Kelsey Powers

2010 JISAO Research Internship

Collecting and studying orca whale scat

Kelsey PowersThis summer I was fortunate enough to be chosen as a Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean (JISAO) undergraduate intern. From June through September I worked with three other researchers and a scent detection canine to locate and collect orca whale scat off the coast of San Juan Island, WA. Specifically, we worked with the orca population that spends most of its time off the West side of San Juan Island, the Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKWs).

When I found out that the topic of my summer research would be orca scat, I was slightly worried. I was used to working with inanimate objects such as water samples, now, I was expected to work on a small boat and would be responsible for processing poop samples! It ended up being a perfect match because I was able to utilize my research from chemistry in a biological setting.

I was paired with Jessica Lundin, a graduate student with the University of Washington's (UW) Center for Conservation Biology program. The goal of this project is to determine the stress and nutritional levels, and toxicant exposure, of the SRKWs. By evaluating the toxicant and hormone concentrations in the scat, we can better understand what factors are affecting these endangered animals. Proposed threats to the SRKWs are a decrease in quantity and quantity of prey, boat noise and presence, and increased toxicant exposure. Specific hormones released in the blood stream can be detected in the scat the following day. Toxicants stored in the fat of the orca are mobilized when there is a decrease in prey so an increase in these compounds is expected to be found in the scat. Other hormones will increase with an increase in environmental stresses such as boat traffic and noise. By analyzing the specific concentrations of hormones and toxicants in the scat samples we can gain insight on the overall health of the whale's population.

Tucker, the scat-sniffing dogThe "orca scat team" consisted of Deborah Giles (UCD), myself, Kelsey Powers (UW), Jessica Lundin (UW), Elizabeth Seely (UW Conservation Canines), and the star of our show, Tucker the dog (UW Conservation Canines, scent detection canine). The five of us worked together on a 21-foot private motor boat with a large dog kennel and processing equipment which included large tubs and a centrifuge. There were days that started at 6:30 am and we stayed out until sunset, having only a five gallon bucket for a bathroom! It was very crowded and we got to know each other very quickly.

Most days consisted of being on-call from 6:30 am until 7:00 pm. Having worked with wild animals made it difficult because they were able to travel wherever they want, whenever they want. The SRKWs move between the British Columbia coast, through the San Juan Islands, and out to the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but spend majority of their time in the San Juan Archipelago. Finding their location is difficult, but with the help of a local whale watching network, sightings are typically spotted around 9:00 am.

We used Conservation Canine's, Tucker, to locate the orca scat samples. A scent cone is developed from wind blowing over the floating scat samples. Tucker worked from the bow of the boat with his handler Liz. When the scent became stronger, i.e. the boat was close to the center of the cone, Tucker would become more excited because an orca scat sample always meant the reward of his favorite green ball. His change in behavior and placement of the boat made Liz aware of the scat location which she then communicated to the boat driver, Giles.

Kelsey with scat scooperThe technique of using a dog to smell the scat allows a unique comparison of stress levels in a noninvasive way. In the past, samples had to be collected very close to the whales. Typically private and commercial boats are allowed to be 100 meters away. We were able to maintain a distance between 400 and 1000 m (or more!) from the animals, decreasing our impact on the well-being of the SRKWs.

Samples ranged from gooey green to sticky white with variations of brown and chunks of blood. We even found some fish bones. To me, orca scat smells like fermented salmon, but the exact odor description is still up for debate.

Samples were processed by myself and Jessica in the back of the boat. We condensed the scat into as few test tubes as possible, centrifuged the water off, and swabbed for DNA analysis. The DNA was sent to National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) where they determined which individual whale it came from, in addition to the main sources of prey. The test tubes were frozen immediately on dry ice to be analyzed in Seattle at the Center for Conservation Biology lab. At times, processing the samples was difficult because of the small size (typically about 0.3-2.0 mL), and the fact that each sample wasdistributed amongst at least a dozen Kelsey with scat samplesbeakers. Pouring off extra water without losing small samples was perfected throughout the summer and condensing scat became both easier and more efficient as the weeks passed.

The extra water from the beakers when condensing samples did not go to waste. I made a separate project by saving the water (with small amounts of scat dissolved) and taking a control sample of fresh seawater to compare the organic compounds present in the scat. I want to look specifically at the spice and pollutant concentrations present in the orca scat. This analysis will be completed at an oceanography lab in Seattle during fall quarter.

I also volunteered for a nonprofit organization called SoundWatch one day a week. SoundWatch is a program run through the Whale Museum that educates the public on how to safely watch the whales and other wildlife. While on the water, we also collected data about boat traffic around the SRKW's to add to the database from the last 17 years. This data is a valuable tool for many scientists. It was interesting to work with SoundWatch and gain experience with education in a unique environment.

On days off I volunteered at the local animal shelter. They rely on volunteer support to run the shelter and it was rewarding to help such a great community. Chase, a rambunctious tan dog, would go on runs by the airport with me. I became a much better runner and even won second place in my group at the 8.8 km loop run in July. It was a wonderful experience to be involved with so many organizations throughout my summer. I was able to get a better understanding of the community and would encourage anyone working in a new city to volunteer and get involved with local organizations.

Kelsey working with boat of kids watchingMy summer as a whole was a great success. The technique of using noninvasive methods to collect samples and to analyze the hormone and toxicant concentrations on aquatic wildlife is a fantastic survey technique. It opens up many possibilities for future research concerning the health of sea animals. This project has motivated me to continue my own research by analyzing my collected water samples for organic compounds. JISAO gave me a wonderful opportunity to enhance my education and prepare me for a career in research. I now have a better idea of the topics and research that interest me.

I am very grateful that JISAO chose me to be an intern for the summer. I want to thank all of JISAO's staff for providing such a great program for undergraduates and would recommend it for anyone interested in science and the environment. I would also like to thank Jessica Lundin and the Center for Conservation Biology lab, and all the wonderful people I worked with over the summer. Thank you to The Aquatic Organic Geochemistry lab and Rick Keil for providing equipment for my extra project. Also, thank you to Sea Grant, Killer Whale Tales, The Whale Museum , SoundWatch, NOAA, Sound Citizen, Conservation Canines, and UW.

Related article


Research poster

Kelsey's research poster

Click poster for larger view [PDF]