Thank you.

Dear Friends and Colleagues in Aleutian Research,

Thank you for contributing to and reading the Aleutian Islands Working Group research notes over the past three years.

 Since February 2014, we published 31 posts, which were viewed 10,556 times by 5,943 visitors to the website from at least 76 countries on every continent and in many of the oceans of the world. We are so pleased that our work to share information about research and management in the Aleutian Islands region has proved useful for so many.

Debra Corbett and I will end the website with this post. Thank you for writing, reading, and thinking about research in the Aleutians.

Best wishes to all.

Caroline Funk and Debra Corbett



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!


NSF Sponsored Research in the Aleutian region since 1961

Caroline Funk | University at Buffalo

Funding for work and research in the Aleutian region comes from many federal, state, and private sources. The National Science Foundation (NSF) is one of the larger sources of funding and the searchable online NSF awards database is a good source for information about the diversity of work performed in the region ( Last week I made a quick “Simple Search” on the search term “Aleut*” in award titles and abstracts. This query gave me a list of 314 active and expired awards from 18 separate NSF organizations since 1961 – totaling $256,082,759. Probably my quick search did not capture all funding awards related to research in the region, but it does provide a snapshot of the kinds research funded over the past three or four generations of scholars.

The greatest funding dollar amount has come from the Division of Ocean Sciences (~ $182 million). The greatest number of awards is from the Division of Earth Sciences (139).

NSF divisions table

The list of NSF programs – rather than the large-scale NSF organization – that awarded lead funding on the projects provides better insight into the subject of the awards. More than half of the total funding amount for the region was expended on one large project – ARRV – CONSTRUCTION. The Petrology and Geochemistry and Arctic Social Sciences programs have funded the greatest number of projects, with 44 Petrology projects totaling ~$5.3 million and 34 Social Science projects totaling ~$6.5 million. Our research note posts have highlighted more of these kinds of research projects because there are more of them to highlight.

NSF programs table

Universities and other institutions in Alaska have received the largest number of awards.

NSF states

The spreadsheet link below includes the results of my search. The results are sorted from oldest to newest awards.  The last field in the spreadsheet has the abstract of each award, providing details about the intended activities and outcomes.

Dec 9 NSF Aleutian Award Search Results


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.


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:


Addressing Climate Change in the Aleutians and Bering Sea

Author: Aaron Poe | Aleutian and Bering Sea Islands Landscape Conservation Cooperative

The Aleutians divide the Bering Sea from the rest of the North Pacific, and together with the Pribilof Islands and St. Lawrence Island, host nine of the most remote communities in the United States. The residents of these communities depend on the region’s rich biological productivity. Changes in temperature, sea ice extent, and storminess will likely affect many key species in this region and the people who rely on them. This begs the question, “What will tomorrow look like in the decades to come given climate change impacts in the region?”

In 2013 the Aleutian and Bering Sea Islands Landscape Conservation Cooperative (ABSI), together with the Alaska Climate Science Center, launched a partnership with the Alaska Ocean Observing System (AOOS) to assess climate impacts on key species and ecosystem services in the Aleutians and Bering Sea.  This project brought together a team of 30 scientists and managers from agencies, tribal organizations, and universities.  The team used results from two recent climate downscaling efforts by the University of Washington and NOAA’s Pacific Marine Ecology Lab, and the University of Alaska, Fairbanks to guide their assessment.

The scientists worked in five teams to assess potential climate change threats across a broad range of resources, evaluating everything from archeological sites to zooplankton. The largest team combined sociologists and anthropologists to evaluate climate vulnerabilities associated with socioeconomic and cultural resources vital to the region’s nine island communities. Other teams focused on seabirds; marine mammals; terrestrial vegetation; and species important to commercial fisheries of the region. Their combined efforts will help to identify collective future research priorities of ABSI, the Alaska Climate Science Center, and AOOS.

Museum of the Aleutians meeting.

Museum of the Aleutians meeting.

The island communities in this region are a key focus of this assessment. During one community forum in the region’s largest town of Unalaska/Dutch Harbor, our team heard about changes residents already see that they attribute to climate change. Changing weather conditions and warmer ocean waters threaten the viability of traditional harvest practices that island tribes have used for generations to survive in this remote region. Residents expressed concerns about climate change interacting with possible impacts from the complex and sophisticated fishing industry that is so vital to the region’s economy—which also accounts for 50% of the total annual U.S. seafood harvest. We hope this session can be the first in a series of discussions about climate change in this region and our team is looking for opportunities to further engage with these nine island communities on this topic.

The final report from this project will be released in spring of 2015 and will include collective future research priorities of ABSI, the Alaska Climate Science Center, and AOOS as we aim to help communities and managers adapt to climate change. More information on this collaboration funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, and NOAA is available at or by contacting Aaron Poe

Unalaska_city_centerHeader image: Unalaska city center.

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.



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