Marine Mammal Ecology Lab


Kyra's Blog

Kyra Bankhead, undergraduate student

1 February 2021

Happy New Year!

Winter quarter has started, and I am having a lot of trouble analyzing my data. Working with Grace Freeman, I have found that a histogram of the harbor seals hauled out at the Waterfront resembles a negative binomial distribution, but the seals at the Marina don't give much of a distribution. Alejandro suggested I take a few more observation notes that might result in some correlation between seal haul-outs and human disturbance. These extra notes would include distances between boats and seals as well as they’re reaction to the boats, and other similar disturbances in more detail.

I also had a meeting with Matthew Zinkgraf who suggested a few notes. He recommended using a stepwise regression model so that degrees of freedom are not lost in the many variables used for the generalized linear mixed model. I will be trying to research how to go about this, but in the meantime, I used a graph to visualize my data.

Number of harbor seals hauled-out vs. average ambient noise level recordings separated by each site.

Kyra Bankhead

Kathleen's Blog

Kathleen McKeegan, graduate student

1 February 2021

Winter quarter is flying by! In general, everything has been going really well and it has been nice to fall into a familiar routine of classes, TAing, and research. My priority at the moment has been writing my research thesis proposal, which will hopefully get approved by my committee sometime in the next month. I have finished a full rough draft and am now in the painstaking process of editing, reorganizing, and focusing on the logical flow of the proposal. Luckily, much of the work I am doing now can be used for various funding proposals and will serve as a strong basis for my eventual thesis itself.

Besides writing, I am working with everyone in the Whatcom Creek project to process all of the photos taken during the fall 2020 field season. The photos need to be selected and cropped so we can manually identify individual seals that were present at Whatcom Creek, and specifically those that successfully preyed on salmonids during the run. All of the ID work needs to be completed before I can start analyzing the data and I’m hoping to have everything ID’ed by mid-summer, if not sooner. With that said, I went through and did a rough calculation of all the photos our lab took and all the photos from Ocean’s Initiative (which I will also be processing) and we have roughly 60,000 photos in total from fall 2020…. Let’s just say, I have a lot of work to do!! But I love detail-oriented work so I’m actually looking forward to it!

In general, my goal for the next month is to finish up my proposal, get some ID work completed, and apply for several different funding opportunities to help fund my summer. Hopefully I will have lots to report next month!

Bobbie's Blog

Bobbie Buzzell, graduate student

1 February 2021

Despite political upheaval and a windstorm that sent many into disarray, I’ve continued to press on with teaching and my thesis. At the beginning of the month, I finished up a draft of my methods and will be very shortly turning over another draft for review. I submitted one of my final grant reports, and I also presented my results for the first time in PowerPoint form to other graduate students. I had quite a bit of fun creating my proposal presentation last spring and was enthusiastic about bringing it full circle this quarter.

The challenge for this presentation was how to best present results to a broad audience without overwhelming them. My main results table takes up an entire page and includes all of the prey taxa for each river and season (spring and summer). It’s a lot of information to unravel, and the table is unfortunately a bit of an eye sore for those unfamiliar with the study.

Sticking to the most important and interesting results was the best approach. Because my study was a comprehensive look at river otter diet, I started broad by discussing the most important prey items (several species of fish) first and then highlighted crustaceans (Dungeness crab and signal crayfish). Green crab was one of the least significant prey items, but I still spent time discussing in detail their spatial and temporal variation-or rather lack of. This probably came across as disappointing to the audience (unequivocally for me as well), but alas that is science.

As I push into the discussion section of my thesis, I’m left with brainstorming how to interpret the data. While this has been something constantly on my mind for months, I’m now about to get knee-deep in the trenches of explaining why the results turned out the way they did, and NOT the way I expected.

Grace's Blog

Grace Freeman, graduate student

1 February 2021

I think I say this every month, but it’s odd how quickly this one seemed to pass. With working from home and teaching remotely, the past several months have felt like a holding pattern. Nothing new really going on, nothing exciting coming up, just plugging along on everyday life. For some reason, this month felt different!

I’m still working my Science Communications Fellowship with Washington Sea Grant for the remainder of this quarter. That’s kept me extremely busy but has also afforded me some pretty neat opportunities. One included writing a piece on the Bellingham Dockside Market at Squalicum Harbor in downtown Bellingham. The event, started in partnership with Bellingham SeaFeast, hosts local fishermen and seafood sellers and invites costumers to buy seafood directly off the boat on which it is caught. The program is one-of-a-kind in the area, and just getting off the ground as a pilot program this year. I enjoyed getting to interview the project director and several of the fishermen, but I think my favorite part about the project was the candied salmon filet I purchased off the dock. A very tasty perk of that job!

I also started teaching a new class this quarter. While I will go back to my BIOL 349 (Human Physiology) lab in the spring, this quarter brought me over to BIOL 206 (Organismal Biology). I started 349 knowing virtually nothing about human physiology, and I basically started from scratch. That said, I was pretty comfortable with the material by the time my third and fourth quarters of teaching the same class rolled around. Now I’m starting over in a field I certainly know more about, but I’m reminded of the difficulties faced in teaching a new course. Due to my easier lab managing schedule this quarter, I welcome the challenge and the opportunity to refresh some of my bio knowledge from back when I took a similar course early in my undergraduate career!

Other than those two positions, I’ve spent most of my so-called “free time” working on my thesis. I hit a roadblock this month when I noticed some inconsistencies in the datasheets I was using. This meant going back to the raw-data-drawing board to ensure that my datasheets were accurate and complete. I caught several errors through this process and was then able to revamp my statistical analysis. This, of course, introduced an entirely new challenge. Over the past several months (since August?), I’ve been working on modeling and teaching myself more complicated modeling techniques than I learned in stats class in order to handle the messy and complicated nature of my behavioral data. I lost track of the number of tactics I tried and error messages I received, and my folder of abandoned R scripts reflects this! Then, just this week, I decided to start over and try the simplest form of modeling I know, the form I didn’t try initially because there’s no way this simple technique would work on my “real-world” data set. Perhaps you can see where I’m going with this, but the code worked! I cleared the R console, reloaded everything, even restarted my computer to run it all from scratch, and it worked.

So, after months and months of teaching myself stats and banging my head against an R console, it turns out the answer was inside me all along. It was a frustrating experience, to say the least, but also one that taught me a few important lessons: 1. I am a capable statistician who can teach myself and read more complicated papers than I would have imagined a few months ago. 2. Never rule out the simplest idea! There’s this concept of “parsimony” used in statistical modeling to indicate which model is the best and simplest. Basically, it argues that you shouldn’t complicate things if they don’t significantly improve the situation. I wish I had thought of that a few months back and just given the basic model a chance.

It’s on to my discussion section now. More on that next time,

Kate's Blog

Kate Clayton, undergraduate student

1 February 2021

January has proven to be a welcome break from the chaos that was last quarter. Our seal friends have moved on now that the salmon run is over, and the creek is quiet. We have lessened the amount of observations being conducted to only two a week as there is less activity to observe. We are having students focus more on photo cropping this quarter to catch up from everything that happened last quarter. I have spent a good portion of this month training students on how to properly crop and name photos. It is a long process that is hard to learn online, but they are doing a wonderful job so far! I only have a couple students left to train and then we are all set.

I applied for a scholarship at the beginning of January with much help from Alejandro (Thank you!!). The scholarship would allow me to stay in Bellingham and continue to work on our project over the summer which would be amazing! I am not sure when we will hear back about this opportunity but hopefully the lucky student recipients will be announced within the next couple months.

Kathleen and I are planning on meeting this upcoming week to start our plan of action for our project. We need to get all the photos cropped from November (time that TAST was being used) including photos we received from Ocean’s Initiative (OI). After that we will need to go through and ID each seal to see who was present on each day and who caught a fish. I am hoping we can get a good portion of November photos cropped by the end of next month with our students helping us.

Zoë's Blog

Zoë Lewis, graduate student

1 February 2021

Winter quarter is now in full swing and I am so excited to be starting my scat processing, while further developing my thesis proposal. I finally have a complete draft of my proposal and am excited to start the process of editing relentlessly… after taking a break from that material for a couple days!

At the end of December I was able to meet up with Adrianne, the marine biologist for the Makah tribe, to pick up my first set of samples for my project. Each month, we hope to collect 30 Steller sea lion scats and 30 Harbor seal scats. This month, they were able to collect all 30 Steller scats, but only 10 Harbor seal scats due to weather. Unfortunately, weather has not been our friend, and jumping off of boats in 15 foot swells is not the safest way to aquire scats.

As the winter progresses, we all hope that the weather stays clear, sunny and stable… but this is the Washington coast after all! If we are unable to meet our target scat collection goals, then I will shift the focus of my project onto evaluating only Steller sea lion diet data… as those sites are much more accessible. Since Western recently announced their decision to remain online during Spring quarter, we have decided it is probably best for me to just wait until better weather, for me to have more opportunities on the boats collecting scat… I am still hopeful and excited to get to spend some time in the Neah bay area and see where all these samples are coming from.

For now, I’ll remain in Bellingham, writing, reading and washing scats… which is plenty exciting for me. I’m finding that washing scats is an art in some ways, and I am finding it very interesting to try to determine what species the hard parts are coming from. My educated guesses are no match for Monique Lance (WDFW), who is able to identify bones by species over FaceTime! Although I wish we could all be cleaning scats in person together, I am still so lucky to have such an incredible group of mentors helping me learn the tricks of the trade. And I now have my very own “scatalog” for the project… Thanks Adrianne for that tip! Until next time, you’ll find me in the basement, washing scats.