We were awake before 7 am loading the final items into the back of my little car. Xtra-tufs. Check. Rubberized rain gear. Check. Binoculars. Check. Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals. Check. And two yellow Labrador retrievers. Check and check! I now had all the essentials for my move to Seward where I would begin a 12-month post-doctoral research position at the Alaska SeaLife Center. As I settled into my car for the long 9-hour drive ahead, I took a last look at the small dry cabin I had called home for 5 years. Our thermometer read -30°F, but I would soon receive news of mercury observations reaching as low as -55°F later that month. It was time to move south to the much warmer and wetter Kenai Peninsula!
For the past 5 years, I have lived and worked in the boreal forests of Interior Alaska. I came to love the spindly black spruce, spongy sphagnum mosses, and colorful winter nights filled with northern lights. My research focused on another common boreal species–the moose (Alces alces). Moose are one of the largest terrestrial herbivores in Alaska (second in size to the reintroduced wood bison). An average moose must consume large quantities (~ 20 lbs/day) of willow, birch, and aspen twigs to maintain enough energy to survive the cold winter months. My research examined how fires can affect regenerating moose food and moose movement patterns. In October 2012, we darted 26 adult male moose from helicopter and fit GPS radio collars around their necks. The collars used satellites to transmit GPS locations every hour for over two years.
Satellite-tracking can be used on a wide variety of species from dragonflies to humpback whales. Luckily for me, studying GPS collared moose provided the skills needed to examine other species that are tagged with satellite-tracking technology…including Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus)! At the SeaLife Center I will be researching a special type of satellite tag called Life History Tags. These tags were implanted in young Stellar Sea lions to better understand when, where and why they die. Life history tags can monitor animals for several years, recording valuable information like how deep a sea lion dives and their body temperature. After an animal dies, it’s tag floats to the ocean surface and transmits all the stored data to a ground station. I will be analyzing the data from these tags to better understand where Steller sea lions are dying.
I am excited to apply my knowledge about terrestrial mammal tracking to marine mammals and I anticipate learning a great deal about the behavior and physiology of Steller sea lions. Personally, I look forward to living in a new biome where I can enjoy the many splendors of the mountains and the sea.
Written by: Casey Brown