Biology & Marine Biology

Faculty & Staff

Heather N. Koopman, Department Chair & Professor

KoopmanPh.D., Environment, Duke University, Durham, NC, 2001
M.S., Zoology, University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, 1994
B.S., Marine Biology, University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, 1992
Friday Hall 2069 | (910) 962-7199 | 601 South College Road, Wilmington, NC 28403-5915

I am a physiologist with research interests in the role and importance of marine lipids, and how the biochemical characteristics of these molecules fit into functional and evolutionary contexts in various groups of marine organisms. Most marine vertebrates (including marine mammals, large teleosts, and seabirds) have developed unique, highly specialized adipose depots with specific functions. Our laboratory uses a combination of methods, including anatomical, histological, and biochemical techniques, to examine three facets of the physiology of marine animals: metabolism/health, specialized adaptations, and phylogenetic lineage. I also conduct research (outside the realm of lipids) on a variety of marine vertebrates including seabirds, sharks and cetaceans. One current focus in our lab is to study the ecology of the world's second largest fish, the basking shark.

Our lab currently focuses on five main areas of research:

1) Evolution of endogenous lipids in toothed whales, including wax esters and unusual endogenous short and branched chain fatty acids. Some of the toothed whales also synthesize and deposit large amounts of wax esters (WE), and branched chain fatty acid in their tissues - these lipid are not seen in other mammals. These odd lipids likely play an acoustic role in the heads of these animals, but their roles in blubber, and the evolutionary paths leading to synthesis of these lipids, are unknown.

2) Nitrogen solubility in tissue of marine mammals and other diving tetrapods. Nitrogen gas is 5 times more soluble in lipids than in blood and thus at any blood/adipose interface, nitrogen gas will move into fat - this has implications for human divers as well as marine mammals. We provided the first data on nitrogen solubility in the blubber of marine mammals, and found it to be linked to lipid class, such that blubber with high wax ester content [found in beaked and sperm whales; animals known to dive 2000m and deeper] had higher solubility - and their acoustic fats can absorb even greater concentrations of nitrogen. The second phase of this study is to expand the project to include adipose tissues of other divers (turtles, penguins, ducks, puffins) as well as animals used in diving models (pigs, sheep).

3) The ecology, physiology and behaviour of basking sharks. The world's second largest fish is remarkably poorly understood, and likely faces significant anthropogenic threats. We study habitat use, population density, diving behaviour and movement patterns of basking sharks.

4) Trophic interactions and variation in the prey field of the Bay of Fundy, Canada. The Bay of Fundy is a highly productive body of water that attracts many upper level predators (including seabirds, tuna, sharks, porpoises, dolphins, whales, and seals) as they forage there each summer. We have used lipid profiles and energetics studies to evaluate variation in diet quality within summer seasons and across years, and digestive physiology, in herring, copepods, seabirds and right whales.

5) Factors affecting reproduction in crustaceans. Although many species of crustaceans are important both ecologically and economically, we know surprisingly little about factors affecting reproduction in females, which will ultimately affect future recruitment into each fishery. Working with fishermen, we study blue crabs and the American lobster, animals with very different life history strategies, determining measures of reproductive output and egg quality.

Selected recent publications:

Koopman, H., Westgate, A., Siders, Z., Cahoon, L. In Press. Rapid sub-surface ocean warming in the Bay of Fundy as measured by free-swimming basking sharks. Oceanography.

Westgate, A. J., Koopman, H. N., Siders, Z. A., Wong, S. N., and Ronconi, R. R. In Press. Population density and abundance of basking sharks in the lower Bay of Fundy, Canada. Endangered Species Research.

Yamato, M., Koopman, H., Niemeyer, M., and Ketten, D. In Press. Characterization of lipids in adipose depots associated with minke and fin whale ears: comparison with "acoustic fats" of toothed whales. Marine Mammal Science.

Siders, Z. A., Johnston, D. W., Westgate, A. J., Murison, L. M., and Koopman, H. N. 2013. Seasonal variation in the spatial distribution of basking sharks (Cetorhinus maximus) in the lower Bay of Fundy, Canada. PLoS ONE 8(12): e82074. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0082074

McKinstry, C. A. E., Westgate, A. J., Koopman, H. N. 2013. Annual variation in the energy content and lipid composition of the copepod Calanus finmarchicus from the Bay of Fundy, Canada. Endangered Species Research 20:195-204.

Koopman, H. N., and Siders, Z. 2013. Variation in egg quality in blue crabs, Callinectes sapidus, from North Carolina: does female size matter? Journal of Crustacean Biology 33: 4810487.

Koopman, H. N., and Westgate, A. J. 2012. Solubility of nitrogen in marine mammal blubber depends on its lipid composition. Journal of Experimental Biology 215: 3856-3863.

McClelland, S. J., Gay, M., Pabst, D. A., Dillaman, R., Westgate, A. J., and Koopman, H. N. 2012. Microvascular patterns in the blubber of shallow and deep diving Odontocetes. Journal of Morphology 273:932-942.

Polito, M. J., Koopman, H. N., Able, S., Walsh, J., Goebel, M. 2012. Physiological constraints and the influence of diet on fatty acids in the yolk of gentoo penguins, Pygoscelis papua. Journal of Comparative Physiology B 182:703-713.

Lane, H. A., Westgate, A. J., and Koopman, H. N. 2011. Ontogenetic and temporal variability in the fat content and fatty acid composition of Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus) from the Bay of Fundy, Canada. Fisheries Bulletin. 109:113-122.

Ronconi, R. A, Koopman, H. N., McKinstry, C. A., Wong, S. N. P., and Westgate, A. J. 2010. Inter-annual variability in diets of non-breeding pelagic seabirds (Puffinus sp.) at migratory staging areas: evidence from stable isotopes and fatty acids. Marine Ecology Progress Series. 419: 267-282.

Swaim, Z. T., Westgate, A. J., Koopman, H. N., Rolland, R. M., and Kraus, S. D. 2009. Metabolism of ingested lipids by North Atlantic right whales. Endangered Species Research 6:259-271.

Koopman, H. N. and Zahorodny, Z. P. 2008. Life history constrains biochemical development in the highly specialized Odontocete echolocation system. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, B 275:2327-2334.