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!

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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Flight to Scott Base Postponed: 10/16/19

Flight to Scott Base Postponed: 10/16/19

Fingers crossed for a Friday departure to Scott Base

The Cape Crozier Penguin Team arrived safe and sound in Christchurch New Zealand where we are waiting for our flight to Scott Base, Antarctica. We were scheduled to fly today, however we have been delayed due to a cracked windshield on the plane. Currently our flight has been postponed until Friday Oct. 18th as we are waiting for a new windshield to arrive from the USA.

In the meantime, the penguin team has been busy planning our field logistics so that we may hit the ground running on Friday. Today we are setting up our data-logging tags that will measure the GPS location, acceleration and fine-scale foraging behaviors of chick-rearing emperor penguins. Stay tuned for more information about the tags we will be using this season.

Proactively in standby,

Emperor Penguin Field Crew

 

C-17 Aircraft
Penguin Crew Datalogger Huddle

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Arrived in Christchurch New Zealand: 10/14/19

Arrived in Christchurch New Zealand: 10/14/19

Emperor Penguin Crew Lands In Christchurch New Zealand

The Penguin Team has landed in New Zealand after a 12 hour long flight from San Francisco to Aukland and a quick (1.5 hr) connecting flight to Christchurch. While in Christchurch we visited the International Antarctic Center where we were issued our clothing field gear for this season. A New Zealand rep "Lou" helped us out with our clothing selections that include warm marino wool base layers, 6 pairs of gloves, 4 hats, two pair of boots, fleece pants and down jackets, and incredibly warm survival gear. We are ready for our trip scheduled to leave at 9am on Wednesday October 19th.

Warm and ready for the Ice,

Emperor Penguin Field Crew

 

 

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Vert Lab Blog

Stay Tuned For More Blogs From Our Upcoming Northern Elephant Seal 2021-22 Field Season (December-April 2022)!

While You Wait Please Catch Up On Our Recent Monthly Graduate Student and Field Work Blogs Below!

Monthly Graduate Student Blog

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  

3D MODEL DISPLAY OF THE ROSS BANK UNDERWATER BATHYMETRY WITH PENGUIN 5'S GPS TRACK (RED LINE AT THE SEA SURFACE) AND MAXIMUM DIVE DEPTH (RED DOTS) PER DIVE LOCATION.

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.

ALTERNATIVE 3D VIEW OF THE ROSS BANK BATHYMETRY WITH PENGUIN 5'S GPS TRACK (RED LINE AT THE SEA SURFACE) AND MAXIMUM DIVE DEPTH (RED DOTS) PER DIVE LOCATION.

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. 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,

Parker

Hidden Lives of Emperor Penguins

Background
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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Antarctica Preparations II: 09/15/2019

Antarctica Preparations II: 09/15/2019

Building a cost effective time-depth recorder to track fine-scale penguin Foraging Behavior

We developed our own animal-worn datalogging tags that measure the fine-scale diving behavior of marine predators. Datalogging tags are an integral tool to studying marine predator diving behavior because they allows us to document animals where we are unable to follow them on their foraging trips.   These tags measure an animal's precise location, fine-scale movement and acceleration, temperature of the water, and the depth the animal dive (down to 1000 meters). These tags will be used to document emperor penguin diving behavior and track their movements while they forage at-sea. Emperor penguins are known to dive to great depths (564 meters) and for long durations (>27 minutes) in search of prey. Once the penguins return to the colony to feed their chick we will remove the tag and download the data from their journeys.

Datalogging tags can be purchased however they are very expensive and can be a barrier for many students and researchers. In collaboration with Dr. Birgitte McDonald, Katie Harrington, James Fahlbusch, and Parker Forman we developed a cost-effective and open source datalogging tag that is one third of the cost of current tags on the market. This open source datalogging technology will put high resolution, low cost, and customizable tags in the hands of more researchers.

Dive On,

Emperor Penguin Field Crew

 

 

Custom Built Datalogging Tag: "Tapered Flipper TDR".
Attaching the pressure sensor to the tag.

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Field Season Preparations: 08/30/19

Field Season Preparations: 08/30/19

Shipping our field gear to Antarctica

Although our field season is still 6 weeks away, preparations are in full gear. This last month we have been busy ordering research supplies.  We somehow managed to fit all the gear into 4 boxes that are now waiting to be shipped to Antarctica. One thing that is a little different, is we have to separate gear into items that can and can not be frozen so when they get to Antarctica they are stored properly for our arrival.  Students in the Lab are happy that we are sending this gear out so that they may have a little more room.

Signed Sealed and Awaiting Delivery To Antarctica,

Emperor Penguin Field Crew

 

 

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Antarctica Preparations I: 08/10/2019

Antarctica Preparations I: 08/10/2019

Penguin goods & safe handling procedures

Avian ecologist  have always used hoods as a method to cover the heads of the bird species they study. These hoods cover the eyes of the animal and reduce their stress while researchers take measurements such as weight, wing and bill length, and blood samples. Birds can be very sensitive to sudden movements, noises and changes in light and hoods are used to reduce these sensitivities by covering their eyes and ears. Once the hoods are placed over the bird’s head they quickly become more calm. Placing a hood on the bird creates a safe and comfortable environment for the subject while biological measurements are taken.

In preparation for our upcoming trip to Antarctica (October 2019) we have sewn our very own emperor penguin hoods. Each of these hoods has been hand made out of durable, soft, very thin and breathable dark fabric. These penguin hoods have a comfortable neck strap that allows us to adjust the fit of the hood per the penguin’s liking. There is an opening at the tip of the hoods that allows for the bill of the penguin to fit through and increases airflow for ease of breathing. The hoods are placed on the heads of the penguin similar to what it would look like if you placed a sock puppet on your hand (as displayed by Parker in the adjacent image). An eye cutout was placed on one of the hoods to display the approximate location of where the penguin eye would be located under the hood.

We are very excited to share our preparation processes as we get our gear ready for our trip to Antarctica. Stay tuned for upcoming posts on our penguin preparation: tag development, weight harness manufacturing, and more information on our upcoming trip.

Safety First,

Emperor Penguin Field Crew

 

Handcrafted penguin hoods.
Parker holding a penguin hood.

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Emperor Penguin Field Expedition 2019

Emperor Penguin Field Expedition 2019

Hidden Lives of Emperor Penguins

Background
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.

This is an internationally collaborative project with logistic support provided by Antarctica New Zealand and primary funding provided to NIWA as part of the project “Ross Sea Research and Monitoring Programme: is the world’s largest MPA effective” (New Zealand Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment: 2017-2022). Additional funding has been awarded to Birgitte McDonald by the National Geographic Society (Grant # NGS-50069R-18) and SeaWorld Conservation Fund.

Project Objectives
As abundant year-round predators, emperor penguins have a significant top down effect on prey in the Antarctic Ecosystem. It is vital to obtain information on their foraging ecology to understand their role in the ecosystem and how this may change with environmental change. Our collaborative project will investigate the foraging ecology and habitat use of Ross Sea emperor penguins during late chick rearing, an energetically challenging phase of the life cycle when parents must meet the energetic demands of their rapidly growing chicks. Specifically, we will use a combination of video cameras, fine-scale movement data loggers, and stable isotope analysis to: 1) Determine the activity budget of emperor penguins and estimate energy expenditure during a foraging trip, 2) Identify key prey of emperor penguins and identify stereotypical behaviors associated with foraging on different prey types. 3)Combine the energy estimations with the diet and foraging success data, to assess if emperor penguins are foraging optimally, and 4) Integrate penguin behavioral data with environmental data to identify which environmental features are indicative of habitat preference and associated with energy gain. This study fills important knowledge gaps on energy balance, diet, foraging strategy, and habitat use of emperor penguins.

 

 

NMFS permit # 19108

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A student at sea…

By Brijonnay Madrigal (SEC Program Assistant & Graduate Student at Moss Landing Marine Labs)

Fish Communicate

Figure 1. The Velero IV (Photo credit: Ryan Fields).

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. This concept fueled NOAA’s desire to deploy hydrophones to record survey vehicle operations in Southern California and rockfish in these areas. This acoustic work was one component of the Untrawlable Habitat Strategic Initiative (UHSI) SoCal Project, a collaborative effort between NOAA Northwest, Alaska, and Southeast Fisheries Science Centers. The goal of the 2-year project was to assess rockfish response to survey vehicles and determine the biases in studying rockfish using vehicles such as AUV’s (Autonomous Underwater Vehicles- like the one displayed at the SEC) and HOV’s (Human Operated Submersibles). Cruises were conducted in the Channel Islands in October 2016 and this last month in October 2017. Last year I was a data analyst for the project but this year, I got the opportunity to be a part of the research team onboard. I worked along scientists from the SWFSC Fisheries Ecology Division in Santa Cruz, CA and NWFSC Fishery Resource Analysis and Monitoring Division in Newport, OR. My role was to handle all operations for the 3 hydrophones we deployed along with a variety of sensors including a turbidity meter, light sensors, and accelerometers. The cruise was 2 ½ weeks long and the longest duration of time I had ever spent at sea so I was excited to get away from land for a bit and live on a ship for 18 days!

Home at Sea

Figure 2. The platforms.

The ship that would be my home for the next 2 ½ weeks was the Velero IV (Figure 1), a shipping vessel from Seattle, Washington that had been modified for this project. An extra sleeping quarters had been transferred onboard as well as a lab for the scientist that consisted of a one room cubicle with benches that they had placed on the ship using a crane. We spent the first day docked in Ventura Harbor preparing the platforms we would be deploying. The 3 platforms (Figure 2) (each named after a different Fisheries Science Center) were fitted with DIDSON imaging sonar, that produce images of the fish used to quantify species and measure fish lengths. MOUSS cameras were also placed on the platforms which took pictures every 2 seconds and are used to assess fish movement, species diversity and abundances. While the research team worked on putting together the platforms, the submersible team was hard at work preparing the DeepWorker manned submersible which would be used to deploy the platforms on the sea floor (Figure 3). We departed from Ventura, CA on October 9th and set out to sea at sunset. I was nervous at first, wondering what the conditions would be like especially since I am prone to seasickness but fortunately, almost every day was beautiful and calm in sunny Southern California.

A Typical Day

Figure 3. The submersibles.

There was no need for my phone alarm in the morning because between the loud clanking of the anchor being pulled up and the smell of bacon, we were always up by 6:30am. The Velero IV would leave Smuggler’s Cove off Santa Cruz Islands and after a short journey to our survey area would arrive at site at 7am. Our survey area was Footprint Bank, an area between Santa Cruz and Anacapa Island where 3 sites had been determined as locations to deploy the platforms. Once on site, the science team turned on all devices, placed them on the platforms and then with the help of the crew and sub team, the platforms were lowered over the side of the vessel. The sub attached a line to the platform using a metal claw that would allow the platform to be descended to the bottom (Figure 4). Once at the bottom, the sub operator would un-attach the line and we would then continue to the next site. After all 3 platforms were deployed we would leave the area and return to Smuggler’s Cove for a 3-hour period while the NOAA Shimada vessel conducted AUV flybys and seafloor mapping. At approximately 3pm we would return to Footprint Bank and the sub might conduct some flyby passes near the platforms prior to retrieving the platforms before sunset.

Amazing Marine Life

Figure 4. Deploying the Alaska platform one morning. The sub is in the water preparing to take the platform down to the bottom.

Throughout the day we would always see marine mammal. I was the only marine mammal scientist onboard so if marine mammals were sighted, the crew and research team always called me to the top deck to identify species. We saw pods of bottlenose dolphin, long-beaked common dolphin, Risso’s dolphin and an extremely active lone humpback breaching and tale slapping one day. After we headed back in and anchored in Smuggler’s Cove for the night, I would go up to the bow of the ship to see the “show”. Bioluminescence glowed green in the water and even in the middle of the night you could see sea lions chased schools of fish and track the movements underwater as their bodies glowed green…it was like Fourth of July in October! One night, as we were heading into Santa Barbara to anchor up for the night, I was looking at the water from the top deck when suddenly, I saw these green glowing torpedoes moving in the water near the bow of the vessel, spinning and crossing each other as they glided through the water. I went down to the bow to get a closer look and saw they were dolphins bow riding! The bioluminescence in the water was causing their torpedo shaped bodies to be outlined by a green glow which allowed you to see their every movement in the dark water. It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen!

Rockfish are a dominant demersal fish species in benthic ecosystems and are of recreational and commercial importance in California. The UHSI project is important as it will shed light on some important implications for ground fish research and the anthropogenic impacts on these species. I was grateful to have the opportunity to be involved in the data collection process, so I could gain a better understanding of the project and perspective on the data. Going out to sea makes all the long hours of analyzing data and staring at a computer screen worth it!