international recognition for its satellite-monitored radio tagging program of whale species, has expanded and will begin conducting additional research into other species, including dolphins, seals and sea lions.
Funded almost entirely by private donations, the program has added two well-recognized researchers who will bring to the university their own portfolios of experience, grants and projects.
“Our work will now include research in every ocean in the world,” said Bruce Mate, director of OSU’s Marine Mammal Program and a pioneer in the use of satellite tracking technology. “We’re certainly not shifting our focus away from critical research that investigates the migration routes and habitats of endangered whale species. Rather, we’re adding more onto our plate.
“We’re able to do this through donations by private citizens and foundations with a genuine appreciation for whales and other marine mammal species. They provide nearly half of the support for our research.”
The Marine Mammal Program, which has an endowment of more than $7 million, is a focus of fund-raising efforts at OSU, where the university is considering establishing a multi-disciplinary institute that would study marine mammal conservation through a variety of perspectives and include faculty and students from developing countries where conservation issues historically haven’t been fully addressed.
OSU’s Marine Mammal Program is headquartered at the university’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. Just joining the program are Scott Baker, a cetacean geneticist who will serve as its associate director, and Markus Horning, a pinniped ecologist from Texas A&M University.
For the past 13 years, Baker has been at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, following stints at Victoria University in Wellington and the University of Hawaii. He gained international attention in 1994 when he published the results of the first molecular monitoring of whale meat markets in Japan, providing direct evidence for the exploitation of protected species of whales.
During the next 10 years, he continued monitoring markets in Korea and Japan, documenting the unregulated sale of products from humpback, Asian or western gray, fin, sei, Bryde’s and sperm whales. His investigation into the whale meat markets led to the development of a web-based program for molecular taxonomy and from that comprehensive database, a new species of beaked whales – Mesoplodon perrini – was discovered.
It was the first mammalian species recognized primarily from genetic characteristics and the first new species of cetacean identified in 15 years.
Baker began his career studying wild bottlenose dolphins in Florida’s Sarasota Bay, then conducted research into the social organization and population structure of humpback whales in the waters off Alaska, California, Hawaii and Mexico.
Horning already is busy establishing the Pinniped Ecology Applied Research Laboratory, or PEARL, within the Marine Mammal Program at OSU. His specialty is the ecology and biology of pinnipeds, especially seals and sea lions. He brings with him nearly $1 million in grants from the National Science Foundation in projects that look at aging and adaptation of Weddell seals and three-dimensional tracking of pinnipeds in remote locations.
Horning also is part of a major project called the Steller Sea Lion Research Initiative. Funded by NOAA, the long-term project will use special “life history transmitters” to study endangered Steller sea lions. These newly designed tags will stay within the body cavity of the sea lions throughout their life span, and record a variety of data, then float to the surface of the ocean after the animal has died. A radio signal, beamed via satellite, will alert Horning, who will retrieve the data.
Both Baker and Horning will be affiliated with OSU’s Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station at the Hatfield Marine Science Center, where they will employ research assistants and train graduate students during their research projects.
Mate said the Marine Mammal Program hopes to continue its expansion with additional donor support in the future. During the last two years, the program got a boost from the donation of three large fishing vessels from West Coast fishermen. Those vessels have a combined value of $1.7 million and private donations to the Marine Mammal Endowment allowed one of the boats to be retrofitted for research. This summer, it has been used in the Bering Sea on a research project.
The program hopes to refit the other two boats, creating a mini-fleet of research vessels for OSU scientists.
“These are exciting times,” said Mate, who has been featured in several national documentaries on whales, including a Jean-Michael Cousteau Ocean Adventures special on gray whales that aired nationally last month on PBS. “With these new researchers on board, we’re able to work in some new areas – in a geographic, specialty discipline and taxonomic sense. “And we think this is just the beginning,” he added. “There is tremendous potential for adding top scientists and educators from different disciplines to complement the work we’re now doing.”