Saturday, February 13, 2010

Love is in the air with our Pacific Spiny Lumpsuckers!

All of us at PTMSC fell in love with our two new little fish a few months ago when they were caught off our dock during a class. The little lumpsuckers have been doing well in our little aquarium and everyone has loved watching them swim around and feed. The lumpsuckers are especially loving homecrew days when they get fed krill and small pieces of fish. They start swimming near the surface during cleaning, evidently getting excited to catch some krill in their tiny mouths! However, these cute fish soon turned into chubby lumpsuckers. It turns out one of them wasn't fat at all, but instead was PREGNANT!
During homecrew today we found an orange lump of eggs (seen in the picture below). We were all very excited at the thought of little baby lumpsuckers filling the tanks.

According to an aquarist at the Seattle Aquarium female lumpsuckers will lay their eggs and choose a male to fertilize them. Our only hope for babies is if the other lumpsucker is a male and the female picks him to fertilize her eggs. We will have to wait to see what happens!

Our lumpsuckers have gotten so much attention and love from all of our staff, volunteers, and visitors that we tried one night on a low tide to go seining for them. Two of us snorked in the eelgrass bed while the others siened for them. Sadly we had no luck but maybe we will try again?
Happy Valentine's Day for the Pacific Spiny Lumpsuckers and all the animals at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center!

Valerie Lindborg
Lab Coordinator

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Way of Whales Workshop

On January 23rd I had the opportunity to accompany Libby, Chrissy and Sue to the Way of Whales Workshop on Whidbey Island.  I had a great time visiting information tables and learning about the amazing whale research going on in this region of the world.

Sue, Libby, Chrissy, and Heather displaying items from the PTMSC Orca Project

Two researchers, Dr. Mike Ford and Dr. Fred Sharpe, gave presentations on each of their different research projects.   Dr. Ford is conducting paternity analysis in the Southern Resident killer whale population, trying to determine both the mother and father of offspring.  Identifying mothers is not a difficult task since offspring often remain with their mother for life, but identifying fathers proves to be a much more difficult task.  In order to piece together the "who's dad" puzzle, Mike Ford is collecting tissue and fecal samples as sources for genetic material.  This research faces one major problem- identifying the fathers of older whales is much more difficult because potential fathers may have already died and therefore are not available for sampling.  If this research continues on for several more years it is neat to think they may eventually have an almost complete catalog of both parents for nearly all Southern Resident whales.

Dr. Fred Sharpe is conducting a variety of research projects about humpback whales and looking at their global recovery.  Along with speaking at the workshop, Dr. Sharpe also did a series of talks in this region on the humpback's return to the Puget Sound. 

Humpback whales feed very differently from orcas; in place of teeth they feed via a filtering structure called baleen.  Baleen is made from keratin, the same material as our fingernails, and is lined in the mouth of these whales and often looks like hair.  One key reason for the humback's population resiliance is their generalist diet.  Consuming a wide variety of schooling fish and crustaceans, humpbacks are not limited to a specific food source.  These whales are very adaptable! Another neat thing I learned from this talk is that Humpbacks have spindle neurons. Spindle neurons are associated with language, self-awareness, and compassion in humans. These whales have been seen helping out seals by letting them onto their backs to avoid a hungry killer whale.

Towards the end of his talk Dr. Sharpe showed video taken using a National Geographic Crittercam.  These cameras are suction cupped to the back of the whale and allows us to see the world through the eyes of these amazing creatures!  Footage of the Crittercam being used on Humpbacks is not yet available online, but to get an idea check out the photograph of a Crittercam on a pilot whale.

Photo by:  National Geographic

For more information on Dr. Fred Sharpe and his ongoing humpback work with Alaska Whale Foundation please visit their website:

One of the last video clips Fred Sharpe showed was of a young researcher leaning over the side of a boat and sticking one of these Crittercams on a passing whale.  I couldn't help but smile at the idea of that young researcher being me one day!  Who knows what the future might hold.

Funding for the PTMSC Orca Project is provided by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

Before ending this blog I must mention a radio segment our very own Chrissy McClean was interviewed for last week!  She had the opportunity to speak about toxins found in whales and the Orca Project here at PTMSC.  Check it out!

Heather Jones
Orca Project Coordinator

Docent Training for the Natural History Exhibit

Docent (Exhibit guide) training for the Natural History Exhibit at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center.  Wednesday, February 17—3pm to 6pm.  Learn to share the natural history of this area with visitors.  Volunteers work a two or three hour shift, usually once a week or every other week.  Being an expert is not required, just curiosity about the natural environment, willingess to learn and a friendly attitude.  Hear the basics at this three hour training, which will be followed by opportunities for more in depth training and  individual mentoring.  Call Jean Walat, PTMSC Citizen Science and Volunteer Coordinator, at 360-385-5582 x112 or

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Free Science Classes: Orca Communities

Every winter the Marine Science Center opens its doors to hundreds of elementary school students, offering classes about exciting topics in current science.  A grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) enabled us to provide bussing stipends and offer the program free of charge.  As a result, we've been able to schedule almost eight hundred 4th and 5th grade students from public schools across the Northern Olympic Peninsula! 

In accordance with our Killer Whale-themed year, these courses are all about the ecology and behavior of Orcas. Each group attends two distinct classes during their visit; "Orca Communities" and "Orca Food & Habitat".  Today this blog's spotlight shines on the Communities class, but stay tuned for another blog about Food & Habitat!

The aim of the "Orca Communities" course is to familiarize students with the two types of Orcas we have in our area (The Salish Sea).  These two groups, "Southern Residents" and "Transients", differ radically in their diet, behavior and range.  As such, they are considered separate "ecotypes" and some researchers believe that they should actually be classified as subspecies. Transients travel in small groups, exclusively eating marine mammals.  Residents travel in much larger groups called "pods" and only eat fish (salmon is their favorite).

We begin the "Orca Communities" class by differentiating the two groups based solely on diet: fish eating vs. marine-mammal eating.  Once the students are clear about this distinction, we discuss morphological differences between the groups, while also discussing how individual Orcas are identified:

The bulk of the class, however, is dedicated to the marked behavioral differences between Transients and Residents. Each table of students is given a gridded map of the Salish Sea (including Vancouver Island) and a packet of "information from scientists".  In reality, the packets were complied by us, but they are indeed comprised of real, current data from researchers. Each group of students uses these handouts to trace the movements of Resident pods or of one of three Transient whales. The packets provide dates, locations and map coordinates for these movements based on visual sightings or data from satellite tags.

An example of a "research report" handout:
The first step is to sort the "research reports" by date:
Students From Jefferson Elementary
Each group then plots their respective Orca's movements on their maps (all fall within the date range of September 15-30, 2009):
Students From Jefferson Elementary
Finally, we call each group to the front of the room to share their discoveries with the whole class (each velcro dot represents the location of one Orca sighting):
Students from Jefferson Elementary

The result: the students who mapped the geographical movements of Residents find that they have very small, localized movements, almost exclusively along the West coast of San Juan Island.  The shock-and-awe part of the lesson comes when the groups with Transients begin to plot their whales' movements: one circumnavigates Vancouver Island!  Another transient moves all the way from South Puget Sound to Neah Bay, all within the course of a few days!

We also spend time speculating about the reasons behind these drastic differences. For those who are interested: the answer seem to lie in their respective diets.  Residents feast on the migrating salmon that pass by San Juan Island, while Transients must track down the smaller groups of marine mammals (like seals) which are more widely dispersed. In the case of Orcas, the classic idiom "you are what you eat" ought to read "you move like what you eat"!

Stay tuned for another blog about the second class, "Orca Food and Habitat"

Special thanks to the scientists who shared their research for this class:  Robin Baird, Gregg Schorr, and Brad Hanson for the transient sattelite tagging information, The Center for Whale Research for the orca photo identification, and OrcaNetwork for the resident orca sighting data.

-Jess Swihart
Natural History Exhibit Education Coordinator

For more information about these two ecotypes and their taxonomy check out these sites:

Here's one of our sources for the mapping activity (for our handouts I condensed the sightings for September 2009 to reduce complexity and minimize confusion):