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Current Research


Detecting marine mammals with eDNA

Traditionally, we monitor marine mammals by looking for them or listening for them. Both of these methods are expensive, and have limitations - we can't see animals while they are underwater, or hear them if they aren't vocalizing. These challenges limit our ability to accurately estimate species abundance and distribution, or monitor trends in population health and survival. 

What if we could use trace DNA left in the environment (eDNA) to fill some of those gaps in our understanding and improve our population models for these rare and elusive species? Our lab is working with NOAA's Conservation Genetics Lab and the UW eDNA collaborative to develop methods to track cetaceans - and their prey - by collecting water samples.


Killer whale diets

Killer whales compete with many other top marine predators to survive, including humans. In the Pacific Northwest, southern resident killer whales are suffering long-term population declines that may be tied to the availability of their favorite food, salmon. Scientists have been studying the relationship between killer whales and salmon for decades, to home in on the most important management priorities for both endangered species.

Our lab uses fecal metabarcoding and nuclear sequencing to understand seasonal and annual variability in what species these animals prefer, and also what stocks and rivers they target while summering in the Puget Sound.

Photo by Arial M Brewer

Understanding kinship and microbial transfer in beluga whales

Social structure and kinship can be important vectors for disease transmission in some species. Despite a growing body of research characterizing these disease pathways in terrestrial populations, there is currently no research examining the relationships between social relationships, kinship, and microbial transfer in social marine species. 

Our lab is collaborating with scientists at NOAA's Alaska Fisheries Science Center to study this relationship in the endangered Cook Inlet population of beluga whales - one of the first studies to address the relationship between social structure and microbial transfer in marine social species, and and important step toward understanding the stressors contributing toward the continued decline of this population.

Photo credit NOAA Fisheries

Cryptic population structure in an elusive beaked whale

Beaked whales are notoriously rare, elusive, and evasive, making them one of the most difficult groups of animals to sample and study. For extremely rare beaked whale species, such as the Gervais beaked whale, historical sample collection has been so low that scientists cannot make meaningful inference about their population structure and genetic diversity. 

Our lab is collaborating with scientists at NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center to use emerging methods in eDNA research to describe the population structure of this rare species in the Bahamas, where they are thought to exhibit long-term site fidelity. We aim to collect genetic data from the footprints of these whales that will allow us to describe the haplotype structure and define discrete populations within the Bahamas region.

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