OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

marine science and the coast

OSU student discovers floating tsunami dock on video one year later…

NEWPORT, Ore. – Oregon State University graduate student Cheryl Horton was meticulously scanning year-old video of a bird colony off Yaquina Head near Newport, Ore., last month when she noticed a strange object drifting by in the background.

Closer examination confirmed that the grainy, distant floating object captured on her research camera was the dock that washed ashore at Agate Beach in early June of 2012, some 15 months after a devastating earthquake and tsunami ripped it loose from its mooring in Misawa, Japan. In the weeks after it landed on the Oregon beach, the cement dock became a tourist attraction and drew attention from news media worldwide.

Her discovery came one year almost to the day that the dock landed on Agate Beach, bringing mystique – and potentially invasive species – to Oregon from Japan. It is the only known video of the dock during its trans-Pacific Ocean journey. It can be viewed at: http://bit.ly/112zAzb

“We’ve been behind analyzing our footage and had gone through video of common murre colonies at Cape Meares in the north and Coquille Point in the south,” said Horton, a master’s candidate in fisheries and wildlife at OSU. “But we got so busy that we didn’t get around to looking at the central coast data until this June. Then it was, ‘whoa – what is that?’”

“That” was the dock, which measured seven feet tall, was some 19 feet wide by 66 feet long, and weighed an estimated 188 tons. On camera, floating in the water, it looks much smaller – almost like a log. It takes about three minutes for the concrete dock to drift past the camera, slowly riding the current from north to south.

The discovery is more of a curiosity than anything, though OSU researchers have examined the video for clues that may tell them a bit more about the direction and speed the dock may have traveled – at least in the days before it beached.

Horton is sharing the video with others and is again focusing on her research on common murres, a species that increasingly is being preyed upon by bald eagles along the Oregon coast, as well as by “secondary” predators including gulls and pelicans.

“It was kind of fun to discover the dock video and share it with others,” she said. “Everyone has been pretty excited about it.”

A portion of the dock is on display at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, where Horton and major professor Rob Suryan are based. Horton also is mentored by Katie Dugger, another fisheries and wildlife faculty member on the OSU campus.

Horton is the second fisheries and wildlife student in recent years to make an accidental scientific discovery via camera.  In 2008, graduate student Katie Moriarty captured an image of a rare wolverine on camera in the Tahoe National Forest. It was the first sighting of a wolverine in California in nearly 75 years.

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Cheryl Horton, 845-548-2187; hortonc@onid.orst.edu

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Scientists outline long-term sea-level rise in response to warming of planet

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new study estimates that global sea levels will rise about 2.3 meters, or more than seven feet, over the next several thousand years for every degree (Celsius) the planet warms.

This international study is one of the first to combine analyses of four major contributors to potential sea level rise into a collective estimate, and compare it with evidence of past sea-level responses to global temperature changes.

Results of the study, funded primarily by the National Science Foundation and the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, are being published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The study did not seek to estimate how much the planet will warm, or how rapidly sea levels will rise,” noted Peter Clark, an Oregon State University paleoclimatologist and author on the PNAS article. “Instead, we were trying to pin down the ‘sea-level commitment’ of global warming on a multi-millennial time scale. In other words, how much would sea levels rise over long periods of time for each degree the planet warms and holds that warmth?”

“The simulations of future scenarios we ran from physical models were fairly consistent with evidence of sea-level rise from the past,” Clark added. “Some 120,000 years ago, for example, it was 1-2 degrees warmer than it is now and sea levels were about five to nine meters higher. This is consistent with what our models say may happen in the future.”

Scientists say the four major contributors to sea-level rise on a global scale will come from melting of glaciers, melting of the Greenland ice sheet, melting of the Antarctic ice sheet, and expansion of the ocean itself as it warms. Several past studies have examined each of these components, the authors say, but this is one of the first efforts at merging different analyses into a single projection.

The researchers ran hundreds of simulations through their models to calculate how the four areas would respond to warming, Clark said, and the response was mostly linear. The amount of melting and subsequent sea-level response was commensurate with the amount of warming. The exception, he said, was in Greenland, which seems to have a threshold at which the response can be amplified.

“As the ice sheet in Greenland melts over thousands of years and becomes lower, the temperature will increase because of the elevation loss,” Clark said. “For every 1,000 meters of elevation loss, it warms about six degrees (Celsius). That elevation loss would accelerate the melting of the Greenland ice sheet.”

In contrast, the Antarctic ice sheet is so cold that elevation loss won’t affect it the same way. The melting of the ice sheet there comes primarily from the calving of icebergs, which float away and melt in warmer ocean waters, or the contact between the edges of the ice sheet and seawater.

In their paper, the authors note that sea-level rise in the past century has been dominated by the expansion of the ocean and melting of glaciers. The biggest contributions in the future may come from melting of the Greenland ice sheet, which could disappear entirely, and the Antarctic ice sheet, which will likely reach some kind of equilibrium with atmospheric temperatures and shrink significantly, but not disappear.

“Keep in mind that the sea level rise projected by these models of 2.3 meters per degree of warming is over thousands of years,” emphasized Clark, who is a professor in Oregon State University’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “If it warms a degree in the next two years, sea levels won’t necessarily rise immediately. The Earth has to warm and hold that increased temperature over time.

“However, carbon dioxide has a very long time scale and the amounts we’ve emitted into the atmosphere will stay up there for thousands of years,” he added. “Even if we were to reduce emissions, the sea-level commitment of global warming will be significant.”

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Peter Clark, cell phone: 541-740-5237 (clarkp@geo.oregonstate.edu)

Lionfish expedition: down deep is where the big, scary ones live

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Last month, the first expedition to use a deep-diving submersible to study the Atlantic Ocean lionfish invasion found something very disturbing – at 300 feet deep, there were still significant populations of these predatory fish, and they were big.

Big fish in many species can reproduce much more efficiently than their younger, smaller counterparts, and lionfish are known to travel considerable distances and move to various depths. This raises significant new concerns in the effort to control this invasive species that is devastating native fish populations on the Atlantic Coast and in the Caribbean Sea.

“We expected some populations of lionfish at that depth, but their numbers and size were a surprise,” said Stephanie Green, the David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellow in the College of Science at Oregon State University, who participated in the dives. OSU has been one of the early leaders in the study of the lionfish invasion.

“This was kind of an ‘Ah hah!’ moment,” she said. “It was immediately clear that this is a new frontier in the lionfish crisis, and that something is going to have to be done about it. Seeing it up-close really brought home the nature of the problem.”

OSU participated in this expedition with researchers from a number of other universities, in work supported by Nova Southeastern University, the Guy Harvey Foundation, NOAA, and other agencies. The five-person  submersible “Antipodes” was provided by OceanGate, Inc., and it dove about 300 feet deep off the coast of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., near the “Bill Boyd” cargo ship that was intentionally sunk there in 1986 to create an artificial reef for marine life.

That ship has, in fact, attracted a great deal of marine life, and now, a great number of lionfish. And for that species, they are growing to an unusually large size – as much as 16 inches.

Lionfish are a predatory fish that’s native to the Pacific Ocean and were accidentally introduced to Atlantic Ocean waters in the early 1990s, and there became a voracious predator with no natural controls on its population. An OSU study in 2008 showed that lionfish in the Atlantic have been known to reduce native fish populations by up to 80 percent.

Eradication appears impossible, and they threaten everything from coral reef ecosystems to local economies that are based on fishing and tourism.

Whatever is keeping them in check in the Pacific – and researchers around the world are trying to find out what that is – is missing here. In the Caribbean, they are found at different depths, in various terrain, are largely ignored by other local predators and parasites, and are rapidly eating their way through entire ecosystems. They will attack many other species and appear to eat constantly.

And, unfortunately, the big fish just discovered at greater depths pose that much more of a predatory threat, not to mention appetite.

“A lionfish will eat almost any fish smaller than it is,” Green said. “Regarding the large fish we observed in the submersible dives, a real concern is that they could migrate to shallower depths as well and eat many of the fish there. And the control measures we’re using at shallower depths – catch them and let people eat them – are not as practical at great depth.”

Size does more than just increase predation.  In many fish species, a large, mature adult can produce far more offspring that small, younger fish. A large, mature female in some species can produce up to 10 times as many offspring as a fish that’s able to reproduce, but half the size.

Trapping is a possibility for removing fish at greater depth, Green said, and could be especially effective if a method were developed to selectively trap lionfish and not other species. Work on control technologies and cost effectiveness of various approaches will continue at OSU, she said.

When attacking another fish, a lionfish uses its large, fan-like fins to herd smaller fish into a corner and then swallow them in a rapid strike. Because of their natural defense mechanisms they are afraid of almost no other marine life, and will consume dozens of species of the tropical fish and invertebrates that typically congregate in coral reefs and other areas. The venom released by their sharp spines can cause extremely painful stings to humans.

Aside from the rapid and immediate mortality of marine life, the loss of herbivorous fish will also set the stage for seaweed to potentially overwhelm the coral reefs and disrupt the delicate ecological balance in which they exist.

This newest threat follows on the heels of overfishing, sediment deposition, nitrate pollution in some areas, coral bleaching caused by global warming, and increasing ocean acidity caused by carbon emissions. Lionfish may be the final straw that breaks the back of Western Atlantic and Caribbean coral reefs, some researchers believe.

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Stephanie Green, 541-737-5364

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The sounds of science – melting of iceberg creates surprising ocean din

CORVALLIS, Ore. – There is growing concern about how much noise humans generate in marine environments through shipping, oil exploration and other developments, but a new study has found that naturally occurring phenomena could potentially affect some ocean dwellers.

Nowhere is this concern greater than in the polar regions, where the effects of global warming often first manifest themselves. The breakup of ice sheets and the calving and grounding of icebergs can create enormous sound energy, scientists say. Now a new study has found that the mere drifting of an iceberg from near Antarctica to warmer ocean waters produces startling levels of noise.

Results of the study are being published this month in Oceanography.

A team led by Oregon State University researchers used an array of hydrophones to track the sound produced by an iceberg through its life cycle, from its origin in the Weddell Sea to its eventual demise in the open ocean. The goal of the project was to measure baseline levels of this kind of naturally occurring sound in the ocean, so it can be compared to anthropogenic noises.

“During one hour-long period, we documented that the sound energy released by the iceberg disintegrating was equivalent to the sound that would be created by a few hundred supertankers over the same period,” said Robert Dziak, a marine geologist at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore., and lead author on the study.

“This wasn’t from the iceberg scraping the bottom,” he added. “It was from its rapid disintegration as the berg melted and broke apart. We call the sounds ‘icequakes’ because the process and ensuing sounds are much like those produced by earthquakes.”

Dziak is a scientist with the Cooperative Institute for Marine Resources Studies (CIMRS), a collaborative program between Oregon State University and NOAA based at OSU’s Hatfield center. He also is on the faculty of OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.

When scientists first followed the iceberg, it encountered a 124-meter deep shoal, causing it to rotate and grind across the seafloor. It then began generating semi-continuous harmonic tremors for the next six days. The iceberg then entered Bransfield Strait and became fixed over a 265-meter deep shoal, where it began to pinwheel. The harmonic tremors became shorter and less pronounced.

It wasn’t until the iceberg broke loose and drifted into the warmer waters of the Scotia Sea that the real action began. Photos from the International Space Station showed visible melt ponds on the iceberg’s surface, indicating it had was in a period of rapid disintegration. Within two months, the iceberg had broken apart and scientists were no longer able to track it via satellite.

But the scientists’ hydrophone array recorded the acoustic signature of the breakup – short duration, broadband signals that were distinctly different from the harmonic tremors, and much louder.

“You wouldn’t think that a drifting iceberg would create such a large amount of sound energy without colliding into something or scraping the seafloor,” noted Dziak, who has monitored ocean sounds using hydrophones for nearly two decades.  “But think of what happens why you pour a warm drink into a glass filled with ice. The ice shatters and the cracking sounds can be really dramatic. Now extrapolate that to a giant iceberg and you can begin to understand the magnitude of the sound energy.”

“In fact, the sounds produced by ice breakup near Antarctica are often clearly recorded on hydrophones that we have near the equator,” Dziak added.

Scientists are just starting to study the impact of anthropogenic and naturally occurring sounds on marine life and are unsure about the possible impacts. Most at-risk are those animals that use sound to facilitate their life-sustaining activities, such as feeding, breeding and navigation.

“The breakup of ice and the melting of icebergs are natural events, so obviously animals have adapted to this noise over time,” Dziak said. “If the atmosphere continues to warm and the breakup of ice is magnified, this might increase the noise budget in the polar areas.

“We don’t know what impact this may have,” Dziak added, “but we are trying to establish what natural sound levels are in various parts of the world’s oceans to better understand the amount of anthropogenic noise that is being generated.”

The research is supported primarily by the NOAA Ocean Exploration and Research Program, the Department of Energy, and the Korea Polar Research Institute.

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Bob Dziak, 541-867-0175; robert.dziak@oregonstate.edu

Study: Ocean acidification killing oysters by inhibiting shell formation

CORVALLIS, Ore. – For the past several years, the Pacific Northwest oyster industry has struggled with significant losses due to ocean acidification as oyster larvae encountered mortality rates sufficient to make production non-economically feasible.

Now a new study led by researchers at Oregon State University has documented why oysters appear so sensitive to increasing acidity. It isn’t necessarily a case of acidic water dissolving their shells, researchers say. Rather it is a case of water high in carbon dioxide altering shell formation rates, energy usage and, ultimately, the growth and survival of the young oysters.

Results of the study have been published online in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

“From the time eggs are fertilized, Pacific oyster larvae will precipitate roughly 90 percent of their body weight as a calcium carbonate shell within 48 hours,” said George Waldbusser, an OSU marine ecologist and lead author on the study. “The young oysters rely solely on the energy they derive from the egg because they have not yet developed feeding organs.”

Under exposure to increasing carbon dioxide in acidified water, however, it becomes more energetically expensive for organisms to build shell. Adult oysters and other bivalves may grow slower when exposed to rising CO2 levels, other studies have shown. But larvae in the first two days of life do not have the luxury of delayed growth, the researchers say.

“They must build their first shell quickly on a limited amount of energy – and along with the shell comes the organ to capture external food more effectively,” said Waldbusser, who is in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “It becomes a death race of sorts. Can the oyster build its shell quickly enough to allow its feeding mechanisms to develop before it runs out of energy from the egg?”

The study is important, scientists say, because it documents for the first time the links among shell formation rate, available energy, and sensitivity to acidification.

“The failure of oyster seed production in Northwest Pacific coastal waters is one of the most graphic examples of ocean acidification effects on important commercial shellfish,” said Dave Garrison, program director in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Ocean Sciences, which funded the study.  “This research is among the first to identify the links among organism physiology, ocean carbonate chemistry and oyster seed mortality.”

The authors say that the faster the rate of shell formation, the more energy is needed and oyster embryos building their first shell need “to make a lot of shell material on short order.”

“As the carbon dioxide in seawater increases, but before waters become corrosive, calcium carbonate precipitation requires significantly more energy to maintain the higher rates of shell formation found during this early stage,” Waldbusser said.

The OSU researchers worked with Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery in Netarts Bay, Ore., on the study.  Using stable isotopes, they found that on the second day of life, 100 percent of the larval tissue growth was from egg-derived carbon.

“The oyster larvae were still relying on egg-derived energy until they were 11 days old,” said Elizabeth Brunner, a graduate student working in Waldbusser’s laboratory and co-author on the study.

The earliest shell material in the larvae contained the greatest proportion of carbon from the surrounding waters, with increasing amounts of carbon from respiration incorporated into the shell after the first 48 hours, indicating ability to isolate and control shell surfaces where calcium carbonate is being deposited.

Waldbusser notes that adult bivalves are well-adapted to grow shell in conditions that are more acidified, and have evolved several mechanisms to do including use of organic molecules to organize and facilitate the formation of calcium carbonate; pumps that remove acid from the calcifying fluids; and outer shell coatings that protect the mineral to some degree from surrounding waters. These adaptations allow bivalves to generate calcium carbonate more rapidly than is possible without biological intervention.

The study notes that kinetics, or the rate of reaction, provides a physical constraint on the calcification process in seawater absent of life; for calcium carbonate the rate is proportional to the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) present, before water actually becomes corrosive to the mineral

Waldbusser said the study helps explain previous findings at Whiskey Creek Hatchery of larval sensitivity to waters that are elevated in CO2 but not corrosive to calcium carbonate. They also explain carryover effects later in larval life of exposure to elevated CO2, similar to neonatal nutrition.

The discovery may actually be good news, scientists say, because there are interventions that can be done at the hatcheries that may offset some of the effects of ocean acidification.

Some hatcheries have begun “buffering” water for larvae – essentially adding antacid to the incoming water – including the Whiskey Creek Hatchery and the Taylor Shellfish Farm in Washington. The OSU-led study provides a scientific foundation for the target level of buffering.

“Whiskey Creek Hatchery figured this out by trial and error in the last couple years arriving at an amount of buffering that was more than we initially thought would be needed,” Waldbusser said. “On the energy side, you can make sure that eggs have more energy before they enter the larval stage, so a well-balanced adult diet may help larval oysters cope better with the stress of acidified water.”

Breeding for specific traits is another strategy, researchers say. Chris Langton, a co-author on the study, who for years directed the Molluscan Broodstock Program at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore., is leading an effort to use selective breeding to isolate certain favorable traits in oysters.

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George Waldbusser, 541-737-8964

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Jane Lubchenco kicks off OSU speaker series at da Vinci Days

CORVALLIS, Ore. — Jane Lubchenco, Oregon State University professor and former administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, will give the opening night keynote address at Corvallis’ annual da Vinci Days festival on Friday, July 19.

Her presentation, “From the Silly to the Sublime: Stories about Science in D.C,” will begin at 7 p.m. in the Whiteside Theater. It is free and open to the public.

Lubchenco will reflect on her experiences with NOAA, the federal agency in charge of weather forecasts and warnings, climate records and outlooks. NOAA is also the nation’s ocean agency, managing fisheries, monitoring changes, and being the steward of ocean health in federal waters. NOAA’s satellites, ships, planes and other platforms and its cadre of scientists provide the information and understanding that support those activities.

Since stepping down from NOAA, Lubchenco has been on leave at Stanford University and plans to return to Oregon State in June.

Lubchenco’s talk will launch a weekend series of family-friendly talks by Oregon State researchers that will focus on the ongoing Mars rover mission, decoding the golden ratio, underwater photography from Antarctica and invasive bullfrogs in our lakes and streams.

All weekend presentations will be held in Kearney Hall, which is located on the university campus across from the da Vinci Days festival site. They are also free and open to the public.

Steve Amen, host of Oregon Public Broadcasting’s popular Oregon Field Guide, will conclude the series as the festival’s closing speaker. His presentation, “Oregon’s Splendor,” will begin at 4 p.m. Sunday in Kearney Hall. He will share some of his favorite spots in Oregon, from the high desert to the coast.

Inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s left-brain-meets-right-brain genius, the first da Vinci Days festival was held in 1989. In addition to the speaker series, this celebration of arts, science and technology features independent films, live music and a kinetic sculpture race. Hands-on exhibition booths and demonstrations on the Oregon State campus invite students and families to explore the many creative sides of OSU and the Corvallis community. 

See more about da Vinci Days at www.davincidays.org.

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Michael Dalton, 541-992-1929

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About Oregon State University: OSU is one of only two U.S. universities designated a land-, sea-, space- and sun-grant institution. OSU is also Oregon’s only university to hold both the Carnegie Foundation’s top designation for research institutions and its prestigious Community Engagement classification. Its more than 26,000 students come from all 50 states and more than 90 nations. OSU programs touch every county within Oregon, and its faculty teach and conduct research on issues of national and global importance.

Public invited behind doors of HMSC April 13 for Marine Science Day

NEWPORT, Ore. – Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center will allow the public to explore “behind the scenes” of this unique facility on Saturday, April 13, when the Newport facility hosts its annual Marine Science Day.

The free event, which runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., will feature scientists and educators from OSU, federal and state agencies, Oregon Coast Aquarium, and the new NOAA Marine Operations Center-Pacific. It is a chance for the public to explore one of the nation’s leading marine science and education centers.

An online schedule of events is available at: hmsc.oregonstate.edu/marinescienceday

In addition to a diversity of marine science presentations, two research themes will be highlighted. One is the science behind bycatch reduction devices, which will be featured by researchers from NOAA Fisheries, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, OSU, Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, and Foulweather Trawl, a Newport netmaker.

Marine Science Day visitors will see actual bycatch reduction devices and have an opportunity to view videos showing how fish are excluded or retained, depending on their size, swimming ability or other characteristic. Other research will highlight genetics or other tools used to distinguish between wanted and unwanted catch. Scientists will be on hand to answer questions and discuss their research.

“Visitors will learn not only about the problem of bycatch but also about the solutions, which range from simple and elegant to complex and cutting-edge,” said Maryann Bozza, program manager of the center. “All of the different HMSC research displays on bycatch reduction will be grouped together.”

A second theme will be wave energy, highlighting the efforts of the OSU Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center to improve and facilitate testing of wave energy devices and evaluate their potential effects on marine habitats. HMSC’s Sarah Henkel, a senior research assistant professor in the OSU Department of Zoology, will present an update of wave energy developments on the Oregon Coast.

Henkel’s talk begins at 3 p.m. in the Visitor Center auditorium.

Among other highlights of Marine Science Day:

  • Visitor Center activities will include new wave energy exhibits, the recently dedicated Japanese tsunami dock exhibit and a new interactive wave tank.
  • The center’s new octopus, named “Miss Oscar,” will be featured in a 1 p.m. interpretive talk and octopus feeding demonstration.
  • The public can take self-guided tours through the facility’s marine research labs, library and classrooms, where scientists will have interactive exhibits explaining their research. Visitors may also take guided tours of HMSC’s seawater facilities and aquatic animal husbandry laboratory.

A number of educational activities for children and families will be available, presented by Oregon Sea Grant, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Oregon Coast Aquarium.

The OSU Hatfield Marine Science Center is located at 2030 S.E. Marine Science Drive in Newport, just south of the Highway 101 bridge over Yaquina Bay.

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Maryann Bozza, 541-867-0234

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Miami marine science leader named director of OSU’s Hatfield center

CORVALLIS, Ore. – One of the nation’s leading marine science education and research facilities is getting a new director.

Robert K. Cowen, a marine biologist and administrator from Miami, Fla., has been named director of Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. He succeeds George Boehlert, who recently retired.

Janet Webster will continue serving as interim director of the center until Cowen begins his duties in late July.

Cowen holds the Robert C. Maytag Chair of Ichthyology at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, where he has served on the faculty since 1998. He previously was on the faculty of State University of New York at Stony Brook and conducted research as a doctoral student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, Calif.

“Bob Cowen has marine science education and research experience on both coasts and is well-suited to lead the Hatfield Marine Science Center into the future,” said Richard Spinrad, OSU’s vice president for research. “That future could include the development of a cohesive marine science-based curriculum as well as continuing to expand the center’s robust research and public outreach missions.”

Cowen’s studies range broadly, encompassing such issues as coastal fish ecology, fishery oceanography, larval transport and connectivity of marine organism populations. He has served on numerous national committees and panels, and is affiliated with the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans (PISCO), a multi-institutional research effort led by OSU. He also has served as associate dean for research at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

“I am very enthusiastic about joining the Hatfield Marine Science Center and OSU – not only for their great reputation, but also for the huge potential for bridging marine science education and science activities across the university,” Cowen said.

OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center is located on a 49-acre site in Newport, and has a combined annual budget of about $45 million and 300 employees. Its mission includes both research and education and what makes the facility unique, officials say, is that it houses scientists and educators from OSU and several federal and state agencies - a collaborative environment unmatched at most marine science facilities in the country.

Among those agencies are the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Environmental Protection Agency.

The center also includes the Cooperative Institute for Marine Resources Studies – a joint research initiative between OSU and NOAA; the university’s Marine Mammal Institute; the Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station, which is the first of its kind in the country; and the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center, a national leader in the development of wave energy.

“I look forward to working with all partners at Hatfield to further its education, science and public outreach missions,” Cowen said.

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Rick Spinrad, 541-737-0662

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Robert Cowen

New study questions the role of kinship in mass strandings of pilot whales

NEWPORT, Ore. – Pilot whales that have died in mass strandings in New Zealand and Australia included many unrelated individuals at each event, a new study concludes, challenging a popular assumption that whales follow each other onto the beach and to almost certain death because of familial ties.

Using genetic samples from individuals in large strandings, scientists have determined that both related and unrelated individuals were scattered along the beaches – and that the bodies of mothers and young calves were often separated by large distances.

Results of the study are being published this week in the Journal of Heredity.

Scott Baker, associate director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University, said genetic identification showed that, in many cases, the mothers of calves were missing entirely from groups of whales that died in the stranding. This separation of mothers and calves suggests that strong kinship bonds are being disrupted prior to the actual stranding – potentially playing a role in causing the event.

“Observations of unusual social behavior by groups of whales prior to stranding support this explanation,” said Baker, who frequently advises the International Whaling Commission and is co-author of the Journal of Heredity article. The OSU cetacean expert is a professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at the university’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore.

The mass stranding of pilot whales is common in New Zealand and Australia, involving several thousand deaths over the last few decades, according to Marc Oremus of the University of Auckland, who is lead author on the study. The researchers say their genetic analysis of 490 individual pilot whales from 12 different stranding events showed multiple maternal lineages among the victims in each stranding, and thus no correlation between kinship and the grouping of whales on the beach.

This challenges another popular hypothesis – that “care-giving behavior” directed at close maternal relatives may be responsible for the stranding of otherwise healthy whales, Oremus said.

“If kinship-based behavior was playing a causal role in strandings, we would expect that whales in a stranding event would be related to one another through descent from a common maternal ancestor, such as a grandmother or great-grandmother – and that close kin would be clustered on the beach,” Oremus said. “Neither of these was the case.”

Because of the separation of mothers and calves, or in some cases, the outright absence of mothers among the victims, the study has important implications for agencies and volunteers who work to save the stranded whales, Baker said.

“Rescue efforts aimed at ‘refloating’ stranded whales often focus on placing stranded calves with the nearest mature females, on the assumption that the closest adult female is the mother,” Baker pointed out.  “Our results suggest that rescuers should be cautious when making difficult welfare decisions – such as the choice to rescue or euthanize a calf – based on this assumption alone.”

Long-finned pilot whales are the most common species to strand en masse worldwide, the researchers noted, and most of their beaching events are thought to be unrelated to human activity – unlike strandings of some other species. Both naval sonar and the noise of seismic exploration have been linked to the stranding of other species.

The phenomenon is not new. In fact, mass strandings of whales or dolphins were described by Aristotle more than 2,000 years ago and were thought to have some kind of natural cause, Baker said, although it is unclear what that may be.

“It is usually assumed that environmental factors, such as weather or the pursuit of prey, brings pilot whales into shallow water where they become disoriented,” Baker said. “Our results suggest that some form of social disruption also contributes to the tendency to strand.”

“It could be mating interaction or competition with other pods of whales,” Baker said. “We just don’t know. But it is certainly something that warrants further investigation.”

The researchers hope their study will lead to better genetic sampling of more pilot whales and other stranded whale species, as well as the use of satellite tags to monitor the survival and behavior of whales that are helped back into the ocean.

“The causal mechanisms of these strandings remain an enigma,” Oremus said, “so the more avenues of research we can pursue before and after the whales beach themselves, the more likely we are to discover why it happens.”

The study was funded by the Marsden Fund of the Royal Society of New Zealand and the Australian Marine Mammal Centre, with support from the New Zealand Department of Conservation and the Australian Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment. Baker’s work is supported by a Pew Marine Conservation Fellowship for the study of dolphins around islands of the South Pacific.

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Scott Baker, 541-272-0560

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