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Heidi Pearson

Phone: 907-796-6271 (office)
Email: hcpearson@uas.alaska.edu
Home: http://uashome.alaska.edu/~HCPEARSON
Office location: 205 C Anderson
Portfolio: View

The Behavioral REsearch And eCosystem Health lab at the University of Alaska Southeast



This lab is focused on understanding the behavior and ecology of marine mammals, and their role in maintaining healthy ecosystems. A wide network of collaborators, undergraduates, and graduate students are involved in projects related to this theme.  If you are a prospective graduate student, please read these brief overviews of the lab’s current activities.  I accept graduate students through my joint appointment with the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences.  Contact me if you are interested in learning more.  Although I currently do not have funding to support a graduate student, I am always open to discussing creative solutions with bright, motivated students. 


Two current projects are focused on understanding the "Blue Carbon" ecosystem services provided by marine mammals.  Blue carbon is an emerging concept that describes how marine organisms help to combat climate change by removing CO2 from the atmosphere.  We are studying how humpback whales “fertilize” surface waters by producing nutrient-rich fecal plumes.  These nutrients then stimulate the growth of phytoplankton, which absorb CO2 from the atmosphere.  We are also studying how sea otters help kelp forests to grow by feeding on organisms that graze on kelp, such as sea urchins.  By keeping populations of kelp grazers low, sea otters keep kelp forests healthy.  Kelp forests, like forests on land, also absorb CO2 from the atmosphere.  Taken together, these projects will increase our understanding of how marine mammals can help to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels.  


Another on-going project is to examine the evolution of intelligence and large brains in cetaceans and primates.  Cetaceans and primates demonstrate numerous characteristics associated with intelligence, such as problem-solving and large relative brain size.  They also show striking similarities in social behavior and how their societies are organized, which are thought to be related to their large brains.  These commonalities are remarkable because cetaceans and primates are separated not only by the land-sea interface but also 95 million years of evolution.  


Last but certainly not least, as humans are also integral components of healthy ecosystems, we study environmental behaviors in people, such as recycling and whale watching.  We are interested in understanding what motivates people to perform pro-environmental behaviors, such as recycling.  We are also working to understand the costs and benefits of whale watching.  A potential cost of whale watching is altered whale behavior and movement patterns.  On the other hand, a potential benefit of whale watching is educating the public about whales and their conservation challenges. 

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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Summer 2015 Research Update

It has been a busy summer so far in the BREACH lab. Our main projects this summer are focused on humpback whales, sea otters, and kelp. Read on to learn about the humpback whale project in a note from Master’s student, Jacopo Di Clemente. Then, stay tuned for future updates to learn more about this and the other projects!  Heidi


Hi folks. My name is Jacopo Di Clemente and I'm a MSc student in Marine Science at the University of Southern Denmark. I am an Italian sea passionate guy, maybe because I was born in an island in the middle of Rome (yes, we have one as well...). I grew up studying all the sea creatures until I fell in love with...whales :). For my Master’s project, I am glad to have Heidi as an external mentor and team leader.

The project, the objectives

We want to understand if whale watching activities impact the biology of humpback whales (Megaptera novaengliae). We aim to understand whether vessel activities can affect crucial aspects of the life of these giants, such as parental care and feeding. Objectives are often ambitious, but we want to help whales and humans coexist together. We want to make a difference.

Past studies have shown that whale watching activities affect several aspects of humpback whale ecology. Juneau is one of the most popular whale watching destinations in the world and we want to help ensure that the industry is sustainable, for both the whales and the economic benefit of the people involved. Through our study, we aim to provide baseline information on if/how whale watching vessels impact humpback whales in Juneau. Using a theodolite, or surveyor’s instrument, we observe whale movement and behavior from a cliff.  We are fortunate to have a great observation spot, just behind the NOAA lab in Juneau. Not only do we have a high vantage point over the water, we sometimes receive visits from local residents such as bald eagles, woodpeckers, and even black bears.

We will be collecting data until the end of August so talk to you again soon! Jacopo


Theodolite station and field team
Theodolite station and field team
Eagle visitor
Eagle visitor

Saturday, July 19, 2014

New Weblog Item

It's my last day here in Kaikoura. I'm packing up all of the gear and getting our field house, Atawhai, back in order. Adrian, Kristin, and Heidi B. left on Friday. Kristin and Heidi are already back in the States, and Adrian is staying in New Zealand for another couple of weeks to travel around with a friend. It is cool and the snow is low on the Kaikouras.



In the end, the weather didn't cooperate to try another tag deployment. I also was not able to resolve the problem with the Dolphin Cam. I had many conversations with Peter and Gabriel in Sydney via Skype and email to troubleshoot the problem. It seems the problem is something with the internal wiring to the camera board and nothing to do with the batteries after all. I fly to Sydney tomorrow and will spend a couple of days with them at the University of Sydney. I look forward to working with them in person. Through this process, I certainly learned a lot about batteries and electrical wiring, so it was a good experience overall.

At the end of each field season, I always like to reflect on what we learned. Here are the highlights:

1) We learned how to efficiently and systematically conduct behavioral observations and photo-id of the large, mixed dusky pods. My previous work has been based on smaller pods averaging 7 individuals, so learning to collect data with pods containing 200+ individuals was a real success!

2) Based on our successful deployment of the dummy Dolphin Cam, it will be possible to obtain footage from the "eye of the dolphin".

3) Working in Kaikoura during the winter ideally requires a longer field season to ensure enough days on the water amidst the winter storms.

I hope to return next austral summer with a new and improved Dolphin Cam and tag. During the summer, the weather is generally better, the days are longer, and the duskies are closer. Stay tuned for the next episode from the Dusky Dolphin Research Team! 

Below are some photos of the research team and our beloved boat, Rangi. Also, here is a link to a podcast created by Heidi B. that walks you through a day in the field with the duskies. Thanks for sharing, Heidi! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=360YSB8CRbE


Photo Album

Uploaded: Sat Jul 19 13:55:18 2014
by Heidi Pearson

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Testing out the Dolphin Cam......and waiting out the weather....again

Winter has arrived and appears to be here to stay. We've had more days inside during these last 2 weeks than on the water. We did get out on the water on Monday, though, and it was a great day. The weather cooperated, and the duskies were well within our study area and not too far south, which was a real treat! The goal for the day was to deploy the Dolphin Cam. Last week, we deployed the "dummy" Dolphin Cam to see how it would hold up on the tag while attached to a dolphin. The "dummy" cam did well, so we were eager to deploy the real thing. 

We ran into one glitch, however. The cam kept shutting down just a few minutes after I turned it on. I had just enough time to turn the cam on, put the balloon over it to provide a waterproof casing, and then attach it to the tagging pole before I felt it vibrate and turn off. I repeated this process several times, and all with no success. Since our time was limited and I wanted to take advantage of the good weather conditions and the cooperative dolphins, I decided to go ahead and deploy it anyway.

We had 2 "sticks", where the tag stuck and the dolphin swam away with it. On the second stick, the dolphin surfaced with the tag still on and it remained stuck for another couple of minutes. This was a small victory, as the tag often dislodges from the dolphin during its initial dive down with the tag.

I downloaded the video that evening, hoping that somehow we got some video footage. Unfortunately, we didn't. I've spent the last 2 days trouble-shooting the problem and talking with my colleagues Gabriel Machovsky-Capuska and Peter Jones at the University of Sydney who built the cam. We're pretty certain the problem is a faulty battery. It's a special type of rechargeable battery that can't be found in Kaikoura. Luckily, we found one on-line yesterday and it should arrive tomorrow. Now, we just need the weather to cooperate for one last day on the water!


Photo Album

Uploaded: Wed Jul 16 02:27:52 2014
by Heidi Pearson