I am a Marine Biology major and come from a non-research based community college in Southern California. Under mentorship of my former marine biology professor, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to conduct environmental research at California State University, Long Beach. This prepared me both physically and mentally to participate in this intellectually challenging 10-week National Science Foundation-sponsored Research Experience for Undergraduates with the SDRP for summer 2015.
My research project was focused on the area of fat behind the skull of the dolphin that helps to provide a dolphin with positive buoyancy and metabolic energy and nutritional storage. When in poor health, this sensitive post-nuchal fat pad reduces to form a post-nuchal depression (PND). I compared PND prevalence in a year with poor resources and scarce prey with a year of excellent resources and excellent prey. I hypothesized that PND prevalence would be higher in the year of poor resources and scarce prey and tested the replicability and accuracy of this method applied to live, free-ranging dolphins. To test this hypothesis, I analyzed over 4,000 photographs with a method developed by Mary Gryzbek that involved drawing a line across the dolphin’s dorsal surface to see if a space existed between the line and body. Individuals were coded: 0 (no PND), 1 (PND), BL (borderline PND). In addition, I compared individuals with a PND from field photographs with measurements from their health assessment to determine the accuracy of a PND as an indicator of health condition. The results of this photographic method proved to be statistically significant when applied to the overall population, but inconsistent when applied to individuals who had a health assessment. Therefore, additional testing with a larger data set should be considered; and if successful, could replace the need for direct handling and increase population studies in all parts of the world.
My experience with the SDRP was enriching, educational, and intellectually challenging. I learned how to take photographs of dorsal fins in the field during dolphin population monitoring surveys and ID them into a catalogue database in the lab. I assisted with dolphin prey abundance surveys where I identified, weighed, and measured various species of fish. I was introduced to ArcView GIS software for the first time and frequently entered data from dolphin population monitoring and synoptic surveys. Under the guidance of Dr. Katie McHugh, I constructed a research proposal, poster presentation, and manuscript of my research project, all for the first time. I even learned how to drive a research vessel for the first time thanks to the SDRP staff! My REU experience involved weekly seminars with distinguished researchers who shared their expertise to aspiring researchers like myself. Not to mention, the exciting field trips and marine-related activities such as visiting the U.S. Geological Survey, Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, kayaking through the mangroves, and touring Mote’s Bone Lab and Sea Turtle Hospital! This experience has truly defined life as a researcher for me and I am honored to have acquired new skills and refined existing ones at this world-renowned research program. With a special thank you to the SDRP, my research was selected to be presented at the 2015 SACNAS National Conference in Washington, D.C. targeted towards the advancement of Hispanics and Native Americans in Science. As a minority myself, I plan to inspire and educate those of similar backgrounds by presenting my research entitled: “Post-Nuchal Depression as an Indicator of Health in Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus)” to a diverse scientific community.
I would like to thank Katie McHugh for selecting me to work with the SDRP for summer 2015 and the following staff and graduate students: Randall Wells, Jason Allen, Aaron Barleycorn, Sunnie Brenneman, Shauna McBride, and Rachel Cassoff for an exciting and enriching experience.
This article appeared on page 33 in the December 2015 issue of Nicks n Notches.