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2017 SEUS Field Season

The official SEUS 2017 field season started on February 1st and ended on the 20th. A lot happened – and didn’t happen – over the 20 days I spent in Fernandina beach, Florida.  I was over the moon knowing that was about to see North Atlantic right whales; but I was also very anxious as I knew I would be around people I’ve never met, doing something that I had never done before but dreamed of doing since I started working with marine mammals – tagging whales. Moreover, while this was my first tag operation, the field team I was being added to has been tagging all sorts of whales all over the world for at least 6 years. Pretty intimidating, right? Well, I had a great time with the field team (on board and on land) and learned A LOT with everyone. Sadly, despite all effort, we only found one mother-calf pair. But mum and calf were very cooperative and we successfully deployed the tag after the first attempt.

north atlantic right whale mom and calf tagged

NARW mother-calf pair at SEUS area. Successful tag deployment attempt on mum. Photo by Susan Parks.  

We were all very satisfied with the deployment, and hopping for more interesting information about our target species. However, on tag-recovery day, an unexpected turn of events: it turns out the calf might have crushed the tag and therefore we might never have access to the one single 2017 SEUS DTag data…

It is like they say: whale happens.

north atlantic right whale calf at water surface

The lovely, precious and notorious tag crusher. How can anyone be mad at 6 tonnes of pure right whale love? Photo by Susan Parks.   

Julia Dombroski

 

Cool Cockroaches

Cockroaches. Just the mention of them is enough to elicit a negative response. Bringing them up in almost any situation often leads to stories of revulsion from the first time someone saw them running across their kitchen floor, or flying directly at them (more often than not touched with a bit of exaggeration). When I tell people that I did research with them and would like to continue doing so I get the same responses from nearly everyone: Why?! They’re so disgusting! Then a story of how disgusted they were when they saw one in their kitchen, or bathroom. It’s a shame really that everyone associates the relatively few pest species, only about 30, with a group that encompasses at least 4,600 species.

Their diversity may not be that impressive as far as insects go, but they certainly put any single group vertebrate species, except possibly fish, to shame in terms of numbers. They range in size from 3mm, Attaphila fungicola which lives with ants, to  8cm, Macropanesthia rhinoceros or the rhinoceros cockroach from Australia. They survive in a diverse array of habitats, there’s a species that’s supposedly at least semi aquatic, some that are specialized for a life in sand dunes, and some that specialize in living on bromeliads in the canopies of rain forests. They also come in a wide variety of shapes and colors. There are the common looking species that everyone associates cockroaches with, but some have horns and are quite chunky, while others are nearly completely flat, a couple species have males equipped with two small bumps on their “heads” that have been noted to glow in the wild. There are brilliant metallic species that resemble rolly pollies, or pill pugs, some bright green species, some even have streaks of brilliant blue!

green bug on a table
Robert Lord Zimlich
brown pill cockroach in a ball
Melvin Yeo
blue cockroach on a rock
David Rentz

The overwhelming majority of research on cockroaches has focused on quite a small percentage, we’ll say .7% and that’s an overestimate, that are regarded as pest species. Just as a side note here: cockroaches tend to be associated with filth, but when they’re found in a home it is usually due to an excess of food waste left around the house that they’re exploiting. They’re just using the resources that are available to them! I guess that is why I decided to focus on cockroaches. I’d like to change how they’re perceived, at least to a few people, and show that they’re more than the gross bug running across your kitchen floor in the middle of the night. As E.O. Wilson once wrote “Let the lowly cockroach crawl, or, better, fly up, to its rightful place in human esteem!”, or at least let’s try not to hate on them too much.

Oh I forgot to write about what my research was actually on… I was aiming to describe the defensive acoustic signals produced by the flat horn hissing cockroach, or Aeluropoda insignis. I’ll get into that more with my next post.

— Elliot

Adventures with Crickets

Yesterday, I went into the cricket room like I normally do to check on my crickets and switch out their boxes for the anthropogenic noise behavior experiment. I didn’t expect to see anything special or out of the ordinary happen with the crickets-except maybe the terrifying amount we now have-but I was in for a surprise during my husbandry routine.

After working with crickets for months, I honestly felt like I had seen everything I would ever have seen happen to a cricket, from a cricket missing a leg leap halfway across the room to a half-molted cricket being devoured by its brothers and sisters. Keeping that in mind while performing the same routine I had repeated for months on end, husbandry had become monotone in a way. There would be days where I would feel like a machine on an assembly line as I passed through each box, replaced and adding in what was necessary for the week to come.

But as I was moving to the second box of crickets, something caught my eye. For part of the experiment, I document the date that the crickets go through their last molt and gain their wings as they reach adulthood. Every now and then I would come across a freshly molted cricket and see its bright white wings and pale brown shell compared to brown-black crickets residing around it. But this time, I saw both in one, wiggling, squirming very slowly. It took me awhile to realize what it was, but I was witnessing a cricket going through its last molt before becoming an adult.

cricket molting

Immediately I pulled my phone out to try to capture pictures of the scene. It was about halfway through its molt when I found it. Head down, it looked like it was struggling to get through that last half of its molt. If not done right, many crickets can lose wings or even legs during this process, impeding their life. Honestly, I thought it was stuck and she was going to be mess up the molting. But nonetheless, she was a trooper and soon pulled through fully emerged 3 minutes later. Once she was done, it she seemed to stare at me for some time, fluttering around like she was proud of what she did before she continued on with the other crickets. Overall, I just found the whole thing to be really interesting and cool.

cricket immediately after molting

The main reason I’m writing about all of this is that I just felt like it’s nice to take a step back from data collection and analysis and actually see what’s happening. I could’ve easily just as well continued on with the husbandry and finished up like a robot over being interested in a process I’ve only ever documented and never witnessed. I guess what I am trying to get at is that while it’s fine to focus on your work, it’s even better to find things to enjoy and be interested in. Hopefully I can keep this in mind during the rest of my experiment.

Thanks for reading my rambling!

– George El-Amir, undergraduate researcher

The Meredith Symposium — Spotlight on Undergraduate Research

On Saturday, October 22nd I was lucky enough to present the research I had been working on in Dr. Parks lab at the Meredith Symposium. The Meredith Symposium is put on by Syracuse University and it focuses on undergraduate research in Chemistry and Biological Sciences. In the first week of October I submitted an abstract to the symposium for my research on the effects of temperature on female preference of male calls in Metrioptera Roeselii katydids. When I submitted my abstract, I had to choose whether I wanted to present my research with a talk, a poster or either one and since I do not like to make decisions I selected the “either one” option. I did not hear back for weeks and I thought for certain that my research had not been selected. Then on October 14, about a week before the Symposium date, I received an email saying that I was selected to be one of the eight speakers at the Symposium. I was extremely excited, but I also felt a lot of pressure because I had never given a professional talk before. Not only did I have to prepare for something that was new to me, I had to do it in less than a week.

The week leading up to the Symposium was a roller coaster of emotions. In the beginning of the week I primarily felt honored and although nervous, prepared for the work that lay ahead of me. I finished my presentation, aside from minor cosmetic touches, by Wednesday and that is when I had my first run through. It was awful. Every comment that I received made me feel as though my presentation was unprofessional and that I was trying to play into a role that was not me. I went home that night and updated my presentation according to the comments I received. By now I was beginning to think that maybe signing up for the symposium was a mistake and that I would just finish it out for the experience, but not in the hopes of winning. Thursday morning I had a second run through with Dr. Parks and other members of the lab. They again gave me many comments on how to better the presentation and again I updated all of my slides. I was as ready as I ever would be for the Symposium. I had to be at the Life Sciences Complex on Saturday morning by 8:50am.

I woke up at 7:30am, put on my uncomfortable business casual shoes, and headed out the door with the hopes of just getting through the day. When I got to the Symposium most of my nerves were instantly calmed. It was a much smaller group than I anticipated and talking with the other presenters I realized I was not the only one who had a few “I can not do this” moments during the week. Dr. Doyle, a professor and researcher at Syracuse University and one of the founders of the symposium, gave the welcoming speech. He talked about how the Symposium was supposed to be a learning experience and how all the undergraduate presenters had already proven their research abilities by having our abstracts selected. I was the first presenter following the lunch break and after getting to know all of the other presenters and hearing Dr. Doyle’s comforting pep talk I was feeling much more confident in my prepared speech. As I watched the other presenters, I realized that all of us did have very interesting and complex research topics and that it would be impossible for the judges to choose us simply based on what we studied. I knew that in order to stand out I would have to be creative with my presentation. I started to think of jokes I could say and ways to make my speech as entertaining as possible. When it was finally my time to present, I was surprisingly not nervous and I went to the front of the lecture hall ready for what was next. Honestly, the whole talk was a blur, but everyone gave me compliments on my presentation so I was feeling good about myself. I still did not think I would win, but I was still proud that I got up in front of so many people and talked about my research.

When the time for awards finally came I was exhausted and read to go home and back to bed. The major prize at the Symposium was awarded to the two best undergraduate speakers and it was $2500 that would go towards expenses for presenting the winning research at a national convention. The first winner was announced, then the second – and it was me. I was very surprised and so extremely proud of myself for not only getting through this presentation but doing very well at it. This moment really made me realize how happy and thankful I am to be a member of Dr. Parks lab. Without their help and guidance I would not have been able to create the presentation that I did and I would not have been able to win such a fantastic prize that will help my career. After I had won, everyone came up to me with their congratulations then slowly people began to leave. Finally, I left the Life Sciences Complex and headed home, straight for a long nap.

— Alexandra Logan

student giving powerpoint presentation on katydids

student in lab experimenting with katydids
Pilot playback trials with the katydids!

Back in business

The business of catching bugs, that is. We officially started up our 2014 insect acoustics field season this week and went on our first bug catching expedition just this morning. We planned on just heading out to a couple of our favorite sites from last year and setting up traps for spring field crickets. We also set out to deploy an acoustic recorder which we will leave up for the next few months to monitor the soundscape. We are lucky we planned ahead (good thinking Jess) and brought some port-a-bugs. We ended up finding 9 male spring field crickets at the very first site, and we weren’t even there for that long! We are getting pretty good at this I think…Hannah actually caught three in one swoop. She is just weirdly awesome like that.

team members in field
Searching…
traps filled with bugs
Success!

We did leave out three pit traps as well, and Leanna and I plan on going back tomorrow morning to see if we caught anything. Hopefully there are crickets in them, and hopefully not much else.

trap in bushes
One of our homemade pit traps. We used a plastic bottle, cut the top off, inserted the cut off part backwards into the bottle, filled it with bait and some leaves for a hiding place, added a “ramp” to the opening, and placed it in prime cricket territory.

Apparently, crickets can get into these traps but have a hard time getting back out. We shall see! We also set up some traps using mason jars placed into holes we dug in the ground.

trap hidden under twigs
Mason jar pit trap. The crickets fall into the jar which is filled with bait (carrots that are on the slimy side) and can’t get back out.

All in all a successful first day. Here’s to an awesome summer filled with the sound of many tiny insects desperately trying to find a girlfriend.

four lab members posing in front of tree
A Parks Lab field trip!

Curious Calf

Wednesday, February 19:

Once I was back on the Barber, we began surveying.  It wasn’t too long before I saw some splashes and a large black body: a right whale in the distance!  When we arrived, we found #2503 (Boomerang) and her calf.  The calf was surfacing several times before mom came up, making it difficult to predict when and where she would surface for a good tagging attempt.  After working with her for a while, we decided to give everyone involved (including the whale) a break for lunch.

whale calf head above water
We got a great look at the calf of #2503 during its curious approach

Fortunately, she had settled down a bit for the afternoon, and we were able to get a tag on.  Over the course of the day, the calf treated us to two curious approaches, including one toward the end of the tag deployment where it splashed a bunch of water into the boat after surfacing very close to our starboard side.  The calf then surfaced with its mom some ways away, and the tag had just come off.  Hopefully it recorded something from the curious approach! 

active tagging of a whale
Tagging of #2503

–Jess McCordic

Smooth and Successful

Tuesday, February 18:

As if all of that wasn’t exciting enough, the next day we had glassy smooth seas and spent the morning helping our friends on the R/V Selkie track down an overnight acoustic tag that had been deployed the afternoon before.  Soon after, a survey plane had a sighting of a mom/calf pair (#3157) that was so close we could already see the plane circling to take photos.  We went to that sighting, where the mom was logging at the surface for long intervals—a great opportunity for tagging!  We puttered in for an approach and tagged her.  She barely seemed to notice, and after a few minutes’ dive she resumed her previous behavior of logging and resting at the surface.

whale at calf at surface of water
#3157 and her calf
tag on back of mother whale with calf next to her
DTAG attached to #3157 while her calf surfaces next to her

The tag was programmed to stay on overnight, and I hopped on the Stellwagen to help track the whale.  Luckily, she didn’t really seem to have intentions of going anywhere quickly.  In fact, she only moved a couple of miles and essentially made a big circle before the tag came off around 11pm.  The next morning, we woke up and met the R/V Richard Barber.

 

–Jess McCordic

More Dolphins and an Uncooperative Mom

Monday, February 17:

We met the Stellwagen about 60 miles to the southeast of Fernandina.  After a quick crew change, we surveyed and found more spotted dolphins.  We got a few more biopsy samples, and I got to practice my dolphin photography skills—in case you were wondering, dolphins are a LOT faster than whales, and it definitely took some getting used to.

dolphin at surface of water
Juvenile spotted dolphin coming to the surface
dolphin with scared fin
Choosing dolphins with distinctive dorsal fins like this one help to avoid sampling the same animal multiple times

After finding and sampling a few different groups of dolphins, including some offshore bottlenose dolphins, one of the survey planes relayed a sighting of a mother/calf pair of right whales farther inshore.  We traveled toward the sighting when we got another call from a group working with Florida Atlantic University who had sighted an additional mom/calf pair closer to our location.  It was getting late in the afternoon, so we went to the closer sighting.  Unfortunately this mom (#2746) was a little too wily for us.  She waited until we were almost ready to tag, then sank down at the last moment.  At this point, it was late enough in the afternoon to call it a day and head home, hoping for better luck tomorrow.

tag missing whale
#2746 sinking down during a tag attempt

–Jess McCordic

Adventures Offshore

Sunday, February 16:

Given our unusually long window of nice weather, we decided to try our luck offshore.  On the way, we happened upon a mom/calf pair that we have seen before this year: #2040 (Naevus) and her calf.  Since we had already tagged this mom, we left her and her calf and continued on our journey towards the southeast.  The ocean was fairly quiet on the way except for a few loggerhead sea turtles, a handful of birds, some clumps of Saragssum seaweed, and two shiny Valentine’s Day balloons (which we of course picked up).  Then, seemingly out of nowhere, we saw some dolphins up ahead.  At first I thought it was just a small group of bottlenose dolphins, but as we got closer, I saw that there was something slightly different about their coloring.  As it turns out, these were spotted dolphins!  This being the first time I had ever seen spotted dolphins, I was ecstatic.  I also happened to be on the bowsprit when we first found them, giving me a gorgeous view of the individuals who decided to hitch a ride in our bow wave.  The Duke team took a couple of biopsy samples before we left the dolphins to rendezvous with the R/V Stellwagen.

young and older dolphins
Spotted dolphins! You can tell the animal in the foreground is juvenile because it doesn’t have spots yet
whale tangled in line
The entangled whale (#4057). You can see that line trailing from his mouth.

Between the dolphins and the Stellwagen, though, there was a blow in the distance followed by a pair of flukes: we found ourselves a right whale.  Upon closer inspection and confirmation from the offshore survey plane, this single adult whale was entangled and had line trailing behind it.

We got a DTAG on it so that the Stellwagen could keep up with the whale until the disentanglement team could get to the location and add their satellite telemetry buoy.  Once the DTAG came off and the telemetry buoy was on, the Stellwagen steamed even farther offshore on an overnight trip to swap out some autonomous recorders.

eagle eye view of tagging whale from boat
A photo of our tag deployment taken by the UNCW aerial survey team

For more information on what happened with the entangled whale after we left the scene and over the course of the next morning, check out this article by the Savannah Morning News.

Jess McCordic

Tales of Tagging

As I sit here listening to the wind rippling the flag on the deck and watching the gray waves roaring on the beach, it’s hard to believe that the weather was ever nice enough to tag whales.  Luckily for us, though, it was!  Sunday we managed to get a tag on a mom (#2123, “Couplet”) that stayed on for a little more than two hours.  The tags are programmed to come off at a preset time for retrieval, but we think this one was knocked off early by the calf rolling around on mom.  Calves seem to spend a lot of time on their mothers’ backs, especially here in the calving grounds.  It probably saves the calves a lot of energy to get some nudges here and there from mom, but it’s also not particularly helpful in keeping suction cups attached to a whale’s back.

tag being placed on back of whale
Successful tagging of #2123 (Couplet)!

If that wasn’t enough, on Monday’s trip we had glassy seas and an incredibly cooperative pair of whales.  The mother (#2040, “Naevus”) was spending lots of time at the surface, probably because her calf kept nursing.  We monitored their behavior before going in to tag, and luckily she wasn’t too wary of the boat and let us get a great approach.  After the tag was on, the whales treated us to lots of time at the surface, and we got some great looks at the interactions between mom and calf.  This little calf must have been hungry—it was nursing frequently and sticking close to mom except for a couple occasions when something piqued its curiosity.

whale in open water with tag on back
#2040 (Naevus) proudly displaying her DTAG

One of those things was our boat: after a bout of nursing behavior a few hundred meters away, both whales sank down and popped up right near the R/V Barber!  The calf came in for a curious approach before joining back up with mom.  Unfortunately, none of us got footage, but the view from the bowsprit is certainly something I’ll never forget.  Something else I won’t forget is how funny it was to watch the calf trying to breach and slap its pectoral flippers when a group of bottlenose dolphins was swimming around the calf.

whale and calf head poking out of water
#2040 (Naevus) and her calf at the surface looking adorable

After a while, we left the R/V Stellwagen with the whales and headed offshore to see if that’s where the rest of the right whales were hiding.  Unfortunately that wasn’t the case, but we did happen upon several loggerhead sea turtles who were probably enjoying the warmer waters near the Gulf Stream. The Stellwagen retrieved the tag with about 6 hours of recording, so all in all it was definitely a great day out there.

whale in foreground with boat in background
The R/V Stellwagen tracking the DTAG on #2040 (Naevus)

Yesterday the weather window slammed shut, so we’re stuck inside for a couple more days.  But the whales are out there, and at least some of them are letting us put tags on, so I’m optimistic about the rest of the season!

For more information about Couplet and Naevus, check out our earlier post about the ongoing right whale pedigree project.