The Value of Science

keep-calm-and-love-science-287Science (noun): the state of knowing; knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding.

Over the past week or so, I have started (and restarted) this blog post numerous times as the news cycle has ebbed and flowed. Potential changes to regulations, laws, and personnel at key Federal agencies associated with the new US Administration have created great uncertainty regarding the future of environmental efforts.  No matter what your political leanings, I think everyone can agree that we are living in particularly tumultuous times.

One significant issue that has struck me deeply in the past several months, however, is the great scrutiny/debate over the value and role of science and scientific findings. These efforts (if valued and used correctly) can help to foster legislative and/or societal change for the better; if not, decisions can be made without factual support and are thereby more prone to being swayed by public opinion or conjecture. Stephanie blogged last week on how citizens can help in this effort but, more broadly, it seems as if scientists are embattled on a number of fronts – particularly on environmental issues.

IMG_4207For wildlife conservation (and specifically oiled wildlife response and welfare), much of what we do and know is based on best available information and not hard data, as it can be exceedingly difficult to design studies that can collect and interpret information necessary to answer our key questions. During oil spill responses, the emergent nature of the work necessitates rapid decisions as well as huge allocations of resources. The animals we receive also often have life-threatening health issues that require immediate intervention. Taking the time needed to thoroughly consider appropriate projects, as well as finding the resources (people, time, funding) to conduct the work, is challenging at best.

One of the aspects I am most proud of within our California program (in addition to our wonderful partners!) is the explicit mandate to provide “best achievable” capture and care to those animals in our charge. This legislatively-stated goal further requires us to support a research and technology development program that demands we explore better ways of responding to animals in crisis, as well as having a greater understanding of how oil can affect wildlife species. Since 1996, the OWCN has been proud to fund more than 130 scientific projects with external collaborators, as well as conduct numerous studies led by OWCN Management Team staff. The information gleaned from this work has helped us to better develop treatment protocols, design modular and permanent equipment/facilities, and help to support understanding of long-term ecosystem-level effects that spills can cause.

sea turtle 3While we collectively have a long way to go to understand the complexity of petroleum impacts on environmental systems, recent findings from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 have significantly helped to increase this knowledge pool. As part of the Damage Assessment phase of the spill, an extremely in-depth look at the multitude of direct and indirect effects on all parts of the food chain has been published and is available at NOAA’s Gulf Spill Restoration site, with more detailed information found on the DoI’s Administrative Record site. Additionally, publications are now starting to make their way into the scientific literature detailing the impacts specifically to higher vertebrates, specifically birds, marine mammals, and sea turtles. Specifically, a special edition of Endangered Species Research was released just this week containing 20 publications detailing the impacts to mammals and turtles, with a special issue of a prominent toxicology journal to soon detail work on birds.

Thus, while the value of science and scientific inquiry may be debated on a broader level, the efforts of the OWCN and others directed at a more complete understanding of mitigating the impacts of oil should accidents occur cannot be minimized. We, as a program of UC Davis, are committed to continue to do the best investigative work possible to minimize animal suffering as well as more fully understand both the direct as well as indirect effects that spills can create. Due to the forethought of California legislators and voters, the support of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the indefatigable efforts of our partners within the OWCN Member Organizations, we collectively can continue to drive this profession forward for the betterment of our wildlife.


Counting Penguins for Science

I discovered a love for citizen science projects a few years ago, when a friend got me hooked on Snapshot Serengeti. After creating an account on their website, I had the chance to click through trail cam photos from a national park and conservation area in Tanzania. My goal was to find, identify, and count the animals captured in those photos to help with a population survey and create the dataset that would support many studies–from how and where animals move and cluster in the park, to how that changes over time.


Snapshot Serengeti features many amazing captures, like this one, on their blog.

As bored grad students know, many trail cam captures are duds, when the camera is triggered by swaying grass or other non-animal movement. But every few photos I’d catch a glimpse of Tanzanian wildlife in their natural environment: elephants, antelope, lions, and so many more. Oh, and wildebeests. So many, many wildebeests.   I don’t remember much of that weekend, it is lost in a fog of wildebeests and concentration, but I do know I was on a mission to find and identify my very own aardwolf capture.

Since that weekend, I’ve come to love and support many crowd-sourced science projects (many of which I discovered through Zooniverse, a platform for participants and researchers interested in crowd-sourced data collection projects. Scientific American also keeps a running list of projects). You can spy on penguins, characterize bat calls, and map the hills of Mars. You can measure hurricanes, track snow cover, and transcribe nautical logs to advance our understanding of our weather and climate. You can participate in amazing and important things.


Penguin Watch is a currently running project similar to Snapshot Serengeti.

In this age when science is so often viewed as opaque, dated, scary, or irrelevant, citizen science gives me great hope. We need skilled science communicators, and there are many people out there doing great work–including organizations and individuals right here in the Oiled Wildlife Care Network. But citizen science goes one step further. In addition to providing another way to learn about how science is conducted, it actually asks people to participate and invest in real, current research projects. Making science so accessible and allowing volunteers to have such an important role in data collection lets people from all walks of life experience what scientists already know: how great science is, and how exciting it can be to contribute to humanity’s collective knowledge.

So check it out! And then get everyone you know to check it out too.

You won’t be sorry you did.


Refugio Pelican Update

We wanted to give everyone an update on the post-release pelican study from the Refugio spill, now almost one year ago. You may recall that 12 oiled pelicans and 8 control pelicans were outfitted with satellite tags so we could compare their movements and survival. In addition, all oiled pelicans that were released (not just the satellite tagged pelicans) got a green color band.  Please report all pelicans with green bands to us here if you see them. While you are out looking for pelicans, if you do happen to see any with blue bands, please report those birds to International Bird Rescue.  Even though we have a few control birds from this study that are sporting blue bands, most of the pelicans out there that have blue bands were rehabilitated by International Bird Rescue, and getting reports on where these birds are is extremely valuable.

Currently we have about 6 or 7 birds still transmitting. Two birds, one control and one oiled bird, have made some trips to Anacapa Island as if they were thinking about breeding, but they haven’t been there lately, so it’s unlikely that they are breeding.

A couple of control birds are hanging out in San Diego, and one of the rehabilitated birds is at a large lake in Baja California. Two other rehabilitated birds are in Baja; one is traveling north in the Gulf of California, and the other is in the central part of the Gulf of California. This last bird is a challenge . . . his satellite tag has stopped transmitting for extended periods of time, and then suddenly starts transmitting again right about the time we’ve decided the bird (or the tag) is dead. I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt for as long as possible!

This May 7th, Audubon California sponsored a Brown Pelican Birding Blitz, where members of the public were encouraged to go find and report pelicans (AND maybe see some color-banded birds!). We are waiting to hear if anyone saw our green-banded birds! More information about the Blitz can be found here.

Here’s a map of the pelicans from the past month. If you look carefully around Los Angeles, you can see a bit of yellow peeking through — those dots all got covered by the bird in red. And near San Diego, you can see some blue dots . . . . that’s our bird with the satellite tag that seems lazy.


Current locations of Brown Pelicans that are part of the post-release study from the 2015 Refugio Oil Spill.

– Christine

Snow, Marbled Murrelets, Glaciers, and Seabird Talks

Mike and I recently returned from Juneau, Alaska, where we participated in the Pacific Seabird Group annual meeting.  Between Thursday and Saturday of last week we were able to listen to a number of interesting talks about seabirds in the Pacific, learning everything from what seabirds eat to the most technologically-advanced gadgets for tracking seabirds (perfect for a gadget geek like me!).  In addition, Mike and I were co-conveners of a Special Paper Session entitled, “Oiled Seabird Rescue and Rehabilitation: Is it Worth It?”  This session was well-attended and featured ten excellent presentations.  The following is a list of the titles of the talks and the presenters:

  • Oiled seabird rescue and rehabilitation:  is it worth it? (Kyra Mills-Parker, OWCN – UC Davis)
  • Variables that can affect survival of oil-affected seabirds before, during, and after the rehabilitation process (Michael Ziccardi (OWCN – UC Davis)
  • Magnetic cleansing of oiled seabirds:  where are we and where to next? (Peter Dann, Phillip Island Nature Parks, Australia)
  • Impacts of major oil spills in California, 1994-2013 (Hannah Nevins, UC Davis, DFW-Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center)
  • Longevity and dispersion of rehabilitated seabirds and waterfowl, 1980-2010: preliminary data from oiled bird band returns (Becky Duerr, International Bird Rescue)
  • Penguins clearly benefit from rehabilitation following exposure to oil (Valeria Ruoppolo, Univ. of Sao Paolo and IFAW)
  • Oiled wildlife response in New Zealand: the C/V Rena incident (Kerri Morgan, Massey Univ., presented by Michael Ziccardi)
  • Causes of seabird mortality in the immediate aftermath of the Rena oil spills, Bay of Plenty, New Zealand (Shane Baylis, Monash Univ.)
  • Impacts of the 2001 Jessica oil spill on endemic and native Galapagos birds, reptiles, and mammals (Howard Snell, Univ. of New Mexico)
  • Seabirds, oil spill response and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: DWH and changing management priorities (Roger Helm, USFWS)

Each of the talks offered interesting and thought-provoking information on different topics related to oil spill events, the effects of oiling on seabirds, and summaries of impacts and rehabilitation efforts. Full abstracts of each of these talks can be found at the PSG website by clicking here. The meeting provided a great opportunity to re-connect with old colleagues, meet new ones, and share ideas.  Despite the 50+ degree difference in temperature between Juneau and California, Mike and I were warmed, humbled, and inspired by this conference.

And yes, we did  see snow, glaciers, AND Marbled Murrelets (the last two only at a distance!).



Mike Ziccardi and Becky Duerr with Mendenhall Glacier in the background.

Planes, Trains, Automobiles…and Birds

Last month I traveled to Swansea, Wales, Great Britain (by plane) with two freeze-dried Western Grebes.  After a 4-hour train ride to Swansea, a short cab ride (automobile), and horrible jet lag, I was finally there (except for the fact that I had to drag my suitcase and the box of birds up three flights of narrow, crooked stairs, as they had no elevator in the “guest house”).  Telling people that I “traveled to Wales with two freeze dried Western Grebes” is a great conversation starter, as not too many people get to travel across the Atlantic with two wild birds, let alone birds that have been frozen and then dried (why in the world would you ever do that??).  When I tell people this, and once they finish their evaluation of whether I have finally fallen off my rocker, I can further explain why in fact I subjected myself to ten hours in a cramped airplane seat next to a very large (and smelly) Rugby player, inevitable jet lag, and bad British food for this.


Freeze dried Western Grebe on the box that brought it to Wales.

The reason for this trip was to work with our collaborators, Sylvie Vandenabeele and Rory Wilson at Swansea University.  Our collaboration involves a study to track grebes after oil spills with the use of externally attached satellite transmitters.  I will get back to this in a minute, but wanted to diverge, so as to fill you in on some of the background information to complete the picture.

Western Grebes are a species of concern on the west coast of North America, as populations have declined pretty dramatically over the past several decades, particularly in Washington state.  This decline is disturbing in and of itself, but especially because there is no smoking gun (or more likely, guns) for this decline.  On top of this piece of bad news, Western Grebes are often impacted by both large and small (including natural seep) spills.  One of the missing pieces of this puzzle is a reliable method for being able to follow grebes that have been rehabilitated after oil spills, to see where they go, how long they survive, and if they return to “normal” behavior, such as breeding.  The tricky part has been that grebes have shown little tolerance to external tracking devices.  Because of this, there have been several studies with implantable satellite transmitters on grebes, including one in 2010 that was a collaborative effort between several folks from UC Davis, USGS, and field help from the Washington Dept. of Fish and Game. The results from this study are currently in the process of being reviewed for publication. The bottom line is that to use implantable satellite transmitters requires subjecting grebes to surgery, and this method, although very promising, especially with recent surgery modifications, is not 100% successful.  Therefore, without completely disregarding this option of using implantable transmitters, we are also exploring other options, including returning, once again, to external devices on the birds. The tricky part to this is that, as mentioned before, grebes are especially sensitive to stuff on their backs, and also, placing anything externally on a bird is going to somewhat alter how the air and the water flow over them when they are flying and diving.  This is, in a nutshell, why I traveled across the Atlantic with these two birds.


Several satellite transmitters, including two from Sirtrack (black ones), a 9.5 solar one from North Star, and the implantable one that was used in the 2010 study (yellow).

As we all know, technology advances at a very fast rate, and when it comes to satellite tags (and other tracking devices), they are no exception.  These cool devices (if you are a gadget geek like me) have become smaller, lighter, and generally better, including some with cute little solar panels instead of batteries (see picture).  So we felt that the time was ripe to re-visit the external attachment option.  Western Grebes are not only strikingly beautiful birds, but they are also equally fascinating, as they breed in inland lakes but spend the post-breeding winter months along the Pacific coast in marine waters.  So these birds, in order to do well with anything attached to their backs that tracks them, must be able to fly well (for their long migrations) and swim and dive well (as that is how they get their food).


Sylvie demonstrating how to attach a satellite transmitter to the back of a Western Grebe.

OK, now that you have a general idea of some background information, let’s get back to Swansea.  The original idea with the birds was to test them in the wind tunnel at Swansea, which Sylvie and Rory have ample experience with, in order to figure out a few things, including the best location to attach a satellite transmitter on a grebe so that the amount of drag in the air (while flying) and in the water (while diving) is minimal.  The other aspect of this study is to run these wind tunnel tests with several different types of satellite transmitters (that have different shapes, length and flexibility of the antenna).  Once these steps have been completed, we will be testing a very lightweight and flexible harness system to attach the satellite transmitter to.  The types of harnesses we will be using have been designed and developed by Sylvie (who presented some of her OWCN-funded research at the Effects of Oil on Wildlife Conference in New Orleans in 2012).  Our hope is to test out the harness system (first by itself, and then with a device) on live grebes at rehabilitation centers in California.  We will be observing the birds closely during this step, to look for signs of discomfort, chaffing, or injury caused by the harness, as well as making sure that the birds’ waterproofing is not affected.

Our hope is that by the completion of this study we will be armed with better knowledge on the best type of satellite transmitter to use that will minimally impact normal behaviors of the grebes, how best to attach it, and the ideal location to place it along the grebe body, so that we are ready to track this species after an oil spill.


Ten ducks walk into a bar . . . .

Just kidding. But OWCN staffers did have some fun with ducks lately, helping out veterinarian and Master’s student Dr. Shelley Smith with an interesting research project that has a lot of relevance for oil spill response. Using 10 “volunteer” domestic ducks, kindly lent to us by a real volunteer, we tested out temperature-sensitive microchips. These are like the microchips that you can have placed in your dog or cat for identification, but in addition to containing an ID number, they read temperature. Our hope is that they will be accurate enough so that during a spill, we can simply wave a chip reader over an oiled bird and read its temperature, instead of having to pick up the bird, place a thermometer up its butt, and wait for the thermometer to read. Think of how much easier that would be, both on the bird AND on the people!

A duck getting a microchip implanted.

A duck getting a microchip implanted.

Shelley is testing two sites for the chip, one by the hip and one in the pectoral muscle. She’s comparing temperatures of both chips to cloacal temperature and proventricular (stomach) temperature. The initial part of the study went great, with lots of help from veterinary students and OWCN staff, as well as logistic help from International Bird Rescue. We even developed a “new” handling technique for ducks, called the “Cross Your Heart” duck restraint method, demonstrated beautifully by Becky in the photo below.

Becky single-handedly restraining a duck while taking its cloacal and stomach temperature.

Becky single-handedly restraining a duck while taking its cloacal and stomach temperature.

Another benefit of this study was the experience it gave in avian handling to several veterinary students. We asked the Wildlife club at the vet school if anyone was interested in volunteering their help, and we got an overwhelming response!  Fourteen veterinary students lent a hand and learned a little bit about birds and research in the process.

Shelley reading a microchip while veterinary student Maris restrains a duck.

Shelley reading a microchip while third-year veterinary student Maris restrains a duck.

Shelley is working on analyzing the data, but we hope to hear about the results soon. She’ll be presenting at Oilapalooza, so look forward to hearing from her there. If the data look good, our next step is trying the chips on seabirds!


Jam-Packed Week in the World of Wildlife!

Hello all-

Wow!  What a busy week for wildlife issues and events – some good and some not so much. To keep this blog post at Kaiti-approved length (for those of you who are old like me and remember our former Volunteer Coordinator-turned-ecolawyer), here are the highlights:


Deepwater Horizon Spill (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Apr 20th = 3rd year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon Spill. It’s hard to believe that it has been three years since that event rocked the oil spill world. Efforts are still underway to understand the impacts to the Gulf of Mexico from this blowout, with some info just now being released on marine mammal issues (see below). On the readiness side, the OWCN is finalizing a first draft of new and expanded national Oiled Marine Mammal Guidelines for NOAA-NMFS that will hopefully help address some of the key issues this spill raised.

Apr 21 = Oiled wildlife training for the International Association of Aquatic Animal Medicine (IAAAM) conference, hosted by The Marine Mammal Center. Christine, Nancy and I gave a day-long course to over 40 international marine animal professionals (mostly marine mammal vets, but several others of various ilk). The course was long on Powerpoints (cramming oil spill info on mammal and birds species over a short time period), but did include a great hands-on portion where TMMC allowed us to do “processing and intake” on four juvenile elephant seals. Overall, it was a great enthusiastic group – special thx to Frances Gulland and Tenaya Norris for organizing, as well as the entire TMMC vet/husbandry staff for pitching in during a very busy day!

Platform A Oil Spill (courtesy MSNBC)

Apr 22nd = Earth Day. In 1970, the concept of Earth Day was developed by Gaylord Nelson, US Senator from Wisconsin, after witnessing the effects of the 1969 Platform A blowout in Santa Barbara. He felt that if he could infuse that energy with an emerging public consciousness about air and water pollution, it would force environmental protection onto the national political agenda. Since that time, Earth Day has held a special place in our hearts within the oil spill community, as it led to the formation of the USEPA, the Clean Water Act, and the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA90). For more info on this event and its history, please visit

Apr 22nd – 25th = IAAAM Conference at Cavallo Point Lodge, Sausalito. This international meeting brought together more than 440 wildlife professionals from 25 countries to discuss issues and research findings pertinent to our marine species. The setting was gorgeous, the papers and posters fascinating, and the discussions and networking capabilities were thought-provoking and exciting. Especially relevant was presentations by Drs. Stephanie Venn-Watson and Cynthia Smith of the National Marine Mammal Foundation on health affects being seen in bottlenose dolphins from the coastal Louisiana region. Fascinating work that may assist us in better understanding the unusual mortality event that continues to rage there, and the possible effects that the DWH spill had on this species. More info on the conference can be found at

Oiled little blue penguins (Courtesy Maritime NZ)

Oiled little blue penguins (Courtesy Maritime NZ)

Apr 25th = World Penguin Day. To round out a crazy busy week, we took a day to appreciate and better understand the amazing animals that are penguins. As we are all aware, penguins are key animals for us to describe the horrific effects of oil on animals (as the Treasure and Oliva oil spills) as well as the significantly positive results that can be seen with effective and professional rehabilitation (as SANCCOB/IBRRC/IFAW and Massey University have shown). Further, these birds have led to significant research on the long-term effects of oiling on marine species and given us great data to base arguments on the merits of intervention after oil spills. Lastly (and something I did not know before), they can tell us a lot about our own personality types! If you haven’t yet done so, go take the Pew Charitable Trust Penguin Personality Quiz (as well as learn about the conservation efforts for “your” species). BTW – Adelie penguins rule!

OK, so much for “highlights”! I hope everyone has a great restful and oil-free weekend!

– Mike