M/V Tiglax Sails for Science

Authors: Lisa Spitler and Jeff Williams | Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge

Tiglax SketchThe M/V Tiglax (TEKH-lah – Aleut for eagle) is essential to managing the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. The boat is 120 feet long and operates with a crew of 6. Fourteen scientists can live and work aboard. She has wet and dry labs and freezers for storing samples. Tiglax can deploy midwater and bottom trawls for sampling fish and plankton, and hosts bioacoustic transducers and data processors for sampling fish/plankton densities; and a SBE-21 thermosalinograph for diving seabird studies.

In a season, the Tiglax may sail to Forrester and St. Lazaria Islands in Southeast Alaska, or into Bering Sea as far as St. Matthew Island. Her main operations area is, however, the Aleutian Chain. Tiglax typically spends 120-160 days at sea covering as many as 20,000 nautical miles (at a top speed of 10 knots) traveling from the home port of Homer, Alaska out to Attu Island at the extreme west end of the Aleutian chain and back, several times a season.

The main role of the Tiglax is to transport service personnel, equipment, and supplies between work sites throughout the refuge. This year Tiglax departs Homer on May 17 to deploy FWS biologists and biological technicians at field camps in the Semidi Islands, on Aiktak, Buldir, Kiska, and Attu. These scientists focus on studying seabird colonies, but also work on reestablishing endangered habitats, they identify and monitor archaeological and historic sites, they monitor bird populations and human impacts on habitats, they maintain remote field facilities, and they patrol refuge waters.

 Tiglax also serves as a seagoing research platform and living quarters for scientists from the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) or other federal or state agencies and universities. This year’s FWS projects include removal of invasive foxes from islands to restore native bird populations, collecting background information on contaminants left over from World War II, and monitoring other contaminant cleanup efforts on Attu and Amchitka, studying Kasatochi Island as she recovers from an eruption in 2008, lichen research on Adak, and visiting remote bird nesting colonies.

Non FWS partners include the National Marine Fisheries Service for sea lion studies, the University of Alaska, Institute of Marine Sciences and School of Fisheries, The Alaska Volcano Observatory, and the US Navy.

Stay with us for the “Summer of the Tiglax” as we report in on monitoring and research activities supported and facilitated by the Tiglax and crew!

 

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Our Rare and Mysterious Murrelets

Compiler*: Debra G. Corbett | Nanutset Heritage

(All photos courtesy of the USFWS. *Originally presented in “From the Wildside” USFWS /Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge / Aleutian Islands Unit Newsletter)

Kittlitz’s and Marbled murrelets are among the least-studied seabirds in North America. Both live and breed in the Aleutian Islands and are found primarily around mountainous islands with deep bays.  Both species spend the majority of their lives at sea and come ashore only to breed.  Unlike most other alcids they do not nest in large colonies, instead they establish isolated nest sites at high elevations.  Also unlike other alcids their breeding plumage is cryptic, light colored and mottled which serves to disguise the nesting birds.  In winter they sport more dramatic white and dark plumage.

Kittlitz’s murrelets are small, stocky birds with a relatively large head and short bill and tail. Both female and male birds have a light, off-white underside, with brown, gray, and reddish-gold feathers on the back, wings, and head. In winter they have a white underside, throat, and face, with black or dark gray back, wings, cap, and sometimes a distinct black necklace. They forage in turbid nearshore waters for small fish, especially Pacific sandlance, Pacific herring, capelin, and Pacific sandfish, and shrimp-like crustaceans called euphasiids, and amphipods.

A brooding Kittlitz’s murrelet with a monitoring camera.

A brooding Kittlitz’s murrelet with a monitoring camera.

All of the North American, and most of the world population of Kittlitz’s Murrelets, breed and winter in Alaska. Total population numbers are unknown but 4,000 birds have been counted in the Aleutians with major concentrations off Unalaska (1500 birds) and Adak (1000 birds).  Pairs establish a remote nest site on steep unvegetated mountainsides, or slopes above the timberline near glaciers and cirques.  Biologists think they are monogamous and lay one egg in June that hatches in July.  The young fledge in August.  To get from the nesting site to the sea, up to 40 km away, the fledglings may float down small streams.

Would you notice the chick, circled, if you were out hiking?

Would you notice the chick, circled, if you were out hiking?

As late as 2000 only 17 nests had ever been found. In 2006 a biologist stumbled upon a nest on Kodiak and since about 2010 biologists Robb Kaler and Leah Kenney have been hunting nests on Adak.  In 2012 they found nine nests in the mountains of Adak.  Their search continues with new nests found each year since.

Marbled murrelets are small, chunky birds with pointed wings and a slender black bill. Non-breeding plumage is white underneath with a black crown, nape, wings, and back. When breeding, both sexes have a brown mottled body and face. They feed primarily on fish and invertebrates in near-shore marine waters, protected bays, and even on rivers and inland lakes. Their main prey include sandeels, herring, capelin and shiner perch, along with euphasiids and amphipods.  Marbled murrelets often forage in pairs. Loose aggregations of 500 or more birds occasionally occur in winter.

Adult Marbled murrelet.

Adult Marbled murrelet.

The total population exceeds 20,000 with about 10,000 in the Aleutian Islands, where 7,000 live and breed around Unalaska.  The most common nesting sites for marbled murrelets are on branches of old-growth and mature conifers, as far as 80 km inland.  Before 1990 only four marbled murrelet nests had ever been seen.  In the non-forested portions of Alaska however, they nest on the ground in a small depression.  No marbled murrelet nests have been found in the Aleutian Islands, but recently fledged birds have been seen.  Marbled murrelets produce one egg per nest.  Incubation by both parents lasts a month then the chick is fed for around 40 days until it is able to fly.  It then leaves the nest and flies unaccompanied to the sea. Breeding success is low and chick mortality high.

Marbled Murrelet Chick on tree branch.

Marbled Murrelet Chick on tree branch.

For more information: Gibson, Daniel D., and G. Vernon Byrd. 2007. Birds of the Aleutian Islands, Alaska.  Nuttall Ornithological Club and The American Ornithologists’ Union. AOU Publications Office, Fayetteville, Arkansas

Archaeology and Invasive Species: The Chirikof Island Project

Authors: Catherine West | Boston University | cfwest@bu.edu and Courtney Hofman | University of Maryland; Smithsonian Institution

How long have ground squirrels lived on Chirikof Island?  Were they native to the island, taken there by Native people, or are they a recent introduction? A team of researchers from Boston University, the University of Maryland, and the Smithsonian Institution asked these questions after a trip to the island in the summer of 2013 with the Chirikof Island Project. Chirikof is managed by the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge (AMNWR), and many AMNWR islands are under threat from landscape degradation and invasive species introductions – on Chirikof, cattle, Arctic foxes, and ground squirrel are considered introduced, invasive species. The introduction history of both cattle and Arctic fox on Chirikof is clear, but the ground squirrel’s history is not well understood. While it has long been thought that Russian traders or American settlers introduced the ground squirrel as an economic resource, our 2013 archaeological excavations recovered squirrel bones from prehistoric sites. We hoped we could answer our questions – and address whether this species should be considered “invasive” – by doing two things: 1) by dating the archaeological squirrel bones, could we tell how long ground squirrels have been on Chirikof? And, 2) by looking at the ancient DNA (aDNA) in the archaeological bones, could we tell if the ancient squirrels were related to the squirrels living on the island today?

Chirikof’s Arctic ground squirrel (Urocitellus parryii). Photo by Patrick Saltonstall.

Chirikof’s Arctic ground squirrel (Urocitellus parryii). Photo by Patrick Saltonstall.

People have lived on Chirikof Island for at least 5000 years, and the archaeological record suggests this was a crossroads for people traveling from the Aleutian Islands, the Alaska Peninsula, and the Kodiak archipelago, though occupations were intermittent (Saltonstall and Steffian 2005). The Russian American Company established an artel for hunting ground squirrel and making parkas in the mid-nineteenth century – Alutiiq and Unangan people in this region used ground squirrels to make parkas, which they still do today. After the Russian occupation, Americans established both Arctic fox and cattle ranching in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century. Today the landscape shows the effects of cattle and fox introductions through severe erosion and diminished waterfowl and seabird populations (http://www.fws.gov/refuge/alaska_maritime/grazing.html).

Catherine West excavating 2000-year-old midden on Chirikof’s west side. Photo by Samantha Dunning.

Catherine West excavating 2000-year-old midden on Chirikof’s west side. Photo by Samantha Dunning.

Our research has produced exciting results! To answer our questions about the ground squirrel introductions, we collected ground squirrel bones from coastal middens on Chirikof. We were able to radiocarbon date the bones and to analyze their ancient DNA, which suggests that some of the archaeological squirrel bones are 2000 years old and that the squirrels living on Chirikof today are direct descendants of those living there 2000 years ago. While we don’t yet know if Native people took the squirrels to Chirikof or if the squirrel is native to the island, we can ask the questions: what does it mean for management and eradication if these animals were introduced prehistorically? And, how old is old enough for an introduced species to become a “natural” part of an island environment? This long-lasting population has thrived in this isolated, stormy place for thousands of years, so the next step in this project is to try to figure out where the Chirikof Island ground squirrels came from and to work with AMNWR to understand their place in the island’s ecosystem.

This work is funded by the National Geographic Society, Boston University, and the Smithsonian Institution.

Chirikof’s introduced cattle. Photo by Patrick Saltonstall.

Header image: Chirikof’s introduced cattle. Photo by Patrick Saltonstall.

Stejneger’s Beaked Whales in the Aleutian Islands

Compiler*: Debra G. Corbett | Nanutset Heritage | *Originally presented in “From the Wildside” USFWS / Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge / Aleutian Islands Unit November 2013 Newsletter.

Stejneger's beaked whale. Drawing by Al Denbigh.

Stejneger’s beaked whale. Drawing by Al Denbigh.

Mesoplodon stejnegeri

A male Stejneger’s beaked whale, also known as a Bering Sea beaked whale or saber-toothed whale, washed ashore near the outlet of Airport Creek on Adak Island November 2013.  These whales are mysterious and described in the literature as poorly known, but every few years one or more strand on Adak’s beaches. Between 1975 and 1999 there were five individual and seven mass stranding events involving 2-4 animals. Much of what is known about the species has been learned from studying whales found on Adak.

1994 stranding of four pregnant females in Kuluk Bay. USFWS file photo.

1994 stranding of four pregnant females in Kuluk Bay. USFWS file photo.

Stejneger’s are the northernmost species of beaked whale. They are found in the cold northern waters of the North Pacific Basin, from central California and the Sea of Japan, north to the Bering Sea. They are small, reaching lengths of only about 17-18 feet as adults. Stejneger’s feed primarily on squid in deep (200-4,000 feet deep), dark waters, using echolocation to hunt.  They can stay down for up to 85 min and reach depths of 6,230 feet. Beaked whales have a unique feeding mechanism: rather than capture prey with their teeth, they suck it up. Longitudinal grooves along the underside of the throat stretch and expand as the tongue suddenly retracts, creating a pressure drop that sucks prey in with the water.

The most noticeable characteristic of adult male Stejneger’s beaked whales is a pair of massive flattened tusks, near the middle of the lower jaw. These tusks are the only teeth in most species of beaked whales, and only males have them.  Males presumably use them when fighting for females—note the parallel scars in the drawing above, evidence of males ramming each other with the paired tusks. Females may select mates based on the size and shape of male tusks.  For more information check out the Alaska Department of Fish & Game description.

Strandings

Most individual strandings involve single animals weakened by old age, disease, injury, rough weather, or other causes. Mass strandings are more complicated and not fully understood. Every year hundreds of whales beach themselves. Most are toothed whales that normally inhabit deep waters and live in tightly knit groups. Sick leaders may draw a herd into shallow water, the healthy animals following because they are responding to distress signals from the debilitated animal. Storms, strong magnetic anomalies, predator avoidance, and human activities such as sonar operations, seismic testing, and warfare have all been linked to mass strandings. Other ideas abound but the question remains unresolved.

Because Stejneger’s beaked whales are not well studied, any animal coming ashore has the potential to provide researchers with extremely valuable data. Anyone finding a stranded beaked whale can report it to the Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network at 877-925-7773, or 877-9-AKR-PRD.  Other numbers are Protected Resources Offices in Juneau 907-586-7235, or Anchorage 907-271-7325, or the Alaska Sea Life Center at 888-774-7325.  These offices ask you to report any injured, entangled or dead sea mammals in the water or on the beach.  The most important information to collect is the date, location (including latitude and longitude), number of animals and species.  Remember—don’t move or touch the animals. Visit the Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network page to learn more and download the Stranding Network iphone app: alaskafisheries.noaa.gov/protectedresources/strandings.htm.

 

Re-articulating a killer whale on St. Paul during Bering Sea Days.

Author: Mike Etnier | Portland State University

This past October I joined several other scientists in St. Paul to participate in the Pribilof School District’s annual “Bering Sea Days” (BSD), which is a weeklong science immersion for students at the local school.  We try to engage all of the students, who range from pre-K to 12th grade.  That means we have to adapt our various activities so that they are appropriate for each specific age group, which is a big challenge.

I typically describe myself as a “bone-ologist” because my work involves a mix of paleontology (old bones and teeth), zooarchaeology (old bones and teeth related in some way to human behavior), and modern ecology (modern bones and teeth).  It’s no coincidence, then, that the activities that I design for BSD typically deal with bones and teeth.

Last year, I had the amazing opportunity to help the 11th grade students excavate the skeleton of a killer whale calf that had been buried since 2011 (video clip).

Cleaning Vertebrae:  Students from the 11th Grade class brushing the tail vertebrae clean during the 2013 excavation of the killer whale calf.

Students from the 11th Grade class brushing the tail vertebrae clean during the 2013 excavation of the killer whale calf.

Now that the nearly-complete skeleton has been cleaned and dried, the main activities for the high school students this year centered on re-articulating the skeleton for display in the school library.

A St. Paul student threads the drilled vertebrae onto the steel rod that will support the articulated skeleton.

A St. Paul student threads the drilled vertebrae onto the steel rod that will support the articulated skeleton.

For the younger students, we focused on how fossils are made using examples from around the island of St. Paul—including 200,000-year-old fossil clams and the 6000-year-old mammoth teeth recovered from a lava tube near the airport.

One of the activities the younger students did was to make casts of fur seal teeth.  For this process, they first had to make a mold that represents a perfect imprint, or impression, of the original tooth.  They then removed the original tooth and filled the imprint with plaster of Paris.  This models the same process by which many kinds of fossils are created.

Studying the process of how fossils are formed also provided a nice transition to the re-articulation project because many of the pieces are missing from the killer whale skeleton.  While the animal was buried, foxes dug into the soft sand and removed several skull bones, as well as the entire left flipper.  We are also missing several teeth, which may have been lost during the excavation.

The high school students are going to use several different approaches to creating replacement pieces that will be used in the articulated skeleton.  The missing teeth will be replaced with plaster casts, using the same casting process the younger students learned.  In this case, we used the existing teeth as the “originals” for making the mold.

A variety of tooth sizes will be used to make replacement casts for the missing teeth.

A variety of tooth sizes will be used to make replacement casts for the missing teeth.

Relatively simple bones, such as the shoulder blade and limb bones, will be reproduced using modeling clay, or perhaps by hand-carving wooden blocks.  Finally, the students hope to access a 3D scanner to create virtual copies of the existing skull bones.  Once they have the 3D images, they can be mirrored and/or scaled to match the missing skull bones.  Finally, a 3D printer will be used to “print” an epoxy replica of the missing bones.

KillerWhales

 

Header image: Killer whales in Vega Bay, Kiska Island by B. Hornbeck 2014

You are what (and even where) you eat

Author: Nicole Misarti | Water and Environmental Research Center | University of Alaska, Fairbanks

Archaeologists are often perceived of as a very different sort of scientist. After all, they dig through people’s thousands-of-years-old garbage dumps (called middens) on a regular basis. I began my career as an archaeologist but then turned to marine science; mostly because I wanted to use what we can learn about the past to better understand our future. In my case this meant learning more about the marine ecosystems that humans living on the coast rely on day after day.  I now combine my archaeological knowledge with marine science, but I am still studying other people’s garbage; specifically the bones of creatures we find in middens and the soils they were buried in.

Available historic ecological data span periods too short to capture the large climatic changes the world– and specifically the north– is now experiencing. However, the past 4500 years experienced both warmer and cooler climate periods such as the Neoglacial (cool), the Pre-Medieval and Medieval Climate Anomaly (both warm), and the Little Ice Age (cool). The two warmer periods are more comparable to current and projected climate, and a better understanding of how important resources such as fish and marine mammals responded to those changes could help communities plan for a sustainable future.  Coastal communities could be better able to both devise and advocate for plans that will allow for continued subsistence and economic reliance.

This summer I am participating in three projects; one in the western Aleutians and two on the western portion of the Alaska Peninsula. All of them involve stable isotopes, food webs, and productivity of important resources such as salmon, cod, sea lions and other pinnipeds, and birds. The samples will come from middens in archaeological sites and sediment cores from sockeye spawning lakes. For all of these projects my job will be to use chemistry to decipher past ecosystem change.  I hope a better understanding of the past could help communities who are currently making decisions for a sustainable future.

I use stable isotope analysis of bone and soil that can, with certain limitations, help us understand changes in food webs, productivity, and even foraging location of marine species over long periods of time. Most ecologists think of a long-term study as something that has data for the past 20, 50, or at the most 100 years. Our models for fisheries management are often based on the knowledge we have from the last 50 years or so. However, we have climate data that spans thousands of years and now we need environmental and ecosystem data that are as long term as our climate models. Or at least as far back in time as we can retrieve good data. So far, that “good data” for stable isotope analysis of middens in coastal Alaska seems to stretch back about 4000-5000 years.

Isotopes are atoms of a single element that have different atomic weights and we can use stable carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios to place an organism into a food web. In nature lighter isotopes are more abundant than heavier ones and we express that ratio relative to a standard specific to its element.

(From Misarti in Sanak Island, Alaska: A Natural and Cultural History, eds. K. Reedy-Maschner and H. Maschner 2012.)

(From Misarti in Sanak Island, Alaska: A Natural and Cultural History, eds. K. Reedy-Maschner and H. Maschner 2012.)

Basically each step up the marine food chain increases your nitrogen isotope ratio (δ15N) by about 3.5‰ and carbon ratios (δ13C) by 0.5‰ to 1‰. The way organisms at the base of the food web uptake δ13C during photosynthesis are different and can help determine the type of ecosystem we are looking at. For example, an urchin that feeds on kelp will have a different δ13C than a fish that feeds on a copepod (that in turn fed on phytoplankton).  It will also have a different nitrogen isotope ratio as the urchin is only two steps up the food chain and the fish is three steps up the food chain. Carbon isotopes can also be a marker of productivity because when productivity in the ocean increases so does δ13C. Overall if we see changes in carbon and nitrogen isotope values within a species over time it probably reflects changes within that organism’s ecosystem.  In other words, an organism’s δ13C and δ15N tell us what they eat and where they eat.

This is true for muscle tissue, hair, bone, and pretty much any other part of the body. Each type of tissue has a slightly different ratio based on the amount of time that tissue takes to “turn over” the nutrients a body is taking in. This means that with a little study and laboratory preparation, scientists can compare bone from 4000 years ago to muscle tissue from today.  In other words, we can compare food webs, specie’s trophic position, productivity, and potentially the locations these animals were feeding over thousands of years. There are limitations of course, but these types of long term data can help us better understand how organisms might react to current and future change.

Header Image: Unnamed Cove, central Vega Bay, Kiska Island. C. Funk, 2014

HeaderImageFunk

Fine-scale Dynamics of Marine Foodwebs in the Western Aleutian Islands

Authors: Douglas Causey, Veronica Padula, Rachel McKenna, University of Alaska Anchorage.

The Arctic regions are experiencing rapid change in marine and terrestrial environments from many sources, primarily caused by climate change and anthropogenic impacts of increased development and pollution. Even in the low Arctic – such as the southern Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands – multiple lines of evidence point to rapid environmental change on relatively fine-scales of space and time. A diverse avian community inhabits these region during summer, comprising terrestrial and marine species of several different upper trophic levels. Several endemic species, such as Red-faced Cormorants (Phalacrocorax urile) are currently undergoing dramatic population declines, likely related to climate-related change in food availability and trophic structure of the local marine environment.

This project is focused on the dynamics of climate change on marine bird communities. We use several data sources and analysis techniques, including diet data, stable isotopes, and Bayesian inference, and encompassing current, historical, and prehistoric time periods. We are working to develop an initial understanding of modern upper trophic-level food webs in the Aleutians. This will provide fundamental data for comparison with patterns of the past century and developing models predicting future change. In this study, we are analyzing constituent stable isotopes (e.g. H, C, N, O, S) of blood and feather samples from 16 avian species collected in the far Western Aleutian Islands (the Near, Rat, and Delarof Islands) since 2000, as well as from archival modern specimens collected as early as 1820, and prehistorical bony material dating 5000-6500 ybp.

The Red-faced Cormorant, Red-faced Shag or Violet Shag (Phalacrocorax urile, Cormoran à face rouge, RFCO) is a species of cormorant that is found in the far north of the Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea, from the eastern tip of Hokkaidō in Japan, via the Kuril Islands, the southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands to the Alaska Peninsula and Gulf of Alaska.  Deriving their name from the Latin term corvus marines ("sea raven"), cormorants are highly adapted for underwater hunting. Their bodies are streamlined and somewhat flattened beneath, the neck is long and supple, the wings broad, long, and blunt, and the legs powerful and set far back. Using their lean bodies, they thrust through the water and along the seabed to flush out prey. They range in size from the Pygmy to the goose-sized Great cormorant; the heaviest is the flightless Galapagos cormorant.

The Red-faced Cormorant, Red-faced Shag or Violet Shag (Phalacrocorax urile, Cormoran à face rouge, RFCO) is a species of cormorant that is found in the far north of the Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea, from the eastern tip of Hokkaidō in Japan, via the Kuril Islands, the southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands to the Alaska Peninsula and Gulf of Alaska. Deriving their name from the Latin term corvus marines (“sea raven”), cormorants are highly adapted for underwater hunting. Their bodies are streamlined and somewhat flattened beneath, the neck is long and supple, the wings broad, long, and blunt, and the legs powerful and set far back. Using their lean bodies, they thrust through the water and along the seabed to flush out prey. They range in size from the Pygmy to the goose-sized Great cormorant; the heaviest is the flightless Galapagos cormorant.

Our preliminary results indicate that the community-wide spatial and temporal dynamics of marine bird ecosystems are far greater in the last decade (2009-2012) than has been evident over recent decades. We also find that the magnitude of change is lesser here in the low Arctic (e.g. Westerns Aleutians Islands 53°N) compared to High Arctic coastal marine ecosystems (e.g. 78°N). In particular, we show that the ecological patterns observed within such widespread arctic species as puffins (Fratercula spp.), Northern Fulmars (Fulmaris glacialis), and Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) indicate diets are strongly perturbed on small geographic and temporal scales of 101 km and decades. Moreover, we find that the variance in environmental and ecological parameters is increasing rapidly over time. We hypothesize that these fine-scale changes are related to mid-scale oceanographic and trophic-level changes, in addition to larger-scale perturbation possibly related to a cascade of climate-related factors.