Marine Mammal Ecology Lab


Kyra's Blog

Kyra Bankhead, undergraduate student

1 December 2021

I am working really hard on getting my manuscript ready for publication. I hope to be done with my draft by the end of this quarter so that I can send it out to Wyatt Heimbichner Goebel for review. I started writing my first draft when I was in the beginning of my Junior year and I’ve learned so much since then, so there was a lot to patch up. Most of this credit goes to Alejandro for being an amazing mentor through this whole process. I still need to update a lot of my references and follow formatting requirements of the journal I want to submit to. I’m excited to get started on presenting my research on all platforms throughout the year.

Before I get closer to publishing my research, there are some changes I need to make to the data analysis. Instead of proceeding with stepwise regression, Alejandro suggested using a GAMM model for my predictor variables. I have made a model and it seems to be running smoothly. I am getting more or less the same results, so I don’t have to change too much in my manuscript.

I am nearing the end of my time as project lead in the lab and need to get started on my transition. This means getting started on writing a summary of everything that was done in the lab over the two years I’ve been here as well as the last 14 years of data collection in the log pond project. I am hoping to find a very committed student to take on this task with me. I hope this will give them valuable experience in research analysis, write up and presentation. I am also looking for a student that can take over my position as project lead for when I graduate. Hopefully, I can find a very dedicated student to take the lead for next year.

Until then,
Kyra Bankhead

Holland's Blog

Holland Conwell, undergraduate student

1 December 2021

This quarter has absolutely flown by! I find myself on the other end of Thanksgiving break with about a million things to do and very little time left before finals. This last month, I’ve been hopping from task to task while waiting on some more results. I’ve taken this time to really try to get my bearings and familiarize myself with how I want to visualize the data once it’s complete. Last month, I began playing around in RStudio and creating a plot of sex ratios by location. This month, I’ve pivoted to incorporating the diet data, which meant merging the diet data with the sex results. This proved to be a bit tricky since I had to convert this datasheet from a long format to a wide format in order to correctly merge, but with some guidance, I was able to do this in RStudio and then merge the information in Excel.

With the merged sex and diet data in one spreadsheet, I’m now trying to condense the species in the diet dataset into orders in hopes of cleaning up the spreadsheet, focusing on what I’ll likely want to see in a figure. While I do have a reference spreadsheet with many of the listed species and their corresponding orders, unfortunately, this does not include all species in my expanded dataset. Thus, I’m instead using this resource as a jumping-off point and creating a sheet sorting all of the listed species in the dataset by order. After this is completed, the next step will be to transform the full dataset into a separate sheet sorting all the species in the diet data by order. This is in preparation for how I’ll visualize this diet data later.

Kathleen's Blog

Kathleen McKeegan, graduate student

1 December 2021

Another busy month for the Whatcom Creek team! Throughout November, we conducted roughly 4-5 observations a week, monitoring the seals and their salmon consumption. There were several busy days with dozens of seals and many predation events. All our research assistants have been amazing and learned the ropes quickly, so we were able to gather fantastic photographic data. Kate and I have been processing the photos as they come in and will continue cropping and IDing through winter break. We also trained two research assistants to help with the ID process, which will be incredibly helpful! Hopefully, we will have all the photos from Fall 2021 processed and ready for data entry half-way through winter quarter.

Throughout this month, I have been working with the production team from the UK who are filming a nature series at Whatcom Creek. Unfortunately, they were planning to film November 19th, which was the first day of a major flood in Bellingham. Due to the severe weather and flooding at the creek, they postponed their film schedule and will hopefully plan to film in early December.

In addition to regular observations, our team began conducting drone observations in order to study how drone flights impact harbor seal behavior in the water. Our lab was able to purchase a DJI Phantom 4 Pro V2.0 drone over the summer, which will hopefully be used to expand our knowledge on harbor seal behavior at the creek and elsewhere. But first, our plan is to confirm that the drone, flying at an altitude of 20m (60 feet), will not severely impact observable behavior. So far, we have conducted three flights and captured great footage of the creek! We will continue drone observations through the end of Fall quarter, when weather allows.

Lastly, I have spent this month writing additional drafts of my introduction and methods sections of my thesis and submitting abstracts to various academic conferences. When able, I’ve also been focusing on data-wrangling, processing, and analysis. My committee member Dr. Matt Zinkgraf and I met to discuss next steps in my analysis, which was incredibly helpful. I have some very basic preliminary results from Fall 2020, but I hope to have more complete results by the end of winter break. Hopefully I’ll have more results to report next month!

Zoë's Blog

Zoë Lewis, graduate student

1 December 2021

As fall quarter wraps up, I feel like I’m making steady progress as I start receiving data back and thinking about my data analysis. This past month, I gave 2 presentations to different undergraduate classes at WWU, received and synthesized DNA metabarcoding data and turned a draft of my general introduction in to my committee. Things are moving quickly… Between all of these thesis tasks and my fisheries coursework, I’ve stayed quite busy this quarter!

Presenting my thesis work to undergraduates was a great way to engage with the broader WWU community. My first presentation was for Dietmar’s Molecular ecology class where I described my methods for molecular scatology and DNA metabarcoding. Austen Thomas also made a visit to the WWU campus to present and demonstrate eDNA methods to Dietmar’s molecular ecology class. It was great to discuss my future analysis plans, as well as post-graduation plans with a former scatologist! Further, I got to learn about eDNA sampling protocols and processing, as well as help take eDNA samples from Whatcom creek, Kathleen’s study site. I enjoyed the opportunity to get to know Austen a bit better and get some ideas for future research regarding eDNA work. Later that week, I presented my thesis work in my fisheries class. Preparing for this presentation helped me synthesize my preliminary results and think about how my project pertains to fisheries management on a larger scale. Dr. Sobocinski also gave me helpful feedback regarding the main prey species found in my Steller sea lion scats and how this may influence trophic interactions.

As for lab work, I’ve finally completed processing the samples for Holland’s project this past week! I’m now able to focus all of my laboratory time on the sex validation project with Maddie. I’m excited to finish the verification of our sex determining methods so that I can start collecting data on the scats for my thesis project as Monique Lance finishes up the hard parts identification. In between the writing and the lab work, I’m beginning to explore my DNA metabarcoding data a bit more. It’s quite fascinating to pick one of the highly consumed prey species to research interactions with pinniped species and their role in along the Washington coast. I’m really enjoying watching all the pieces of these data tie together to help improve our understanding of the coastal ecosystem and the trophic interactions that influence populations. Hopefully, by next month, I’ll have an even better idea of where I’m going with my data analysis and modeling.

Kate's Blog

Kate Clayton, undergraduate student

1 December 2021

November has been a whirlwind of activity. It is difficult to keep up with everything happening in the lab along with schoolwork, so I am very excited for Winter break.

This past month we have been conducting 4-5 observations per week. We ran into some trouble photographing and recording an unusually large number of seals at the creek, so we reintroduced the grad camera to help us stay on top of all the traffic. We haven’t had time to look at all of the photos yet, but as far as we can tell, there doesn’t seem to be a large difference in the number of individuals seen on each day, however, more individuals seem to be present at the same time. I have no idea what may have caused this change, so I am excited to analyze the data and see what we find out. To add to the craziness at the creek, the duration of surfacing events (time between when the 1st seal breaks the surface, to the last seal that dives back under) has increased drastically (on some days getting as high as +25 mins vs our usual 2-3 mins). The students have done an amazing job adjusting to the changes and recording the data to the best of our ability. With the grad camera being used in a different part of the creek, we are doing a better job of capturing any surfacing events that we may have been missing earlier in the season.

The floods that have occurred in Bellingham have also made observations interesting. The creek now has white-water rapids that the chum are having to navigate to spawn. The creek itself has a strong current, keeping the seals farther away from the falls and forcing them to adjust their hunting strategies. However, they do not seem to be overly affected, as many are still catching salmon. We are not sure who these conditions seem to favor, but (anecdotally) there does seem to be a decrease in the number of individuals seen at the creek since the flood. I am not sure if this is possible, but it would be interesting to see if these floods had a significant impact on the number of seals and their foraging success.

On November 22nd, we were lucky enough to spot a sea lion in the creek! Sea lion visits to Whatcom Creek are rare, so we were very excited we were able to photograph and account for he/she’s presence. The seals did not seem to be affected by the individual and continued as usual.

Kathleen and I have trained a few students on the photo cropping process which is very exciting! Their help will take some work off our plate and help speed up the process of collecting data. Right now, I am far behind on cropping so I am hoping the over Christmas break I can get caught up and get most (if not all) of November completed. We have also made significant progress with our 2020 un-IDables despite the chaos of November, which is great! I am hoping we can spend some of Winter break knocking the rest out so we can add them to our data set.

Kathleen has gotten the drone project up and running which is awesome! Her and her team have been able to get in several successful observations in the past couple weeks. I am excited to see how the footage turns out!

To end the season, I wanted to say a quick thank you to our team for helping us collect and manage data for the Fall 2021 salmon run. Your help is greatly appreciated and instrumental to our study. Thank you, Maddie, Jenni, Leila, Kendra, Avia, Josh, Kait, Bri, Liz, Jordan, Jessica, Olivia, Marysia, Grant, and Elizabeth for all your help!