Chasing Giants: A whale tracker reflects on four decades of searching for answers

Every spring for almost thirty years, Bruce Mate makes his way down to Baja to reconnect with the same female gray whales. Over four decades, he’s witnessed their transition from smooth-skinned youth into mothers. More recently, he’s seen wrinkles start to appear around some of their eyes, each eye roughly the size of a baseball. He’s met and played with their offspring, even seeing some from the next generation become mothers themselves. These whales feel like family to him. 

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Whale Bone Memorials, by Nature and Humans

To Scott Baker of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University, and a National Geographic grantee, the whales’ large size and low but prominent dorsal fins identified them as most likely Sei whales. Little is known or understood about these large filter feeders, so learning of their activity in these waters, Baker is eager to begin a project to track and observe them here.

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Autopsies from space: who killed the sea lions?

A decade ago, we set out to unravel deep ocean crime scenes we weren’t even sure existed. The crime? Endangered Steller sea lions were rapidly disappearing in parts of Alaska. Their numbers dropped by 80% in three decades, yet only rarely did anyone see or sample dead sea lions. Live sea lions studied in the summer when they haul out to breed seemed healthy and had healthy pups.

We wanted to know when, where, and why sea lions die. To unravel the mystery, we needed information from those animals that we don’t see, those that might not breed, those that might never come back ashore. So we developed a special monitoring tag that could send us data about the sea lions we can’t directly observe.

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A new blue whale foraging ground documented in New Zealand

The GEMM Lab led a research expedition in January 2014 that collected observational, behavioral, and oceanographic data to prove the existence of a blue whale foraging ground in the South Taranaki Bight (STB) in New Zealand. Prior to this study, it was thought that blue whales only migrate through New Zealand waters, which is reflected in its listing by the New Zealand Threat Classification System as a Migrant, offering blue whales no distinct conservation protection. The GEMM Lab is currently planning a comprehensive research program to improve knowledge of this blue whale population by generating estimates of abundance, residency, and distribution in the STB. These are the data needed to ensure the protection of these endangered animals and their critical feeding habitat.

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Congratulations to MMI's new graduates

Three of MMI’s graduate students have successfully defended their theses and have been awarded their advanced degrees:  In April 2014, Rebecca Hamner, PhD (conservation genetics and monitoring of New Zealand Maui's and Hector's dolphins), and in September 2014, both Alana Alexander, PhD (The influence of social structure and molecular evolution on genetic diversity in the sperm whale), and Sophie Pierszalowski, MSc (the influence of local fidelity and recruitment on population dynamics and specialized foraging of humpback whales in Glacier Bay and Icy Strait, Alaska). All three studied with Dr. Scott Baker in his Cetacean Conservation and Genomics Laboratory.

Scientists spot large contingent of southern right whales

Scientists on a rugged mid-winter trip to the remote sub-Antarctic islands have confirmed a large contingent of endangered southern right whales are spending the colder months near Campbell Island. Previous work on this species had focused on the animals at Auckland Island, with some minimal work done at the more remote Campbell Island almost 20 years ago. Lead investigator Dr Leigh Torres, said the news was "exciting, exhilarating and a relief to hear."

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Study will look at seal behavior

WALDPORT — Shea Steingass, a Ph.D. student at Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute, was part of a research team involved in giving area harbor seals new head decorations last week. [Read the whole story in the Newport News-Times here.]

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Minke whales' 'extreme' feeding habits observed for first time

A new paper about Antarctic minke whales by MMI's Ari Friedlaender was published this week in the Journal of Experimental Biology. An article about the research in Science News highlights that this is the first time anyone has been able to tag the elusive whales, and that tagging is a nonlethal research method which is allowing scientists to uncover the minkes’ unique feeding behavior under the sea ice.

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Leaping into new territory: Palmer LTER adds whales to marine ecosystem study of Antarctic Peninsula

"The opportunity was there to get up to speed with whales and how they function as part of the Antarctic ecosystem around the peninsula," explained Ari Friedlaender, an associate professor at Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute. Friedlaender is the newest co-PI on the Palmer LTER, leading the study of humpback whales in the Antarctic.

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PhD student Dori Dick presents geneGIS at Esri User Conference

OSU PhD student Dori Dick’s presentation last week (July 16, 2014) to the Esri User Conference in San Diego was well received. Dori introduced geneGIS, a suite of computational tools for analyzing the spatial distribution and genetic relatedness of whales and dolphins. The development of the geneGIS toolbox for ArcGIS was funded by an Office of Naval Research grant to MMI associate director, Scott Baker, and Esri chief scientist, Dawn Wright. A description of the tools has now been published in the journal Transactions in GIS.

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