Welcome to the new VEL post-doc, Martin Tournier!

The Vertebrate Ecology Lab is excited to welcome our new post-doctoral researcher, Martin Tournier. Martin will be working on an NSF-funded project investigating the physiological and behavioral ecology of emperor penguin.

Martin comes from France, where he completed two MS degrees in Oceanography and Marine Ecology, and Ecological Modelling. He got his Ph.D. from La Rochelle Université where his work focused on characterizing the habitat of deep-diving mammals. He worked with active acoustic data obtained from dataloggers that were deployed on southern elephant seals. He developed novel mathematical approaches to model the three-dimensional habitat of elephant seals.

While interested in many aspects of marine ecology, his primary research interest is to investigate the different diving and foraging strategies displayed by marine predators, both within and among species, with the goal of determining how environmental forcing will influence behavior on short and long-term scales. This knowledge will provide insights into how their 3-dimensional habitats are changing and how predators may respond to these changes. He is thrilled to address some of these questions with Emperor Penguins in the Vertebrate Ecology Lab. As a student, he helped to organize conferences, and he hopes to organize some short technical workshops during his time here. Outside of the lab, he enjoys spending time sailing, diving, cooking & baking, and hiking.

You can read more about Martin here.

Welcome to the VEL!

Welcome to the Vertebrate Ecology Lab, Sebastian and Vicky!

Sebastian Caamaño graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a B.S. in Marine Biology. He also worked with the Pinniped Cognition and Sensory System's Lab where he got to experience working with marine mammals for the first time. Working as an intern, he got to contribute to the daily care and training of the resident seal and sea lion species. Simultaneously, he assisted in several of research projects. These opportunities ranged from hearing tests with a California Sea Lions to physiological work with two arctic seals and even developing some human trials along the way. This volunteership, led him to the Alaska SeaLife Center where he continued his behavior and physiology work with arctic seals as a Research and Animal Care Technician. Ultimately, these experiences led him to the Vertebrate Ecology Lab here in Moss Landing. Since joining, he has enjoyed working for the Marine Mammal Stranding Network and hope to continue working on the physiology of marine mammals.

Vicky Ooi completed her bachelor's degree in Marine Science and Zoology from the University of Queensland, Australia. She then entered an honors research year investigating dugongs along the coast of Southeast Queensland with Drs. Janet Lanyon and Lee McMichael. During this period, I successfully pioneered a fecal DNA extraction protocol that allowed amplification of both mitochondrial and nuclear DNA from free floating dugong feces. This development enabled single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) to be amplified from dugong scats, representing a breakthrough for non-invasive population genetic studies in this species.

She relocated to the United States around mid-late 2022, completing an internship program at Hubbs SeaWorld Research Institute (Species Preservation Lab) with Karen Steinman, further acquiring laboratory skills on semen quality assessments, cryopreservation, enzyme immunoassays, and hormone analyses. Her thesis will focus on the foraging ecology of emperor penguins in Antarctica, simultaneously working part-time as a naturalist on the Sea Goddess whale-watching cruise.

Congrats to Parker Forman and Daphne Shen for defending their theses’.

Congratulations to our very own Parker Forman and Daphne Shen for recently defending their theses'.

Parker Forman

Thesis Abstract:

I described the at-sea behavior of emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) during late chick-rearing at Cape Crozier. Analyzing data from eight penguins, I investigated how intrinsic factors, including sex, size, and body condition influenced their behaviors. Penguins exhibited mean trip durations of 10.6±3.4 days, covering a daily distance of 55.7±8.0 km. Penguins predominantly performed dives within the upper 200 meters of the water column (90.7±26.5%), with a smaller proportion of dives (9.3±2.0%) reaching greater depths. Deeper dives were typically associated with shallow bathymetry. Penguins conducted an average of 1,860±681 dives with maximum depths of 455.8±32.6 m and durations of 12.9±2.4 minutes. Penguins spent 66.4±14.8% and 43.9±4.4% of their time at sea resting and diving.

Penguins with similar behaviors were categorized into groups: Group I foraged near the continent and traveled to the Ross Bank, and Group II predominantly foraged near the continent. I found significant differences in foraging behaviors between the groups and sexes. The composition of these groups was influenced by sex. Group I mostly comprised males, while Group II were females and one unknown sex. Females displayed higher dive frequencies per day (Females (F):186±17, Males (M):151±4), shallower maximum depths (F: 432.2±29.4 m, M: 476.8±12.8 m), and shorter durations (F: 3.2±0.7, M: 3.9±0.3). Possible explanations for the observed differences between male and female penguins include energetic requirements, prey preference, physical characteristics, and niche differentiation, which can shape their distinct foraging behaviors.

Furthermore, results from this study indicate that penguin behaviors were also influenced by the physical characteristics and condition of their bodies. This finding suggests that there may be an optimal body condition for achieving greater diving depths. Penguins with intermediate body conditions may possess a more efficient physiological adaptation for sustained deep diving, enabling them to access resources inaccessible to individuals with lower or higher body compositions.

This study advances our understanding of late-chick-rearing penguins and the influence of intrinsic factors on their behavior. The findings indicate that emperor penguins exhibit divergent strategies influenced by sex and physical condition, leading to variations in dive behavior and bathymetry use. These sex-based disparities in penguin behavior highlight distinct ecological roles for each sex within the species. These findings provide a novel description that underscores the remarkable adaptations of emperor penguins in successfully navigating dynamic environments at Cape Crozier.


Daphne Shen

Thesis Abstract

Understanding how marine mammals respond to and recover from acoustic stressors is crucial if underwater noise increases. The use of an animal-borne biologger that combines a speaker with a motion sensor allows for the collection of whole-dive and fine-scale data over repeated exposures under identical experimental parameters. This study determined whether northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris), a model for deep-diving marine mammals, exhibited a stereotypical behavioral response when exposed to killer whale whistles, an acoustic stressor. I examined changes in dive characteristics, measured duration of altered response, and observed behavior in response to repeated exposures. When exposed to the playback on ascent, the elephant seals performed an escape response consisting of a dive inversion during which they increased activity and displayed more variation in swimming direction. However, the seals returned to baseline diving behavior immediately after the exposure dives, suggesting they recover quickly from disturbance. After repeated exposures, the seals continued to perform dive inversions but reduced the extent of their responses over time. Even though northern elephant seals appear to recover quickly from this acoustic stressor, the initial strong behavioral response still causes an increase in energy expenditure that could be detrimental over time, especially if they are continuously faced with disturbances. Integrating behavioral responses with physiological measurements will help us fully comprehend how these animals change their diving behavior in response to increased sounds in the ocean.

Lauren Hearn

Lauren Hearn



I'm a recent graduate from Florida State University (2022), where I studied marine biology and chemical oceanography. I completed an undergraduate thesis there on biogeochemical cycles in the Southern ocean and the role that phytoplankton play in them. I collected seawater samples in the Southern ocean and analyzed the data in Ocean data view for the ongoing GEOTRACES project, which helped fuel my thesis.

I've started volunteering in the Vertebrate Ecology Lab this fall to assist with recording marine mammal strandings and completing bi-monthly surveys. I look forward to continuing to assist members in the lab and widening my exposure to marine mammal research. Broadly, I'm interested in how chemical oceanography and marine populations interact, and how studies of the two can overlap to benefit each other. I hope to narrow down my research focus and continue my education by pursuing a master's thesis.

VEL students Shawn Hannah & Lauren Cooley present their thesis’ projects at EB2022!

Lauren Cooley (right) and Shawn Hannah (left) presented their thesis research at the Evolutionary Biology 2022 Conference last month! You can read their published abstracts here:

Hannah et al: Examining the Plasticity of the Dive Response in Relation to Dive Behavior of Northern Elephant Seals. (2022).

Cooley et al: Research Handling Effects on Stress Hormones, Blood Parameters, and Heart Rate in Juvenile Northern Elephant Seals (Mirounga angustirostris). (2022).

And congrats to Lauren for being presented with the Research Recognition Award from the American Physiological Society's Comparative and Evolutionary Physiology Section.

Congrats to VEL Members for being awarded MLML Student Scholarships, COAST grants, and more!

Congratulations to the following VEL Lab Members to being awarded scholarships/grants this Spring!

Loury Family Marine Science Outreach Scholarship - Kali Prescott

MLML Student Body Scholar Award - Daphne Shen

MLML Student Body Wave Award - Sierra Fullmer, Taylor Azizeh

COAST Graduate Student Research Award- Emma Nicholson, Taylor Azizeh

Dr. Earl H. Myers and Ethel M. Myers Oceanographic and Marine Biology Trust Award (In addition - Baldridge Award for the Best Research Proposal) - Daphne Shen