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  • Writer's pictureMMRP

Tagging along

Updated: Sep 12, 2022

Written by Augusta Hollers

I am very excited and grateful to be starting my PhD at the MMRP! For my dissertation I will be using CATS tags to look at the fine-scale movement and acoustic behavior of humpback whales in their Hawaiian breeding grounds and Alaskan feeding grounds. I am looking forward to getting more experience working in the field, and getting to help tag the animals I'll be working with. Iʻm also so glad to work in a lab with a focus on conservation and management of marine mammals. I received a fellowship from the East-West Center, and am thankful for the opportunity to use my research to aid in community-based conservation efforts across the Asia-Pacific region.

Itʻs almost embarrassing how I first actually became interested in whales: When I was 15, I visited my friend in Atlanta, and we saw a beluga whale at the Georgia Aquarium. I just decided right then and there that she was my favorite animal ever and I wanted to learn everything I could about whales. She was captivating, and also playful and goofy, even after spending her life in a tank. My teenage whale obsession was encouraged by the fact that I also enjoyed biology class. From then on, my deep interest in marine mammals stayed with me through the years, even as I explored other disciplines and passions.

My general interest in science stemmed from my love of being outside. I grew up in Carrboro, North Carolina and spent every summer at Camp Celo, taking care of farm animals, swimming in the river, and backpacking in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Spending so much time in the forests and rivers sparked my general curiosity in the natural world and instilled in me the values of living simply and caring for the environment.

Image 1: the Camp Celo garden in midsummer

I left the South for a while and ventured north to Amherst College, where I decided to major in biology, and focus my studies on animal behavior. I also loved taking geology and French, and playing ultimate frisbee. While Amherst College did not have a specific marine biology program, I was able to take classes at the surrounding universities, and completed a Five College Consortium Certificate in Coastal and Marine Science. I decided to spend my third year away from Amherst College in order to gain more marine scientific research experience, and figure out if I still really wanted to be a marine biologist. In the fall, I began the Semester in Environmental Science at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA. I conducted my independent research project on cuttlefish camouflage behavior in Roger Hanlon’s lab. In the spring, I moved to Christchurch, New Zealand where I studied at the University of Canterbury. I conducted my final research project on southern right whale migration patterns with Travis Horton, using ARGOS satellite tag data to investigate whether the whales used sunrise and sunset cues to depart on their eastward migration. I also loved backpacking in the beautiful National Parks and learning how to whitewater kayak!

Image 2: Hiking in Queenstown, NZ

When I returned to Amherst College for my final year, I worked with Sarah Goodwin, in Ethan Clotfelter’s lab, researching sexual selection in crickets through their acoustic behavior. My project examined the role of social experience in the mating systems of insects. Specifically, I investigated whether female crickets who had been exposed to desirable male mating calls were less likely to be attracted to an unattractive male call than naïve females. While not a marine mammal, working with crickets gave me background knowledge and tools in the field of acoustics and social behavior.

Image 3: Amherst College in the fall

After graduating from Amherst, I decided to pursue a Masters of Marine Mammal Science at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. I was drawn to working with tags and acoustics for my masterʻs thesis because it would allow me to study the detailed behavior of whales. I designed a thesis project with Patrick Miller examining the unexplored social behavior of male sperm whales at high latitude feeding grounds using data from DTAGs deployed simultaneously on pairs of whales. I wanted to know how male sperm whales socially interact, and how acoustic signals from other whales alter their short-term decisions and behavior. I found that male sperm whales participate in vocal exchanges of coda calls and slow clicks, and adjust the amplitude of social calls based on their distance from the intended receiver. Although analyzing data and writing my thesis from home during the pandemic was difficult, overall I enjoyed my research and wanted to continue on to a PhD.

Image 4: The cathedral ruins in St. Andrews

I took some time off from school during the pandemic, and spent two years back in North Carolina working as the assistant director of Camp Celo. I led middle-schoolers on backpacking trips during the summer, and in the off-season I worked in the camp office. I also was a nanny part-time, milked the goats every day, and chopped wood to keep our house warm in the winter. I really loved living in the small Celo community, but I felt ready to start my PhD and live by the ocean again. I am looking forward to getting settled in Hawaiʻi and beginning my dissertation research!

Image 5: Crabtree falls, one of my favorite hikes in Celo
Image 6: My favorite goats, Maria and Thor
Image 7: Sunrise from the Black Mountain ridge



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