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!

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

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!

Funded M.S. Position Available: Physiological Ecology of Emperor Penguins —  apply for first consideration before Dec. 1st 2020

MS in Marine Science: Physiological Ecology of Emperor Penguins

Dr. Birgitte McDonald of the Vertebrate Ecology Lab, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories at San José State University is seeking an MS student interested in physiological ecology of seabirds.

Project Overview

By Gitte McDonald (own work)

The survival and success of marine predators depends on their ability to locate prey in a heterogeneous environment. To do this the predators need to be able to adjust their foraging behavior depending on the conditions they encounter, particularly in a changing environment. As ice-dependent top predators, Emperor Penguins are indicators of both drastic and subtle changes occurring throughout the food web and the state of the sea ice. Like other predators, they are vulnerable to environmental change: these changes permeate through the food web, modifying foraging behavior, and ultimately survival and reproduction. Despite their importance in the Southern Ocean ecosystem, relatively little is known about the mechanisms Emperor Penguins use to find and acquire food. This National Science Foundation funded project combines a suite of technological and analytical tools to gain essential knowledge on Emperor Penguin foraging energetics, ecology, and habitat use during critical periods in their life history. Specifically, we will investigate the foraging energetics, ecology, and habitat use of Emperor Penguins at Cape Crozier, the 2nd most southern colony, during late chick-rearing. Energy management is particularly crucial during late chick-rearing as parents need to feed both themselves and their rapidly growing offspring, while being constrained to regions near the colony. The masters student will complete a thesis that contributes to the projects goal. Two years of NSF-funded tuition and stipend support are available for the selected student.


Required qualifications

  • Either a bachelor’s degree in Biology, Physiology, or Ecology with skills in quantitative analyses, or a bachelor’s degree in Statistics or Mathematics with documented experience in biology.
  • Research experience
  • Excellent spoken and written communication skills
  • The ability to work independently and work well as part of a team

Preferred qualifications

  • Field experience, ideally with seabirds or marine mammals
  • Experience with R or MatLab

Interested candidates should email a cover letter with your research interests and experience, a CV, unofficial transcripts, and GRE scores (if available) to Dr. Gitte McDonald (gmcdonald@mlml.calstate.edu). Qualified candidates will be contacted to discuss the project and program further and encouraged to apply to the MS program (Due Feb 1, 2021). Emails with required attachments received before December 1, 2020 will receive first consideration, but the position will remain open until a student is selected.


Wheels on Ice!

The Emperor Penguin Team successfully departed Christchurch on Monday October 21st and arrived at Scott Base, Ross Island, Antarctica . Our flight on the C-17 was an easy 5 hours and the views from the fixed window were marvelous. As we approached Antarctica the plane started to get colder forcing all of the passengers to put on our extreme weather gear. Landing on ice was smoother than I had anticipated especially considering the great weight of the plane and contents including a full size helicopter, packed cargo and passengers.  The C-17 landed and the passengers excitedly grabbed their things and started to exit the plane. Since the plane did not have many windows in the seating area our steps through the plane door were our first view of Antarctica.

For those of us who had never been to Antarctica before the views were quite literally breathtaking as the dry cold air filled our lungs. For others who have been here before, I can imagine this never gets old. In the distance we could see Mt. Erebus and Mt Discovery. We had a short walk on the ice to the large transport vehicle called a Kress. We boarded the Kress and after a safety briefing all the passengers buckled in and we were a short 30-minute drive to Scott Base. Once at Scott Base we received a tour of the well-maintained facilities and met with the staff to plan our busy week of preparations including our Antarctic Field Training (AFT) that involved an overnight stay on the ice.

AFT Overnight Oct. 22nd

As part of our field training we learned to use our primus stoves, set up tents, and safety procedures for working in cold and unpredictable environments. Following our training we then prepared our gear for our overnight stay on the ice shelf. We loaded all our gear on sleds and pulled them by hand for a half hour. We learned to drill ice cores and assess the stability of ice which involved first digging a hole in the snow about a meter and a half deep. Once we reached the ice-surface we used a Kovac-drill to burrow through the ice. We determined that the ice was stable enough to set up camp as it fell within the 70cm+ regulated thickness. Following the assessment, we proceeded to set up three Scott Tents and two mountaineering tents rated to withstand the worst weather conditions (Grade 1). Emperor penguin team member Markus created a much-appreciated  wind break and cooking area for the crew. With wind chill the temperature dropped as low as -36 degrees Celsius. We set up our tents, enjoyed a nice dehydrated meal, filled our water bottles with hot water, and headed to our beds. Exhaustion made sleeping very easy after this long day.

Recon Flight Success Oct 23rd

Gitte and Markus flew out to Cape Crozier today via helicopter to plan out our field camp location and locate the penguin colony. Good news the emperor penguin colony was located and estimated numbers are around 1,500 individuals. They were also able to locate a secure spot perfect for our camp. We are scheduled to fly out and set up camp on Monday October 28th.

Expedition Gear Preparation

For the last four days we have been busy gathering, weighing, putting together 5 helicopter loads full of essential gear we require while at remote camping at Cape Crozier for 3-4 weeks. Gear includes food for 5 weeks, 9 tents, generator, cutlery, sleeping gear and everything that we may require for daily use. It has been very busy and exciting packing all of our gear as we carefully plan what we will need for the next four weeks.

We also have been field testing our data-logging tags in the cold conditions and everything is looking good and ready for Monday.

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Behind-The-Science Look At The Technology We Use to Study Emperor Penguins: 10/17/19

Diving Deeper

Emperor penguins are the largest species of marine bird, and perhaps because of their size, they fast longer, dive deeper, and endure harsher conditions than any other avian species. As a top predator in the Antarctic ecosystem, they have a significant top-down effect on prey targeted during long, deep breath-hold dives. It is therefore essential to understand emperor penguin habitat use, diving capabilities, food habits, and behavioral flexibility in order to interpret their role in the food web and their ability to adapt to environmental change. However, studying marine vertebrates has its challenges, as we cannot visually observe their underwater behavior.

During late chick-rearing emperor penguins, a colonial breeding seabird, alternate 5-20+ day foraging trips with short visits to the colony to feed their chicks.  During these foraging trips they may travel over 100 kms from the colony and dive to depths exceeding 500 meters for over 30 minutes(Kooyman et al. 1992; Wienecke et al. 2007;  K. Sato et al. 2011; Goetz et al. 2018)! Incredible!!

Although researchers may not be able follow penguins on their extreme journeys, engineered data-logging tools (tags) allow us to track animals at fine-scale resolutions. This season we are deploying tags on 20 adult emperor penguins as they head to sea to forage. Four tag types of variable configurations will be used to study at-sea behavior. Some of the data these tags collect include dive depth, acceleration, GPS location, and video allowing us to determine where they go, when they are foraging, and what they are eating.  Additionally, the tags collect data telling us about the environment the penguins are using such as temperature and light level. With these data loggers we hope to document many firsts.  This will be the first study to document the foraging behavior of penguins from Cape Crozier, one of the southernmost colonies. Additionally, we are excited to visually document the foraging behavior of emperor penguins for the first time using a miniature video-logger developed by Little Leonardo Corporation in Tokyo. We will learn more about what they are eating and how they are catching their prey.

To further our understanding of the hidden lives of emperor penguins we must go where few have gone before.

Dive On,

Emperor Penguin Field Crew

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November 2021: Holiday Huddle By Parker Forman

From the most isolated place on earth to the Thanksgiving table. Warming up to family after multiple years of pandemic isolation and catching up on everything from emperor penguins and 3D models to questions about why canned cranberry sauce is sold out while fresh/frozen cranberries are discounted?

Thanksgiving 2021 Revisted

Here I am on Thanksgiving Day 2021 trying to hold a conversion that is not directly or indirectly related to my thesis (as many at this table may be growing tired of my love for penguins) on emperor penguins and if possible, all while avoiding any political discourse with my family. As our elaborate dinner is served, all I can think about is the Mock Holiday Meal that Captain Ernest Shackleton on his 1914 voyage to the South Pole jokingly wrote before their ship, the Endurance, was trapped in sea-ice, slowly crushed and sank, leaving the crew trapped/stranded for a year and half. Little did Shackleton’s crew know at the time, that their mock holiday meal plan consisting of seals and penguins would become essential part of their daily diet to survive. I reflect on the irony of Shackleton’s meal plan as my least favorite side dish, brussels sprouts, are passed to me and I begin to wonder what circumstance would lead to my survival being dependent on this unpalatable vegetable (no personal offense to those of you that like them). I quickly pass the sprouts and wait for another dish to mask the polite amount brussels sprouts on my plate.

While this year we chose to have a mostly meatless Thanksgiving, the strong association between this holiday and turkey once again gets me thinking about Captain Shackleton and how he likely ate the species I am studying for my thesis, the emperor penguin. I know the crew on the Endurance did not have many options once their ship and supplies sank, but I wonder.....could I have changed their hunger driven minds from eating my favorite penguin? Could I convince Shackleton and his interests in extreme expeditions to the bottom of the world to empathize with the incredible diving behavior and amazing journey’s that emperor penguins take to survive at the edge of their distribution on the Ross Sea? Inevitably as I ponder these questions, the conversation at the dinner table shifts to how my thesis is been going. In response, I start to spill the thesis beans:

Thesis Updates

Since our first expedition in 2019 to study the at-sea behaviors of emperor penguins, the world as we know it changed due to the pandemic. My life transitioned from studying penguins at one of the most isolated locations on the planet (Cape Crozier) to returning to California as the pandemic began, the world stopped, and all our lives/plans changed. Since 2019, two seasons of emperor penguin work have been postponed due to travel restrictions. Although we are all eager to get back to Cape Crozier, progress on analyzing the 2019 data set continues as we are uncovering the hidden lives and behaviors of emperor penguins.

During the last year, I have created models that allow us to reconstruct and visualize an emperor penguin’s at-sea trips (as seen below). These models were created from the dataloggers we deployed and to learn more about that process check out this blog post: Living among emperor penguins: 2019 field expedition to Antarctica.

3D Reconstructing Emperor Penguin Trips in Relationship to the Underlying Bathymetry  


From these 3D reconstructions we can see what the at-sea dive behavior of each penguin looks like in relation to the underlying bathymetry/sea floor. As seen above, penguin 5 started out at the colony located in the upper right of the figure traveled out to the Ross Bank (the shallow lighter blue 400-500m feature in the middle of the figure). It is interesting to note that this penguin traveled over 1000 km round trip over a span of 17 days during which it dove 2,400 times. During the penguin’s trip you may notice from the alternative view below that as the bathymetry becomes more shallow (light blue vs the dark blue) the penguin’s dives (red dots below the red line) start to get deeper. About 7 percent of penguin 5's dives were at or near the benthos while the majority (93%) of dives occurred within the first 200 meters. These deep dives come at a greater energetic and physiologic cost than a shallow dives.


But why would a penguin expend more energy to dive deep? The relationship between a shallower bathymetry and an increase in penguin dive depth is likely related to due to either increases in prey availability or quality driven by ocean dynamics that make bank areas rich in micronutrients such as iron that stimulate the bottom of the food web. So, penguins may expend more effort to dive deep, but it must be worth it.

This same idea may be applied to a predicament I came across while shopping for Thanksgiving. The easy option, canned cranberry sauce was sold out. Instead of purchasing cranberry sauce I was able to find a great deal on fresh cranberries. With a bit of extra effort I made the sauce from scratch and it turned out better than I could have imagined. While it took more effort the cranberry sauce even made eating the brussels sprouts on my plate more bearable.

Keep in mind as we get started with the winter holidays that spending time with family and freinds can be challenging, but like deep penguin dives and handmade cranberry sauce, some things are worth the extra effort.

Happy Holidays,


Hidden Lives of Emperor Penguins

Despite being the first emperor penguin colony discovered in 1902 during Scott’s Discovery Expedition(1901–1904) little is known about that at-sea behavior of emperor penguins from Cape Crozier. The first science expedition to study them was in 1911, when a small group from Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition team made the perilous journey to the colony in the winter to collect eggs. Since this early study, most research at the Crozier colony has involved counting the birds to monitor the population. This fall we will head to Cape Crozier to study the foraging ecology of one of the southernmost emperor penguin colonies. We hope that you will follow along on our adventure as we prepare for the field work, travel to Antarctica to study the birds, and analyze the data. We look forward to sharing with you new discoveries about the ecology of the emperors of the ice.

Student At Sea Perspective:

Fish Communication:

Did you know that fish make sounds? They do! Some fish species, like the rockfish you eat in your fish tacos, are soniferous (sound producing). Fish produce a drumming sound by striking the gasbladder (swim bladder) and the sonic muscle together. Rockfish (Genus Sebastes spp.) are a genus that produce low frequency sounds associated with agonistic interactions and territorial defense. Due to this ability, it is proposed that rockfish may elicit an acoustic response due to increased noise produced by survey vehicles used to study rockfish populations.

A day in the life of an elephant seal biologist at Año Nuevo State Park:

Student Perspective On Working In the Field With Northern Elephant Seals

BEEP! BEEP! I roll over to turn off my alarm and read the clock: 4:30 a.m. Begrudgingly I arise, slip into my field clothes, and head to the kitchen to make breakfast before beginning the forty-five minute commute to Long Marine Lab (LML). As I drive north, I mentally prepare myself for the day ahead. Today our focus is assisting with the annual weanling weighing effort. Upon arrival at LML, the field crew assembles all necessary gear, electronically checks into the park, and then piles into the truck. As we cruise up Highway 1 the sky begins to lighten, gradually revealing the charming California coast while the truck buzzes with conversation.

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Funded M.S. Position Available: MLML/Monterey Bay, CA

Alison Stimpert is recruiting a student for a funded master's of marine science position at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in Moss Landing, California. The student will work on a NOAA/Navy funded collaborative project using passive acoustic monitoring to describe ocean soundscapes in the US West Coast Sanctuaries (Channel Islands, Monterey Bay, and Olympic Coast:  https://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/science/monitoring/sound/).  The student will be responsible for running established Matlab code to generate analysis products, attending group meetings, and assisting with field deployments and recoveries as needed, as well as developing an individual analysis project which will become a master's thesis.

By Alison Stimpert (own work)

Required qualifications include those listed for applying to the CSU/MLML graduate program (https://mlml.sjsu.edu/gradprog/faqs/).  The ideal candidate will also have experience with marine bioacoustic/PAM data as well as programming in Matlab.  Position includes funding through August 2021, including tuition, travel, and salary, and preference will be given to those who can begin work in January 2020.  The accepted student will be expected to be an active participant in the MLML graduate program and a contributing member of the Vertebrate Ecology Lab team.


To apply, please send an email to Alison Stimpert (astimpert@mlml.calstate.edu) with the subject line: "SanctSound MS position" that includes:

1) a brief description of your qualifications

2) 1 or 2 thesis project ideas related to the research effort listed above

3) your available start date.

Application Deadline: October 30.