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National Marine Mammal Laboratory (NMML)

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Alaska Ecosystems Program

NMML Reference Collections

Two important research collections are maintained at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory (NMML). The NMML Food Habits Collection consists of more than 8,000 fish skeletons, pairs of otoliths, and cephalopod beaks, as well as whole squids and octopuses. Specimens from known species are used by Alaska Ecosystems Program (AEP) and California Current Ecosystems Program (CCEP) biologists to identify undigested prey parts found in pinniped scats (collected from haulouts or rookeries) or in the stomachs of stranded or incidentally taken pinnipeds and cetaceans. Marine mammal food-habits data are used in conjunction with satellite telemetry and dive records to better understand foraging behavior and prey selection. This information is critical to understanding how commercial fisheries and changing environmental conditions affect marine mammals.

The NMML Food Habits Collection is not only important to the ongoing work within NMML, but it also is used several times a year by a wide range of graduate students and researchers from universities, government agencies, and private institutions in Washington, Oregon, California, and Hawaii. The collection has contributed to food-habits research on animals as varied as Magister armhook squid, northern fulmars, Newell’s shearwaters, Hawaiian petrels, river otters and, of course, marine mammals. The collection is used as well by local archeologists to determine the identity of fish bones found in Native American middens in western Washington and British Columbia.

Although our Food Habits Collection includes fish and cephalopod species that are most commonly consumed by pinnipeds along the West Coast and in Alaska, we are in the process of adding other potential prey species as well as unrepresented size ranges of current species. We are very appreciative of ongoing efforts by AFSC Resource Assessment and Conservation Engineering (RACE) Division fisheries biologists to collect specimens during their summer surveys of the Bering Sea shelf and Gulf of Alaska. We are also grateful to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for contributing fish from Cook Inlet and the Chukchi Sea and to the University of Washington for donating a series of freshwater fish from the Columbia River. With the help and cooperation of researchers such as these, our collection continues to grow in size and value.

NMML is also home to a Marine Mammal Osteological Collection, commonly referred to as “the bone collection.” This research collection consists of approximately 2,500 specimens (of post-cranial skeletons and skulls) from 37 species of pinnipeds and cetaceans from around the world. Specimens have been collected over the past 60 years during research projects that have included pelagic sealing in the 1950s, life-history studies of small cetaceans incidentally taken in foreign and domestic set and drift-net fisheries, and life-history and ageing studies of pinnipeds and cetaceans that have stranded on beaches and rookeries from Alaska to the Antarctic.

The NMML Osteological Collection also houses vast numbers of marine mammal teeth. The largest collections are from northern fur seals taken during commercial and subsistence harvests on the Pribilof Islands, Steller sea lions taken incidentally in Alaska fisheries, and sperm whales collected from Pacific Coast whaling stations in the 1950s and 1960s. The majority of these teeth were initially collected for ageing studies, but in recent years, many have been used in stable isotope, nursing, and growth layer/growth index studies.

Several species of cetaceans and pinnipeds are represented in the NMML Osteological Collection by particularly large series of specimens that, like the teeth collections, continue to be used today. Southwest Fisheries Science Center biologists, along with marine mammalogists from the University of California, Texas A&M University, and Purdue University have used the NMML bone collection in recent years. Archeologists looking at midden material from Alaska to Mexico are also regular visitors to the collection. The NMML bone collection is also an important part of the AFSC Outreach Program’s curriculum. Approximately twice a month, Outreach Program members conduct interpretive tours of the bone collection for students and teachers from local elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools.

The NMML Food Habits and Marine Mammal Osteological reference collections are irreplaceable assets used by NMML and the larger scientific community to further their understanding of marine mammal biology. The value of these collections for future research will only increase as global climate change continues to impact marine communities around the world.

By Jim Thomason

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