The Vancouver Aquarium Wild Killer Whale Adoption Program has supported and funded the research of graduate students since its inception. The Adoption program helps students with equipment costs, travel expenses, student stipends, conference registrations and many other items that make it possible for them to execute their field research and data analysis.
Over the years a wide variety of research projects on killer whales and the species they interact with have been completed under the support of the Adoption program. These projects have ranged from analysis of DNA to determine population structure and mating patterns of killer whales, the evolution of killer whale dialects, to the mystery of the disappearing sea otter.
Our Recent Students
University of British Columbia MSc student Katie Kuker wanted to find out what caused 40,000 sea otters in the western Aleutians to vanish over a six-year time span in the 1990s. Was it predation by killer whales, a theory that was presented as an established fact in ecology textbooks?
Kuker, who completed her work in 2008, was looking for evidence that killer whales were the culprit. By assessing the reaction of sea otters to various killer whale cues in depleted and non-depleted otter populations, Kuker concluded that there was no hard evidence to support the case for killer whale predation. Further examination of other possibilities for the decline like toxins, disease, climate change and sharks is needed.
Katie Kuker in the field
Cara Lachmuth on the water.
UBC student Cara Lachmuth investigated the impact boat exhaust and other airborne pollutants have on southern resident killer whales for her MSc thesis. She assessed the health risk to the whales from the emissions of pleasure boats and commercial boats watching the whales.
Lachmuth used computer modeling to estimate the quantities of airborne pollutants inhaled by the whales and then developed a physiological model to determine the consequences.
From her work, Lachmuth was able to make recommendations for whale watching regulators to consider. She completed her study in December 2008.
Valeria Vergara, completed her PhD thesis on acoustic communication and vocal learning in belugas in January 2011 and is now an Arctic Research Scientist at the Vancouver Aquarium.
Valeria’s doctoral study was the first to examine and describe the vocal development of a beluga calf. She also looked at context-specific use of call types recorded from a group of six belugas at the Vancouver Aquarium, by correlating recorded sounds with behaviour and context. She identified biologically critical calls deemed ‘contact calls’ used in vocal exchanges between mothers and calves, and in matching vocal exchanges between adults, and confirmed the presence of these calls in two wild populations. Valeria has also investigated usage vocal learning in trained tasks in adult belugas at the Vancouver Aquarium. She has used her findings to generate hypotheses about the usage of these signals by wild belugas.
Valeria Vergara recording belugas in Hudson Bay.
UBC student Carla Crossman is completed her MSc research looking at the population structure of harbour porpoises off the coast of British Columbia. She used mitochondrial and nuclear genetics to increase our understanding of the structure and distribution of harbour porpoise populations.
Crossman hopes that her findings will contribute to the development of more specific and more effective management strategies to best protect this species of Special Concern.
In 2007 the Vancouver Aquarium created a new graduate student scholarship program originally sponsored by the Wild Killer Whale Adoption Program, and now sponsored by the Coast Ocean Research Institute. The Michael A. Bigg Award, named after pioneer killer whale researcher Dr. Michael Bigg, is awarded annually to a graduate student for highly significant student research advancing knowledge related to Coastal Oceans.
The scholarship celebrates the life and scientific achievement of Dr. Michael Bigg (1939-1990). For information about nominating a graduate student for the award please visit www.vanaqua.org/coa or contact Bailey Eagan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Past Michael A. Bigg Award winners:
- Cara Lachmuth
- Jeremy Goldbogen
- Marina Piscitelli