Alumna Ashlei’s adventures in Africa

What do Parks Lab alumni do after graduation? Where do they go and what do they see? Our very own Ashlei Tinsley is a wonderful example of the exciting adventures that our students move on to after they walk the stage here at Syracuse University. Ashlei is working on spotted hyena research with the Holekamp Lab out of Michigan State University, but her work with them has taken her far from Michigan. She is currently living and working in Kenya, on the Masai Mara National Reserve.

Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, Africa. Photo: Google Maps

Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. Photo: Google Maps

The Holekamp blog, called Notes from Kenya, is filled with information about the long-term research they conduct on behavioral development, social interactions, and even endocrine mediation of behavior. Be sure to check it out not only for the stunning photos and research updates, but also for the posts from Ashlei herself.


Ashlei working with a sedated hyena

Ashlei is a great example, but far from our only alumnus to go on to exciting opportunities. Check back often for more updates from past Parks Lab students!

“This is either madness or brilliance”

Every scientific journey begins with an idea.  These ideas can go one of two ways: 1) after countless trials and brainstorms, they actually work; 2) after countless trials and brainstorms, they don’t.  I think you can guess which one happens more often. 

This summer, I’ve been working out in Newport, Oregon at the Hatfield Marine Science Center.  Hatfield is operated by Oregon State University and hosts groups like the Cooperative Institute for Marine Resource Studies and the Marine Mammal Institute, as well as researchers and staff from Oregon Dept. of Fish & Wildlife, US Dept. of Fish & Wildlife, and NOAA.  I’m here at Hatfield working on some of my dissertation research with the help of the ORCAA lab, Oregon State’s animal bioacoustics group.  I came to the ORCAA lab as a visiting graduate student about a month ago with intentions of testing out some ideas.  Ideas that, when I posed them, were more like off-handed comments to my advisor rather than valid approaches to realistic data collection.  

Since my blogs seem to be few and far between these days, let me back up a tiny bit.  I’m currently working on my PhD here in the Parks Lab at Syracuse.  My interests are in pinniped behavior and physiology, and for my dissertation, I’m looking at the variation in male harbor seal mating behavior and its influence on reproductive success.  I’m also interested in the effects of shipping noise on harbor seals during the breeding season, but that’s another blog post for another time.

Harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) (Photo: Ron Niebrugge)

Harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) (Photo: Ron Niebrugge)

A few months ago, as I was furiously preparing for my PhD candidacy exam (one part proposal defense, one part general knowledge exam, all parts stressful), I met with Susan to discuss how I could get the data that I wanted for the project I was proposing.  I wanted underwater movements of harbor seals during the breeding season.  I wanted to map out male territories and really figure out how and where they were spending their time when they were below the surface.  Harbor seals, along with the majority of phocids (i.e., true seals), mate underwater.  Underwater behavior of any marine mammal is difficult to obtain.  We, as researchers, are limited in our visual observations to what happens above water.  The best method we have to tracking animals subsurface is tagging.  But tagging is expensive, time consuming, and logistically difficult  it typically involves getting a boat and a team of able-bodied persons, capturing the animal, and gluing a tag to its fur.  It’s doable, but not with solely my grad student resources.  Susan and I began spitting out other ideas:

“What about how they track fish, like a tiny PIT tag?”  

“Can we localize with a fish tag?”

“They do it for salmon, no?”

“But how could we get the tag on the seal?” 

“Some sort of remote attachment, so you wouldn’t have to capture them.”

“Could we feed it to them?”

“That probably wouldn’t be a good idea…”

“I guess we could just shoot it at them in a paintball.”

And there you have it, ladies and gentleman.  The mildly sarcastic comment that snowballed into a cross-country trip to Oregon and countless hours of researching glues and paintballs.

Vemco V6 Acoustic Tag

Vemco V6 Acoustic Tag

After a bit of post-meeting research, I came across some small high frequency acoustic transmitters (made by Vemco, pictured on the right) that are used to study fish movement.  They’re small, only about 16mm in length, and they emit 180 kHz signals about every 30 seconds.  These acoustic signals are picked up on receivers that are strategically moored in the study site.  By looking at differences in the times of arrival of specific signals, it’s possible to determine the location of the transmitter, i.e. the tag, i.e. the animal of interest.  Acoustic tags are great for looking at subsurface behavior because of how efficiently sound travels underwater (it’s much more efficient compared to air – you can read more about that here).  These tags seemed perfect!  They were small enough to fit in a paintball, they were the right kind of tag for studying underwater movement of individuals, and they emitted signals that were above the hearing threshold of harbor seals (and killer whales)*.

*Researchers have also used 69 kHz tags (instead of 180 kHz) to monitor fish populations.  The problem with these tags is that seals and sea lions can hear at 69 kHz.  Implanting a tag that emits a sound in the hearing range of the fish’s predator is basically attaching a dinner bell to the study organism.  When considering using acoustic tags on the seals, I wanted to make sure that they (and their predators) couldn’t hear the acoustic signal being emitted.  That way I could avoid any potential behavioral disturbance (or increased predation) caused by the sound coming from the tag. 

I took my PhD candidacy exam, finished the semester, and packed my bags for Oregon, where ORCAA commander in chief Holger Klinck had agreed to help me test this weird tag attachment idea. 

Current emotions: Excited.

Things we had to figure out:

  • How do we get the tag inside the paintball?
  • What kind of glue do we use? – something that doesn’t solidify inside the paintball, but cures almost immediately to the seal…hmmm does this product even exist?
  • How do we close the paintball once the tag and the glue are inside?
  • Will it actually stick to the seal? – we were going to need a real seal to test that one…

And thus began the Amazon binge-purchasing.  I bought glues.  Super glues.  Rapid cure super glues.  Super instant curing no drip super glues.  Veterinary grade surgical glues.  One-minute instant mix two-part epoxies.  Clear-dry power grip instant grab all-purpose interior adhesives.  I also bought some regular paintballs and some empty paintball shells.  And thanks to my paintballing sister, I already had the gun. 

Current emotions: Overwhelmed – who knew there were so many options for adhesives?

The next step was to get the tag into the shell and fill it with glue.  This took a bit of finagling, but I finally did it!  I was so proud!  I made three types of paintball tags.  The first were regular paintballs that I emptied, stuffed with a tag, and filled with super glue (the green ones in the picture below).  I sealed them with some glue and a sprinkle of baking soda.  It turns out that baking soda is an accelerant for cyanoacrylates (fancy name for super glue).  A tiny bit of baking soda and BOOM that super glue is SOLID.  The second type of tag ball was basically the same as the first, but I used the empty paintball shells.  Bonus – no emptying of paint required (the clear ones in the picture below).  I was most proud of the third kind.  These were half filled with super glue and half filled with baking soda.  In theory, when it hit the seal, the tag would cure instantly to the fur of the animal because of the addition of the accelerant. 

Current emotions:  Feelin’ creative and accomplished.

So many paintball tags!  So much super glue on my fingers!

So many paintball tags! So much super glue on my fingers!

So proud of my science!

So proud of my science!

I’m going to keep this long post from becoming too long and just tell you that it didn’t work.  No tags stuck to anything. 

Current emotions:  Disappointed 🙁

But this is science!  So what do we do?  We brainstorm more ideas!  And what do we do when those don’t work either??  We brainstorm even more ideas!  I went from my failed paintballs, to thinking about crossbows, tiny pistol crossbows, compound and recurve bows, drones (no one would buy me drones though…).  After lots of trial and error, with an emphasis on the error, I landed on the pistol crossbow.  It was small, manageable, and didn’t have too much power.  I crafted some bolts out of wooden dowels, foam floats, electrical tape, PVC end caps, fishing line, empty paintball shell halves (might as well use them if I’ve already got them, right?), and of course, duct tape.  With a little finesse and the right adhesive, I shot these homemade arrows out of my little crossbow and somehow got a tag to stick to my target.  I. was. shocked.  Did all of my brainstorming actually just pay off??

Current emotions: Chest-pounding, can-crushing, fire-breathing, unstoppable POWER.

Homemade crossbow arrows and a successful tag attachment!

Homemade crossbow arrows and a successful tag attachment!

At this point it had been a roller coaster of successes and failures, which I thought was going to end with my, what could only be described as, legendary tagging success.  However, after some preliminary field-testing, it was revealed that in order to make these tags work in the locations I wanted them to work, I would have to outfit the study area with an impractical number of receivers.  Had all the time and research and effort and crossbow target practice all been for naught?  Probably. 

Current emotions:  Uggggghhhhh seriously??  COME ON.  I just got the tags to stick!

Back to the drawing board.  Conversations with Holger, conversations with Susan, and conversations with Holger and Susan at the same time led us all to the conclusion that the classic tagging approach would probably be the most logical way to go about getting my data.  Luckily, it’s looking like I’ll be able to collaborate with some other groups here in Newport on a tagging trip that’s already planned for next year.  My sample size will be lower, it’s not exactly the data that I thought I was going to get, it’s not even in the same field site I thought I’d be working, but thus is life.  As a scientist, you can’t be married to a certain data collection method or even to a certain location.  You have to keep the big picture in mind – what were the original scientific questions/objectives?  If you’re still able to get at these major objectives, then you’re probably still doing alright.  Any data I can get to better understand the underwater mating behavior of these seals is beneficial for conservation and even just marine mammal biological knowledge in general.  There’s still so much we don’t know about the organisms that live in our oceans (even ones like seals that spend part of their lives on land), but slowly and surely, we’re picking away at the mysteries. 

Current emotions: Back to being excited.  This scientific journey, though so far has been more madness then brilliance, is only just beginning.  New pinniped adventures await! 

-Leanna Matthews, PhD Candidate


The Seals and the Sea Lions. And the Otter.

The Pinniped Cognition and Sensory Systems Lab, based at the Long Marine Lab at UCSC, focuses on sensory, cognitive, and behavioral ecology of marine mammals.  Researchers work closely with the resident animals, training them with operant conditioning and positive reinforcement to voluntarily participate in various projects involving active decision making.  Some past projects include auditory masking, amphibious hearing capabilities, sound localization abilities, and short and long-term memory.  In other words, this place is awesome.  There are two big pools (22,500 gallons each), one of which can be set up to run underwater acoustic experiments.  There are also some smaller pools that house the marine mammals on the compound.  The water that fills these pools is pumped directly from Monterey Bay, and is therefore an accurate representation of nearby environmental conditions.  The lab is also equipped with soundproof acoustic chamber for in-air experiments (check out this video because the chamber is really really cool).

Aerial view of the Long Marine Lab Complex

Right now there are eight marine mammals at the Pinniped Lab, including two California sea lions (Zalophus californianus), a harbor seal (Phoca vitulina), two ringed seals (Phoca hispida), two spotted seals (Phoca largha), and a southern sea otter (Enhydra lutris).

Rio and Ronan, pictured below, are the female two California sea lions.  Rio (top picture) was born in captivity in 1985.  Because Rio’s mother did not exhibit normal maternal behavior, she was transferred to Long Marine Lab where she was hand-raised by trainers.  She has participated in LOTS of studies, including some on imprinting, concept formation, visual and acoustic perception, associative learning, and memory.  Rio is pretty well known in the animal behavior and psychology world, primarily because she is the first nonhuman animal to demonstrate “equivalence classification” (a cognitive ability formerly thought to be limited to humans).  You can watch a video of it here.

Ronan (bottom picture) was born near the Channel Islands in the summer of 2008.  She stranded multiple times in 2008 and 2009, and was eventually recovered by the Marine Mammal Center when she was found walking down Highway 1.  Ronan was deemed unreleasable (reasons being that she had grown accustomed to humans and was unable to forage successfully in the wild) and became a permanent resident of the Long Marine Lab in early 2010.  She is involved in both cognitive and acoustic projects, and recently ran into some youtube fame with her ability to keep the beat with music (see video  here).

Sprouts, the resident male harbor seal, was born at Sea World, San Diego in 1988 and transferred to the Pinniped Lab less than a year later.  He’s been involved in lots of sensory experiments, including some on hearing, vision, and vibrissae (whisker) sensitivity.  Recently, Sprouts helped with a joint project between the University of Virginia and UC Santa Cruz focusing on underwater wake detection.  Sprouts is a pretty easy going seal (allows lots of taction and has a great deal of patience with inexperienced animal trainers), so he also helps out with marine mammal education programs.  Here’s a link to a video of Sprouts participating in an experiment and then getting his teeth brushed – yes some of the animals get their teeth brushed).

Natchek is the male ringed seal at the Pinniped Lab.  He was born in the wild in 1996, but was transferred to Sea World after he stranded as a pup.  Natchek has been with the lab since 2010, and is currently part of the ice seal bioacoustics project.  He’s a weird little seal, but he’s also pretty cute and loves to play in the kelp that sometimes hangs into his pool.

Nayak is the youngest pinniped at the lab.  She is a female ringed seal that joined the program about a year ago, after stranding as a pup and then spending some time at the Alaska Sea Life Center.  Nayak is also involved in the ice seal bioacoustics project.

Amak (top) and Tunu (bottom) are two male spotted seals that came to the lab in September of 2010.  Amak (the Alaskan Inuit word for “playful”) was abandoned by his mother near King Salmon, Alaska, while Tunu (named after the Yup’ik village Tununak) was born after his mother was legally harvested.  Both pups were rehabilitated at the Alaska Sea Life Center and were later deemed unsuitable for release (permitting restrictions do not allow rehabilitated spotted seals to be re-released).  They are also both involved in the ice seal bioacoustics project.

Last but not least, we have Odin.  Odin is a male southern sea otter who joined the lab in 2009 after a stint at the Sea Otter Research and Conservation Program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  He was born in 2003 and stranded (for the first time) at just a few weeks of age.  He then re-stranded, was re-captured, and re-released several times over the next few years.  Right now Odin is working with the trainers on certain behaviors that will allow them to study specific aspects of sea otter vision.

All info via the Pinniped Lab website and daily conversations with the amazing people who work there.

Leanna Matthews, PhD Student


Atlantic to Pacific

A few weeks ago I got a phone call.  On the other end was the lab coordinator for UCSC’s Pinniped Cognition and Sensory Systems Lab, and she was officially offering me a position at the lab for the summer.  Needless to say, I was beyond thrilled.  This lab is doing some pretty fantastic research (be sure to check out their website) and this internship is the perfect way for me to get some experience caring for and doing research with captive pinnipeds.

So first, a little background information.  The Parks Lab blog has thus far been focused on our field work with right whales.  For my dissertation, I am exploring a different system: pinnipeds.  I will be investigating the effects of anthropogenic (human-generated) noise on pinnipeds (seals & sea lions).  Given the recent increase in shipping and urbanization, coastal anthropogenic noise has become an issue of heightened concern, and questions surrounding the effects on pinnipeds still remain unanswered.  Ideally, my research questions will address both captive individuals and free-ranging populations.  Hence my excitement about this summer position working with captive pinnipeds…I need to know how to do things with them before I can actually do the things.  Science.  It’s a process.

Harbor seal (Phoca vitulina)

Harbor seal (Phoca vitulina), Photo: Sean Crane

So I got this phone call mid-April, and I was scheduled to start my internship on May 7th.  That’s not a lot of time and there was still so much to do in Syracuse!  Finish spring classes, reschedule a statistics final, take said final, wrap up TA duties, and drive all the way from New York to Santa Cruz.  Somehow everything fell into place, and on May 1st, I packed the car and headed west (with a slight detour south to take my dog, Rosie, to summer camp at my parents’ house).  Four days later, with the Pacific Ocean to my left and redwoods to my right, I arrived at my temporary home.

View of Monterey Bay from Santa Cruz

View of Monterey Bay from Santa Cruz

I’ve only been working at the lab for about two weeks now, and I’ve already met some amazing people and learned a lot about a lot of things.  This internship is definitely work-intensive (facilities management, animal husbandry, and research), but at the rate I’m going, I’ll be able to nail down a few more specific captive-animal-related research questions for my project AND become a little bit of an animal trainer, all while enjoying the California sunshine and the over-abundance of Mexican food (sorry, Syracuse, but your genuine attempts at tacos just don’t quite do it for this displaced Texan).

Leanna Matthews, PhD Student