The web program conducts research on the behavioral ecology and evolution of wildlife, especially marine mammals, with a focus on species in remote regions of the world, including the Arctic and north Pacific Ocean, as well as in subtropical regions. Our work has a strong conservation and co-management ethos and we emphasize collaborative projects with stakeholders, including Native communities across the Arctic.
Much of our research centers on three simple questions: what do animals do, how do they do it, and ultimately why do they do what they do. Answering these fundamental questions, however, is often not so simple, especially if you choose to work on large marine predators in some very challenging environments from the Arctic to the subtropics.
But that is part of the allure for the web program. There is no substitute for getting in the field if you want to get to know your study subject.
As well as funding and capable personnel, logistics and accessibility ultimately determine whether a study is going to get off the ground and whether it is sustainable.
Fortunately, we have accrued a lot of experience, often the hard way, in conducting research in remote areas over the years. web has also built a great group of collaborators and supporters who offer tremendous opportunities for our team as well as incredible insights into the species we study and into the entire ecosystems of which they are a part.
We also benefit from technology. Telemetry, especially satellite-linked telemetry, has opened many doors to research and discovery in recent years, especially for marine apex predators. Our views of these species are changing, almost daily, as new discoveries are made about their movement patterns, dive behavior and habitat use. However, there is still no substitute for simple field observation. Whenever possible we try to combine telemetry and other modern technologies, including passive acoustics and drones, with more traditional notebook-and-pencil observations to gain the necessary multi-scale insight for complete inference of behavior, ecology and the strategies animals use to maximize fitness.
While field studies can reveal much, they can’t reveal everything about the behavioral ecology and evolution of species. Combining such investigations with molecular genetic profiling of wild populations, however, provides unique insights into the behavior and fitness of individuals and thus the structure, dynamics, viability and evolution of populations and species. Molecular ecology is a central component of web.
Rooted in studies of population structure, dispersal and gene flow, our molecular lab focuses on high-throughput sequencing (e.g., mtDNA, MHC) and genotyping (e.g., microsatellites, SNPs) of preferably large numbers of individuals from multiple social groups and populations. Whether opportunistic or targeted, the sampling regimes are carefully conceived and executed to efficiently meet the needs of the research question(s). In many cases, our studies have a temporal as well as spatial component, where long time-series of samples are required to address questions related to ecosystem shifts, climate change or specific events.
We pursue a broad array of molecular ecological research, from reconstructing demographic histories of populations and inferring phylogenetic relationships among taxa to assessing patterns of diversity in neutral and non-neutral markers, and resolving contemporary patterns of dispersal, mating and social organization.
The strong applied component of much of our work, combined with our interests in past and contemporary climate and ecosystem change, especially in regions like the Arctic, adds urgency to much of this research. Answers to questions over stock identification and the impacts to (and response by) marine apex predators to climate change rely on rapid genetic profiling where resource users, co-managers and the public at large can make informed decisions about what actions must be taken.
Genomics and Ancient DNA
In the course of our research, two emerging areas have forced themselves onto our consciousness and ultimately on to the lab bench: ‘Omics’ and ‘Ancient DNA’. Seeing their incredible potential we are enthusiastically embracing both in a revolution of techniques that is opening up access to the past and to the entire genetic landscape like never before.
To do this, you’ve got to have a burning desire to answer new questions and make discoveries. You’ve also got to like the R&D side of molecular genetics. Why? Because it ain’t easy! Fortunately, every new generation of graduates takes the tech. side of this revolution in their stride. The science itself is also incredibly motivating. Ancient DNA is the closest we can get to travelling back in time. Just thinking about revisiting the past by extracting DNA from a 30,000 year old mammal bone recovered from the tundra, being the first to see that sequence come off the machine – a message from the past, makes you want to suit up like an astronaut and work through an interminable series of chemical steps in a giant glass box! Our Ancient DNA facility at HBOI-FAU is a state-of-the art series of chambers that allow multiple studies to proceed simultaneously.
Likewise, the recent sequencing of entire genomes has been both an awe-inspiring and humbling experience. As molecular geneticists, you are at once struck by the endless possibilities and by how little you really know. There is so much more of the genome we need to investigate. Fortunately, the tools are now there to begin the journey. web is focusing on applying a new generation of pocket-sized sequencers to genomic and entire metagenomic research while in the field. Have sequencer - will travel!