marine science and the coast

"Patchiness” altering perceptions of ocean predators, prey

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Scientists and resource managers have always been interested in how animals in the ocean find their prey and the relative health of marine ecosystems is often judged by the abundance of food for the myriad species living there.

But new studies focusing on ocean “patchiness” suggest that it isn’t just the total amount of prey that is important to predators – it is the density of the food source, and ease of access to it.

Kelly Benoit-Bird, an Oregon State University oceanographer, outlined the importance of this new way of looking at ocean habitats during a keynote talk Wednesday (Feb. 22) at the 2012 Ocean Sciences meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Sophisticated new technologies are helping scientists document how predators target prey, from zooplankton feasting on phytoplankton, to dolphins teaming up to devour micronekton, according to Benoit-Bird, who received a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 2010.

“We used to think that the size and abundance of prey was what mattered most,” said Benoit-Bird, a marine ecologist who studies relationships among marine species. “But patchiness is ubiquitous in marine systems and ultimately dictates the behavior of many animals and their relationships to the environment. We need to change our way of thinking about how we look at predator-prey relationships.”

Benoit-Bird pointed to a section of the Bering Sea, where her research with collaborators had estimated the abundance of krill. Closer examination through the use of acoustics, however, found that the distribution of krill was not at all uniform – and this may explain why two colonies of fur seals and seabirds were faring poorly, but a third was healthy.

“The amount of food near the third colony was not abundant,” she said, “but what was there was sufficiently dense – and at the right depth – that made it accessible to predators.”

The ability to use acoustics to track animal behavior underwater is opening new avenues to researchers.  During their study in the Bering Sea, Benoit-Bird and her colleagues discovered that they could also use sonar to plot the dives of thick-billed murres, which would plunge up to 200 meters below the surface in search of the krill.

Although the krill were spread throughout the water column, the murres ended up focusing on areas where the patches of krill were the densest.

“The murres are amazingly good at diving right down to the best patches,” Benoit-Bird pointed out. “We don’t know just how they are able to identify them, but 10 years ago, we wouldn’t have known that they had that ability. Now we can use high-frequency sound waves to look at krill, different frequencies to look at murres, and still others to look at squid, dolphins and other animals.

“And everywhere we’ve looked the same pattern occurs,” she added. “It is the distribution of food, not the biomass, which is important.”

An associate professor in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University, Benoit-Bird has received young investigator or early career awards from the Office of Naval Research, the White House and the American Geophysical Union. She also has received honors from the Acoustical Society of America, which has used her as a model scientist in publications aimed at middle school students.

Her work has taken her around the world, including Hawaii where she has used acoustics to study the sophisticated feeding behavior of spinner dolphins. Those studies, she says, helped lead to new revelations about the importance of patchiness.

Ocean physics in the region results in long, thin layers of phytoplankton that may stretch for miles, but are only a few inches thick and a few meters below the surface. Benoit-Bird and her colleagues discovered a layer of zooplankton – tiny animals that feed on the plankton – treading water a meter below to be near the food source. Next up in the food chain were micronekton, larger pelagic fish and crustaceans that would spend the day 600 to 1,000 meters beneath the surface, then come up to the continental shelf at night to target the zooplankton. And the spinner dolphins would emerge at night, where they could reach the depth of the micronekton.

“The phytoplankton were responding to ocean physics,” Benoit-Bird said, “but all of the others in the food chain were targeting their prey by focusing on the densest patches. We got to the point where we could predict with 70 percent accuracy where the dolphins would show up based just on the phytoplankton density – without even considering the zooplankton and micronekton distribution.”

Ocean “patchiness” is not a new concept, Benoit-Bird says, but may have been under-appreciated in importance.

“If you’re a murre that is diving a hundred meters below the surface to find food, you want to maximize the payoff for all of the energy you’re expending,” Benoit-Bird said. “Now we need more research to determine how different species are able to determine where the best patches are.”

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Kelly Benoit-Bird, 541-737-2063

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Dolphins circling prey
Dense patches of food draw ocean predators

OSU scientist receives prestigious Sloan Research Fellowship

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Angelicque “Angel” White, an oceanographer from Oregon State University, has received a 2012 Sloan Research Fellowship from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Fellowships were awarded to 126 top young researchers in the United States and Canada. Awarded annually since 1955, the fellowships are given to early-career scientists and scholars identified as rising stars and the next generation of scientific leaders.

“Today’s Sloan Research Fellows are tomorrow’s Nobel Prize winners, said Paul L. Joskow, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Sloan Fellowships historically have been awarded in seven fields, including chemistry, computer science, economics, mathematics, evolutionary and computational molecular biology, neuroscience, and physics. This year, the foundation expanded to include ocean sciences and awarded eight fellowships in that field, including the one to White.

White is an assistant professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences whose work focuses on ocean productivity and phytoplankton physiology. She is a member of the National Science Foundation-funded Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE), and has been active in a collaborative project to monitor harmful algal blooms off the Oregon coast.

She also has studied the Pacific Ocean “garbage patch,” a huge collection of plastic trapped in a gyre off the West Coast, which she has described as problematic, but exaggerated in scale in many media reports.

Sloan Fellowships provide $50,000 over two years for equipment, technical assistance, professional travel, trainee support and other activities supporting the fellow’s research.

A list of the 2012 recipients is available at: www.sloan.org/fellowships/page/21

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Angel White, 541-737-6397

Researchers eye monitoring system for offshore wind energy impacts

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The next generation of wind energy facilities in the United States may be built offshore where winds are stronger, floating platforms could be utilized, and links to power grids may already exist.

Though the development of such offshore wind towers locally is still in the conceptual stage, there already is concern over the potential impacts that the huge, rotating blades of wind turbines could have on seabirds and bats. Even attempting to monitor such impacts is daunting.

The Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center at Oregon State University has received a three-year, $600,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop a multi-sensor array to record the interactions – including impacts – of birds and bats on the blades, platforms and towers of wind turbines.

“Unfortunately, the usual way to document the impact of wind turbines on birds and bats is to collect the carcasses,” said Robert Suryan, an OSU seabird expert who is principal investigator on the project. “That would be hard to do out in the ocean. Even on shore, surveys are limited at large or remote facilities and can be compromised by scavengers that remove the carcasses.”

So the researchers are coming up with a different approach – synchronizing an array of sensors that will include accelerometers to measure variations in blade movement from impact, visual and infrared cameras, and acoustic devices to record strikes and identify the bird or bat involved. The monitoring system will be designed to run continuously and on multiple turbines at once to estimate the potential impact of the entire wind farm.

The project team led by Suryan includes co-principal investigators Roberto Albertani, an OSU engineer, and Brian Polagye, an engineer from the University of Washington.

“This is the first foray into offshore wind energy for the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center,” said Belinda Batten, who directs the center, which is a joint effort between OSU and the University of Washington. “It builds upon our strengths in wave and tidal energy, and our efforts to gauge potential environmental impacts of new forms of renewable energy.”

Though the researchers’ focus will be on an array for offshore turbines, the sensors will have potential usage in terrestrial facilities as well, pointed out Suryan, an assistant professor of fisheries and wildlife at OSU, who works at the university’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.

The technologies for the array are not new, the researchers say, but integrating the instruments and developing automated strike detection software to capture events – and then remotely transmit relevant data – has not been done. In addition to the engineering challenge, the researchers must account for the impact of the rugged Pacific Ocean, where winter storms frequently produce 20- and 30-foot waves.

“In Oregon, many seabirds are heavy-bodied and fly close to the surface of the ocean – possibly below the sweep of the rotor blades,” Suryan said. “Potential collision with the lower tower and base is still a concern and will be monitored by this system. Studies are needed to identify which species fly at altitudes that might put them at risk of blade impact; we know less about how far and frequently bats move offshore.

“There is also the issue with platforms, which might attract birds as a roosting area,” Suryan added. “Some of it may depend on how far offshore they might be.”

The researchers will spend much of the next three years developing their instrumentation array and synchronizing the instruments. They will test their instrument array on land in Newport and on experimental turbines at Mesalands Community College in New Mexico and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado.

“There is a big push in New England to develop offshore wind energy, as well as in areas where oil and gas platforms already exist,” Suryan said. “One possibility is to use those platforms for hydroelectric power generation from the currents below, and wind energy from turbines above the surface. Our project was funded from an initiative to remove market barriers for developing offshore wind facilities, especially floating platforms that can be used in deep water.

“Regardless of where wind energy platforms are built – on land, or at sea – placement is critical,” he added. “You want to avoid major flyways and travel corridors.”

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Rob Suryan, 541-867-0223

Oregon preparing for debris from Japanese tsunami

CORVALLIS, Ore. – As the one-year anniversary of the devastating March 11, 2011, Japanese earthquake approaches, and debris from the ensuing tsunami moves closer to the West Coast, a group of Oregon agencies, university scientists, political staff, non-governmental organizations and others is preparing for its arrival.

This week, the group held a conference call to review Oregon’s response to the potential arrival of the debris and to chart a communication strategy to educate West Coast residents about what may happen. Questions directed at state and county leaders, Oregon State University Extension experts, the OSU Hatfield Marine Science Center and others are increasing daily.

When will the debris arrive? Where will it land? Is there any danger of radioactivity? What shall we do if we find something?

Jack Barth, an OSU oceanographer and expert in ocean currents, said the debris is still months away from arriving on the West Coast, though it is possible that strong winds may push some floating items that rise high above the surface more quickly to the North American shore. Floats from Japanese fishing nets have washed up on the Washington coast in recent weeks, but those haven’t been tied directly to the tsunami.

“Material from Asia washes up on the West Coast routinely,” Barth said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean it is tsunami-related. A Russian ship discovered a small Japanese fishing boat in the waters north of Hawaii in October that was definitively tied to the tsunami – and it was about where we thought it should be, given the currents.” NOAA reports no radiation was detected on the fishing boat.

Barth, who is the associate dean of OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, has met with U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, and representatives of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and various Oregon agencies and organizations in recent weeks. He said it is difficult to calculate how much debris remains in the ocean, and what exactly will arrive on our shore.

When and how it arrives is a matter of ocean physics, he pointed out.

“Much of the debris generated from the earthquake and tsunami has or will become waterlogged, weighed down with barnacles or other organisms, and sink,” Barth said. “A large fraction of it will be diverted south into the ‘Garbage Patch’ between Hawaii and the West Coast, and may circulate in that gyre.

“What remains should arrive here at the end of 2012, or the beginning of 2013,” he added. “If it arrives in the fall and winter, it will get pushed up north by the currents to Washington, British Columbia and even Alaska. Debris arriving in late spring and summer will hit Oregon and be swept south into California waters.”

What does arrive is unlikely to be dangerous, according to Kathryn Higley, professor and head of the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics at OSU. Higley was one of the most widely cited scientists following the incidents at Japan’s Dai-ichi nuclear plant after the earthquake. She says the lag time between the tsunami and the nuclear incident, coupled with the vastness of the ocean, makes it unlikely that the debris will carry any danger from radiation.

“The major air and water discharges of radioactive material from the Dai-ichi plants occurred a few days after the debris field was created by the tsunami,” Higley pointed out. “So the debris field was spread out at the time the discharges occurred. This would have diluted the radiological impact.

“Secondly, wind, rain and salt spray have been pummeling this material for months,” she said. “The key radionuclides are composed of iodine and cesium – which are chemically a lot like chlorine and sodium. Most of the iodine has gone because of radioactive decay. The radioactive cesium, to a great extent, will be washed off and diluted in the surrounding ocean.

“Therefore, while we may be able to detect trace amounts of radioactive material on this debris, it’s really unlikely that there will be any substantial radiation risk,” Higley said.

Staci Simonich, an OSU professor of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology, has been monitoring the air for emissions from Japan and said that since last April (2011), radiation levels were at “background.”

“Those are naturally occurring levels – at concentrations far below standards for public safety,” she said.

NOAA is monitoring the debris from a national perspective and has a website that can educate the public and keep interested persons updated. It is at http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/.  The agency suggests that beachcombers and others who find material they think may be from Japan report it at disasterdebris@noaa.gov – and use common sense.

They write: “As with any outdoors activity, it is important to follow common sense and put safety first. Avoid picking up debris that you are not well-equipped and trained to handle. For example, be careful of sharp objects that could cut yours hands; avoid picking up sealed containers of chemicals – they may crack or break and spill the content on you; likewise, report any full drum on the beach, and avoid handling it yourself. If you are uncomfortable handling any debris item, leave it where it is.”

Jamie Doyle, an OSU Extension Sea Grant specialist in Coos and Curry counties, said a variety of Oregon agencies and non-governmental organizations are beginning to plan for various response scenarios. As Oregon’s planning progresses, she says, “expect more information for the public.”

“One other concern is what should happen if someone finds any personal effects,” Doyle said. “A lot of people lost their lives, and many people still have family members who are missing. We need to be sensitive to the possibility of finding something that may be of personal significance to someone in Japan.”

Tomoko Dodo, from the Consulate General of Japan’s office in Seattle, has asked that persons finding something that could be considered a personal “keepsake” for a survivor report it to local authorities, or the consulate in Seattle at 206-682-9107.

Patrick Corcoran, an OSU Extension Sea Grant specialist for the North Coast, said the focus thus far has been on research and “building the capacity to respond” to the arrival of the debris. Specific information on Oregon resources and contacts will be forthcoming, he said.

Among the other organizations working on planning Oregon Surfrider Foundation, Stop Oregon Litter and Vandalism (SOLV), Coast Watch, Oregon Emergency Management, Oregon Public Health Division; West Coast Governors’ Alliance; Oregon Parks and Recreation Department;  Oregon Refuse and Recycling Association; Oregon Fishermen’s Cable Committee; Office of U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden; Office of Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber; Washed Ashore; Oregon Department of Environmental Quality; Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development; U.S. Coast Guard; and Western Oregon Waste.

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Jack Barth, 541-737-1607

Scientists follow endangered whale from Russia for second straight year

NEWPORT, Ore. – For the second consecutive year, an international team of scientists has tracked a whale via satellite from one of the world’s most endangered populations to the West Coast of the United States from the waters off Russia’s Sakhalin Island.

Last year, the saga of “Flex” captured the attention of the public as the male, 13-year-old western gray whale journeyed across the Bering Sea and North Pacific Ocean to Vancouver Island and down to Oregon before the tag finally quit working.

This year, they are tracking “Varvara,” a 9-year-old female western gray whale that has again surprised scientists by not only coming to the West Coast – but by apparently heading for a known breeding ground of eastern gray whales in the San Ignacio Lagoon of the Sea of Cortez. Varvara took a different route across the Bering Sea than did Flex but both moved swiftly down the West Coast upon arriving in North America.

Varvara (which is Barbara in Russian) has steadily moved south at a clip of about 100 to 125  miles a day, breezing past Washington, Oregon and California and has entered the waters off Mexico – her fourth country in two months. Interested persons can track her progress online at: http://mmi.oregonstate.edu/Sakhalin2011.

Bruce Mate, director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University, whose team tagged the endangered whale in September and has watched her make the 6,000-mile-plus trek over the past two months. He said her journey is more than a feel-good story, such as that depicted in the new film, “Big Miracle.”

Varvara’s adventure has tremendous ecological and management significance, Mate says.

“There are only about 130 western gray whales left in the world,” Mate said, “and they were thought to be distinct from their more populous cousins, the eastern gray whales that we see up and down the Pacific Coast. But this is the second consecutive year we have tracked a whale from Russia to our coast, so Varvara’s journey is suggesting that the visit from Flex last year may not have been an anomaly.”

In the 1970s, western gray whales were thought to have gone extinct, but a small aggregation was discovered by Russian scientists off Sakhalin Island and has been monitored by Russian and U.S. scientists since the 1990s. Eastern gray whales likewise were decimated by whaling and listed as endangered, but conservation efforts led to a recovery and, at 18,000 strong, they have been delisted.

Protecting such an endangered population has been difficult. Five western gray whales have died in Japanese fishing nets within the past five years, and their migration patterns take them into shipping lanes and through oil and gas drilling sites.

Not all scientists believe that western gray whales are a separate, distinct species.  Valentin Ilyashenko of the A.N Severtsov Institute for Ecology and Evolution, who is the Russian representative to the International Whaling Commission, has proposed since 2009 that recent western and eastern gray whale populations are not isolated and that the gray whales found in Russian waters are a part of an eastern population that is restoring its former historical range.

Ilyashenko, Mate and their colleagues first tagged and tracked a western gray whale near Russia in December of 2010, when they followed a male named “Flex” to the West Coast of the United States. It was the first time scientists had documented that western gray whales journey to this side of the Pacific Ocean.

In the fall of 2011, the team returned to the Sakhalin Island region and tagged six whales to see if they would duplicate the migration pattern followed by Flex. Four of the tags stopped working before the whales left Sakhalin in the fall. Varvara and a whale named “Agent” crossed the Bering Sea into the North Pacific and into the home range of eastern gray whales. Mate said researchers lost the signal on Agent halfway across the Gulf of Alaska, but Varvara’s signal is still going strong.

“The average tag lasts 123 days, and she has passed that mark already, but the tags also are capable of lasting up to a year,” Mate said. “Ideally, it will continue to operate as she returns north from the breeding lagoon so we can see if she takes the same route back to Russia.”

Greg Donovan, head of science for the International Whaling Commission and coordinator of the project, said the data the team is acquiring is of enormous significance.

“Western gray whales could be a separate population, they could represent an expansion of eastern gray whales, or there could be some of both sharing some of the same feeding grounds off eastern Russia,” Donovan said. “It is clear that we need to re-examine our understanding of the population structure of gray whales in the North Pacific and any conservation and management implications that arise from that understanding.”

OSU’s Mate said past studies by the university’s Marine Mammal Institute suggest that gray whales typically stay in the breeding areas for 20-25 days before beginning their return migration. That should put Varvara back in the ocean off Los Angeles in late February, and back to Oregon by March, he estimated.

Story By: 

Bruce Mate, 541-867-0202, or 541-272-1175

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New study: Juvenile predation preventing Steller sea lion recovery

NEWPORT, Ore. – A new study suggests that the impact of predation on juvenile Steller sea lions in the Gulf of Alaska has been significantly underestimated, creating a “productivity pit” from which their population will have difficulty recovering without a reduction of predators.

Scientists using “life history transmitters” to study Steller sea lions found evidence of age-structured predation by orcas (killer whales) and other large predators in Alaska’s Prince William Sound and adjacent areas, which may change with the population density of the sea lions.

Results of the study are being published this week in the journal PLoS ONE.

“It is generally accepted that most pinniped populations suffer from high attrition in the juvenile years, but this study suggests that predation accounts for most, if not all of this attrition in the case of Steller sea lions,” said Markus Horning, an Oregon State University marine mammal expert and lead author on the study.

“The focus of predators on juveniles has the end result of heavily capping female recruitment – or the number of females that survive until they are old enough to have pups,” Horning added.

Previous studies have pointed to a reduction of birth rates as a possible explanation for the decline of Steller sea lions in Alaska. But the newly published study by Horning, who works at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore., and Jo-Ann Mellish of the Alaska Sea Life Center and the University of Alaska Fairbanks, counters that and suggests that predators increasingly are targeting younger Steller sea lions as populations of the marine mammal decrease – reducing the numbers of potential breeding females.

The end result may be the same: Not enough Steller sea lions are being born each year to rejuvenate the population, which has declined by 80 percent over the past four decades.

However, the mechanisms for such a deficit in newborn pups may be different, Horning says. Previous studies suggest that reduced birth rates are a result of episodic changes in the ocean that affect feeding, growth and reproduction. Other factors known to affect sea lions – including mortality from fishing gear, ship strikes, and legal and illegal hunting – typically affect survival, but rarely result in a lower birth rate.

Predation, on the other hand, may be preventing too many juveniles from reaching breeding age, the study concludes. Orcas are the most common predators of Steller sea lions, though salmon sharks and Pacific sleeper sharks also are known predators, and great whites are suspected.

To measure mortality and predation among western Steller sea lions, the researchers deployed specialized transmitters in 36 juvenile sea lions from 2005 to 2011 in the Kenai Fjords and Prince William Sound region of the Gulf of Alaska. The abdominally implanted archival tags are designed to record data on temperature, light and other properties during the sea lions’ lives, and after the animals die, transmit data to satellites.

These unique buoyant tags are liberated from decomposing or dismembered carcasses after death, or are passed through the digestive tract of predators, and float to the surface or rest ashore, according to Horning, an investigator with OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute.

“The transmitters are amazing recorders of the life history of the animals, and can tell us in most cases how they died,” Horning said. “Gradual cooling and delayed extrusion are signs of a non-traumatic death, say disease or starvation, or of entanglement, drowning or shooting. When the sensors record precipitous drops in ambient temperature along with immediate sensing of light and the onset of data transmission, it is indicative of acute death by massive trauma – usually associated with dismemberment by predators.”

Horning said other traumatic deaths, including ship strikes and shooting should leave a different “signature” on the recorders and are unlikely to result in the immediate extrusion of the tags.

During the study period, 12 of the animals died and at least 11 of those deaths were by predation, the researchers noted. Once they established a rate of predation-related deaths, the researchers applied that to a new population model of Steller sea lions and discovered that such a high rate of predation among juveniles could make it impossible for the population to recover without a lessening of predation.

Previous research has shown that an adult killer whale, from a purely caloric standpoint, would need to consume 2-3 Steller sea lions pups per day to exist, or one adult female sea lion every two to three days.  The new population model developed by Horning suggests that as Steller populations decrease, predators may be targeting more juveniles.

“Young sea lions spend more time close to shore and the haul-outs where they are suckled by their mothers,” said Horning, an associate professor of fisheries and wildlife at OSU. “They can be found more predictably by predators than can older animals and adult males.”

“As the density of more ‘profitable’ adults declines, more juveniles may be targeted and never grow to adulthood, which makes rebuilding their populations problematic,” Horning added. “Unless predation is lessened, it appears they are in a productivity pit.”

The model suggests that at the highest abundance (such as before the decline began four decades ago), pups comprise 7 percent of all predation events, juveniles 46 percent, and adults 47 percent. But when overall populations decline to a level of 20 percent (which is the current level for the western stock), pups comprise 23 percent of the mortality, juveniles 72 percent, and adults just 5 percent.

“This changeover strongly suggests an age-structure density dependence in predation rates,” the authors wrote.

The study was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the North Pacific Research Board, the Pollock Conservation Cooperative Research Center, the Alaska Sea Life Center and the North Pacific Marine Science Foundation.



Story By: 

Markus Horning, 541-867-0270, or 


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Young Steller sea lion

Stellers in Alaska

OSU to retire one research vessel, take over operation of another

NEWPORT, Ore. – For more than 35 years, the Oregon State University research vessel Wecoma has carried scientists out of Newport to sea to learn about fisheries, climate change, undersea earthquakes and volcanoes, tsunamis, marine dead zones and other scientific issues.

The R/V Wecoma made its last official voyage in November, taking a research team off the Northwest coast to map the Cascadia Subduction Zone. And now the venerable vessel is heading into retirement.

In its place, another ship in the University National Oceanographic Laboratory System fleet, the 35-year-old Oceanus, will support scientific research in the northeast Pacific Ocean. Operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Oceanus was also scheduled to be retired but will arrive in Newport, Ore., in February after making the long trek from the East Coast.

This changing of the ships is somewhat unusual, according to Mark Abbott, dean of the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at OSU.

Abbott approached the National Science Foundation about a rapid analysis of the two ships to see which one would be more cost-effective to operate over the next several years. A team of technicians returned the verdict – a strong recommendation for the 177-foot Oceanus.

“During the analysis, we also discovered some problems with the Wecoma’s hull, as well as corrosion that would have required costly dry-docking,” Abbott pointed out. “The combination of that discovery and the overall report prompted us to send a letter of interest to the NSF to take over the Oceanus and retire Wecoma.”

“There are a few differences in science capabilities,” Abbott added, “but Oceanus is very capable and will be more cost-effective to operate over the next five to 10 years, at which point we hope to have a new ship.”

OSU has operated large research vessels since 1964, and has had the Wecoma since 1975. The fate of the ship is unclear – after its retirement from the University National Oceanographic Laboratory System fleet, OSU and National Science Foundation leaders will review options for disposition.

Oregon State is an active member of UNOLS, a consortium of 60 academic research institutions that operate 16 vessels around the country, according to Demian Bailey, OSU’s marine superintendent. Wecoma and Oceanus are owned by the National Science Foundation and support research projects funded primarily by NSF and the U.S. Navy.

Both ships will be docked at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, adjacent to a new facility built for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to maintain its Pacific fleet. That fleet supports monitoring and research needs of NOAA.

OSU also operates the 54-foot Elakha and 85-foot Pacific Storm, which are used primarily for near-shore research.

Oceanus will leave Woods Hole in late January, sail through the Panama Canal and arrive in Newport in late February. It will be ready to support the first OSU research cruise in late March.

A retirement celebration for the Wecoma will be held at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in March.

The Wecoma:

  • Built in 1975, and overhauled in 1995;
  • 184.5 feet long
  • Cruising speed: 12 knots
  • Range: 7,200 nautical miles
  • Endurance: 30 days
  • Capacity: 13 crew members and 18 scientists

The Oceanus:

  • Built in 1975, and overhauled in 1994;
  • 177 feet long
  • Cruising speed: 11 knots
  • Range: 7,000 nautical miles
  • Endurance: 30 days
  • Capacity: 12 crew members and 14 scientists

History of OSU Research Vessels

  • 1964 – The Department of Oceanography commissions the 180-foot Yaquina
  • 1968 – The Department of Oceanography commissions the 80-foot Cayuse
  • 1975 – The School of Oceanography commissions the 184-foot Wecoma
  • 2000 – The College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences commissions the 54-foot Elakha
  • 2012 – The College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences takes over operation of the 177-foot Oceanus.
Story By: 

Mark Abbott, 541-737-5195

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R/V Oceanus

OSU’s Dawn Wright to receive national award

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Dawn Wright, a professor of geography and oceanography at Oregon State University, has received the 2012 Presidential Achievement Award from the Association of American Geographers.

Wright, a nationally recognized expert in geographic information systems, is on a two-year leave from OSU to serve as chief scientist for the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), a leading company in providing GIS software and services to hundreds of thousands of organizations worldwide, including most of the world’s governments.

Known as “Deepsea Dawn” for her work in mapping and studying the deep ocean, Wright has numerous achievements and awards. Last year, she was named an Aldo Leopold Fellow; in 2007, she was named Oregon Professor of the Year by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the Carnegie Foundation; she went to Ireland on a Fulbright fellowship; and she has been featured in a National Science Foundation series on women oceanographers.

Wright’s research interests include geographic information science, ocean floor habitat and terrain, tectonics of mid-ocean ridges, and the interpretation of high-resolution bathymetry and underwater videography/photography. She has studied the recovery of coral reefs and other seafloor habitats after tsunamis and other extreme events.

Also receiving a 2012 AAG Presidential Achievement Award is Laura Pulido of the University of Southern California. Both scientists will receive their awards at the annual meeting of the association in New York City this February.

Story By: 

Dawn Wright, 909-793-2853, ext. 2182

OSU’s Abbott receives top Microsoft research award

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University oceanographic leader Mark Abbott has been named the 2011 recipient of the Jim Gray eScience Award, presented by Microsoft Research.

Abbott, who is dean of OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, is the fourth recipient of the award since its 2008 inception. It is presented to a nationally recognized researcher who has made outstanding contributions to data-intensive computing.

He will receive the award today (Dec. 5) in Stockholm, Sweden, at a joint meeting of the 2011 Microsoft Research eScience workshop and the annual Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers conference.

The award is named for Jim Gray, a Microsoft Research innovator, who disappeared at sea in 2007. A video feature focusing on the Gray Award is available on the Microsoft Research homepage.

"The Jim Gray eScience Award recognizes innovators who use computing to advance scientific discovery," said Tony Hey, corporate vice president, Microsoft Research Connections. "Mark Abbott represents the essence of this award with his outstanding contributions to integrating biological and physical science, data-intensive science and educational leadership."

Under Abbott’s leadership, OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences has developed an international reputation for its research – especially in the collection, synthesis and distribution of data. The college’s Environmental Computing Center houses one of the most sophisticated marine science computing networks in the country, and OSU researchers are global leaders in data-driven research on climate change, near-shore oceanography, ocean-atmosphere interactions and other fields.

Abbott’s own research has pioneered the use of satellite measurements of ocean productivity, the deployment of an array of biological sensors in the Southern Ocean between New Zealand and Antarctica, and the use of advance computer technology on board ocean gliders and vehicles. All of these projects involved the collection and synthesis of complex data sets through the use of data-intensive information technology.

OSU also is a leader for the Ocean Observatories Initiative, the National Science Foundation’s $386 million signature project to monitor the oceans’ response to climate change. The college operates a fleet of undersea gliders that patrol the near-shore Pacific Ocean, logging critical data.

Also being honored in Stockholm is Alex Szalay, a Johns Hopkins University astrophysicist, who will receive a Jim Gray eScience award retroactively. Szaley had received a Microsoft Research award in 2007 based on technical computing contributions – the same profile as the Gray Award. He will retroactively be named a 2007 winner of the Gray Award.

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Mark Abbott, 541-737-5195

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Mark Abbott
Mark Abbott, OSU

Scientists describe new species of crab that “farms” methane vents

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A species of crab found a thousand feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean near Costa Rica lives off the bacteria on its claws – bacteria that it fertilizes by waving them in methane and sulfide released from the seafloor.

This “farming” behavior was described for the first time in detail by the scientists this week in the journal PLoS One.

This new species of the Yeti crab, called Kiwa puravida, was first discovered in 2006, according to Andrew Thurber, a post-doctoral researcher at Oregon State University and lead author of the study. It is only the second member of the Yeti family of crabs – first discovered in 2005 – and illustrates how little scientists know about the deep ocean environment, the researchers say.

“We watched the crabs wave their claws back and forth in fluid from a methane seep, and rather than trying to capture bacteria, it appeared that they were providing food to the bacteria already growing on their claws,” Thurber said. “There isn’t sufficient food that deep that is derived from the sun’s energy, so vent and seep animals harness chemical energy released from the seafloor.

“These bacteria are specialists and can be found on a variety of crustaceans – crabs, shrimp and barnacles – near seeps and vents," added Thurber, who is in OSU's College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences. “But we hadn’t before seen that kind of ‘farming’ behavior in which the host waves its symbionts in seep fluid.”

Thurber, who did much of the research as a doctoral student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, wasn’t part of the 2005 that found the first Yeti crab, but participated in the 2006 expedition that discovered Kiwa puravida, and follow-up cruises in 2009 and 2010 that collected the crabs using the submersible Alvin.

Having the specimens allowed the scientists to more closely examine the bacteria on their claws and run their genetic code through GenBank – an international database that includes thousands of species of bacteria. They discovered that it is most similar to bacteria found on crabs and shrimp living near hydrothermal vents.

“We don’t know for certain whether hydrogen sulfide alone fuels this species’ symbionts,” Thurber said, “but we suspect it may use both hydrogen sulfide and methane released from the seafloor to exist so far from the sun.”

Thurber said symbiotic behavior in nature is common, but few animals are known to behave in quite the same way as Kiwa puravida. Some organisms, including mussels and tubeworms, have symbionts inside of them that allow them to harness chemical energy, while others that do not have symbionts – including barnacles – wave their appendages to grab food as it goes by. This new species is the only one that combines the two, by using symbionts on its appendages and waving those bacteria-laden appendages in seep fluid to capture chemical energy as a food for themselves.

Lipid and isotope analyses showed that these epibiotic bacteria are the crabs’ main food source, though Thurber said they may be getting a small amount of sun-derived energy from dead plankton that have filtered down through the water column.

Thurber said the crabs harvest the bacteria growing on their claws by using a specially adapted appendage to scrape the bacteria off their bodies and bring it to their mouths, and then continually waving their claws near methane seeps to boost the bacteria’s productivity.

Only one specimen of the original Yeti crab, K. hirsuta, has been collected and that was near a hydrothermal vent. About 30-40 specimens of Kiwa puravida have been examined and the scientists believe they may exist at similar methane seeps.

“Since this entire family of crabs wasn’t even discovered until 2005, there is a strong possibility other species are out there,” Thurber said.

Other authors on the study are W. Joe Jones of the University of South Carolina and Kareen Schnabel of the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research in Wellington, New Zealand.

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Andrew Thurber, 541-737-8251

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New species of crab

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