The Oregon Marbled Murrelet Project (OMMP) is a long-term study and one of the most well-funded projects on this species in the United States. The marbled murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus) is a type of alcid, or diving seabird, that uniquely nests far from shore in old-growth forests. In Oregon, these birds can nest up to 31 miles (50 kilometers) inland. The murrelets are small in size and secretive about their nesting behavior. Unlike many other seabird species, marbled murrelet breeding pairs nest individually rather than in large group colonies. The combination of these factors makes this species extremely difficult to monitor and creates challenges in tracking nesting locations and breeding success. The marbled murrelet is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act partially due to habitat loss of old-growth forests. The goal of the OMMP is to determine habitat requirements for breeding behavior and the factors that influence the success of marbled murrelet nests by monitoring tagged individuals.
In January 2019, the Seattle Aquarium was approached by researchers with Oregon State University (OSU) involved in the OMMP to inquire about a cooperative effort to test a new, noninvasive tail-mount tag on one of the Seattle Aquarium’s alcids. This tag would be used when tagging wild marbled murrelets. The Seattle Aquarium bird and mammal team’s lead bird biologist, Sara Perry, worked with researchers to have the project submitted and approved by the Aquarium’s Conservation Programs & Partnerships department.
On April 10, 2019, “Lola,” the Seattle Aquarium’s female rhinoceros auklet identified by a yellow band on her left leg, had a noninvasive tag attached to her tail feathers and was returned to the sea cliffs section of our Birds & Shores exhibit to monitor her activity and behavior. During this process, researchers were able to learn and modify techniques and procedures involved in the tagging process, while also observing a tagged alcid’s behavior up close in our exhibit in order to ensure the best tagging results with marbled murrelets in the wild.
This collaboration led to a professional development opportunity for Sara and the assistant bird lead, Cheryl Becker. They were invited to participate in a night of research for OMMP. Sara and Cheryl spent the day with the research team in Newport, Oregon, on May 9 as they prepared supplies, organized information and finalized plans before setting out to sea that evening for an overnight excursion to find and tag these elusive seabirds. Marbled murrelets will search for food throughout the day and night, but the larger, more preferred prey items swim deeper during the day and nearer the surface at night. Breeding individuals seek out these higher-quality fish in order to reduce the number of trips back to the nest, which is why this research is conducted at night.
The team for that night numbered 14 people, including researchers from OSU, the collecting team from the California Institute of Environmental Studies, a veterinarian, a Coast Guard/human safety representative, the boat captain and first mate, and the visiting guests from Seattle, Sara and Cheryl. The team left the dock on the Humboldt State University research vessel, the Coral Sea, around 9:30pm and had the Zodiac in the water by 10pm. The smaller, maneuverable inflatable boat was deployed from the main research vessel, and the collecting team set off in an attempt to collect murrelets floating on the surface of the water. This was no easy task considering how fast these birds can dive back down underwater, but the skillful team had its first bird in hand by 10:45pm. Once the bird was back on the Coral Sea, the research team worked quickly and efficiently taking various vital measurements (weight, respiration rates, temperature, blood, etc.), photographs and wing dimensions.
Sara and Cheryl were dubbed “fecal engineers,” responsible for collecting poop samples from the collected birds. If the bird had a brood patch, a featherless area of skin where parents can transfer heat to eggs during the incubation period, then the bird was tagged to monitor for nest-site and breeding behavior. If the bird did not have a brood patch, then that was an indication of a nonbreeding/non-nesting individual, and the bird was not tagged. After all the information was collected, the birds were quickly released.
This process was repeated three more times that night, so four birds total were collected and released by the time the team was back at shore around 5am. Overall, throughout the season, the research team was very successful and collected 73 birds and tagged 53 individuals. A dedicated team on land then monitors the birds throughout the breeding season using the tagged VHF radio transmitters to locate the birds and their nesting locations. The OMMP is also the first project to use drones and infrared camera technology to attempt to locate marbled murrelet nests.
Sara and Cheryl gained a strong appreciation for the time and effort that goes into a multidimensional research project like this one. Since they’re animal care specialists at the Seattle Aquarium, participating in this project offered another unique perspective into a completely different but comparable application of animal care and welfare initiative. The Oregon Marbled Murrelet Project has a group of dedicated individuals working toward the betterment and knowledge of this threatened species, just as staff working in a zoo or aquarium promote conservation through the animals in their care. The Seattle Aquarium is grateful to the OMMP research team for the opportunity to have collaborated on such an important project. For more information on this research, please visit oregonmurrelet.org.