Monday, November 15, 2010

"What the heck are you doing out there anyway?"

We're mostly doing 'line transect surveys', which basically means sail the line and count how many things you see along your way. From this we get two pieces of information: we calculate the amount of area we've covered, and we know the number of "things" we saw. We combine the two and get an estimate of "things per area". Pretty simple. When you do this year after year, you can then make estimates of whether you have more or less things than you did before. This is really what we care about, because NOAA is charged with monitoring the status of marine mammals in the waters of the US.

Once we see things and we count them, we deviate from our "track-line" to get a closer look. This is when the fun ensues. We take loads of photos, make notes on the behavior of the animals and if we're in safe enough circumstances we try to collect biopsy samples using crossbows. My nuanced roughneck skills comes into action at this point... I didn't win top marksmen at Cub Scout day camp for nothing! These biopsy samples are critical to our ability to shed light on the many outstanding questions of basic taxonomy (e.g., is what we call a fin whale one species, or three?) and population biology (e.g., is the super-small insular population of false killer whales in Hawaii just an unimportant subset of the open ocean populations, or is it truly unique locally adapted population worthy of protection?). Its amazing to some people that basic questions of "how many species are there" for cetaceans is still largely outstanding. Despite hunting many of these little guys for the last 200 years, we didn't do a very good job of taking notes. So now we do most of the taxonomy with genetics because we can't kill them, and they don't come to the beaches to die, (unfortunate I know) making in-depth studies of anatomy very difficult.

The photo is of a phalanx of Fraser's dolphins (Lagendelphis hosei), a species that was 'rediscovered' in the 1970's by my adviser Bill Perrin. It was initially described from a single skull on a beach in Sarawak, but nobody knew what the outsides looked like (DOH!). So he put the two together. I saw a crispy dead one from a beach in Northeastern Queensland in 1999; they're fascinating little dark meated buggers.

No comments: