Students Present Seal Research At Worldwide Conference

Inspired by hands-on research at Dominican University of California, biology majors Noelle Mauricio ’21 and Wyatt Walsh ’21 plan to pursue advanced degrees in marine mammal science. They have stunning resumes to share thanks to their work at Dominican.

Collaborating the last three years with the National Park Service (NPS) at Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS) through professor Doreen Gurrola’s Research Methodology course, they were able to study the population trends of elephant seals and potential impact of changing weather patterns on their breeding colonies in PRNS. Along with Logan Siemers and Rhianon Vertins-Hawkins, they this month presented their findings in a poster – “Female and Tagged Pup Site Fidelity of Northern Elephant Seals (Mirounga angustirostris),” – at the Western Society of Naturalists virtual conference. The event attracted more than 900 attendees from all over the world.

“Our research for the most part was a continuation of the National Park Service data, and with that we were able to use their data along with ours to answer our own questions,” says Wyatt, who is in the process of seeking internships and volunteer experiences to build a resume to apply to graduate school.

“I think the biggest success was determining how often individual seals come back and get out of the water at the haul-out areas in Point Reyes National Seashore. Within reason we were able to predict that the maximum we saw return to Point Reyes was for six years.”

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The presentation at the virtual conference also included Dominican undergraduates Edgard Morazan, Caliope Gallagher, Mariela Andrade, and Cameryn Figeroa, who will continue the research, led by Gurrola, that determines site fidelity by documenting the location of tagged adults and pups, and then compare their findings to data collected in previous years by Dominican and PRNS researchers. Their work will contribute to ongoing studies conducted by NPS.

Noelle, in fact, was so inspired by the presentation that she joined the Western Society of Naturalist's Mentorship Program, facilitated by its own Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee.

"I was able to meet wonderful people who gave me an honest 'review' of graduate school and what it's like to be a minority in this field," Noelle says. "After hearing talks about what's going on in the vast field of marine science, I have a more realistic view of what research is and I'm more conscious about the repetition and obstacles that seem to come from every aspect of projects sometimes. I'm more motivated than ever to pursue a career in marine mammal research, but I will be taking a gap year to gain more experience and hopefully stumble upon a dissertation topic before tackling grad school."

For the time being Noelle and Wyatt are helping train the new students in the School of Health and Natural Sciences for the new seal pupping season, which starts in January.

“The seniors did wrap up their research. Each of them looked at a specific aspect of the data that they presented in the poster,” says Gurrola, a faculty mentor in the Department of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. “I think their big takeaway is that studying wildlife is difficult and it is hard to draw conclusions after one season. The National Park Service has been studying this population since the 1980s and has allowed students to access their database. This is a tremendous learning resource for students and allows them to understand long term datatrends.”

Dominican’s elephant seal research has been featured in news stories by NBC Bay Area and the Marin Independent Journal.

For Gurrola, this is her second group of students who have participated in and completed her Research Methodology course that started studying elephant seals and collecting data in 2016. Presenting their research is an important step in science. These students have presented at the student chapter of the Society of Marine Mammalogy conference in Seattle in 2019, the NPS Golden Gate Park Symposium in 2019, and the SF Chapter of the American Cetacean Society in 2020.

“As a professor, I have enjoyed seeing these students grow in their confidence and as a team over the last three years. This year they will graduate,” Gurrola says. “Some will remain in the field and others will move onto other professions. But the skills they learned through public speaking and working around wildlife will carry them through many challenging experiences.”

For Wyatt, the opportunity to do such research in one of the most beautiful places in the country was a career-changing experience.

“This project really showed me what it is like to be a marine biologist,” Wyatt says. “We conducted field research, analyzed data using our field results, and presented that research to our peers, and at conferences.”

Photo: NMFS Permit No. 21425

 

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