Entanglement in fishing gear presents a major threat to marine mammals worldwide and a pressing concern for large whales off the US West Coast. MMI is working in partnership with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and others to reduce risks of whale entanglement in Oregon through assessments of co-occurrence with fishing effort and scarring rates. Through combined ship-based and helicopter-based surveys, we have learned a lot about where and when whales occur in Oregon waters and where they overlap with commercial Dungeness crab fishing gear, which is the most commonly identified type of gear in recent entanglement records.
For years, the Marine Mammal Institute has partnered with Oregon State Parks to conduct trainings for its Whale Watching Spoken Here volunteer program. The program has been rebranded as Oregon Whale Watch and is returning in person for the first time in four years. At the volunteer training event at Hatfield Marine Science Center on March 11, MMI affiliate faculty Renee Albertson and Jim Sumich will co-teach a session on the biology and habits of gray whales, and MMI Director Lisa T. Ballance will present the keynote talk. For information about becoming an Oregon Whale Watch volunteer, visit the Oregon Whale Watch website at orwhalewatch.org. Then get ready for Whale Watch Week, March 28–April 2, 2023!
Research associate Angela Szesciorka is the first author on a new paper that explores the relationship between humpback whales and their primary prey in the California Current Ecosystem. Previously, few studies had identified strong linkages between cetaceans and prey, especially across large geographic areas with patchy aggregations of prey. This new research uses metrics that provide means of identifying the prey species that whales may be targeting. Climatic variations are also considered. These findings can help inform the conservation and management of humpback whales within an ecosystem-based management framework.
In 2015, a blue whale carcass washed up on an Oregon beach. We immediately went to work to save the skeleton. The bones are now ready for professional cleaning, preservation, and display. Once finished, the skeleton will be on permanent display at OSU's Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. Pictured: Dinosaur Valley Studios President Frank Hadfield measures the attachment point for humpback whale rib armatures.
Until now, long-term tracking of whale feeding behavior via satellite was not possible. In partnership with Telonics, MMI has co-developed the “RDW tag,” a new device that uses pressure and accelerometer sensors to remotely monitor feeding behavior in whales for multiple months. The RDW tag provides the ability to monitor previously unobservable behaviors across entire geographic ranges, extending the applications of electronic devices to new areas of marine mammal physiology, behavior, ecology, and conservation.
Early each year, gray whales can be found in the protected, shallow waters of San Ignacio lagoon, Baja California Sur, Mexico. The Marine Mammal Institute has been hosting educational expeditions to the lagoon for more than 30 years. Our Baja Gray Whale Expedition directly supports graduate student education while offering guests a remarkable marine mammal experience. Marine mammal scientists and experienced local naturalists will be among your travel companions.
In January 2020, Professor Scott Baker was the biopsy specialist on a collaborative research expedition to remote South Georgia Island, once the epicenter of commercial whaling in the southern hemisphere. Since that massive slaughter more than 50 years ago, have whales have found their way back to the island and begun to recover their populations? At last month's HMSC Science on Tap, Dr. Baker shared some of the preliminary findings from the expedition, which begin to answer that question.
In this 7-minute video, Stranding Program Manager Jim Rice describes what services the Oregon Marine Mammal Network provides and how it responds to marine mammal strandings in Oregon. This work keeps us vigilant about changes in the health and challenges to the welfare of marine mammals along the Oregon coast, providing a unique window into the state of the natural world.
To report an injured, stranded, or dead marine mammal in Oregon, call 800-452-7888 (Oregon State Police Tip Line), 541-270-6830 (Stranding Network Hotline), or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Marine mammals are protected by federal law. For their safety and yours, it is illegal for unauthorized persons to disturb, handle, or feed them.
Robert Pitman has coauthored a paper, published in Marine Mammal Science, documenting the first known lethal predation events on blue whales — by pods of killer whales. This has answered one question about how marine ecosystems functioned prior to the devastation of whale populations worldwide: had killer whales ever preyed upon the largest whale species?
Pitman told National Geographic, “This is the biggest predation event on this planet: the biggest apex predator taking down the biggest prey. We don’t have dinosaurs anymore, so for me as a whale biologist and a zoologist, it’s an amazing thing.”
Whales, dolphins, and porpoises are among the most recognizable of all marine animals, yet many of us are unaware that this charismatic group of large-bodied mammals evolved from terrestrial ancestors.
In this recorded presentation, Director Lisa T. Ballance presents the fascinating story of the origin and evolution of cetaceans, as evidenced by the fossil record and artistic impressions of cetacean ancestors.
MMI Associate Professor Leigh Torres and her team of postdoctoral scholars and graduate students have launched a new website, IndividuWhale, that offers close-up looks at some of the iconic gray whales of the Pacific Northwest coast.
MMI Associate Director, Scott Baker, initiated an archive of genetic samples from whales and dolphins of New Zealand when he was professor at the University of Auckland. Now, under the curation of his former students, Associate Professor Rochelle Constantine and Dr. Emma Carroll, this archive continues to provide new information on the evolution of whales. Most recently, DNA samples from this archive were used to help describe a new species of beaked whales named in honor of a renown Māori naturalist, Ramari Stewart, who collected a stranded specimen of the new species.
Figure: Sampling locations in the NA (black circles) and SH (yellow circle). Global map viewed as a Spilhaus projection that shows the connectedness of the ocean, with sampling locations and distribution of Mesoplodon mirus and proposed species M. eueu shown by the key, with the artist's impression of the species in top right. Credit: Vivian Ward, University of Auckland. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2021.1213
Do gray whales head to Baja California for the winter for the same reason we do? A vacation from the cold? Apparently not. A paper by MMI Affiliate Jim Sumich that analyzes heat loss in gray whale calves shows, surprisingly, no substantial benefit to being born in warmer waters. The real motivation behind the southward migration might actually be avoiding those pesky killer whales.
“If I were to describe the Pacific Storm in one word, it would definitely be ‘resilient’,” said Lisa Ballance, director of OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute. “She was built as a commercial fishing vessel and later gifted to MMI. Now her future is with marine mammal research and broader research pertaining to marine ecosystems.” Read the vessel's story in "Journey of the Pacific Storm: From commercial fishing to marine research."
MMI Director Lisa Ballance is leading a team of 12 scientists and crew on a month-long research expedition aboard the R/V Pacific Storm to search for whales that have never before been identified alive in the wild. The Beaked Whale Expedition to the Eastern Pacific Gyre ("GyreX") draws on the expertise of both OSU and NOAA to locate, identify, and ultimately help protect these cryptic whales. Follow along the journey at our blog.
MMI Affiliate Faculty Rachael Orben coauthored a recently published paper that examines the use of marine management areas around the Falkland Islands. The Falkland Islands are home to globally significant populations of marine predators, including 75% of the global population of Black-browed albatross, 50% of the global population of South American fur seals, and 30% of the global population of Rockhopper and Gentoo penguins. The proposed marine management areas are an important step towards an ecosystem approach to conservation in the region.
Join the OSU Marine Mammal Institute for an extraordinary whale-watching adventure in Baja California, Mexico.
Early each year, gray whales can be found in the protected, shallow waters of San Ignacio Lagoon. The Marine Mammal Institute has been hosting educational expeditions to the lagoon and surrounding areas for more than 30 years. Travel with us, for a truly remarkable marine mammal experience.
We use electronic tags to remotely "ride along" with whales as they go about their lives. Developing a better understanding of the patterns of whale habitat use, the reasons behind it, and whales' responses to different conditions, leads to improved conservation measures for the whales and the marine environment in which they live.
Marine mammal stranding networks provide a first line of detection for marine animal and ocean health concerns. The Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network (OMMSN) is based here at the OSU Marine Mammal Institute, managed by Jim Rice. It is a collaborative organization comprising Oregon universities, state and federal agencies, and citizen volunteers that offers continuous surveillance for diseases and causes of death in marine mammals, particularly in areas frequented by the general public.
For an overview of the OMMSN, we invite you to watch the 8-min video shown here. The objectives of the network keep us vigilant about changes in the health and challenges to the welfare of marine mammals along the Oregon coast, providing a unique window into the state of the natural world.
Whales are big, dynamic, and spend most of their lives under water — factors that challenge our ability to study their ecology, health, and behavior. Drones, or Unoccupied Aerial Systems (UAS), are helping us overcome some of these challenges by offering a new, and noninvasive, perspective on the lives and world of whales. Over the last six years, the GEMM Lab has developed new methods, applications, and knowledge based on the use drones to study marine mammals, including documenting new whale foraging behaviors, understanding how krill respond to whale predation, and the relationship between whale body condition and environmental conditions. For more information, check out the Drone-based Innovative Assessments of Megafauna Offer New Discoveries (DIAMOND) project.
In early February, Debbie Steel and Scott Baker of the Cetacean Conservation and Genomics Laboratory hosted the biennial meeting of the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium (SPWRC). This year’s meeting was limited to members of the SPWRC Executive Committee and held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite these limitations, the meeting was a success, with attendees sharing updates on research and conservation initiatives currently underway across the South Pacific region.
"I write this as my first-year anniversary with the Marine Mammal Institute approaches. Despite these unprecedented times, it has been a fabulous year for me and for the Institute. And it has been an historic one."
Photo-identification is not just for whales! MMI researchers and interns use photo-id to evaluate habitat use of harbor seals along the central Oregon coast. Harbor seals haul out on rocks during low tide to rest. This creates the perfect opportunity to collect photographs of the seals and their unique spot patterns. Collecting these photographs at several haul-out sites along the coast, researchers can compare photographs from each region to gain a better understanding of the habitat use of the seals. Aimee Aguilar, an undergraduate intern with MMI, spent most of her summer taking photographs and cataloging individual seals at the haul-out site in Alsea Bay.
Photo-identification is an important tool that helps MMI researchers keep track of the whales we see. Happywhale is an online photo-ID resource that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to automatically compare and match photographs of individual humpback whales. The software can match whales 40 times faster and more accurately than the human eye! Explore the WHET Lab page at Happywhale to take a closer look at the humpbacks we have identified, from Antarctica to the Bering Sea. Photo-ID catalogs such as this one help scientists around the world collaborate to understand whale movements and identify critical habitats.
The Cetacean Conservation and Genomic Laboratory is working to develop methods for detection and identification of whales and dolphins using environmental DNA, or (e)DNA. This is the DNA that organisms shed as they move through the environment. In a recently completed project, we took advantage of a fixed acoustic array maintained on the Navy’s Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Centre (AUTEC) in the Bahamas. With this acoustic assistance, we were about to locate and collect eDNA samples from Blainville’s beaked whales (pictured to the right), revealing previously unreported diversity in mtDNA haplotypes from this enigmatic species.
The GEMM Lab is wrapping up their sixth consecutive year of data collection on gray whale ecology and physiology off the Oregon coast, including observations of the well-known whale “Scarlett” and her new calf, seen here riding on the back of her mom. More information about this research project can be found in the GEMM Lab blog and the research project webpage.
MMI's administrative team supports the director in overseeing MMI’s fiscal, personnel, and communications activities. Their role is to help all of MMI function efficiently, effectively, and ethically. Click on their photos to learn more about how Mark Wilke and Minda Stiles support marine mammal research and graduate student education.
MMI is pleased to introduce our affiliate faculty members. Affiliate faculty strengthen and promote MMI’s collaborations across OSU. We are proud of the diversity these professionals bring to our research portfolio. To date, MMI's Affiliate Faculty members are Renee Albertson, Angela Sremba, Rachael Orben, Robert Pitman, and Holger Klinck.
Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institute
Hatfield Marine Science Center
2030 SE Marine Science Dr
Newport, Oregon 97365
Phone: (541) 867-0202
Fax: (541) 867-0128
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