Collaborative Marine Mammal Project Funded by Office of Naval Research Grant

Thursday, July 08, 2021

A team of researchers led by Michael Tift, assistant professor in the UNCW Department of Biology and Marine Biology, has received a grant to further their work studying the central nervous system lymphatic structure in marine mammals.

The three-year, $201,954 grant from the Office of Naval Research will support the project “Central Nervous System Lymphatic Structure in Marine Mammals: A Morphological Comparison of Shallow and Deep Divers.”

Tift explains the lymphatic system plays a critical role in immune response (i.e., lymph nodes swelling when sick), but many anatomy and physiology textbooks state there are no direct connections of the lymphatic system to the brain or spinal cord, which make up the central nervous system.

“Within the last decade, researchers have discovered the brains of humans and mice do have a direct connection to the lymphatic systems,” he said. “The brain lymphatic system functions to clear it of waste and toxic proteins, modulate its immune response and deliver important compounds. However, the function of the brain lymphatic system is highly sensitive to events associated with immersion in water, exercise, decompression events and exposure to low oxygen (i.e., hypoxia). Therefore, the brain lymphatic system of air-breathing divers, which experience these conditions on routine dives, could be highly susceptible to alterations in function or even damage.”

UNCW Ph.D. student Tiffany Keenan ’21 is a co-principal investigator. “Tiffany is an expert in comparative anatomy and morphology and will be leading most of the field and laboratory work, with assistance from incoming graduate student Olivia Jackson. Our excellent team has a wide variety of expertise to ensure this project is successful,” said Tift.

Other co-principal investigators and key members of the project include:

  • Kathleen Caron, professor and chair, UNC-Chapel Hill Department of Cell Biology and Physiology
  • Alex Costidis, UNCW adjunct professor and Virginia Aquarium Marine Mammal Stranding Director
  • Dawn Kernagis, assistant professor, UNC-Chapel Hill School of Medicine Department of Neurosurgery
  • Heather Koopman, professor and chair, UNCW Department of Biology and Marine Biology
  • William McLellan, UNCW research scientist and State of NC Marine Mammal Stranding Coordinator
  • Nathan Nelson-Maney, UNC-Chapel Hill doctoral student
  • Ann Pabst, professor, UNCW Department of Biology and Marine Biology
  • Sentiel Rommel, adjunct professor, UNCW Department of Biology and Marine Biology

Most of the work will take place at UNCW and UNC. UNCW has a Marine Mammal Stranding Program run by Pabst, McLellan, Keenan and Tift. The team works with partners to respond to marine mammals stranded along the coast of NC, providing a rare opportunity to investigate protected species.

“Since this is such a new area of research, we can incorporate it directly into our classes to ensure students are gaining the most up-to-date information in the fields of biology, marine biology and human health,” said Tift.

--Caroline Cropp


Photo caption: The Cuvier’s beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris) is the deepest and longest diving of all marine mammals, with maximum dive depths reaching 3,000 m and durations of 3.7 hours. This individual was photographed off Cape Hatteras, NC, by the UNCW aerial survey program under a NOAA scientific permit. The area has one of the highest densities of beaked whales in the world.