We conduct a wide-range of conservation-oriented ecology projects on different animals and ecosystems around the world while valuing community welfare, as well as equity, diversity and inclusion in our work.
PRIORITIES & ACTIVITIES.
Effective conservation needs to consider not only species of concern but also their environment and connections within it. As such, we bring a broad view to our work in marine ecology, considering multiple species, their environment, whether urban or remote, and interactions with the communities around them. Our experience ranges from in depth work on animal physiology to oceanography to bring a variety of perspectives on animal behaviour and their connections with their surroundings. Our studies focus on top predators such as birds and marine mammals which integrate the effects of changes throughout their food web and are therefore considered bio-indicators of ecosystem health. However, these animals are difficult to observe directly in the wild. Consequently, to learn how these animals freely live in their environment, the field of biologging has emerged and has revolutionized the study of the ecology and biology of marine animals in their natural habitat.
Biologging involves the use of miniature tags worn by animals to record and/or transmit data about their movements, behaviors, physiology, and even their environment. We now can learn not only where animals go, how they behave, what they eat at a very fine scale, but also how their react to changes in oceanographic changes. However, the amount of data collected by these animals becomes increasingly large and complex. In addition, complex problems in marine ecology often require complex statistics to address issues such as the lack of data that can be available, complex relationships and behaviours, all within a dynamic and ever changing environment. Our experience applying frequentist and Bayesian statistics, using hierarchical models, state-space models, and inclusion of a variety of data sources positions us to be able to respond to and address these challenges.
Conservation and research needs to consider the communities that may rely on species that are important culturally, for subsistence, and for economic sustainability. Our collaborations with communities and fisheries has allowed us to expand our understanding of complex conservation issues and help to develop approaches to better our understanding of marine systems by including diverse perspectives on conservation issues and concerns. Our work is also centered in a desire to increase the equity, diversity, and inclusion of underrepresented communities in science. We do this through mentorship and through efforts to amplify the voices of those that may struggle to be heard in the world of science and conservation.
Real-time forecasting system for Southern resident killer whales
outhern Resident Killer Whales are an endangered population of whales. Part of the population's summer foraging range overlaps with the shipping lanes of the Salish Sea. This study aims to build a methodological framework for a 3-D stochastic movement model for whale pod locations based on auto-regressive dynamics and MCMC. The methods will form a component of a real-time ensemble prediction system for determining probable whale pathways by integrating opportunistic sightings and underwater acoustic data. See simulations here:
Hallo? Humans and algorithms listening for killer whales
The current use of underwater passive acoustic monitoring in risk management is limited due to the lack of quantitative methods and software tools that can reliably distinguish sounds emitted by killer whales from other underwater sounds. The current industry standard for automated underwater sound analysis produces a high number of false killer whale detections and an unknown percentage of false negatives, particularly in regions of high commercial vessel traffic and ambient noise levels. Machine learning approaches are developing rapidly and provide a very promising framework that could provide important information to better manage marine mammal species at risk, including killer whales. This work aims to develop a reliable classification algorithm to discriminate between ecotypes and species of whales to help open the door to managing and mitigating risks and stressors in a near real-time context.
Coastal sandhill crane: genetics of the coastal population
This project looks at population genetic structure of cranes in the west including those on the central coast whose diet is enriched with marine supplements. The results will help to advise how best to conserve the genetic diversity of this species. See more here:
Double-crested cormorants nesting on urban bridges
More than a third of British Columbia's breeding Double-crested Cormorants nest on the Iron Worker's Memorial Bridge each year, yet this bridge is also a major infrastructure asset to the Provincial Ministry of Transportation. We study the breeding and foraging habits of these vulnerable (blue-listed) seabirds on bridges, sea cliffs and offshore rookeries. See updates on our Instagram @bc_cormorants, or here:
Impacts of climate change on hooded seals in the Arctic
Arctic ecosystems face one of the fastest environmental change on Earth, but the ecological consequences of these changes remain poorly understood . As top marine predators, hooded seals integrate the cascade of events occurring from the bottom to the top of the food chain and are considered early warning indicators of environmental changes. It is thus essential to understand how local variations in oceanographic conditions – especially sea ice coverage, temperature, salinity, light, currents, winds and/or primary productivity – as well as prey availability affect and drive the movement patterns, foraging success and body conditions of seals, as well as the dynamic of their population. This will help us evaluate ecological consequences of hooded seals to environmental changes and predict their evolution in the future given forecasted environmental changes .
Role of marine mammals in nutrient fluxes and carbon storage
Marine mammals can have a biofeedback impact on their ecosystem, particularly through their role in providing the photic zone with nutrients and micronutrients via their feces. There is a need to quantify the role of marine mammals no longer simply as consumers of upper levels of trophic networks, but on primary levels as well by stimulating the growth of phytoplankton, and thus indirectly the storage of carbon within trophic networks. This work uses bioenergetic models to link the absorption of nutrients through the consumption of prey and the excretion of residues, and include different spatial and temporal scales, ecosystems and communities of marine mammals. Ultimately, knowing how changes in the abundance of these predators impacts the dynamics of nutrients in surface waters will help provide scientific arguments to guide public conservation policies.
Prey-predator relationship in the Southern Ocean
Machine Learning methods to categorize marine organisms detected by seal-borne micro-sonars
Long term monitoring of Antarctic and sub-Antarctic fur seals
Myctophids represent a large part of the oceans fish biomass in the Southern Ocean and play a major role in the transfer of energy from zooplankton to higher trophic levels including seabirds and marine mammals. Yet, little is known about their distribution and their habitat characteristics despite their ecological importance. To understand the ecology of these key species in the Southern Ocean, we investigate the very fine scale feeding behaviour of 4 of their main predators (king penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus), macaroni penguins (Eudyptes chrysolophus), Antarctic fur seals (Arctocephalus gazella), and elephant seals (Mirounga leonina) in relation to the characteristics of their habitat as a way to infer prey habitat and distribution in their environment, using state-of-the-art biologging devices such as underwater micro-sonar tags. Ultimately, this will help untangling ecosystem functioning.
To understand the consequences of environmental changes on ecosystem functioning and particularly on intermediate trophic levels (i.e. zooplankton, gelatinous, fish and squid ...), a new, innovative, state-of-the-art biologger was developed that mimics echolocation of cetaceans and allows active echosounding of water masses. These microsonars were deployed on Southern elephant seals (mirounga leonina) and recorded the vertical distribution and density of zooplankton and mesopelagic fish in the water during the seals dives. However, the volume of high-resolution acoustic data recovered is large and rapidly growing, which prohibits manual analysis of datasets in their entirety. We are consequently developing a microsonar image processing methodology based on Machine Learning to regularly extract relevant information from the obtained echograms, such as the overall density, frequency and size of organisms in water bodies (whether or not they are targeted by predators), and whether prey are isolated vs. schooling, or active vs. passive.
In the context of rapid environmental changes that strongly affect marine ecosystems, time series of sufficient length related to ecological biological and behavioural data of key bio-indicator species in ecosystems are essential - yet rare - to assess the impacts of these changes over time on ecosystem functioning. A long term monitoring project of top marine predators (penguins, marine birds, seals), supported by the French Polar Institute (IPEV, projet 109), and the Terres Australes et Antarctiques Francaises (TAAF), has collected data on on land and at sea biology, behaviours, as well as life history and demographic parameters for decades. In particular, following individuals fur seals over several generations provides means to not only determine impacts of changes on individuals and populations, but also how individual quality (phenotype, personality, efficiency, age etc..) affect their fitness.
Marine Protected Areas for seabird critical foraging areas in Peru
This study uses biologging as a tool to record location, temperature and dive depth of individual seabirds that reproduce in Punta San Juan. Trip distances, dive depths and oceanographic characteristics of water masses will help understand what features they target during feeding trips. Preliminary results of this study indicate that foraging areas used by the Humboldt Penguin, Guanay cormorant and Peruvian boobies combined occurs in a distance between 30 and 90 km from shore. Current legal boundaries of the marine protected area for Punta San Juan extends <5 km from shore, not covering the majority of the feeding areas utilized by these species. This study aims to provide information on ecologically important marine boundaries to promote the breeding success of seabirds off the coast of Punta San Juan, Peru. This project is done in collaboration by Punta San Juan Program Associate researchers Rosana Paredes, Lyanne Pierina Ampuero Merino, Susana Cárdenas Alayza, Carlos Zavalaga, Diego Gonzáles del Carpio and Antje Chiu.
Impacts of plastic contamination and marine debris on top marine predators in Punta San Juan
Plastic contamination and marine debris is widespread through marine ecosystems and can impact the survival rates of top marine predators through entanglements, injuries or direct consumption. Through different types of methodologies, we are evaluating the degree of incidence of plastic contaminants in wildlife in Punta San Juan, through observations and sample analyses. As part of this project records of entanglements, interaction with plastic contaminants as well as the quantification, classification and source identification of fecal samples from pinnipeds and seabirds are analyzed for plastic fragments. This project is led by a Junior research associate of Punta San Juan Program Félix Ayala and is overseen by Susana Cárdenas-Alayza.
Sustainable guano harvest with volunteer observers at Punta San Juan
Guano harvests in Peru have been taking place since 1800s.The invasive extraction of guano (seabird poop) which serves as nesting substrate for various seabirds, made this activity into one of the main threats reducing the population of Humboldt penguins along the Peruvian coastline. Since 2001, Punta San Juan Program coordinates spatial and temporal management schemes with the Peruvian government to develop sustainable / low impact guano harvests. Sustainable guano harvest campaigns are meant to mitigate the impacts of guano extractions on populations of top predators that live in the reserve of Punta San Juan. To understand if a harvest is sustainable, collection of data and an action plan to mitigate potential impacts of guano harvesting on wildlife is carried out on a daily basis. This information is then analyzed and allows to offer technical recommendations to government officials on how to minimize the possible impacts of guano extraction campaigns, serving as a model for strategies that can be applied in other guano reserves in islands and capes of Peru in order to continue extracting guano sustainably, and promote growth and reproduction of wildlife populations that inhabit this network of marine protected areas in Peru.
Population trends of sympatric otariids in Punta San Juan, Peru
Foraging strategies and dietary/niche segregation in sympatric seals in changing environmental conditions
Bridging Indigenous Knowledge and western science in animal movement and habitat models
Sympatric species evolve mechanisms to avoid competition and coexist. In the Humboldt Current System (HCS), populations of South American sea lions (SASL) and South American fur seals (SAFS) fluctuate mostly due to El Niño Southern Oscillation and prey availability. Analysis of weekly counts of SASL and SAFS in a sympatric breeding site in Punta San Juan, Peru permits to construct age-class proportion and biomass times series. Results from Cárdenas-Alayza et al 2021 show both populations had a growth phase after recovering from a dramatic reduction after 1997-98 El Niño, and subsequent decline. SAFS started decline ~2.25 years before and at a rate 1.5 times faster than SASL. From this first analyses, decrease in juvenile age-class suggests that resource limitation is the main contributing factor for current population decline. Analyses of weekly counts continue to serve as a long-term monitoring tool to determine if this decline will reduce abundance further, stabilize or recover based on changing environmental conditions.
In the Humboldt Current System, South American sea lions coexist with South American fur seals; however, temporal and spatial partitioning while foraging remains unknown. Resource and niche partitioning can contribute to species coexistence by reducing interspecific competition. Our goal is to better understand their respective foraging strategies, how these vary according to environmental conditions, and whether resource/niche partitioning contributes towards sympatric breeding of otariids in Peru’s dynamic Humboldt Current System. To do so, we analyze locations of adult sympatric South American fur seals and sea lions equipped with satellite tags, and compare their seasonal diet composition – obtained from scats collected on the colonies – and niche partitioning – obtained from δ 13C and δ 15N values in whiskers –. It allows us to determine if there are sustained mechanisms for resource/niche partitioning at population level and if these will vary with short and long term climatic changes that can trigger abrupt reduction of prey items and exacerbate interspecific competition.
Typically, Indigenous Knowledge (IK) and western science are viewed as very different sources of information for understanding animal movement and habitat use. Due to perceived mismatches in spatial and temporal scales and detail between these important data sources, IK is rarely included in the same methods/models that often use animal movement data. This project aims to develop methods to include both IK and animal movement data in a Bayesian framework to better understand animal habitat use, in collaboration with the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management. As a case study for this project, ice-associated seals (i.e., ringed, bearded, and spotted seals) have been tagged in the western Beaufort Sea and IK interviews have been conducted with Indigenous subsistence hunters in three Alaska communities: Utqiaġvik, Kotzebue, and Point Hope. This work will provide a framework that can be applied to other species, allowing for the use of both IK and/or local knowledge and animal movement data resulting in fully informed models of animal habitat use.
We are involved through various activities and/or committees in our respective areas and institutions in promoting women in STEM, inclusion, diversity and equality, as well as outreach activities and community engagement. We cannot list all our activities here, but you can find below some of the recognition our members obtained related to this:
Building bridges with Punta San Juan - Community engagement
Since 2013, Punta San Juan Program has organized activities at community level have been organized in Punta San Juan (guided tours) and in the local town of Marcona, with the goal to connect locals with local nature. The goal of this project is to implement community activities as fun hands-on learning that promote positive long-term values towards the environment and nature conservation in general, using the local biodiversity in Punta San Juan and Marcona as a medium to achieve this. For this project the strategy is to approach the entire community through public events announced in the local media, with the goal that participants can face local environmental issues (eg., plastic contamination, waste reduction, climate change, etc.), learn what they can do to help and also acquire new abilities through a fun group activity. Since 2020 this project has been put on standby since we cannot promote social gatherings due to Covid restrictions, but we expect to relaunch this initiative once conditions permit.
Disney's Conservation Hero
Susana Cárdenas-Alayza has been awarded the title of 2016 Disney's Conservation Hero for her amazing and unwavering conservation, outreach, education and community engagement work. Congratulation Susana! Read the story here.
Portrait of one of Peru's leading conservation and community engagement scientist
Susana Cárdenas-Alayza was portrayed as one of the Peruvians leading scientists for her conservation, education and community engagement work at Punta San Juan for Peru’s Bicentennial anniversary. Check out this interview on Nexos Digital Magazine, and this awesome short documentary produced by the Universidad de Lima.