The Cambrian

How to become a ‘citizen scientist’ to help with elephant seal research at Piedras Blancas

Cal Poly biology professor Heather Liwanag started a project last year to tag and mark elephant seals at Piedras Blancas. Photo taken under NMFS permit #19108.
Cal Poly biology professor Heather Liwanag started a project last year to tag and mark elephant seals at Piedras Blancas. Photo taken under NMFS permit #19108.

Elephant seal docents will report data to learn more about the Piedras Blancas rookery. Which seals are there? When do they come and go?

Cal Poly biology professor Heather Liwanag started a project last year to tag and mark the seals so observers can identify individuals and connect them with their life histories. When they show up, docents can report them to Liwanag’s database. If you see a marked seal, find a docent to make a report.

Publishing basic information about the seals at the rookery establishes Piedras Blancas in the scientific community. Most research has been done on the Ano Nuevo rookery by scientists at UC Santa Cruz.

“Gathering these data will make it possible to determine whether there are differences in the behavior and success of seals at these rookeries,” she told a meeting of Friends of the Elephant Seal docents.

She’s asking docents to help as “citizen scientists” because they are out on the bluff watching the seals every day.

“We’re all just helping each other,” she said. “It gives us more manpower. Citizen science can help with local preservation of native species and lead to serious conservation outcomes.”

Liwanag leads a team of four scientists, all women, assisted by 18 undergraduates. Involving undergraduates may lead to research projects initiated by the students.

Piedras Blancas is the largest mainland rookery. It’s accessible to the public and researchers, and central to the seals’ overall range. Seals come there from Ano Nuevo and the Channel Islands.

Reporting when the animals come and go provides information that can be correlated with water temperatures and other variables, such as where the fish are.

“We want to understand how the seals use the beach, and how the timing makes a difference,” she said.

How many beachmasters establish harems on the beach during breeding season, and how many females do they dominate? How big the harem is can vary a lot, from a few to many females.

Beach size and shape make a difference. Observations may be able to bring more precision to how many females usually comprise a harem, and why.

The team will mark, tag and weigh weanlings this coming breeding season. Weighing weaners and recording when they weaned will help scientists understand how well they are doing.

Following their progress will help scientists understand how they are succeeding.

Liwanag and her team mark the seals with hair dye, blonde for dark weanlings and dark brown for older, silver seals. The dye forms numbers on a wooden template at the end of a broom-handle-length stick. The stick allows the researcher to stay well back from the seal, as the dye is pressed onto the fur. The mark lasts a year, until the seal molts.

They mark the pups with dye when they are a few weeks old, and flipper tag them after they wean from their mothers. They usually wait until the pup is asleep to insert a flipper tag. The pups wake up, but the tag is already in place.

Reporting which seals are on the beach can provide insight into how relationships among the seals change as more seals arrive for breeding season.

She’s working with a Cal Poly computer science professor to create a searchable database that will include research observations and Citizen Science reports.

Ultimately, the information can help State Parks plan for the seals’ protection.

“It’s their responsibility to insure the safety of seals and people,” she said.

Christine Heinrichs’ column on elephant seals is special to The Cambrian.
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