Research Areas and Sub-Specialties

Physiological Ecology of Marine Mammals and Turtles

BlubberFaculty, research associates and students at UNCW are engaged in studies that investigate how the mammalian body is functionally adapted to the marine environment. Focus areas of study include developmental biology, thermal biology, locomotor energetics, functional morphology and lipid biochemistry. We utilize stranded marine mammals in our research, and employ quantitative morphology techniques, image analysis, and new tools emerging from the field of biomechanics and lipid biochemistry, to pose hypotheses about animal function. We then test these hypotheses, using non-invasive research methods, with wild and captive marine mammals at many sites around the world. The marriage of anatomical and physiological studies has permitted us to gain insight into the evolution of marine mammals by helping to elucidate those morphological features required to survive in the aquatic environment. We, along with colleagues at Duke University Marine Lab, National Marine Fisheries Service, North Carolina Maritime Museum, and Virginia Marine Science Museum, are also working cooperatively to develop long-term, interdisciplinary studies of our local marine mammal species. Techniques we use include shore-based and aerial survey methods, as well as investigation of stranded animals. The goal of these efforts is to better understand the biology of these species so as to ensure their conservation. Nowhere is there a more compelling need for such a program than in the mid-Atlantic, because our coastal waters are a critical habitat for a number of threatened or endangered cetacean species.

Graduate students preparing for necropsyResearchers at UNCW are studying the bioenergetics, thermal biology, diving physiology, and behavior of sea turtles in coastal Carolina waters and at other field sites along the Eastern Seaboard.  Remote instrumentation and tracking techniques are used to investigate the physiology and behavior of sea turtles in nearshore and offshore environments, and tissue samples (blood and muscle) collected from wild turtles are used to assess health status and seasonal alterations in physiological condition.  UNCW biologists are also involved in efforts to assess the effects of entanglement in fishing gear on the physiology and behavior of sea turtles.  Bycatch of sea turtles in commercial fishing gear

has been Bottlenose dolphin cross sectionidentified as a significant source of mortality contributing to population declines of endangered and threatened sea turtles.  In addition to the deaths that occur while sea turtles are entrapped in fishing gear, there may be delayed mortality of sea turtles released alive from fishing gear.  Researchers at UNCW, along with local and with international collaborators, hope to refine post-release mortality estimates for sea turtles captured in commercial fisheries by conducting detailed studies to assess the physiological status of turtles at the time of capture as well as the post-release behavior of turtles.






Faculty researching this area include:

D. Ann Pabst


Heather N. Koopman

Amanda Southwood Williard

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