• Assessing a macroalgal foundation species: community variation with shifting algal assemblages

      Metzger, Jacob Ryan; Konar, Brenda; Edwards, Matthew; Beaudreau, Anne (2018-08)
      Foundation species provide critical food and habitat to their associated communities. Consequently, they are disproportionately important in shaping community structure, promoting greater biodiversity and increased species abundance. In the Aleutian archipelago, once extensive kelp forests are now relatively rare and highly fragmented. This is due to unregulated urchin grazing shifting the majority of nearshore rocky-reefs from kelp forests to either urchin barrens or "transition forests" - kelp forests devoid of understory algae. The algal communities within kelp forests, transition forests, and urchin barrens represent a stepwise loss in fleshy algal guilds, a regression from a full algal community, to having only canopy kelp, to areas largely denuded of all fleshy algae. This stepwise loss of algal guilds was used to test the designation of the resident canopy-forming kelp, Eualaria fistulosa, as a foundation species--a species that has strong, positive effects on communities where it occurs. Therefore, I assessed the impact that E. fistulosa's occurrence had on faunal community structure (in terms of species diversity, abundance and biomass, and percent bottom cover)and invertebrate size-structure. This study found that the presence of E. fistulosa does not correspond to strong differences in invertebrate size-structure or faunal community structure. However, in kelp forests where E. fistulosa exists in tandem with a variety of subcanopy macroalgae, faunal communities are more species rich, have significantly different community structures with notably higher abundance, biomass, and percent cover of filter feeding taxa, and support sea urchin populations containing significantly higher proportions of larger individuals. Consequently, this study stresses the context dependent role of foundation species and suggests their strong, positive effects on associated communities may change with perturbations to ecosystems. To that end, this study suggests that we may need to reconsider the designation of E. fistulosa as a foundation species following the extensive fragmentation and range restriction that has occurred throughout much of the Aleutian Archipelago.
    • Defining genetic population structure and historical connectivity of snow crab (Chionoecetes opilio)

      Albrecht, Gregory T.; Hardy, Sarah M.; Lopez, J. Andres; Hundertmark, Kris J. (2011-08)
      The snow crab (Chionoecetes opilio) is a valuable commercial resource within the Bering Sea, as well as other areas in the North Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Large populations are known to exist within the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, including recently discovered commercial sized individuals (Beaufort). However, genetic connectivity throughout these regions has not been examined until now. Based on seven polymorphic microsatellite loci, relatively low population genetic structuring occurs throughout the Alaskan region (Gst = 0.001). This homogeneity is likely due to long-distance larval dispersal, adult migrations, and a possible recent population expansion following the last glacial maximum. Furthermore, meta-population analysis was conducted for Alaskan and Northwest Atlantic stocks. Although significant genetic divergence characterizes the West Greenland stock in relation to all other populations, low divergence (Gst = 0.005) was found between Atlantic Canada crabs and those from the Alaska region. Larval dispersal between regions is highly unlikely due to the transit distance. Therefore, low divergence is likely the result of a recent population expansion into the Northwest Atlantic <5000 years ago.
    • Dietary effects on protein turnover in three pinniped species, Eumetopias jubatus, Phoca vitulina, and Leptonychotes weddellii

      Inglis, Susan D.; Castellini, Michael; Atkinson, Shannon; Barboza, Perry; Carpenter, James; Rea, Lorrie (2019-05)
      The role of dietary protein in pinniped (seal and sea lion) nutrition is poorly understood. Although these marine mammals derive the majority of their daily energetic needs from lipid, lipids cannot supply essential amino acids which have to come from protein fractions of the diet. Protein regulation is vital for cellular maintenance, molt, fasting metabolism, exercise and development. Proteins are composed of linked amino acids (AA), and net protein turnover is the balance between protein synthesis from component AA, and degradation back to AA. Protein regulation is influenced by dietary intake and quality, as well as physiological and metabolic requirements. In this work, pinniped diet quality was assessed through comparisons of amino acid profiles between maternal milk, blood serum, and seasonal prey of wild juvenile Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus) in Southcentral Alaska. Both Pacific herring (Clupei pallasi) and walleye pollock (Gadus chalcogramma) showed similar patterns to milk in essential and branched chain amino acid content. Serum amino acid profiles suggest the juvenile sea lions were not in protein deficit at the time of capture. Protein metabolism in the blood and urine was assessed through turnover studies using amino acid tracers. The turnover kinetics of ¹⁵N-labelled glycine in the blood amino acid and protein pool, red blood cells, and urine urea were measured in wild adult female Weddell seals (Leptonychotes weddellii) in the Antarctic. Labelled glycine moved quickly into serum protein and red blood cells (1-2 hours) and urinary urea (2-4 hours). The turnover rates in the blood amino acid and urine urea pools demonstrated a reduced turnover rate associated with molting. Lastly, whole body protein turnover experiments using a single bolus ¹⁵N-labelled glycine tracer method with endproduct collection of blood, feces and urine were conducted on 2 Cohort groups of captive Alaskan harbor seals over 2 years. Season was found to have the greatest effect on whole body protein turnover, which increased during the winter and decreased in the summer molt. Conversely, protein intake decreased during the winter and increased in the summer molt. This pattern corresponded with an increase in mass and protein synthesis in the winter, while mass decreased and protein degradation rates increased in molting seals. Weaning also influenced the patterns with reduced protein turnover in newly weaned animals that had recently transitioned from milk to a fish diet. This project presents results on whole body protein turnover rates in nonfasting pinnipeds and reveals that protein turnover is strongly regulated by developmental and seasonal physiological and metabolic demands.
    • Evaluation of prey composition and nutritional value of diets of free-ranging harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) from Tugidak Island

      Geiger, Gretchen L.; Atkinson, Shannon; Carpenter, James; Horstmann-Dehn, Larissa; Wynne, Kate (2012-12)
      Changes in climate can cause shifts in ecosystem structure that can affect quantity or quality of prey available to predator populations. Due to sex or age-specific behaviors of predators, certain classes within a population may be more severely impacted by changes in their diet. This study evaluated prey composition and nutritional value of summer diets of harbor seals (Phoca vitulina richardii) from Tugidak Island, Alaska from 2001-2009. The MIXIT-WIN program was used to estimate the nutritional value of average harbor seal diets. Changes in relative abundance of certain prey species were correlated to sea surface temperature anomalies. Despite changes in prey composition, the nutritional value of the average harbor seal diet did not change. Fecal corticosteroid metabolite profiles were analyzed to identify age and sex of individual harbor seals from scats. Profiles obtained from a known adult male harbor seal could be differentiated from those of known adult female and juvenile male seals. Similar profiles were observed in unknown age and sex samples. Even though diet diversity differed between these groups, the nutritional quality of consumed diets was not significantly different. Tugidak Island harbor seals have flexible diets allowing them to capitalize on available prey to maintain their nutritional intake.
    • Fifty years of Cook Inlet beluga whale ecology recorded as isotopes in bone and teeth

      Nelson, Mark A.; Wooller, Matthew J.; Iken, Katrin; Quakenbush, Lori T. (2017-12)
      Beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) are found across the Arctic and Subarctic in seasonally ice covered waters. Five stocks of beluga whales are associated with the waters near Alaska for at least part of the year and four of those five stocks are abundant and commonly hunted by Alaskan Natives. The belugas resident in Cook Inlet are also an important cultural and subsistence resource to Alaskan Natives in the area, but a ~50% decline in abundance in the 1990's led to the stock being designated as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 2000 and listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 2008. Numerous studies of beluga whales in relation to stranding events, predation (killer whales), parasitism, disease, contaminants, and other potential population threats have not identified the reason for their inability to recover. Changes in diet have been considered, but are difficult to study because observations of feeding in muddy water and beluga stomachs are difficult to obtain. To investigate the past feeding ecology of beluga whales from Cook Inlet I sampled bone and teeth for isotopic analyses. I sampled bone from 20 individuals that died between 1964 and 2007 for stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis (values expressed as δ¹³C and δ¹⁵N values). I also micro-sampled annual growth layer groups in the teeth of 26 individuals representing the years from 1962 to 2007. Bone and tooth data showed a general decrease in δ¹³C and δ¹⁵N values over time. The δ¹³C values from analyses of growth layer groups declined from -13.4‰ to -16.2‰ and δ¹⁵N values declined from 17.2‰ to 15.4‰. Although these values are consistent with a change in feeding ecology over time, the magnitude of the decrease in δ¹⁵N values (~2‰) is insufficient for a full trophic level shift (~3‰).The relatively large decrease in the δ¹³C values over the same time period (~3‰), however, is much greater than a full trophic level shift (~1‰) and suggests an increase in prey associated with freshwater, which typically have lower δ¹³C values than prey associated with marine water. To test this hypothesis I analyzed the strontium isotope composition (⁸⁷Sr/⁸⁶Sr ratios) of growth layer groups in teeth from a sub-set of individuals. The resulting ⁸⁷Sr/⁸⁶Sr ratios trended away from the global marine signature (0.70918) over time and toward the more freshwater signatures measured in rivers flowing into the upper reaches of Cook Inlet. These results indicate that the diet of Cook Inlet beluga whales has changed over time. This could be from feeding on different, more freshwater derived prey species, or from feeding on the same species, but on individuals from locations with a more freshwater influence. Both of these interpretations are consistent with population survey data indicating a retraction in beluga range into the upper reaches of Cook Inlet. This study presents the first evidence of a long term (~50 years) change in Cook Inlet beluga whale feeding ecology. The consequences of this change toward more freshwater-influenced prey, and how this change relates to Cook Inlet beluga whales' decline or recovery remains unknown. However, to better examine this change in feeding ecology a follow-up study will; 1) develop a strontium isoscape for the Cook Inlet watershed; 2) analyze more teeth to better analyze changes in feeding ecology by demographic group (sex, age); and 3) analyze growth layer groups from Bristol Bay beluga teeth for a comparison with Cook Inlet belugas to determine if the changes represent an ecosystem change within Cook Inlet or a broader scale change affecting another region. This study builds towards a better understanding of the changes in Cook Inlet beluga feeding ecology and will help to determine if changes in diet could be a factor in their recovery.
    • Kelp forests and barren grounds: phlorotannin production and holdfast community structure in the Aleutian dragon kelp, Eualaria fistulosa

      Schuster, Martin D.; Konar, Brenda; Iken, Katrin; Coyle, Kenneth (2012-12)
      The canopy forming kelp Eualaria fistulosa inhabits two organizational states throughout the Aleutian archipelago, kelp forests and barren grounds. Urchin abundance and behavior determines which state dominates in any given area. Sporophyll phlorotannin content and holdfast epibiont fauna were investigated at multiple islands along the Aleutian archipelago to determine how the organizational state affects the production of secondary metabolites and the taxon richness, abundance and biomass of holdfast communities. Barren ground sporophylls had higher phlorotannin content than kelp forest sporophylls, although grazing rates on sporophylls from each state did not differ during in situ grazing experiments. The taxon richness, abundance and biomass of holdfast communities were similar between kelp forests and barren grounds at all islands, although these communities varied among islands and were mostly driven by holdfast volume. These results suggest that physical differences such as light and nutrient availability in the kelp forest structure between organizational states may be responsible for differences in phlorotannin content, but that these differences are not reflected in the holdfast community structure. It appears that barren ground holdfast communities are remnants of a once forested area.
    • Otters, sea stars, and glacial melt: top-down and bottom-up factors that influence kelp communities

      Traiger, Sarah B.; Konar, Brenda; Hardy, Sarah; Okkonen, Stephen; Edwards, Matthew; Litaker, Wayne (2017-08)
      Kelp beds are important features of the Alaska coastline and provide habitat, protect coastlines, and support commercial and subsistence harvests. Kelp beds are affected by top-down and bottom-up factors, which are changing due to human and climate-related impacts. The influences of these top-down and bottom-up factors on kelp beds are investigated in three chapters. My first chapter investigated the influence of glacial discharge on recruitment and early community development in subtidal kelp communities by monitoring benthic sessile algae and invertebrates on cleared rocks across a glacial gradient along with various physical and biological parameters in the summers of 2013-2014. It has been predicted that Alaska's glaciers will lose 30-60% of their volume by 2100. The melt from glaciers increases sedimentation and lowers salinity, impacting important habitat-providing kelp. I found that sites upstream from glacial discharge had higher kelp recruitment than downstream sites, and that up to 72% of the variation in community development was related to mobile invertebrates and kelp in the surrounding community. Glacially-influenced environmental factors did not explain any variation that was not already explained by biological factors. My second chapter explored whether patterns in the recruitment of the dominant canopy kelp, Nereocystis luetkeana and the subcanopy kelp, Saccharina latissima were a result of dispersal limitation or failure to grow to macroscopic size. My goals were to determine 1) whether glacial melt conditions affect adult fecundity (spore production) of either species, 2) how sedimentation affects early gametophyte growth and survival in each species, and 3) whether competitive interaction between species at the gametophyte stage is altered by sediments. I found that glacial melt conditions did not affect the fecundity of either species, but sedimentation affected survival and competition. Saccharina latissima was the superior competitor under high sediment conditions. Because glacially-influenced coastal areas often have little exposed hard substrate and predation by sea otters and sea stars on clams can provide hard substrate for kelp colonization, my third chapter examined methods for determining predation on clams by these predators without direct observation. I found that foraging pits of sea otters and sea stars could not be distinguished using quantitative measurements. In contrast, shell litter proved useful in quantifying relative foraging rates. Clam consumption by sea otters and sea stars was equal at all but one site. Collectively, my thesis chapters provide information on the effects of glacial discharge on microscopic and early kelp life stages in Alaska which can be incorporated into management practices.
    • Spatial trends and environmental drivers of epibenthic shelf community structure across the Aleutian Islands

      Bland, Aaron; Konar, Brenda; Iken, Katrin; Johnson, Mark; Zimmermann, Mark (2018-12)
      The continental shelf around the Aleutian Islands supports important commercial and subsistence fisheries as well as multiple seabird and marine mammal populations. To sustainably manage these populations, more information is needed on the distribution of the benthic communities that support some of the top level consumers. Given the vast size and highly variable physical environment of the Aleutian Islands, it is likely that epibenthic community structure on the continental shelf will vary by geographic area and physical and oceanographic conditions. This project examined spatial patterns in Aleutian epibenthic shelf communities among oceanographic regions (island groups separated by major oceanographic passes) and islands within these regions and identified environmental drivers responsible for important community divisions. Benthic trawls were conducted at 12 Aleutian islands across four oceanographic regions to characterize epibenthic shelf community structure along the island chain. It was tested whether the spatial variability in shelf community structure among regions and islands was correlated to multiple environmental variables including bottom water temperature, water depth, distance from shore, exposure, bottom rugosity, sediment grain size, sediment chlorophyll content, and drift algal food subsidies. Overall, communities differed both among regions and among islands within regions. Communities in the Far Western region (Near Strait to Buldir Strait) differed from communities in other regions, largely due to a high density of sand dollars in the Far West. However, none of the measured environmental characteristics explained this difference. Additionally, there was no evidence for a break in epibenthic shelf community structure across Samalga Pass between the East and the Central regions, even though Samalga represents a biogeographic break for many other Aleutian community types, including zooplankton, fish, and kelp forest communities. Within the Central region, a characteristic soft-sediment community (including the flatfish Atheresthes spp. and the crabs Labidochirus splendescens and Chionoecetes bairdi) distinguished Adak Island from other Central islands. Compared with groundfish trawl surveys conducted by the Alaska Fisheries Science Center (AFSC), this study captured less fish but more invertebrates by biomass, which is likely related to different gear selectivity used by the two studies. These findings provide information on the distribution of Aleutian shelf communities that complement existing information from AFSC surveys. In particular, it is shown that there is potentially an important division in epibenthic shelf communities across Buldir Strait, in agreement with the literature identifying this pass as an important biogeographic break. Furthermore, it is suggested that future assessments of Aleutian epibenthic communities should employ a combination of sampling gear types to better represent various epibenthic taxa.
    • Wasting disease and environmental variables drive sea star assemblages in the northern Gulf of Alaska

      Mitchell, Timothy James; Konar, Brenda; Iken, Katrin; Kelley, Amanda (2019-05)
      Sea stars are ecologically important in rocky intertidal habitats. The recent (starting 2013) sea star die-off attributed to sea star wasting disease throughout the eastern Pacific, presumably triggered by unusually warm waters in recent years, has caused an increased interest in spatial and temporal patterns of sea star assemblages and the environmental drivers that structure these assemblages. This study assessed the role of seven potential static environmental variables (distance to freshwater, tidewater glacial presence, wave exposure, fetch, beach slope, substrate composition, and tidal range) influencing northern Gulf of Alaska sea star assemblages before and after regional sea star declines. For this, intertidal surveys were conducted annually from 2005 to 2018 at five sites in each of four regions that were between 100 and 420 km apart. In the years leading up to the regional mortality events, assemblages were different among regions and were structured mainly by tidewater glacier presence, wave fetch, and tidal range. The assemblages after wasting disease were different from those before the event, and there was a partial change in the environmental variables that correlated with sea star structure. In these recent years, the environmental variables most highly correlated with sea star assemblages were slope, wave fetch, and tidal range, all of which relate to desiccation, attachment, and wave action. This indicates that the change in sea star density and structure by wasting disease left an assemblage that is responding to different environmental variables. Understanding the delicate interplay of some of the environmental variables that influence sea star assemblages could expand knowledge of the habitat preferences and tolerance ranges of important and relatively unstudied species within the northern Gulf of Alaska.