Marine Mammal Ecology Lab

JUNE 2020

Grace's Blog

Grace Freeman, graduate student

1 June 2020

After a March of uncertainty followed by an April of adjustment, May finally brought with it some routine. I’ve continued to work remotely through my course on spatial statistics while also providing support to my students in Human Physiology. When I can, I sneak into my bike-storage-room-turned-home-office to make progress on photo IDs. During this time, I’ve also spent a lot of time on video calls with Delaney (my undergrad lab manager) to clean the dataset we’re both working with and prepare for what next year might look like without her leadership. I’m excited for her graduation this spring, but we will certainly miss her!

May also brought with it a new cohort of lab assistants! We posted recruiting information in April with the intention of interviewing each candidate who applied. We had an astonishing number of incredibly qualified applicants, however, and ended up having to make some tough decisions. We Zoom interviewed around half of our applicant pool over the course of three days early in the month with the intention of accepting about half of the interviewees. With so much interest, experience, and enthusiasm, though, we ended up with eight new lab assistants for the 2020-21 school year. This cohort will join the existing crew of seven to bring our team to a larger-than-ever 15 young, bright, driven researchers. As difficult as this quarter has been and despite all the uncertainty surrounding classes and research in the fall, I am encouraged and hopeful for the future of the project and the lab.

Speaking of video calls, the leadership team for this project (Delaney, incoming grad student, Kathleen, Alejandro, and me) met for a Zoom call this morning to talk about the existing dataset and the future of the project. To say that our current dataset is messy would be an understatement. It’s been collected over nine years by dozens of different undergraduates under the leadership of several lab managers. Questions have changed as people have come and gone, and along with them, the protocols have changed. Things that interest us now were not being examined when the project started in 2011. As a result, the questions we can ask are somewhat limited but growing. I’m excited for the direction the project is currently heading, and I’m eager to see what can come out of these data next. While I wait for that to happen, and as I did in May, I will continue to sort through photos and behavioral observations to make the dataset as clean as possible. Who knows where it might lead us in the future!

Until next month,

Bobbie's Scat Blog

Bobbie Buzzell, graduate student

1 June 2020

The end of the quarter is nearing, and in all honesty, I am looking forward to being able to devote my time to the small remainder of scats I need to sort and begin prey identification. It has been a heck of a roller coast this academic year. Hard to believe year 1 of 2 is already finishing up. I still have a good bit of work to do, but many of the nuts and bolts of grad school are feeling a little more oiled.

During May I continued to make progress on scat sorting at home while balancing my other responsibilities. I was able to finish sorting all 2019 scats and hope to have the 135 scats from 2018 sorted and ready to ship to the fish ID expert within the next couple weeks. While sorting remains the priority, I know I will need to head to the field to find crayfish references specimens. Perhaps for the next blog I’ll document my crayfish expedition!

It sounds like contracts are finally coming through for my grants at Western, which is good and promising progress (I have to be paid somehow this summer, right?). Overall, things are shaping up fairly well with benchmarks being met every month. I am very grateful to be able to continually make progress on my thesis. It might be time to start writing again!

Delaney's Blog

Delaney Adams, undergraduate student

1 June 2020

With the end of the May and the beginning of June creeping up on me, I have spent the last few weeks working extremely hard to finish up my project! Although I will be presenting in less than a week, I still have a few loose ends to tie up before I can say with confidence what my results will be. It is looking like my results are showing that the harbor seals in Whatcom creek are not as successful when hunting together as they are when hunting individually. This was an interesting finding, particularly since Madi, the lab manager for the project last year, found that the best predictor for hunting success was how many seals were in the creek. Maybe these results indicate that more seals in the creek means that there are simply more fish in the creek to catch, rather than because they are hunting together. I am looking forward to finishing up with this project and presentation soon as the quarter wraps up for the summer. The end of the quarter feels bittersweet, and while I am feeling burnt out and ready to be done with school, it will also be the end of my college career and four wonderful years of learning and growing. My time at western has been truly enriched by the experiences and opportunities I’ve had through and because of this lab, and I will be forever thankful for the chance to be involved in the Marine Mammal Ecology Lab here.

Nathan's Blog

Nathan Guilford, graduate student

1 June 2020

This month I was able to dig into the new data and unearth some nice patterns that I was not seeing as clearly in our first run! When using the new reads to call variants and using those variants to determine the relatedness between all samples, I am getting very clear separation between my pairs of known matches and all other pairs of non-identical samples. As I did not have any known relative pairs in my sample set, I simulated offspring of multiple pairs of samples in my set using their genotypes at the identified variants and plugged those offspring into my relatedness measures. I was excited to see that the parent/offspring and sibling pairs all clustered together, with measures one would expect from samples with this relationship. There still is clear separation between these relative pairs and my known matches, indicating that this method should be able to distinguish between resampling events of the same seal and sampling events of a seal and a close relative.

In terms of diet data, the proportions of prey DNA in each sample do appear to be similar to our first run, with the samples that were collected by swabbing the exterior of scats showing significantly higher concentrations of prey DNA. Since these swab samples were from a proposed resampled seal and returned robust relatedness results indicating it is the same seal, it appears the swab method may be ideal for analyses like mine. Collection of whole scats, followed by homogenization and DNA extraction, seems to create highly variable results, with some samples performing well and others needing to be dropped from analyses.

Jonathan's Blog

Jonathan Blubaugh, graduate student

1 June 2020

Honestly, I cannot believe that an entire month has passed. I’ve been working from home for 2 – 2.5 months at this point and the days all blur together. I’ve been steadily working on my thesis and just sent out a full draft of the entire thing to my committee. I’m looking forward to comments from everyone and specifically Andre, since he hasn’t seen anything up to this point. The section that is giving me the most trouble now is the discussion. I think I’m just having a hard time contextualizing my research when no one has really done sex-specific impacts before. Also, there are so many cool patterns and interesting speculation that could be done, but its hard to wrap it all up nicely in writing.

eaching has been going well though. I’m very lucky to have an amazing instructor this quarter. I’ve basically just been grading assignments and writing Canvas quizzes with some research/writing consulting with students. I’ve been able to balance TA-ing pretty well with keeping up with my thesis work. June is beginning with finals week and a lot of non-thesis work, but after that it’s the homestretch on writing and editing to defend this summer.