Undergraduate Research

Abby Parker '22

OUR Featured Researcher: Abby Parker '22

Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones

Abby (she/her) is majoring in Biology. She conducts research in Professor Keith Tarvin's lab. Her research is titled "Examining the effect of environmental factors on the spatiotemporal behavior of common bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in the Chincoteague Inlet, VA".

Please describe your research project: 

Both transient and resident populations of common bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) exist along the east coast of the United States. The northern transient population migrates seasonally, overwintering in Virginia and North Carolina and travelling north during warmer months. The southernmost boundary of their summer migration range is Assateague, Virginia, where dolphins can be observed from land on adjacent Chincoteague Island. Tidal cycles and ocean floor topography are thought to influence the foraging and movement patterns of resident populations; however, few studies have examined the effect of environmental factors on the spatiotemporal behavior of migratory dolphins. This summer, I collected behavioral data on migratory dolphins in the Chincoteague Inlet, Virginia, to determine 1) whether dolphins preferentially use the inlet based on tidal cycles and other environmental factors, and 2) how the spatial configuration of the inlet influences their behavioral patterns. By analyzing these data, I hope to determine how and why dolphins are using the Chincoteague Inlet, and to identify areas of particular importance in their foraging endeavors. Understanding the behavior of migratory dolphins is crucial in determining both the role that Assateague plays in their migration and in understanding the complex behaviors of transient dolphins. 

A brief summary (the elevator speech) of your research project: 

Previous research has shown that tidal cycles and ocean floor topography may influence the foraging patterns of resident bottlenose dolphins; however, few studies have examined the behavioral patterns of migratory dolphins. This summer, I observed the behavior of migratory dolphins in the Chincoteague Inlet, Virginia to determine whether their behavior and location correlate with different environmental variables. Because the Chincoteague Inlet marks the southernmost portion of the studied population’s migration range, understanding how and why dolphins are using the inlet is important in understanding not just the inlet’s role in their migration route, but also the behavioral patterns of migratory dolphins in general. 

What knowledge has your research contributed to your field? What are your findings so far?       

No analysis has been done yet on this project, as I am currently entering data as part of my honors project. However, pictures I took for photo identification this summer are currently being used as part of the OBIS seamap database to delineate stock boundaries between different dolphin populations in the western North Atlantic ocean by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Documentation of individual dolphins that pass through Chincoteague allows scientists to determine how large a given population is, and, if photographs of individuals are matched between locations along the east coast, what dolphins are travelling to the same location and may be part of the same population.

What does the process of doing your research look like? 

This summer, I sat on a cliff overlooking the ocean and scanned my surroundings for dolphins. Depending on the workload from my summer internship at the Chincoteague Bay Field Station, I spent anywhere from twenty minutes to three and a half hours at a time recording the location, direction of travel, and group size of dolphins on a hand-drawn map to create “tracks.” Provided dolphins were close enough to shore, I also took photographs to contribute to the OBIS seamap database of dolphin fins for photo identification. 

In what ways have you showcased your research?

I am using this research for my honors project and will be presenting on it in the spring. I also was interviewed in 2019 by a reporter from The Scientist as a student in Keith Tarvin’s lab studying the response of eastern gray squirrels to heterospecific alarm calls.

Why is your research important?

Little research on the behavior of migratory bottlenose dolphins has been conducted, and few, if any, published studies have focused on dolphins in the Chincoteague Inlet, despite its role as the southernmost boundary of the western north Atlantic coastal migratory stock delineated by NOAA. This study will hopefully elucidate why bottlenose dolphins are using the Chincoteague Inlet as a migratory stopover point and whether any spatiotemporal behavioral patterns exist. Because Chincoteague has a prominent ecotourism industry, and the inlet is frequented by local fisherpeople, determining patterns of dolphin behavior may allow selective conservation measures to be introduced into the inlet to reduce interactions between humans and dolphins.

How did you get involved in research? What drove you to want to seek out research experiences in college?

I connected with Keith Tarvin during a prospective students weekend after reading about his research on the college website, and I continued to keep in touch via email. The following winter term, I conducted behavioral ecology  research in his lab, and I have been a member of his lab ever since! I became interested in dolphin research specifically because of a summer class I took at Shoals Marine Laboratory on marine mammal biology through a biology department scholarship. 

What is your favorite aspect of the research process?

My favorite part of this project was getting to spend hours on end being near the ocean and watching dolphins! Further, the nature of behavioral field studies almost guarantees that no two days will be the same. Some days, I would be out in the field for three or more hours and see no dolphins, but other days I would see a pod with young calves, exciting surface behavior, or dolphins in close proximity to my observation spot (one dolphin came close enough that I made eye contact with it!). Because I was conducting observations in a public area, I also had the privilege of conversing with locals and learning about their experiences with the dolphins. One woman walked her dogs often when I did research, and they would always come looking for me! I also became known as “the dolphin lady” by a local ecotourism ship.

How has working with your mentor impacted you as a researcher?

Working with Keith Tarvin has allowed me to learn a great deal about behavioral ecology and the importance of unobtrusiveness, persistence, and adaptability in field work. It has also allowed me to become intimately familiar with the complete vocal and behavioral repertoire of the eastern gray squirrel.

What advice would you give to a younger student wanting to get involved in research in your field?

Reach out to your professors and ask questions! Ask your professors about connections they may have with professionals in your field of interest, and take advantage of all the opportunities you have available. I was never very interested in marine biology until I took advantage of a field course scholarship that the biology department offers and took a class in marine mammal biology. I also reached out to a professor that was teaching at the field station where I interned this summer to make connections with other dolphin researchers and get research advice.

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