Tracking elephant seals, undergrad research featured in NBC Story

When she signed up for an undergraduate research course that would take her out of the classroom and onto the beach every Friday, biology major Luz Torres ’19 was excited that she could combine her passion for science, her concern for the environment, and her love of the outdoors.

What Luz  didn’t anticipate was the life and death drama that would unfold before her eyes as she collected data designed to understand the impact of changing weather patterns on northern elephant seal breeding colonies in the Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS).
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“The work is so interesting, and at the same time so sad,” Luz says. “You can read about global warming and listen to people saying why it is important to take whatever actions you can to help save the environment, but it is not until you see an animal dying that you realize that it could be too late.”

This year’s wet and wild storms have left their mark on the northern California coastline, eroding beaches and causing seals to seek out new breeding grounds. Even those new sites have become hazardous, with high tides washing pups into the surf and overcrowded conditions further contributing to pup mortality.

Led by faculty mentor and marine science educator Doreen Gurrola, the small team of Luz, Sheridan Wilner ‘18 and Megan Church ’19 are determining site fidelity by documenting the location of tagged adults and pups, and then comparing their findings to data collected in previous years by PRNS researchers. Their work will contribute to ongoing studies conducted by the National Park Service (NPS).

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The work began last spring in Gurrola’s Research Methodology course. The course prepares first-year students to hit the ground running when they become active participants in faculty research in the Department of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. In the course, students learn to research literature, compile and analyze data, design a research plan, and write up their findings.

Last fall, Gurrola arranged visits to organizations focused on pinniped research. The students witnessed a seal necropsy, visited seal haul-out sites, and familiarized themselves with survey techniques, including classifying age and gender. In December, the students presented their plans to more than 150 marine researchers at a symposium hosted by the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.

The weekly PRNS visits began in January, not long after the beginning of breeding season. The students collected data while quietly standing only feet away from adults and newly born pups. By February, landing areas that in previous years had held 20-30 seals were covered by more than 100 moms and pups.

“I was really surprised how close we could get,” Sheridan says. “At first I thought we would just be watching from a distance through scopes and binoculars. The fact that we could get down on the beach and actually read a tag was amazing.”

The unpredictable weather created unpredictable challenges for the team. One Friday the students arrived to find that a narrow trail they previously had used to access an observation point had collapsed onto the breeding ground below, burying both pups and adults under a landslide. Some weeks the driving wind and relentless rain made it almost impossible to read the small identifying tags on the seals’ tails, let alone hold still the scopes used to read the tags.

During warmer weather, smell of seal carcass became almost overbearing, Sheridan recalls.

“Over time we would notice that the skinnier pups were becoming more isolated,” she says. “They will snuggle more with the other pups than with their moms, and when they were hungry they would try to suckle on another pup or a male rather than the mom. We knew that they wouldn’t survive.”

Sheridan admits that not being able to help the sick pups was hard, but the scientist in her notes that it is all part of the natural process.

There’s a lot of pup mortality but you can’t prevent it,” she notes. “It’s wildlife. We’re just here to observe it.”

In May, the students will present their preliminary findings at an NPS conference in San Francisco. When they return to Dominican in the fall, they will continue to analyze data and write their research thesis before returning to the seashore for further studies.

“We will be looking to see if the females will return to the traditional breeding grounds or the newer sites,” Gurrola says. “This has been a crazy and unpredictable year, so it will be interesting to see the impact.”

All three students are gaining memories as well as skills that will last a lifetime.

Luz plans to apply to medical school after Dominican, Sheridan plans to become a veterinarian, and Megan, currently in the U.S. Marine Reserves, is considering a future in teaching.

“What has been most impactful for the students has been going there and having this real-life experience,” Gurrola says. “In the lab you can replicate something and try it again and again. In the field, it is what it is. You must learn to overcome challenges, be flexible, and think on your feet – all great life skills.”


April 13, 2017