Congrats on advancing to candidacy!

Congratulations to VEL student Taylor Azizeh for advancing to candidacy!

Taylor's thesis will focus on investigating the foraging ecology of late chick-rearing emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) off Cape Crozier, West Antarctica. Specifically, Taylor will use machine learning to identify potential foraging events from biologging data. By combining foraging attempt and dive data, Taylor can estimate what potential costs and benefits of different foraging strategies might be. Ultimately, Taylor hopes that her work will offer novel information to the seabird ecology world, and that eventually, this work can be used in management strategies to better protect ice-obligate species like penguins.



Meet the 2023 NBP Penguin Team

The 2023 Penguin Team just departed the National Science Foundation’s R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer after finishing up a productive field season in and around the Ross Sea, Antarctica. We interviewed each member to learn a bit more about them!

Gitte McDonald

Associate Professor, Moss Landing Marine Labs at San Jose State University

What do you think is the most interesting thing about emperor penguins?

“I am amazed by emperor penguin physiology! They are a species of extremes. They are the premier avian diver performing dives to depths over 500m for over 20 minutes. They also have an amazing ability to fast. During the winter males will fast over 100 days during courtship and incubation.”

What is one of your favorite memories from conducting field work?

“It was fun to think back on field seasons and surprisingly hard to settle on a favorite story or season. Because we are currently in Antarctica studying emperor penguins, I have been thinking a lot about my first season working with emperor penguins at Cape Washington, so I will go with that. We traveled to Cape Washington to study the diving physiology and ecology of emperor penguins. The day we arrived; we were greeted by a welcoming committee of penguins within the hour. It was amazing to be camping on sea ice 2 km from one of the world’s largest emperor penguin colonies and being lulled to sleep by the hum of the colony. Later in the season we could even hear seals singing under the ice we were sleeping on.  We were at Cape Washington for 6 weeks where we spent hours near the colony and at the ice edge each day observing the penguins. These hours of observations have inspired some of the questions we are currently pursuing, or I hope to pursue in the future.

One of my favorite days of the season was a bonus day. Because of the amount of gear we have, it takes 2 days to close camp (two flights each day). We sent off half our gear during the first day. On the 2nd day we confirmed that two more flights were heading our way so we continued to break down camp. About an hour before we were expecting the first flight to arrive, we got a message that the plane was not coming. We had to go back to the temporary runway to get enough camp gear to make it another day or two and spent half the day setting up camp again. The next day was a beautiful snowy day, so no flights were coming. We made the most of it by heading out to the ice edge to get in a last day of observations. There was so much activity that day. We saw 100 killer whales swim by, 100’s of chicks were jumping into the water for the first time, and we also saw a leopard seal.  While we were initially disappointed by your delayed departure, the amazing day at the ice edge more than made up for it.  The following day we had better weather and the flights came in to take us home.”

Caitie Kroeger

Post-doctoral Researcher, Moss Landing Marine Labs at San Jose State University

What do you think is the most interesting thing about emperor penguins?

“I'm always so amazed when I think about how male emperor penguins fast for 2 months while incubating the egg their mate has laid - in extreme cold weather to boot!”

What is one of your favorite memories from conducting field work?

“One of my favorite field work memories was having a very curious emperor penguin (affectionately named "Petey" by our crew) silently follow me from our field camp at Cape Crozier to a nearby site where I was listening for radio tagged birds with an antenna receiver. I didn't know I'd been followed and turned around to walk back to camp and almost bumped right into him! I let out a startled gasp (he just looked confused), then gave him a nod and walked back to camp with him following close behind. It felt like we had a pet penguin in camp for most of the month as he'd make regular appearances to yell at us from outside our tents and follow us around from one tent to another.”

Taylor Azizeh

Master’s Student, Moss Landing Marine Labs at San Jose State University

What do you think is the most interesting thing about emperor penguins?

“Scientifically, I think one of the most interesting things about emperor penguins are their adaptations to extremes! Everything about them is perfectly designed to live and thrive in one of the harshest environments on the planet. They dive really deep, fast for months, raise chicks in ice and snow, and forage in incredibly cold waters. It’s really exciting to take part in gaining new information about them to learn even more about their life history!

Un-scientifically, I think it’s amazing how curious they are about humans. They would often come and greet us as we pulled up to the ice, even walking right next to us while we were working. And a bonus - their feet always seem to be warm, even when they’re covered in snow and ice!”

What is one of your favorite memories from conducting field work?

“Outside of this experience, one of my favorite memories from the field was getting to work in the Andes, catching bats. We would sit next to the mist-nets for hours, nestled in the trees, listening to the night sounds, and looking at stars. I was so surprised to learn that even the smallest bats make noises that are so loud, you can hear them without needing a microphone.

On this trip, one experience stands out in which we were working on some fast ice with one very chunky Weddell seal and plenty of emperor penguins. We had to actively avoid getting too close to the seal or tripping over it, because it was fast asleep and completely unaware of us.”

Sarah Peterson

Wildlife Biologist & Guest Researcher, UC Santa Cruz Institute of Marine Sciences

What do you think is the most interesting thing about emperor penguins?

“I think that the deep diving capabilities and similarity to marine mammals (being a bird!) is one of the things that I find most fascinating about emperor penguins. I guess I'm drawn to some of the animals that do things to the extreme (elephant seals and emperor penguins as the two species that most exemplify that).”

What is one of your favorite memories from conducting field work?

“I think that my favorite field work memory (other than coming to Antarctica for this penguin project) was getting the opportunity to spend almost a year in Yellowstone National Park working for the Yellowstone wolf project to track and observe wolves with a significant focus on prey selection and hunting success during the winter season.

Not surprisingly that experience prepared me well to field work in Antarctica, as we primarily sat out in the weather up on snowy ridge tops from first light to last light, trying to get as much time as possible each day watching a wolf pack hunt and document their behavior throughout the day. Reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone NP in my opinion is one of the greatest conservation success stories and to be a part of it was incredible, especially the few times I had an unexpected relatively close encounter with wolves. Once with a wolf that ended up walking past me close enough that I could see it's yellow green eyes and the second with a group of wolf puppies yipping and playing just below us on a thickly wooded hillside near their den that we had not yet pinpointed.”

Meredith Meyer

PhD Candidate, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

What do you think is the most interesting thing about emperor penguins?

“The thing I find the most interesting about is that emperor penguins heart rate changes so dramatically over a short period of time when they are diving! Humans would never be able to do that!”

What is one of your favorite memories from conducting field work?

“My favorite field work memory is seeing the first glimpse of the ice and mountains of Antarctica as our C-130 plane came within reach of the continent.”

Wyatt Jobe

Field Safety Coordinator, Amentum

What do you think is the most interesting thing about emperor penguins?

“I find how agile they are in the water to be really incredible. They really do swim quite fast and can dive up to 6 minutes.”

What is one of your favorite memories from conducting field work?

“My favorite memory was after gently releasing a bird we had just tagged, unlike every other bird, this one decided to turn around and slap me in frustration. Then proceeded to posture and make itself look larger while I was standing back up

Moss Landing Marine Lab Researchers head to Antarctica to study the post-molt behavior and ecology of Emperor Penguins.

This winter a team for researchers from Moss Landing Marine Laboratories headed south to waters north of Marie Byrd Land to investigate the ecology and habitat preference of Ross Sea emperor penguins after the molt and through early reproduction, an important phase of the annual cycle that we know little about.

The remarkable winter incubation behavior of male emperor penguins and their vulnerability to the elements of the extreme Antarctic winter has captured the fascination of both researchers and the public, resulting in award winning documentaries as far back as the 1960’s. However, there is more to the emperor penguin’s annual cycle than the winter incubation; their at-sea foraging and molt migration is more dangerous to both sexes than the winter breeding. With the development of satellite tags and time-depth recorders, researchers have started to unravel the mystery of their at-sea behavior while hunting for food to nurture chicks. However, many questions remain regarding the most enigmatic side of the annual cycle, the molt migration, which consists of approximately one month at sea, one month molting, and three months at sea before returning to the colony. During the molt migration, penguins travel 100’s of kilometers to stable pack or fast ice, while building up energy stores necessary to undergo the molt and reproductive fasts.

The molt is a vulnerable and energetically demanding time for emperor penguins. The birds must remain out of the water for approximately one month while their plumage undergoes a complete replacement. During this transitional state the feathers are not waterproof and entering the water pre-maturely may cause extensive heat loss, possibly leading to hypothermia and death. Therefore, penguins must select ice floes or stable fast ice that will remain intact through the molt. Additionally, because birds at the end of the molt are in their poorest annual condition, abundant and accessible food near the molt location is required for survival.

Molting locations are known for less than 10% of all emperor penguin colonies and due to the remoteness of the molt locations, even less is known about the post-molt migration. During this two-three month migration the birds must recover from their poorest body condition (up to 50% protein loss) and store enough energy to successfully complete the courtship fast and reproduce in April and May. Considering the value of emperor penguins as an indicator species of climate change, and the predicted changes in pack ice extent and prey distribution, it is essential that we travel to one of the most remote parts of Antarctica to study the post-molt behavior of one of the largest concentration of emperor penguins.

Funding: NSF CAREER Award to Birgitte McDonald (# 1943550)

ACA permit #: 2023-003

Congrats on Candidacy!

As of Fall 2022 these students in the Vertebrate Ecology Lab have received approval for their Theses Proposals and are now moving into Master's Candidacy

Jack Barkowski

Jack’s thesis work will investigate patterns in humpback whale vocalizations along the U.S. West Coast. Jack will look at the spatiotemporal variation in humpback whale song activity over a 3 year span within the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, and the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary . He will also report the presence and acoustic characteristics of 5 specific non-song calls that have been documented in humpback whale populations around the world, suggesting that these 5 call types play an important role in social interaction. Jack hopes his work will reveal spatiotemporal differences in peak song activity that will allow for more effective management decisions aimed at reducing entanglement risk in fishing gear and ship strikes from large vessels, the two leading causes of anthropogenic-caused mortality for large whales.


Kali Prescott

Kali's thesis work will be focusing on exploring how Computational Fluid Dynamics can be used to estimate drag incurred by biologgers and other externally attached devices.  She will be examining Northern Elephant Seal, Mirounga angustirostris, as a model species using 3D scans collected during the seal's haul out periods at Año Nuevo State Reserve. These scans will be used to build 3D models of the seals along with 3D models of the biologgers generated using Computer Assisted Design Software (CAD). Using a fluid dynamics program originally designed by Engineers, Kali will simulate drag and drag coefficient by placing the tagged seals models into a computer generated flow through chamber. These models will be used to identify what factors associated with biologger attachment (size, location, and number of loggers) will most impact the incurred drag. These proxies for drag will then be compared to foraging, dive, and reproductive data collected from animals tagged in real life to determine if there are any measurable impacts.

Eyes in the (Washington and Oregon) Skies

By Sierra Fullmer

Many beach goers love to watch coastal animals resting, playing, and swimming along the shoreline, including my typical study species, the southern sea otter. However, some species are much harder to find and require extensive efforts to see them, even for the experts! During the months of August and September I worked with a small team of scientists from NOAA and the affiliated organizations Upwell Turtles and Moss Landing Marine Laboratory to survey the Oregon and Washington coastline and locate, capture, and gather valuable information on the endangered leatherback sea turtle.

Aerial survey team in front of the Twin Otter observation plane. People from left to right: Sierra Fullmer, Nick Toth (NOAA pilot), Katherine Whitaker, Karin Forney, Scott Benson, Priti Bhatnagar (NOAA pilot), Garrett Lemons. Not pictured: Vicky Vasquez and NOAA pilots Conor Maginn and Kennieth Brewer. Photo credit: Garrett Lemons

As a part of the aerial team, I assist with locating these five- to six-foot, 800- to 1400-pound leatherback turtles, but it’s not as easy as it may seem!

My role as an aerial observer involves scouring the seas for any signs of turtle habitat, food, and other associated species - plus on our very best days the turtles themselves! The Western Pacific leatherback sea turtle population has declined by approximately 80 percent since the 1980’s1,2. Leatherbacks face challenges all throughout their lives. Although they are largely protected at their primary nesting beaches, they still face threats at secondary nesting beaches, where adults are occasionally still harvested, and eggs poached. Upon leaving their nesting grounds, juvenile and adult leatherback turtles face a maze of fisheries as they pass through the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of many fishing nations and international waters while traversing the entire Pacific Ocean to reach the western coastline of North America. Once in North American coastal waters, adult leatherbacks spend the summer and fall months feeding on blooms of jellyfish that annually occur with upwelling events of cold, nutrient-rich water being drawn to the ocean surface1. How these leatherbacks select and re-locate these patches year after year is still unknown, and part of what we hope to investigate with our surveys. But fear not, we have figured out some clues to help us in our search.


On “fly-days” our lead researchers Scott Benson and Dr. Karin Forney have undergone intense weather monitoring and decided we face good wind and cloud conditions that should provide calm, white-cap-free waters. In our ideal weather days, the waters are so calm that we can see the airplane’s reflection on the water from 650 feet in the air! Once we get the go-ahead, we pile into our cars, head to the airport to meet our NOAA pilots, and prepare our recording equipment before strapping in and taking off!

On our first few flights, we hoped to get a coarse understanding of the environment along the Oregon and Washington coastlines and to identify areas where we might have the best luck turtle-spotting. Over the course one week, we spent 28 flight hours flying transect lines that extended from Newport, Oregon to just south of La Push, WA. With these long flight days, we collected data on water conditions, jellyfish blooms, and marine species presence within 25-30 miles of the coast. Our initial transects were spaced every four miles of latitude, which narrowed to a more fine-scaled 1-mile spacing as we focused in on the main target area. Non-turtle species data we collect not only assists with our project but can also be used in other studies such as harbor porpoise population surveys.

But how did we get this information? We stuck our faces (almost) out of the plane of course! But not how you might think...

For these surveys we are flying a specially modified Twin Otter plane owned by NOAA that has a large “bubble window” on either side just behind the pilots and an additional belly window in the back of the plane. These windows combined allow our observers an almost 180-degree view of the water below! While surveying, each observer spends approximately 45 minutes sticking their entire head and shoulders into the windows and calling out every species of animal they see. Then when you finally start to feel a kink in your neck and think you may never make it out of the window, you rotate! My personal favorite spot in the plane is the belly window, where you lay in the back of the plane, stick your head into the small window, and watch the water, algae, and animals as you fly by. If you’re lucky enough to be in the belly on a perfect day, you can even spot your own reflection hundreds of feet below!

Lead scientist Karin Forney looking out through the belly window mid-survey.

An external view of aerial observer, Sierra Fullmer, looking through the belly window. Image was taken from below while the plane was parked on the tarmac.

Although these views sound glamorous, much of our time is spent looking through sun glare, counting tens to hundreds of animals (sometimes in the span of a few minutes), and making sure you don’t lose focus waiting to find the elusive turtle hidden amongst the algae and ocean sunfish (Mola molas).

Over the last several years of leatherback research, a trend has appeared that leatherbacks are often found in association with dense aggregations of large Mola mola, or ‘molas’, as we call them for short. Large molas are typically four to eight feet in diameter or longer and feed on the same food as leatherback sea turtles: blooms of jellyfish species including brown sea nettles (Chrysaora fuscescens) and moon jellies (Aurelia spp). While flying over the water, when we hit an area of ‘Mola mayhem’ it’s a period of excitement, focus, and a little bit of insanity – especially for the data recorder. I had the eye-opening experience of data recording through my first section of ‘Mola mayhem’ during this field season, where every observer was calling out mola sizes and numbers every second and my entire job was to record them on our digital data log as fast (and accurately) as possible. My fingers were flying so fast I even knocked a key off the keyboard! Don’t worry though, I replaced it at the end of the mayhem.

To get an idea of the mayhem picture this, you’re standing in the middle of an auction house where three different auctioneers are calling out their bids at the same time and your job is to write down everything each auctioneer is saying simultaneously and correctly. Mayhem is the only description. However, it’s extremely important data to collect to really narrow down where our turtle habitat may be, as this helps us find the few leatherbacks that are still making it through the maze of fisheries to our coastlines each year. The proof is in the results.

At the end of our third survey day, with only an hour of fuel left, our team was flying through Mola mayhem calling out large molas left, right, and center when the belly observer calmly called out “turtle” and all chatter stopped for what felt like the longest second. In this time, our pilots and data recorder marked the coordinates as fast as possible, and everyone instantly went on high alert. This was our chance. The pilots circled back, once more flying over the area while every observer was trying to look past the glare of the sun sitting low on the horizon. The pilot started a count down, “You should see it in three…two… one…” and to our amazement the turtle popped out of the glare. The entire crew erupted with excitement and started calling out directions, “turtle at your nine-o’clock, just under the wing!” We managed to circle it for approximately 15 minutes, relocating it between shallow dives and getting a good look to confirm there was no tail (which means it was not an adult male). It was a large, round female and our first aerial sighting in the Pacific Northwest since 2011!

It was the perfect ending to what had been my longest day of flying so far, and a sense of hope for the rest of our survey efforts. Now that we know where to find ‘turtle water’, we have our zone of Mola mayhem, and we know there’s still turtles out there, we hope we can find more turtles for Stage 2: boat capture and tagging. Hopefully I’ll have more updates for you all at the end of the field season, until then I’ll be one pair of the eyes in the sky!

Aerial observer, Sierra Fullmer, looking out the bubble window during a survey, watching the glassy ocean surface passing below. Photo credit: Karin Forney


  1. Benson SR, Eguchi T, Foley DG, Forney KA, Bailey H, Hitipeuw C, Samber BP, Tapilatu RF, Rei V, Ramohia P, Pita J, Dutton PH. 2011. Large-scale movements and high-use areas of western Pacific leatherback turtles, Dermochelys coriacea. Ecosphere. 2(7):art84. doi:10.1890/ES11-00053.
  2. Benson SR, Forney KA, Moore JE, LaCasella EL, Harvey JT, Carretta J V. A long-term decline in the abundance of endangered leatherback turtles, Dermochelys coriacea, at a foraging ground in the California Current Ecosystem. Glob Ecol Conserv. 2020;24:e01371.
  3. Tapilatu RF, Dutton PH, Tiwari M, Wibbels T, Ferdinandus H V, Iwanggin WG, et al. Long‐term decline of the western Pacific leatherback, Dermochelys coriacea: a globally important sea turtle population. Ecosphere. 2013;4:1–15.

Elephant Seal Field Season Wrap Up!

Greetings from the Vertebrate Ecology Lab

You may not know this, but much of research here in the Vert Lab is on the ever charismatic Northern Elephant Seal! Each year, we get to work with colleagues from institutions such as UC Santa Cruz, UC Davis, Sonoma State, and many more, to investigate the lives of these incredible animals. There are dozens of research topics from biologging studies, foraging ecology, sleep studies, reproductive success, dive behavior, stress responses, and more being investigated by our little research group here at MLML and by our colleagues elsewhere.

Currently we are wrapping up a very successful field season, which typically runs from November to early June. This year we investigated the feasibility of new physiological biologgers including testing non-invasive near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) dataloggers to measure arterial blood oxygenation and MOxyLog sensors for measuring muscle oxygen (National Science Foundation Grant #: 1656282). These loggers will aid in future physiological studies that improve our understanding of how these animals perform long deep dives and how they are impacted by anthropogenic stressors

This year, we got to do all of this in addition to our yearly participation in the field efforts out at Año Nuevo State Park including: helping with daily resights, deploying and recovering tags at the colony, and yearly weaner weighing (All work performed under NMFS permit #: 23188).

(Take a look at this video to see more of what goes on up at Año Nuevo State Park, note this video was shot prior to the COVID-19 pandemic)

The seals are finishing up their yearly molt and soon the adult females, many of whom are pregnant, will head out to sea for their long nine month migration out into the North Pacific. We will have a reprieve from field work until they return in December. Happy Trails!

Happy Holidays from the Vertebrate Ecology Lab!

With all vaccinated (and testing negative for Covid the day of), us at in the Vertebrate Ecology Lab here at MLML had our first in-person gathering in 2 years.

We got together for food, Danish present stealing games, rice pudding, and glogg. It was lots of fun unwrapping our stolen two-person "ugly" Christmas sweater, giant coffee mug, and all manner of ocean themed goodies.

We wish you all a safe and happy holiday season!