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.

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.



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.

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.