Understanding the ocean’s web of life

A talk with Hatfield instructor Bill Hanshumaker

NEWPORT — The quietude of the Central Oregon Coast – sans the tourists/visitors – is an illusion when it comes to marine sciences and the remarkable gravitas OSU Hatfield Marine Sciences Center and Oregon Coast Aquarium have on researching the oceans and our discussions around the good, bad and ugly tied to them.

It’s not difficult to get 26 cetacean and pinniped adherents in a room at the Newport Library on a Saturday morning to listen to one of OSU’s best talk about marine mammals and acoustic research, flesh-eating beetles and the state of species in ever-changing meteorological and ecological conditions tied to our oceans.

The Oregon chapter of the American Cetacean Society recently invited Bill Hanshumaker to present his talk titled,  "How do we know what we think we know about marine mammals?"

He brought skulls of whales, dolphins and sea lions; vertebrae of a blue whale; baleen from whales and teeth from orca and other toothed whales species; and decades of experience as a scientist.

The 66-year-old Hanshumaker is the CSI guy at the Hatfield; he’s given scores of public presentations, some of which included “cool stuff” like dissecting sharks at public gatherings and articulating skeletons of huge whales.

“Science is a dynamic process, not stagnant,” he told the group. “Most people look at science as a collection of facts or a belief system. It’s much more than that.”

Hanshumaker, who was with the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry for 17 years before coming to the coast, highlighted his responsibility for the assembled skeletons throughout the Portland museum. His current work is with hydrophones to determine many aspects of whale behavior tied to their own acoustic calls and language.

He’s looking at all the noise – called ambient and background noise – in the ocean to determine what is natural and what can be adaptable.

Killer whales in particular vocalize more when hunting salmon, tuna or sharks, because their prey aren’t hearing the sounds and the killer whales are probably communicating signals for the pod members to act in concert in getting at the food. When approaching marine mammals, stealth is more important, so that ecotype of killer whale will not vocalize when on the hunt.

It’s the mother who teaches killer whale offspring to go for salmon or go for seals.

Calls from blue whales may signal mating language rituals; however, the ship traffic in the oceans disturbs communication and breeding. When September 11, 2001 occurred, all ship traffic was halted, and previously placed hydrophones picked up more communication calls from blue whales, leading to the hypothesis they were using calls for mating.

The whale enthusiasts listened and watched the scientist explain sound propagation, propeller sounds and methods of noise reduction that could help whales and dolphins live in a less chaotic world as ships cross their habitats daily.

OSU’s design of three new research vessels includes noise reduction propellers that are more fuel efficient, Hanshumaker said. The design also includes optimized hull form, waste heat recovery, LED lighting, and variable speed power generation.

The National Science Foundation selected Oregon State University largely because of the university’s deep research history, active science programs and leadership through the Hatfield Marine Sciences Center. The current research vessel OSU uses, Oceanus, is almost 45 years old and has outlived its scientific capabilities.

The iconic gray whale comprises 90 percent of the whales off the Oregon coast, where a marine animal success story has unfolded in comparison to the Atlantic coast, where the grays were hunted to extinction. One reason for Pacific gray’s success is that the Mexican government designated three significant breading and calving bays along the Baja peninsula as protected reserves.

One example illustrating “genetic bottlenecks” is the elephant seal along the California coast.

“In 1910 they thought it was extinct, so a scientist shot what he thought were the last surviving eight,” Hanshumaker said.

The reality was there were still elephant seals living in secluded habitats, but unfortunately, the diversity pool is now so limited that all offspring are identical twins.

Interesting topics he brought up included stripping marine mammal carcasses of muscle and meat, while still preserving connective tissue and even the smallest bones with those beetles. Hanshumaker says a new, quicker way has been developed:  horse manure compost pits are dug and the carcass covered so all bugs, bacteria and larvae can work in concert to do the job beetles and fly maggots do.