Picture of Heidi Pearson

Heidi Pearson

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



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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Friday, March 11, 2016

Research Overview: Sea Otter Feeding Behavior

In a complementary study to our work on kelp forests, the BREACH lab is also studying sea otter feeding behavior in Sitka Sound. Below is a summary the work we did last summer (2015), written by BREACH graduate student Coralie (Coco) Delorme. Thanks, Coco!


Hello everyone, my name is Coralie Delorme and I am a Msc student in Animal Behavior and Ecology at the University Jean-Monnet in France. Because of my passion for marine biology I came to Alaska as an exchange student and had the chance to study Sea Otters for my Master's project thanks to Heidi.

During the summer 2014 we went to Sitka and observed sea otter behavior from Allen Marine boats. Because of their history, the reintroduction of sea otters in Alaska led to an important conflict between them and Alaska fisheries, which depends economically on the same prey species that sea otters are targeting. Our main goal was thus to identify what otters were preying on in Sitka Sound. We were also interested in knowing if the macro nutrient composition of prey items had an influence on the prey choice, and if mothers with pups are more likely to eat bigger sized prey items with a higher content in macro nutrient.

Sea otter activity was determined by scanning the ocean's surface through a camera Nikon D7000 with a 500mm lens and through laser range-finder binocular which allowed us to obtain the distance of sea otters to the boat. Before an otter was disturbed by the presence of the boat, we recorded for each sighting of otters, their behavior classified as foraging, grooming, traveling or interacting, as well as the time of arrival and departure, the presence of a pup and other environmental factors such as visibility, cloud coverage and wind intensity determined by using the Beaufort chart. Then, when we approached a raft or single otters we determined their location using a global positioning system (GPS Garmin) and also indicated any change in behavior due to the presence of the boat and finally pictures were taken in order to verify the number of otters counted, the presence of pups and to identify the prey eaten when they were foraging.

Here are some photos I took from the boat. Enjoy! 


Sea otter mom and pup
Sea otter mom and pup
Sea otter hauled out
Sea otter hauled out



Friday, March 11, 2016

Research Overview: The Importance of Kelp Forests

Read the background behind our current study of kelp forests in Southeast Alaska. This post is courtesy of Anneliese Moll, a Research Assistant in the BREACH lab who is supported by the Alaska BLaST program. Thanks, Anneliese!


Kelp forests are important habitats for many species of marine organisms and are one of the most productive ecosystems in the world. They have a dramatic impact on the strength of currents within an area because of the drag they create with their large blades. That drag slows the water within the bed which makes it a perfect shelter and feeding ground for many species ranging from worms and fish to sea otters and other larger marine mammals.

While kelp beds are important for many species of marine organisms, humans have also found many applications for commercial use. Many places around the world have large scale kelp harvesting programs. Depending on the species of kelp and the type of harvest all or only the upper section of the canopy may be harvested. Kelp has many commercial applications: algin, food, pharmaceuticals, fireproofing fabrics, fertilizer, and more recently it is being considered as an alternative energy source. Beyond human and animal use kelp forests play another vital role that has implications around the world. Kelp forests play a vital role in carbon sequestering, the long term storage of carbon, which ultimately ties to global climate change.   

Here at the BREACH Lab we have been working on collecting information about kelp density throughout Sitka Sound in Southeast Alaska. By using NASA satellite images and altering the colors we are able to make the green/brown color of the kelp stand out. Our time series begins in the in the mid 1980’s and continues until almost the end of 2011. Using a program called ENVI and advice from a Ph.D. candidate from the University of California, Santa Barbara (Tom Bell),I am working during this school year to go through all of the images and circling areas with sufficient kelp growth. When this is completed we should be able to quantify the kelp growth, or lack thereof, for the last 20 years.

During the summer of 2015, Dr. Pearson and Dr. Stekoll traveled to Sitka to do some kelp bed mapping of their own using a boat and a drone to ground-truth the information that we are obtaining from the satellite images.

The long-term goal of the project is to track changes in kelp growth in Sitka Sound with respect to sea otter recolonization. Our hypothesis is that kelp will be most abundant in regions where sea otters have been present for the longest period of time. Another goal of the project is to look at the influence of climate change on kelp forests. Eventually, the objective will be to include other regions of southeast Alaska in this study. Through this study we hope to also be able to relate the role of kelp forests within southeast Alaska to carbon sequestration.

The image below shows a satellite image that has been processed to show the kelp, which stands out in bright yellow.


Sitka Sound Kelp
Sitka Sound Kelp