Drs. Pabst and McLellan Entrust Marine Mammal Stranding Program to a New Generation

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

After more than 25 years of service to UNCW, Dr. Ann Pabst and Dr. Bill McLellan, two leading experts in the world of marine mammal strandings, officially retired in December 2021.

Pabst and McLellan, who are both professional and life partners, met while working in the stranding program at the Smithsonian. In 1995, the pair brought their expertise to UNCW to develop and co-lead the UNCW Marine Mammal Stranding Program.

“We investigate strandings, which is a beaching of a live or dead marine mammal, in our research,” explained Dr. Pabst. “Because all marine mammals are protected, strandings provide invaluable opportunities to study their biology and health and to contribute to their conservation.”

Collectively, they have responded to thousands of strandings, but Pabst, who was a professor in the department of biology and marine biology, described her work as more “in the classroom,” while McLellan, who served as a UNCW research associate and coordinator of the state stranding program, was more “boots on the ground.”

Together, they created UNCW’s main hub for stranding research, the Vertebrate Anatomy and Biomechanics Lab, also known as the VABLAB. The lab has surpassed $10 million in research grants and contracts, earning Pabst and McLellan membership in the exclusive UNCW James F. Merritt Ten Million Dollar Club in 2019.  

“Dr. Pabst and Dr. McLellan are emblematic of the successful teacher-scholar,” said Stuart Borrett, UNCW associate provost for research and innovation. “They are outstanding scientists whose contributions to global marine mammal science and conservation are immeasurable. They are deeply committed to engaging students at all levels in their research programs and to bringing the discoveries into the classroom.”

McLellan is one of the world’s leading experts on large whale necropsy, the postmortem examination of an animal to learn about its life and death. He was named an Environmental Hero by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and nominated for the world's leading animal conservation award, the Indianapolis Prize, for his work to protect the North Atlantic right whale, a critically endangered species that is nearly depleted due to ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements.

When a large marine mammal, like a 75-ton right whale, washes ashore anywhere in the world, McLellan’s phone typically rings, and within hours he could be en route. He has performed necropsies at stranding sites for more than 35 right whales, more than 100 humpback whales and over 2,500 smaller species in places like Chile, Argentina, Cambodia, Canada and the U.S. In some years, he has logged as many as 250 nights away from home.  

Pabst recalls one Thanksgiving when McLellan received a call about a stranded right whale that washed up on the Outer Banks.  

“Bill finished cooking for my visiting family and then jumped in the truck for the four-hour drive to OBX,” she said.  

“I’ve made that trip hundreds of times over the years,” added McLellan, who has helped define best practices and methods for responding to strandings. That particular right whale, known as Reyna, is on display, along with her unborn calf, in the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts, providing an important story about the need to conserve these endangered whales. 

Growing up in a logging family in Maine, McLellan learned to drive heavy equipment like bulldozers and skidders and use chains and cranes on job sites – useful skills for stranding sites.

“Moving heavy things has always come naturally to me,” he said. “When a large marine mammal washes ashore, we basically set up a small construction site and conduct a forensic study. Since tissue can decompose quickly, response time and anatomy expertise are extremely important, so we can get the samples and data we need to better understand why the animal died.”

Other noteworthy experiences for Pabst and McLellan include rescuing a young Arctic seal on Wrightsville Beach; discovering an abundance of rare beaked whales off Cape Hatteras; and contributing to the discovery of the Rice’s whale, a new species of baleen whale stranded on Carolina Beach.

For 20 years, Pabst and McLellan conducted aerial surveys for the U.S. Navy and NOAA. During one fly-over far off the coast of Florida, their team witnessed a right whale giving birth, an exceedingly rare event that they reported in Marine Mammal Science. McLellan described the calf as “bigger than a pickup truck” and the mother “the size of two tractor trailers.”   

Despite their renowned research and accolades, one of their greatest points of pride is the family they have nurtured in the VABLAB. They stay connected with many of their students, fondly known as VABLABers, long after they graduate. In fact, McLellan, who is an ordained minister, has performed eight of their wedding ceremonies.

“Students have always been at the center of our work,” Pabst said. “Strandings are hands-on learning opportunities. From response to data gathering to even cleaning the lab after a necropsy, students experience being part of a research team. Some go on to analyze strandings data and samples, and to contribute to our understanding of the biology of these protected species – it doesn’t get any better than that!"   

Often, their students join the program as volunteers and get hooked. Some have become leading experts in the field, like Dr. Michelle Barbieri, a NOAA Fisheries scientist who leads the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, or Dr. Tiffany Keenan, a current UNCW post-doctoral fellow who specializes in pygmy and dwarf whales.  

“My passion for science was discovered in and crafted by my experience in the VABLAB and on the beach with Ann Pabst and William McLellan – first as an undergraduate volunteer in the UNCW Marine Mammal Stranding Program, and then as a master’s and Ph.D. student,” said Keenan. “Their dedicated support and encouragement provided me a solid foundation on which to stand. I am deeply grateful for their mentorship, generosity with their time and insights into marine mammal health.”

Dr. Keenan is the new coordinator for the stranding program, joining academic lead Dr. Michael Tift and faculty members Dr. Julia Buck, Dr. Patrick Erwin, Dr. Heather Koopman and Dr. Lori Schweikert, who directly support the program through collaborative research projects, grants and graduate student involvement.

“I'd be so excited if I were a student coming to UNCW now for this program,” said Pabst. “You could not ask for a more diverse and excellent group of scientists to take this program and move it into the future. All will bring new directions, expertise and students to the stranding program.”

The new leadership team is already securing critical funding and was recently awarded a federal grant through NOAA’s John H. Prescott Marine Mammal Rescue Assistance Grant Program. The Prescott grant will enable UNCW to continue building on Pabst and McLellan’s legacy.  

There is no shortage of stories and laughter as Pabst and McLellan reminisce about their time at UNCW – Bill, an enthusiastic storyteller with countless tales, and Ann, a stickler for details and for steering the conversation back to heartfelt expressions of gratitude.  

“We could not have been luckier than to be at UNCW and to be in our department,” she said. “Our academic home was within a department that cared about us as individuals, whose members were wonderful colleagues who also contributed importantly to the mentoring of our students, and whose heart and soul were focused on active engagement of students in science.”   

“For me, contributing to student engagement, learning and mentoring while being able to share my passion for science and service with students is hard to beat,” Pabst continued. “Doing that and sharing it with a life mate is almost impossible to do, but Bill and I have been able to share that, which is a pretty wonderful thing.”

“I hope that our work has helped tell the stories of the environment so that people care about it,” McLellan added. “We can use these investigations to create policy, find solutions and make positive changes. As scientists doing this work, I hope we have made a difference so that these animals can move forward and live long, healthy lifespans.”

-- Krissy Vick


Ann Pabst  

Dr. Ann Pabst   

Bill McLellan 

Dr. William McLellan

Pabst and McLellan inspect a whale on the beach

The pair work together on a whale.