Health & Environment

Texas A&M-Galveston Partners With Marine Mammal Stranding Network

The internship program allows students to work closely with professionals to help stranded marine mammals along the Texas coast.
By Andréa Bolt, Texas A&M University at Galveston May 12, 2020

two students standing in water on coast
Mylasia Miklas ’20 and Desiree Harman ’19 visit the site of a reported deceased marine mammal and collect biological data. Miklas served as an intern with TMMSN.

Texas A&M at Galveston

The Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network (TMMSN) recently launched a new internship program ideal for Texas A&M-Galveston students looking to dive in to research and study opportunities in the marine world.

Since 1980, TMMSN has conducted marine mammal research along the Texas coast. Operating in conjunction with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), TMMSN responds to live cetaceans — whales and dolphins — in need of assistance and works closely with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for stranded manatees.

An Aggie by the sea herself, TMMSN Research Director Sarah Piwetz ‘18 said she was thrilled to be able to help the organization, support students and further research efforts by offering the program opportunity.

Interns Dive In

“As a volunteer-based organization, we really rely on that network, and while we’ve got an amazing core group of volunteers from all walks of life, we recognized the potential that an internship program could offer both to students and the TMMSN,” Piwetz said. “We enjoy the relationship with Texas A&M-Galveston, and I know lots of students are interested in learning more, having more concentrated work and specific projects to focus on.”

In the past year, four Texas A&M-Galveston students have served as interns. From helping to collect biological data from carcasses, recording data on live animals in the wild or in rehabilitation, analyzing and digitizing historical records and more, students have gotten unique hands-on experience in the marine biology field from a very real-world perspective.

Mylasia Miklas ‘20 interned with TMMSN during her fall 2019 semester. As a marine biology student aiming to make a career of rescuing and rehabilitating marine mammals, the chance to work directly with such an organization was an “amazing opportunity” to help and learn, she said.

Miklas digitized past patient data to help make more biographical information accessible and further research efforts. She also got to help in observing and recording live data.

“If a live animal was at the facility, I participated in live animal observation shifts,” Miklas said. “During the shifts, I recorded the breathing rate and other notable behavior. I also had the opportunity to take part in necropsies (autopsies performed on deceased animals). I took notes, organized and labeled vials, and observed how to efficiently and accurately perform a necropsy.”

Piwetz said she has taken special note of the work ethic Aggie by the sea students have displayed.

“I’ve been really impressed with their level of commitment,” Piewetz said. “These students have a solid foundation and a solid understanding of how to collect, record and organize data. They’re so willing to jump in and learn.”

This work helps TMMSN to diversify its data sets involving information gleaned from both live animals and recovered carcasses. Identifying facts like sex, length of the animal, body condition and organ samples help the organization analyze the cause of strandings and determine how to help future animals that might be in need.

Piwetz said she hopes to involve future interns in collecting more field-based data and environmental research.

“We also conduct research on the wild, free-ranging dolphin populations off Texas, including Galveston Bay, and we’d love to get interns involved in this type of data collection in the future,” she said.

COVID-19 Effects

Piwetz said the population numbers for dolphins in Galveston Bay are approximately 851 in the winter and 1,258 for the summer season. But with the interruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with recent poor weather conditions like high winds that make boat-based dolphin research difficult, TMMSN hasn’t been able to study how dolphins may be behaving relative to potential changes in Galveston Bay since pandemic restrictions were put in place.

Piwetz said there was reduced vessel traffic following the Sept. 11 attacks that provided a sort of natural experimental setting for marine biologists in the Bay of Fundy, Canada.

“Shipping was halted at the time and research showed a decrease in baseline levels of stress-related hormone metabolites in North Atlantic right whales (tested via fecal samples) that was associated with a significant decrease in underwater noise (based on data from passive acoustic recorders),” she said.

There were also reports that the whales may have shifted their own acoustic communication to a more natural level in the quieter environment.

“It’s tough to say what effects there may be in connection with the pandemic,” Piwetz said. “There is a reduction in dolphin tourism boats, three of which operate in Galveston, cruise ships and possibly reduced activity by cargo ships. However, there may be an increase in recreational boaters. I did a study at Texas A&M-Galveston in 2015 in Bernd Würsig’s lab. We were looking at dolphin behavior relative to different vessel activity and found significant effects relative to dolphin tour boats and commercial shrimp boats.”

Piwetz is ready to get back out on the water and explore what the current conditions and the currents themselves have wrought.

“This shutdown came at a pretty heavy time for us, during our peak stranding season (December – April). With the vast reduction of beachgoers and the reduction in local services available at this time, we may see also see a shift in stranding reports,” Piwetz said. “We’re excited to get back out on the water and to hopefully put some new interns to work this summer, we’ll just have to wait and see what that will look like.”

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