OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

college of agricultural sciences

Whale lovers can support Marine Mammal Institute with new license plate

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new license plate featuring a gray whale and her calf likely will be available to Oregon drivers by summer 2017.

This project is sponsored by the Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institute and enthusiasm for it is running high, said Bruce Mate, director of the institute.

“Everybody I’ve shown the plate design to has loved it,” said Mate, whose institute will receive $35 from the Oregon Department of Transportation every time a vehicle owner spends $40 to buy the plate.

The money will go toward whale research, graduate student education and public outreach.

The license plate depicts the cow-calf pair on a two-tone blue background that emulates sea and sky. In the upper left corner is a lighthouse, and across the bottom it reads “Coastal Playground.”

Renowned wildlife illustrator Pieter Folkens created the lifelike whale images, originally for a poster for the Marine Mammal Institute, which is part of OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

“They’re extremely detailed,” Mate said. “You can see every barnacle.”

The institute paid an application fee of $5,000 to ODOT to begin the license plate process, Mate said, and will pay another $80,000 to cover production costs. In addition, it needs to turn in an “expression of interest” from at least 3,000 vehicle owners stating they plan to buy the plate. Oregon Rep. David Gomberg has helped develop and advance this initiative, which should help promote coastal tourism.

As part of the process to gain public support, 30,000 flyers will be distributed along the coast by Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department volunteers helping out during the annual weeklong “Whale Watching Spoken Here” celebration that runs between Christmas and New Year’s. Each flyer contains an expression-of-interest form.

There will be volunteers at all Oregon coastal headlands to help visitors see southward-migrating gray whales. Between 10,000 and 25,000 whale watchers interact with the volunteers each year during the week between Dec. 25 and Jan. 1, Mate said.

Interest can also be registered online at http://mmi.oregonstate.edu/whaleplate. No financial commitment is required, but it’s asked that only those serious about buying a Coastal Playground plate register.

“It’s a great plate and promotes coastal tourism and just a healthy image for Oregon,” Mate said. “I expect a lot of people will like it, and it’s a way for people to inexpensively support marine mammals.”

It’s not necessary to wait for a vehicle’s registration to need renewal, or buy a new car, to purchase the Coastal Playground plate, Mate noted. For $40, a new plate can be ordered at any time without affecting the vehicle’s registration cycle.

“This plate is a joyful celebration,” Mate said. “Gray whales were on the Endangered Species List because of exploitation, and now they’re the only whale species to have been removed from the list because they’ve recovered. And they’re Oregon’s flagship large whale. Ninety-five percent of the whales you see from shore are gray whales.”

Visible from the coastline year-round, gray whales migrate past Oregon in both directions on their annual journey between Alaska and Baja California. From late April to mid June, northward-migrating females and their calves stay close to shore to avoid predation from killer whales – so close, Mate says, “you could practically skip a stone out to them.”

During the first week in January, the peak time for the southern migration, gray whales pass by Oregon viewing points at an average rate of 35 whales per hour.

Mate said he is banking on the enduring mystique of whales to help the Coastal Playground plate pay off for the Marine Mammal Institute.

“Whales are huge, they’re warm-blooded, they live in an environment we wouldn’t do well in,” Mate said. “They’re really easy to emote with.”

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Steve Lundeberg, 541-737-4039

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Design of proposed plate

New tag revolutionizes whale research - and makes them partners in science

NEWPORT, Ore. – A sophisticated new type of “tag” on whales that can record data every second for hours, days and weeks at a time provides a view of whale behavior, biology and travels never before possible, scientists from Oregon State University reported today in a new study.

This “Advanced Dive Behavior,” or ADB tag, has allowed researchers to expand their knowledge of whale ecology to areas deep beneath the sea, over thousands of miles of travel, and outline their interaction with the prey they depend upon for food.

It has even turned whales into scientific colleagues to help understand ocean conditions and climate change.

The findings, just published in the journal Ecology and Evolution, showed sperm whales diving all the way to the sea floor, more than 1000 meters deep, and being submerged for up to 75 minutes. It reported baleen whales lunging after their food; provided a basis to better understand whale reactions to undersea noises such as sonar or seismic exploration; and is helping scientists observe how whales react to changes in water temperature.

The ADB tag is a pretty revolutionary breakthrough,” said Bruce Mate, professor and director of OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute in the College of Agricultural Sciences. “This provides us a broad picture of whale behavior and ecology that we’ve never had before.

“This technology has even made whales our partners in acquiring data to better understand ocean conditions and climate change,” Mate said. “It gives us vast amounts of new data about water temperatures through space and time, over large distances and in remote locations. We’re learning more about whales, and the whales are helping us to learn more about our own planet.”

The new tag, the researchers say, expands by several orders of magnitude the observations that can be made of whale feeding and behavior. Researchers say it’s showing what whales do while underwater; when, how and where they feed; how they might be affected by passing ships or other noises; and what types of water temperatures they prefer.

In the new study, researchers outlined the continued evolution and improvements made in the ADB technology from 2007-15, in which it was used on sperm, blue and fin whales. The research has been supported by the Office of Naval Research, the U.S. Navy and the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers.

“By using this technology on three different species, we’ve seen the full range of behavior that is specific to each species,” said Daniel Palacios, a co-author on the study. “Sperm whales, for instance, really like to dive deep, staying down a long time and appearing to forage along the seafloor at times. During summer the baleen whales will feed as much as possible in one area, and then they move on, probably after the prey density gets too low.”

Unlike earlier technology that could not return data from the deep sea for much longer than a day, the new ADB tags are designed to acquire data constantly, for up to seven weeks at a time, before they detach from the whale, float to the surface and are retrieved in the open sea to download data. The retrieval itself is a little tricky – scientists compare it to searching for a hamburger floating in thousands of square miles of open ocean – but it has worked pretty well, thanks to the tags transmitting GPS-quality locations and flashing LED lights once they have released.

The tag can sense water depth, whale movement and body orientation, water temperature and light levels.

“With this system we can acquire much more data at a lower cost, with far less commitment of time by ships and personnel,” said Ladd Irvine, the corresponding author on the study. “This tag type yields amazing results. It’s going to significantly expand what we can accomplish, learning both about whale ecology and the ocean itself.”

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Bruce Mate, 541-867-0202

bruce.mate@oregonstate.edu

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Whale tag

Whale with tag


Whale tag 2

Whale with tag

Whale travels
Whale travel and feeding

OSU Press publishes first guide to Oregon freshwater fishes

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The first comprehensive guide to Oregon’s freshwater fishes has been published by the Oregon State University Press.

Written by Professor Emeritus Douglas Markle in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Oregon State, the guide includes tips on identifying the state’s 137 known species and subspecies, along with photos and illustrations of native and non-native fish.

“A Guide to Freshwater Fishes of Oregon” is available in bookstores, by calling 1-800-621-2736, or by ordering online at osupress.oregonstate.edu

The guide includes information about Oregon’s most iconic fishes – including Chinook and coho salmon – as well as those species not as well-known, such as sculpins and minnows. Markle notes that the number of introduced, non-native fishes continues to increase and “they often are responsible in part for the decline of native fishes.”

“The book is a great guide for anglers and others who may encounter a fish that they cannot easily recognize,” said Marty Brown, marketing coordinator for the OSU Press. “Many groups of Oregon fishes are difficult to identify because of their size, diversity of forms, or lack of study, and there are ongoing debates about the actual number of species and subspecies of fish in the state.”

The guide covers fish both large and small. The white sturgeon is Oregon’s largest freshwater fish, reaching sizes of up to 19 feet and 1,800 pounds, and it is the most long-lived reaching estimated ages of close to 100 years. Among the smaller fish are minnows, which are the largest family of fishes in Oregon, and include such species as the Oregon chub and Umpqua chub – species only found in this state.

Markle is a long-time faculty member at Oregon State who parlayed a childhood interest in aquarium fish into a career teaching and conducting research on deep-sea fishes, coral reef fish, and a variety of freshwater fishes.

In addition to the many color photographs in “A Guide to Freshwater Fishes of Oregon” are numerous illustrations by well-known fish artist Joseph R. Tomelleri.

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Marty Brown, 541-737-3866, marty.brown@oregonstate.edu;

Doug Markle, 541-737-1970, douglas.markle@oregonstate.edu

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Freshwater Fishes of Oregon

Douglas F. Markle

Douglas Markle

Study finds less fragmentation in muzzleloading and black powder cartridge rifles

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new study found that traditional bullets for muzzleloading rifles and black powder rifle cartridges fragment less upon impact and may leave far fewer lead fragments in game than a modern high-velocity rifle bullet.

The findings suggest that hunters using those styles of guns may have a reduced risk of secondary lead poisoning from consuming game meat, and that there may be a reduced risk to scavenging animals as well, compared to ammunition for modern rifles that also contain lead. 

Results of the study, by researchers in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Oregon State University, have been published in the Journal of Fish and Wildlife Management.

Bullet fragmentation has been well-described in many modern, high-velocity rifles, but not for black-powder cartridge rifles or muzzleloading firearms, said Clinton Epps, a wildlife ecologist at Oregon State and co-author on the study. 

“There is a lot more complexity to the lead versus non-lead ammunition discussion than many people realize and the black powder/muzzleloader niche of hunters needs to be included in the conversation,” Epps said.

To study the fragmentation, the researchers evaluated a traditional .54 caliber round ball and a modern-designed .54 caliber conical bullet for muzzleloaders and two types of .45-70 caliber black powder rifle cartridges, and compared them with a modern, lead-core high-velocity bullet (Remington Core-Lokt) for a .30-06. 

They found that the modern .30-06 bullets retained a mean 57.5 percent of their original mass, with the remaining 42.5 percent fragmenting. Mean mass retention for muzzleloader and black powder cartridge bullets ranged from 87.8 percent to 99.7 percent.

“We tested penetration and fragmentation for each bullet type in both water and ballistics gel,” said Dana Sanchez, an OSU wildlife Extension specialist and lead author on the article. “Obviously, these kinds of artificial tests cannot replicate conditions in the field, but the striking differences in fragmentation suggests follow-up tests on game animals harvested in actual hunting situations may be warranted.” 

Muzzleloaders use black powder, typically made from charcoal, potassium nitrate and sulfur, and loaded from the muzzle using loose components rather than self-contained cartridges. Traditional hunting bullets for muzzleloaders are round balls made of pure lead and wrapped in a cloth patch to engage the rifling. Because of their low velocity and low potential for expansion, most states require muzzleloaders to have larger (greater than .45) calibers than modern high-velocity rifles.

“The speed of a bullet is a key factor in fragmentation, although there are other variables,” said Epps, who is a rifle builder, ballistics specialist and a hunter. “Black powder cartridges and round balls don’t go as fast, so they have to use a bigger bullet, which tends not to break apart as much.” 

Muzzleloader hunting is popular in many states, especially in the Midwest and the South, where special seasons allow hunters to use this method in addition to traditional rifle and archery hunts. Oregon has special muzzleloader tags for deer, elk and pronghorn antelope. Hunting with muzzleloaders and black powder rifles remains a comparatively small niche among hunters and the researchers emphasize that their study was solely intended to provide information on fragmentation that had been missing.

Oregon allows use of both lead and non-lead ammunition in big game hunting. And while non-lead ammunition choices for modern firearms are increasingly more available, Epps said, “non-lead options for muzzleloaders and other older-style firearms are still limited and may not function well in all rifles.” 

David Taylor, a graduate student in OSU’s Department of Integrative Biology, also was an author on the study and conducted the field work as part of an undergraduate project funded in part by the Undergraduate Research, Innovation, Scholarship and Creativity program at Oregon State.

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Clint Epps, 541-737-2478, Clinton.epps@oregonstate.edu; Dana Sanchez, 541-737-6003, dana.sanchez@oregonstate.edu

Despite evolutionary inexperience, northern sockeye manage heat stress

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Sockeye salmon that evolved in the generally colder waters of the far north still know how to cool off if necessary, an important factor in the species’ potential for dealing with global climate change.

Sockeyes, which spawn in fresh water and spend two to three years in the Pacific Ocean, range from southern Alaska south to the Columbia River.

Research by Oregon State University revealed that sockeyes at the northern edge of that range, despite lacking their southern counterparts’ evolutionary history of dealing with heat stress, nevertheless have an innate ability to “thermoregulate.”

Thermoregulation means that when their surroundings warm up too much, the fish will seek cooler water that precisely meets their physiological needs. A study conducted by an OSU researcher at an Alaska lake during a heat wave shed light on sockeyes’ ability to find the water temperatures they need.

Multiple earlier studies had demonstrated thermoregulation behavior among sockeye salmon at lower latitudes, but northern populations’ behavioral response to heat stress had largely gone unexamined.

While it may seem obvious that any fish would move around to find the water temperature it needed, prior research has shown thermoregulation is far from automatic – even among populations living where heat stress is a regular occurrence.

“Often what’s happened has been counterintuitive, so we had no idea what to expect,” said Jonathan B. Armstrong, assistant professor in the College of Agricultural Sciences’ Department of Fish and Wildlife, the lead author on the study. “About 40 million sockeye return to Bristol Bay every year. These huge salmon runs are a big part of the regional culture and economy, so how these fish respond to climate change will have very real effects on people’s lives. It’s encouraging that the sockeyes showed this innate capacity to respond.”

Results of the research were recently published in Conservation Physiology.

Armstrong and his collaborators at the University of Washington worked in 2013 at Little Togiak Lake – one of five major lakes in the Wood River watershed that drain into Bristol Bay, a fishery that produces nearly 70 percent of all the sockeye salmon caught in the United States. Bristol Bay is close to the 60-degree latitude that marks the northern boundary of the sockeyes’ primary range.

Adult sockeye salmon return to the Wood River system from the Bering Sea in early summer, then mature and develop secondary sexual traits before spawning later in the summer or at the beginning of fall.

During the time between entering fresh water and spawning, the fish group together in their lake’s epilimnion – the upper, warmer level of water in a thermally stratified lake. Usually the fish congregate, or stage, near tributary inlets and along shorelines.

During a staging period of unusually warm weather – maximum daily air temperatures hovered around 80 degrees for a week, the second-warmest heat wave on record – researchers used a seine to capture fish and outfitted 95 of them with devices that logged water temperatures at 20-minute intervals.

What they learned from the 40 recovered temperature loggers was that when the epilimnion temperature rose above about 12 degrees Celsius, or about 53 degrees, the fish thermoregulated by moving to tributary plumes or to deeper water.

By swimming away from the rising temperatures, the fish expended 50 percent less energy during the warmest conditions – 64 to 68 degrees – than they would have had they stayed put.

“The hotter it is, the more energy they burn, but these fish don’t just want the coldest water possible,” Armstrong said. “If they were cars looking for maximum fuel efficiency, they’d just find the coldest water, but instead it’s a Goldilocks sort of thing - they’re looking for not too warm, not too cold.

“They want their system to go fast enough for them to go through maturation before they spawn, where they go from these silver torpedoes to these crazy, exaggerated beasts of sexual selection with a red body and green jaws.”

Armstrong noted the broader message of the study is what it says about the ability of animals to exploit the kinds of diversity of temperature and diversity of habitat found in ecosystems that are intact and not heavily developed.

“There’s all this diversity and connectivity up there,” Armstrong said. “Fish have lots of options for coping with warming or environmental change in general.

“When we develop watersheds, we often simplify habitats and take away these options. In our research we are constantly stumbling across new and interesting ways that fish and wildlife thrive by exploiting diversity in temperatures, often at small spatial scales that would be very easy to overlook. This study is one more example of how all the little details matter, and they could be what save animals from climate change, or at least reduce the impacts.”

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Steve Lundeberg, 541-737-4039 

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sockeye salmon

Sockeye salmon

The golden drool: Study finds treasure trove of info in saliva of foraging bears

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The rivers and streams of Alaska are littered in the summer and fall with carcasses of tens of thousands of salmon that not only provide a smorgasbord for hungry brown bears but are also the newest database in the arsenal of wildlife biologists.

A new study, published this week in the journal PLOS ONE, documents the ability of researchers to gather DNA from residual saliva on partially consumed salmon to the point that they can even identify individual bears from the genetic samples. The discovery should provide a significant boost to research on the population and health of brown bears, which can grow to a size of 1,500 pounds. 

“In the past, population estimates have been largely based on visual observations and on the analysis of fecal samples,” said Taal Levi, an assistant professor of fisheries and wildlife at Oregon State University and co-author on the study. “We found that using bear saliva is not only easier and cheaper as a research tool, it is more effective.”

In their study, the researchers examined 156 partially consumed salmon carcasses of lakeshore-spawning sockeye salmon in the Chilkoot watershed and stream-spawning chum salmon at Herman Creek in the Klehini watershed – both near Haines, Alaska. They also swabbed a total of 272 brown bear “scats,” or fecal samples, from those same locations. 

They found that the saliva collected from the salmon carcasses delivered a higher rate of genotyping success, allowing the researchers to identify individual bears more accurately and quickly than the fecal samples, and required significantly less labor.

“Bears love salmon because they are such a rich food source, and fortunately for us, the way they consume them lends itself to genetic monitoring,” said the study’s lead author, Rachel Wheat, who conducted the research as part of her doctoral dissertation at the University of California, Santa Cruz. 

“When salmon are plentiful, bears rarely eat the entire fish. In some cases, they only eat the brain, and we’ve found that swabbing along the edges of the braincase gives us the best results for extracting DNA,” Wheat said. “We also had success with swabbing inside distinct bite holes, and in the muscle tissue where the bears have stripped the skin off the salmon.”

The researchers were able to get brown bear genotypes for 55 percent of all the salmon carcasses sampled for saliva, compared to 34 percent for the scat samples. 

From a purely cost-savings perspective, the saliva sampling proved cheaper. It costs the researchers roughly $370 per bear to genetically identify individual animals using scat samples; the cost with saliva samples dropped to $118.

“This advance will help allow us to more effectively – and more economically – study one of the largest bears on the planet,” Wheat said. 

Levi agreed and also noted that the method does not have to be restricted to bear research. It could be adapted to other species, as well.

 “Many predators leave saliva on food remains,” he said. “We feel this type of saliva sampling could become an important tool for wildlife population monitoring.”

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Taal Levi, 541-737-4067, taal.levi@oregonstate.edu; Rachel Wheat, 719-439-3397, r.e.wheat@gmail.com

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Bear with salmon (Photo by Jennifer Allen)

Bear with salmon

Chum salmon (Photo by Rachel Wheat)

Chum salmon

Fall Creek hatchery to hold annual festival on Nov. 5

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The Oregon Hatchery Research Center will host its annual Fall Creek Festival on Saturday, Nov. 5, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the hatchery, located 13 miles west of Alsea on Highway 34.

The festival, which is free and open to the public, features a day of art workshops – scheduled for 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. – as well as children’s activities and tours. Registration is required because space is limited; lunch will be provided for registered participants.

To register, call 541-487-5512 and state workshop preferences, or send an email to oregonhatchery.researchcenter@state.or.us

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to see wild coho and Chinook salmon spawning in Fall Creek,” said David Noakes, an OSU professor of fisheries and wildlife.

The workshops include:

  • Water color painting
  • Fish printing
  • Bird house construction
  • Grocery bag stenciling
  • Wind chime construction
  • Nature journal illustration

The center is jointly operated by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and Oregon State University’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.

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David Noakes, 541-737-1953, david.noakes@oregonstate.edu

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Excess wildfire, cheatgrass affecting sage-grouse; targeted actions needed

BEND, Ore. – Larger, more frequent wildfires across the Great Basin have contributed significantly to a decline in greater sage-grouse, according to a new study that also indicates that if this trend continues unabated, it could reduce the population of this indicator species to 43 percent of its present numbers.

The culprit, researchers say, is the influx of exotic annual grasses such as cheatgrass that establish after wildfire removes the native plant community, including sagebrush, the plant upon which sage-grouse are dependent for survival.

Results of the study are being published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Great Basin of North America is a vast landscape that is larger than 75 percent of the countries worldwide. It is comprised primarily of a “sagebrush sea” that is threatened by this cycle of wildfire and cheatgrass, according to Christian Hagen, a senior research associate at Oregon State University and a co-author on the study.

“Our modeling indicates that there are long-lasting effects from wildfire that negate increases in sage-grouse population growth that typically occur after years of higher precipitation,” said Hagen, a researcher in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. “So even when we have a good precipitation year in the Great Basin, the sage-grouse don’t recover as they once did because the habitat to support them has been lost to cheatgrass.”

The study area encompassed the hydrographic and vegetation boundaries of the Great Basin and included parts of six western states: Nevada (43 percent of the area), Utah (17 percent), Idaho (16 percent), Oregon (14 percent), California (10 percent) and Wyoming (less than 1 percent).

“Wildfire is increasing in the region because the invading cheatgrass is much more prone to burn and re-establishes orders of magnitude quicker than the native sagebrush,” Hagen said. “That isn’t necessarily news – Aldo Leopold recognized that more than a half-century ago. But the impact on an indicator species like the sage-grouse had not been so clearly documented.”

Sagebrush has slow growth rates and does not re-sprout after wildfires; it must re-establish from the seed bank. This delay in succession opens the door for cheatgrass to establish. The researchers say that understanding “R&R” – resilience to wildfire and resistance to cheatgrass – is key to focusing the right land management practices in the right places.

Cheatgrass hails from warmer regions of Eurasia and generally does not persist in relatively cold and moist climates. Colder, moist soils tend to be the most productive ecological sites in the Great Basin, and these sites promote the growth of perennial bunch grasses, native forbs and shrubs – plants that tend to be more resilient to fire, and resistant to invasive grasses.

These also are some of the most productive sites for the sage-grouse. The sage-grouse is a large gallinaceous, or ground-feeding, bird that can be an indicator for ecological health in sagebrush ecosystems because it requires distinct ecological states to meet its diverse life-history needs. Thus, the population dynamics of the species are considered an ideal metric for assessing disturbances to sagebrush disturbance.

The sage-grouse has been considered several times for protection under the Endangered Species Act, the most recent of which triggered massive changes to land management policy on millions of acres of public land.

The cycle of habitat decline is linked to the introduction of cheatgrass to the ecosystem, the researchers say. Land management practices led to a burning regime as often as every 2-3 years, which allowed fast-growing cheatgrass to establish at the expense of slow-growing sagebrush.

“If you can imagine an area the size of a football field infested with cheatgrass, but surrounded by native vegetation,” Hagen said. “If a lightning strike sets the cheatgrass on fire, it likely will consume some of the native vegetation and the burned area doubles or triples, and by next year the cheatgrass infestation has spread.

“It’s a classic positive feedback loop that promotes cheatgrass and becomes a negative situation for native plants – and ultimately, for sage-grouse.”

The key to reversing this decline, the researchers say, may be to further enhance fire prevention and suppression effectiveness in targeted areas of intact sagebrush that have the highest densities of breeding sage-grouse. The study shows that 90 percent of sage-grouse are concentrated on less than 10 percent of the Great Basin.

“Our study illustrates a path toward stabilizing sage-grouse populations through highly focused wildfire management,” Hagen said. “New federal wildland fire policies and priorities in sagebrush steppe, combined with improved collaboration with rural communities through rangeland fire protection associations, greatly increases the odds of curbing population declines due to fire.”

The study was led by Peter S. Coates of the U.S. Geological Survey.

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Christian Hagen, 541-410-0238, Christian.hagen@oregonstate.edu

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This photo of a greater sage-grouse is available at: https://flic.kr/p/Nw6T9S

(Photo by Nick Myatt, ODFW)

Study finds local fidelity key to ocean-wide recovery of humpback whales

NEWPORT, Ore. – Humpback whales can migrate thousands of miles to reach feeding grounds each year, but a new study concludes that their fidelity to certain local habitats – as passed on through the generations – and the protection of these habitats are key to understanding the ultimate recovery of this endangered species.

The study documents the local recruitment of whales in Glacier Bay and Icy Strait in Alaska over a 30-year period. The researchers found that contemporary whales that utilize these rich feeding grounds overwhelmingly are descendants of whales that previously used the area.

In other words, the population recovery of humpback whales in the region depends on cultural knowledge of migratory routes passed on from mothers to their calves; it is not a product of whales from outside the area suddenly “discovering” a rich feeding ground.

Results of the study are being published this week in the journal Endangered Species Research.

“Humpback whales are recovering from exploitation on an ocean-wide basis, but ultimately their individual success is on a much more local scale,” said Scott Baker, associate director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University and a co-author on the study.

“Humpback whales travel globally, but thrive locally.”

The study compares records of individual whales returning to Glacier Bay. The first, referred to as the “founder’s population,” included whales documented by a local high school teacher, Charles Jurasz, beginning in the 1970s. Jurasz was one of the first researchers to realize that individual whales could be identified by photographs of natural markings – a technique now widely used to study living whales.

Over the years, other researchers – including the authors of this study – continued to record the return of these whales by photo identification and they later collected small genetic samples to confirm the relatedness between individual whales.

Using a large database maintained by Glacier Bay National Park and the University of Alaska Southeast, the records of the founding population were then compared to records of the “contemporary population” returning to Glacier Bay, more than 30 years after Jurasz’s initial studies. The results were striking.

Of the 25 “founding females” that were also sampled for genetic analysis, all but one was represented in the contemporary group – either as still living, or by a direct descendant, or in many cases, both. Several of the founding females were even grandmothers of individuals in the contemporary population.

“We looked at three possibilities for population increase over a 33-year period including local recruitment from Glacier Bay/Icy Strait, recruitment from elsewhere in southeastern Alaska, and immigration from outside the region,” said Sophie P. Pierszalowski, a master’s student in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and lead author on the study.

“It is clear that the contemporary generation of whales is based on local recruitment, highlighting the importance of protecting local habitat for recovering species, especially those with culturally inherited migratory destinations.”

Humpback whales in the North Pacific were once estimated to number more than 15,000 individuals based on catch data before commercial whaling took a toll, reducing the population to less than a thousand by 1966. Humpback whales were first protected by the International Whaling Commission in 1965, then listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1973.

Since the protection, the oceanic population has increased to an estimated 21,000 individuals based on photo-identification studies and other evidence. The recovery has been slow, in part because humpback whales can live to be 70 years of age and their recovery is driven primarily by local fidelity and recruitment.

“Limiting vessel traffic in important habitats is one way to help protect humpback whales,” Pierszalowski said, “along with maintaining legal distances by vessels, reducing the risk of entanglement with fishing gear, and maintaining stranding networks that have the capacity to quickly disentangle whales.”

OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute is based at the university’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore.

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Scott Baker, 541-272-0560, scott.baker@oregonstate.edu;

Sophie Pierszalowski, 541-737-4523, pierszas@oregonstate.edu

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Photo of mother and calf to the left:

https://flic.kr/p/MbQR5w


 

 

 

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New technologies – and a dash of whale poop – help scientists monitor whale health

NEWPORT, Ore. – A lot of people think what Leigh Torres has done this summer and fall would qualify her for a spot on one of those “World’s Worst Jobs” lists.

After all, the Oregon State University marine ecologist follows gray whales from a small inflatable boat in the rugged Pacific Ocean and waits for them to, well, poop. Then she and her colleagues have about 20-30 seconds to swoop in behind the animal with a fine mesh net and scoop up some of the prized material before it drifts to the ocean floor.

Mind you, gray whales can reach a length of more than 40 feet and weigh more than 30 tons, making the retrieval of their daily constitutional somewhat daunting. Yet Torres, a principal investigator in the university’s Marine Mammal Institute, insists that it really isn’t that bad.

“We’re just looking for a few grams of material and to be honest, it doesn’t even smell that bad,” she said. “Now, collecting a DNA sample from a whale’s blow-hole – that’s a bad job. Their breath is horrendous.”

Being a marine pooper-scooper isn’t some strange fetish for the Oregon State research team. They are conducting a pilot project to determine how gray whales respond to ocean noise – both natural and human – and whether these noises cause physiological stress in the animals. Technology is changing the way the researchers are approaching their study.

“New advances in biotechnology allow us to use the fecal samples to look at a range of things that provide clues to the overall health and stress of the whales,” Torres said. “We can look at their hormone levels and genetically identify individual whales, their sex and whether they are pregnant. And we can analyze their prey and document what they’ve been eating.

“Previously, we would have to do a biopsy to learn some of these things and though they can be done safely, you typically don’t repeat the procedure often because it’s invasive,” she added. “Here, we can follow individual whales over a four-month feeding season and pick up multiple samples that can tell us changes in their health.”

The study is a pilot project funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Ocean Acoustics Program to determine the impacts of noise on whale behavior and health. Torres, who works out of OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon, focuses on gray whales because they are plentiful and close to shore.

“Many marine mammals are guided by acoustics and use sound to locate food, to navigate, to communicate with one another and to find a mate,” said Torres, a faculty member in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and an ecologist with the Oregon Sea Grant program.

Ten years ago, such a study would not have been possible, Torres acknowledged. In addition to new advances in genetic and hormone analyses, the OSU team uses a drone to fly high above the whales. It not only detects when they defecate, it is giving them unprecedented views of whale behavior.

“We are seeing things through the drone cameras that we have never seen before,” Torres said. “Because of the overhead views, we now know that whales are much more agile in their feeding. We call them ‘bendy’ whales because they make such quick, sharp turns when feeding. These movements just can’t be seen from the deck of a ship.”

The use of small, underwater Go-Pro cameras allows them to observe what the whales are feeding upon below. The researchers can identify zooplankton, benthic invertebrates, and fish in the water column near feeding whales, and estimate abundance – helping them understand what attracts the whales to certain habitats.

Joe Haxel and Sharon Nieukirk are acoustic scientists affiliated with OSU's Cooperative Institute for Marine Resources Studies and the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory at the Hatfield center who are assisting with the project. They deploy drifting hydrophones near the whales to record natural and human sounds, help operate the overhead drone camera that monitors the whales’ behavior, and also get in on the fecal analysis.

“Gray whales are exposed to a broad range of small- and medium-sized boat traffic that includes sport fishing and commercial fleets,” Haxel said. “Since they are very much a coastal species, their exposure to anthropogenic noise is pretty high. That said, the nearshore environment is already very noisy with natural sounds including wind and breaking surf, so we’re trying to suss out some of the space and time patterns in noise levels in the range of habitats where the whales are found.”

It will take years for the researchers to learn how ocean noise affects whale behavior and health, but as ocean noises continue increasing – through ship traffic, wave energy projects, sonar use, seismic surveys and storms – the knowledge they gain may be applicable to many whale species, Torres said.

And the key to this baseline study takes a skilled, professional pooper-scooper.

“When a whale defecates, it generates this reddish cloud and the person observing the whale usually screams “POOP!” and we spring into action,” Torres said. “It’s a moment of excitement, action - and also sheer joy. I know that sounds a little weird, but we have less than 30 seconds to get in there and scoop up some of that poop that may provide us with a biological gold mine of information that will help protect whales into the future.

“That’s not such a bad job after all, is it?”

Story By: 
Source: 

Leigh Torres, 541-867-0895, leigh.torres@oregonstate.edu

Multimedia Downloads
Multimedia: 

 

 

Link to: the whale fluke photo

 

 

For a video of the research, click here

 

 

 

 


 

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Aerial shot of a gray whale.

 

 

 

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Researchers use a drone to monitor whale behavior