Moisture played a role in megafaunal extinctions

The head of Blue Babe - Photo by Matthew Wooller.

The head of Blue Babe, a mummified ice age bison, rests recently in a lab at the University of Alaska Museum of the North. The bison, uncovered near Fairbanks in 1979, was first described by Dale Guthrie, now professor emeritus. Most of Blue Babe's skin was preserved and is now publicly displayed on a model at the museum, but the head and horns were kept frozen. Professor Matthew Wooller and others are now analyzing them to improve our understanding of Blue Babe’s environment. The work includes extraction of collagen from the bones for nitrogen isotope analysis.

by Lauren Frisch

A new study published in Nature Ecology and Evolution reveals that increased moisture levels may have been a primary cause of death for giant herbivores approximately 10,000 years ago.

“The mass extinctions of mega-herbivores across the globe have been an ongoing puzzle for scientists,” said Professor Matthew Wooller of the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences and UAF’s Alaska Stable Isotope Facility. “We looked at carbon and nitrogen isotopes in ancient animal bones to learn about what the herbivores were eating, which can also tell us about what climate was like around the time that the megafauna died.”

Wooller was part of an international research team led by University of Adelaide researchers Alan Cooper and Tim Rabanus-Wallace that synthesized data from hundreds of bone samples from around the world to show that moisture changes played a role in the extinctions.

Mega-herbivores—large vegetarian animals including some species of horses, bison and mammoths that used to tromp around Alaska—rapidly disappeared or declined at the end of the Pleistocene era about 10,000 years ago. The mass extinction coincided with a period of significant environmental change, when the earth transitioned from the last glacial period to the current interglacial period. This was also the time that modern humans began to spread into the Americas.

A lot of environmental changes were happening around the world, and it is likely that many of them played a role in the mega-herbivore extinctions. That’s why it has been exceptionally difficult to piece together the story of why these giant vegetarians disappeared. Understanding how species respond during periods of rapid environmental changes may shed light onto what would happen to modern animals affected by the rapid environmental changes we are currently facing.

‘‘This extinction event had been going on for awhile, but we wanted to study a particularly sharp spike,” said Tim Rabanus-Wallace, a PhD student at the University of Adelaide who spearheaded this project. “That’s when we lost all the really cool things, like mammoths, Steppe bison and giant short-faced bears.”

Digging into this story relies on understanding a number of changing variables. The researchers looked at bone samples from a number of species that lived in a variety of environments on different continents. In order to figure out what killed the mega-herbivores, the researchers had to be able to account for differences in species, environments and continents. This can be accomplished by having a huge number of samples.

Bison bone - Photo by Julien Soubrier.

This Bison bone was excavated from permafrost at Quartz Creek in the Yukon. It was used for DNA and isotope research. Photo by Julien Soubrier.

“We were fortunate to have access to a large data set,” said Wooller. “When you get a new fossil, one of the first things you want to do is date it. This can be done by radiocarbon dating a fossil’s collagen. And this process often generates bonus data in the form of stable nitrogen isotopes.” Scientists all over the world have been collecting valuable isotopic information, but until now nobody has looked at it all together to study the mega-herbivores.

The research team used the radiocarbon data to place fossils from megafauna all over the world on a timeline. The nitrogen isotope data helped reveal what the environment was like when the animals were alive. In essence, the fossils tell us about the conditions that these animals lived in, and the timeline helps researchers study how these conditions changed.

Isotopes refer to the number of neutrons that an element like nitrogen carries. Different isotopes of the same element have different numbers of neutrons, which affects the element’s weight. Distinct environments involve varying amounts of heavy and light isotopes of an element. Wet and dry environments can have very different isotopic signatures in their soils, plants and subsequently the collagen of the herbivores that are eating those plants. Collagen is a protein, some of which remains in bones long after an animal has died. As a result, nitrogen isotopes found in the collagen of herbivores’ bones illustrate the nature of the environment they lived in.

“You are what you eat,” said Rabanus-Wallace. “When you consume food with a certain ratio of heavy and light isotopes, your bones develop a related ratio. So we can learn what and where different animals ate based on the isotopes in their bones.”
The researchers measured isotopes from the bones of animals all over the world with funding from the National Science Foundation, Norges Forskningsråd, Australian Research Council and Australian Centre for Ancient DNA.

Across the board, these isotopes show a spike in moisture just prior to the extinction of megafauna.

“This makes sense for a lot of reasons,” Wooller said. “This change in moisture could have affected the dominant environment that the mega-herbivores were living in.” Large herbivores likely preferred living in cool, dry grasslands. Increasing moisture could have radically affected the ecosystem that they thrived in. Areas that were primarily grassy likely became swampy and eventually transitioned into forests.

The mega-herbivores may have lost their primary food source as landscapes changed. “If you’re adapted to grass, you can’t live in a forest,” Rabanus-Wallace said. “The plants are full of plant toxins specifically designed to fend off herbivores.”

Tim Rabanus-Wallace collects bone samples from Quartz Creek in the Yukon. Photo by Julien Soubrier.

Tim Rabanus-Wallace collects bone samples from Quartz Creek in the Yukon. Photo by Julien Soubrier.

This trend was observed across continents, even though the timing of the extinctions varied.

“We find that on different continents the climate changes happened at different times, but they all showed a similar kind of feature, that moisture levels changed just prior to extinction,” Wooller said. “That’s recorded in the fossils themselves.”

Africa appears to be the outlier, possibly due to the structure of the environment at the time. “Northern Africa has desert on the top, grassland in the middle, and forest at the bottom,” Rabanus-Wallace explains. “It is possible that given the change in moisture levels, the grasslands in Africa just shifted up and down in latitude, rather than disappearing altogether, which would allow species to move in order to keep up with their food source.” The researchers did not have enough isotope data on African species to confirm whether this might be the case.

These results are a good indication that increasing moisture had a significant role in the extinctions, and support the findings from previous, regionally-focused research on the mega-herbivore extinctions. However, this does not rule out that other environmental changes, including the spread of humans, also played significant parts. As the researchers continue to collect a broader range of global samples, it will be easier to piece together the whole story on what caused the extinctions at the end of the Pleistocene.

A press release for this story was published in the UAF Cornerstone.

ADDITIONAL CONTACT: Matthew Wooller,, 907-474-6738.

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Hybridization between native and invasive trout is increasing in the West

The original story was published by the USGS.

New research provides evidence that stocking non-native fish in conjunction with on-going climate change may accelerate the rate of hybridization between species. This may reduce wild fish performance and lessen resilience in a warming world.

College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences professor Peter Westley was part of a team of national researchers who synthesized climate predictions for Rocky Mountain ecosystems, genetic data from 12,878 individual fish, and detailed historical stocking records from 1924-1980 for approximately 200 million introduced rainbow trout. The study found hybridization is increasing over a broad geographic region despite ending stocking practices nearly 40 years ago. Data going back to the 1980s show that 50 percent of sites with long-term data show increases in hybridization, the majority of which were initially genetically pure. The study highlights vulnerability of sites that are close to historical stocking locations and cautions that cold headwater streams may not be resistant to the invasion of foreign genes.

More information on this research can be found in the USGS press release or in the published journal article.

ADDITIONAL CONTACT: Peter Westley,, 907-474-7458.

Close-up of non-hybridized westslope cutthroat trout Oncorhynchus clarki lewisi) from the Flathead Basin in Montana. This fish, its scientific name inspired by Lewis and Clark, represents the genetic and life history diversity of western trout by surviving extreme climatic variation over millions of years. Photo by Jonny Armstrong. Public domain.

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UAF 100 Big Ideas: Diving into icy waters

The original story can be found in UAF 100 Big Ideas.

Photo by Brenda Konar

The 2016 Scientific Diving class lounges in the water in Kasitsna Bay. Photo by Brenda Konar.

University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences faculty member Stephen Jewett pioneered the first university cold-water diving program in the late 1980s.

The UA Scientific Diving program was started in 1988 to address a growing need for scientific divers for industry and academic research around the state. But at first, the small program was limited to professional training, and unable to offer student programs as well.

Striving to fill this void, Brenda Konar expanded the program in 2000 to include the first Alaska cold-water scientific diving course, which was taught out of the Fairbanks campus. Although similarly structured diving programs existed around the country, this became the first university program to focus on tactics for successful cold-water scientific diving.

Photo by Brenda Konar

A small boat is brought to shore so it can be loaded with divers. Photo by Brenda Konar.

Since then, the program has expanded its cold-water training opportunities, and now offers multiple courses that involve scientific diving and various subtidal research projects.

Many of these courses are taught out of the Kasitsna Bay Laboratory near Seldovia, which is owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and operated by UAF.

Students trained by the UA scientific diving program have become a major force in the Alaska-wide scientific diving industry, with projects in Southeast Alaska, the Aleutian Islands, Cook Inlet, the Gulf of Alaska, and the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

More information:

Photo by Brenda Konar

Two Scientific Diving students return from a dive. Photo by Brenda Konar.

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University of Alaska fills need for fisheries professionals

The original story can was written by Margaret Bauman at Fishersmen’s News.

April Rebert

April Rebert, a fishery biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and a master's degree student at CFOS, participates in an ADF&G diver survey in the summer of 2016. Photo courtesy of ADF&G.

From its campuses to broad based research in the field, the University of Alaska’s College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences has for decades produced a wellspring of talent to enhance fisheries on a local, state and national level.

As the University of Alaska celebrates its centennial anniversary in 2017, graduates of the CFOS continue to fill jobs with the state of Alaska, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey and private sector firms on the domestic and international level.

Founded by a legislative mandate in 1960 as the Institute of Marine Science, the program expanded to become the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences in 1987, and in 2016 the school, based in Fairbanks, became the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences.

The 261-foot oceanographic research vessel Sikuliaq, owned by the National Science Foundation and operated by the college, is one of the most advanced university research ships in the world. It is home-ported at the Seward Marine Center in Seward, Alaska. Scientists from the United States and the international oceanography community, through the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System, conduct extensive at sea research projects aboard the Sikuliaq.

What makes the CFOS curriculum so special is that many of the research experiences result in publications, said Gordon Kruse, chairman of the Department of Fisheries.

For the undergraduates, that’s some, but for graduate students, it is most, as it is expected that the graduate students would tend to publish their work in peer reviewed scientific journals, he said.

“Our programs are recognized by fishery professionals nationally,” Kruse said. “Students who complete the bachelor of sciences fisheries degree meet the educational requirements for professional certification with the American Fisheries Society,” he said.

In addition to degree seeking students, the college each year attracts fishery professionals who enroll in courses in fishery management, population dynamics and statistics as part of their ongoing career development and lifelong learning. The college is exceptionally successful in providing graduates for the job market, he said.

Kruse earned a degree in biomathematics from Rutgers University, then went on to earn a masters and doctorate in fisheries at Oregon State University. Based at the university’s Juneau campus, Kruse teaches courses ranging from fisheries ecology to marine invertebrates, and serves on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s scientific and statistical committee.

Trent Sutton, associate dean for academic programs within CFOS on the Fairbanks campus, holds a bachelor’s degree in fisheries biology from Michigan State University, a master’s degree in ecology from Michigan Technological University, and a doctorate in fisheries biology from Virginia polytechnic Institute and State University.

In addition to their teaching responsibilities, both remain engaged in a broad range of research projects on fisheries in Alaska and far beyond the state’s borders.

The faculty of CFOS fisheries currently offers about 85 courses on a regular basis, including 35 undergraduate and about 50 graduate level.

Since 2007 alone, 45 percent of the 69 students who completed undergraduate programs have gone on to jobs with the state of Alaska or federal fisheries agencies, with another 14 percent at work at the university, 14 percent in the Alaska fishing industry, and 27 percent attending graduate school. Those who have earned post-graduate degrees on the master’s and doctoral levels, likewise have gone on to state and federal government employment, work as fisheries consultants or in the fisheries industry, or as educators.

Most of those who left the state are employed at universities, federal and state agencies, other fishery organizations, tribal organizations, or the fisheries industry, and even for universities and government agencies in other countries, he said.

Vera Alexander, now a professor and dean emerita of the university, in 1965 became the first woman to receive a Ph.D. from the University of Alaska. Alexander went on to serve as dean for the first 17 years of the former School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. She also was a visiting professor at the National Institute of Polar Research in Tokyo, and at the University of Turku, in Finland.

In 2004, she stepped down as dean of SFOS, but has remained very active in international fisheries research. When the Sikuliaq was launched in a shipyard in Marinette, Wisconsin, several years ago, Alexander was there for the christening.

“I have my initials on the keel,” she said.

Back when the old SFOS was started, “I wasn’t looking for growth” (of the school), Alexander said. “I was looking for survival.” The tough part was making those engaged in various related courses understand that they were now part of one unit, she said.

The college today, complete with an organized research unit, the Institute of Marine Science, is one of the largest and most geographically diverse academic and research organizations in the state. While the college is based in Fairbanks, courses are available from Nome to Ketchikan and Fairbanks to Unalaska.

So why continue to headquarter fisheries studies on the only land-locked campus?

Alexander is quick to answer that question with one of her own.

“If you study solar physics, do you need to live on the sun?” she said.

Key to the success of the CFOS studies today is the number of scholarships available to students.

The Ladd Macaulay graduate Fellowship in Salmon Fisheries Research, for example, is funded through an endowment and donations provided to the university by Douglas Island Pink and Chum Inc., a private non-profit salmon enhancement organization based in Juneau.

The Pollock Conservation Cooperative Research Center, through the end of 2014, put more than $20 million into marine research and education at COS, and is the largest single contributor to marine research at the university, and that number has only continued to increase, Kruse said.

The North Pacific Research Board, based in Anchorage, and the PCCRC have funded research into the decline in size-at-age of Pacific halibut in the Gulf of Alaska since the mid 1980s, he said.

For example, on average an age-20 female halibut weighed 121 pounds in 1988, but weighted 44 pounds in 2014. That decline has been associated with reduced halibut biomass and reduced quotas.

Under Kruse’s direction, master’s degree student Jane Sullivan examined potential effects of fishing and environment on halibut size at age. “Interestingly, we found no relationship between growth and environmental variables,” Kruse said. “However, this result is consistent with previous findings. Results suggested a negative relationship between arrowtooth flounder biomass and halibut growth (more flounder, lower growth) and a similar, but lesser effect of halibut biomass on halibut growth,” he said. “These ecological relationships explained only about 28 percent in the variability in growth, indicating that other factors were likely more responsible for the declining size-at-age.

However, Jane and her graduate committee constructed an age-and-size structured simulation model that suggested that size-selective fishing can explain between 30 percent to nearly 100 percent of the observed declines in size-at-age since the 1980s, depending on sex, age, and region.

“Size selective fishing is the disproportionate removal of larger fish from the halibut population. In particular, our results indicate that harvest rates were too high during 2000-2014. Recent changes by the International Pacific Halibut Commission have addressed some problems with their stock assessment models which contributed to excessive harvest rates, and there is evidence that further declines in size-at-age may be abating in recent years.”

Additional research into the halibut size-at-age issue is being conducted by another doctoral student, Cheryl Barnes, under the direction of professor Anne Baudreau in another project funded by the PCCRC. Barnes is looking more into the hypothesis that competition between arrowtooth flounder and Pacific halibut has limited the growth of Pacific halibut stocks.

Another master’s student, Casey McConnell, is doing research funded by the Ladd Macaulay Graduate Fellowship in Salmon Fisheries Research into the ecological causes and consequences of straying by examining evidence for stress and competition on the spawning grounds between wild and hatchery produced chum salmon.

The objective of McConnell’s research are threefold. The first is to explain the incidence of hatchery straying by analyzing environmental and anthropogenic factors associated with development during imprinting, and hatchery release methods. The second is to differential stresses associated with correctly homing wild origin and straying hatchery origin salmon through blood cortisol concentrations. The third objective is explain resource competition on the spawning grounds between hatchery and wild origin chum by analyzing dissolved oxygen concentrations and spawner density.

The college today includes the Lena Point Fisheries Facility in Juneau, an alliance with the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward for research on marine fish, birds and mammals, and major enhancements of the fisheries undergraduate program that include support for distance teaching through high-bandwidth audio-video systems throughout CFOS.

Since 1987, more than 650 students have earned undergraduate, masters and doctoral degrees from CFOS who have gone on to careers in fisheries.

Herring spawning timing

(LEFT) During a 2003 project to develop a predictive model of herring spawning timing, Gordon Kruse, chairman of the Department of Fisheries, observed herring spawning on a beach on Summit Island off Togiak. Photo by Naoki Togo, CFOS. (RIGHT) Former master's student Naoki Tojo observed herring spawning on a beach on Summit Island off Togiak. Tojo is now an assistant professor of fisheries at Hokkaido University in Japan. Photo by Gordon Kruse, CFOS.

Given the state’s current fiscal situation, the CFOS faculty is aware of the possibility of some programs being cut, but so far, said Kruse and Sutton, CFOS is holding its own. Theirs is one of the most productive units at the university, and CFOS is continuing to deliver the science that is contributing to sustainable fisheries management, an important contributor to the state’s economy.

Fisheries, as Sutton noted, is wide and diverse and statewide. “There is a lot of interest in it, recreational, commercial, personal use. Everyone has a stake in it,” he said. “We produce over 60 percent of the nation’s fish.

“It’s a tourist destination (for sport fishing). There is subsistence fishing, cultural significance. Fisheries is a big deal in Alaska,” he said.

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Seasonal Arctic lagoons granted long-term ecological research site status

by Lauren Frisch

Beaufort Lagoons bounded by ice, 2 July 2012 (Ken Dunton)

Beaufort Lagoons bounded by ice, 2 July 2012. Photo by Ken Dunton, University of Texas, Lead of Beaufort Sea Lagoon LTER.

University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers will contribute to a new Beaufort Sea Lagoon Long-Term Ecological Research Site funded by the National Science Foundation.

The Arctic Beaufort Sea coast is spotted with lagoons, which are small water bodies protected from the ocean by barrier islands.

Water enters lagoons from river runoff, wetlands and other terrestrial sources as well as from the ocean. The makeup of the lagoon varies depending on the intensity and timing of water input from these different sources.

In the Arctic, water flow in and out of a lagoon is halted for much of the winter, when the water bodies are essentially frozen over. As a result, all water flow is concentrated during peak seasons when the lagoons have open water.

“You go from a system with no connection to land and limited connection to the ocean to a system that has really high peak times of terrestrial input, and a different peak exchange with the open ocean,” said UAF College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences professor Katrin Iken. “It’s that seasonality that makes them a very complex and interesting system.”

The Arctic coast is also experiencing rapid environmental change, due to factors such as melting permafrost and changing concentration of ice cover. These variables are likely to affect how, when and how much lagoons receive water input from the land. For example, if warming temperatures decrease the number of days in a year that a lagoon is frozen over, this increases the number of days that water can flow in and out of the lagoon.

Although the project will be run out of the University of Texas, Iken is leading a component of the research that focuses on understanding food web structures in the Arctic lagoons. This involves learning how critters living in these lagoons have adapted to a unique environment with such a high seasonal exchange of resources, and monitoring how they will cope with environmental change.

“We are looking at the big picture, from terrestrial input and nutrient cycling within lagoon systems to microbes and up through fish and shore birds,” Iken said. “Once you get to those higher levels in the food chain, there is also a strong connection to the local communities up there because they’re harvesting both fish and birds as a source of food.”

UAF researchers Andy Mahoney and Jeremy Kasper will also play a role in the new LTER research. Mahoney (UAF Geophysical Institute) will focus on sea ice conditions as well as dynamics in and around the lagoons. Kasper (UAF Institute of Northern Engineering) will study the complex physical oceanography of the system.

LTER sites are intended to be funded over the long-term. The program is designed so researchers can study and compare distinct ecosystems in order to generate and test fundamental ecological theories. New sites are chosen in ecosystems that are not yet represented in the program, and usually tend to be established in places where researchers have a proven track record of collecting meaningful data.

Coastal erosion near Kaktovik (Ken Dunton)

Coastal erosion near Kaktovik. Photo by Ken Dunton, University of Texas, Lead of Beaufort Sea Lagoon LTER.

Although targeted research projects have been done on the Beaufort Sea Arctic lagoons in the past, this is the first large-scale study to take place in the region.

There are 25 previously established LTER sites, including two in Alaska at Bonanza Creek and Toolik Lake. The Northern Gulf of Alaska LTER was also recently funded by the National Science Foundation with leadership by scientists at the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences.

ADDITIONAL CONTACT: Katrin Iken,, 907-474-5192.


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UAF 100 Big Ideas: Finding a salmon’s origins

The original story can be found in UAF 100 Big Ideas.

Photo by Sean Brennan

Chinook salmon grow to adults in the ocean, but return to spawn in the streams where they hatched. But in 2014, University of Alaska Fairbanks doctoral student Sean Brennan helped develop a way to match individual salmon to their home streams long before they returned.

Brennan analyzed markers that were created in salmon bones by the chemistry of the waters in which the fish hatch and grow. He looked at the ratio of two isotopes of strontium, a natural chemical element in the Earth. Differences in rocks create variations in the strontium isotopes picked up by water that flows across the rocks. The unique strontium ratio of a stream is captured in the auditory structures, called otoliths, of young salmon.

Otoliths grow in rings, similar to trees where the center rings represent the fish’s younger life. By matching the isotope ratios in the inner rings with ratios in rivers and streams, Brennan was able to pinpoint the region and sometimes the tributary where each salmon was born.

Photo by Sean Brennan

His research at UAF’s College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences provided an important tool that could eventually be used to find all salmon hatching and rearing locations.

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CFOS staff profile – Karl Wuoti

by Barb Hameister

Relaxing during a weekend hiking trip on Douglas Island

Fiscal technician Karl Wuoti makes his living working with numbers, but don’t picture him as a buttoned-down, desk-bound kind of guy.

Raised on a small family corn farm in Massachusetts, Karl was working on his BA in Business Management at the University of Massachusetts when a friend told him about an opening for a summer job as a glacier guide in Juneau. “It was a toss-up between the glacier job and being a river rafting guide in New England,” Karl says. “I chose to go to Juneau, because it was completely different from where I am from.”

After graduation, Karl spent the next decade or so bouncing around, sometimes in Alaska and sometimes not. Along the way he was a farmer, a coffee roaster, finance manager of a nonprofit, and a kayak guide. There was even a short-term stint at a nuclear power plant, where he signed out tools to personnel doing maintenance during a scheduled plant shutdown.

In 2014, when Karl was back in Massachusetts, Alaska beckoned again and he began looking for a job that would make the move possible. Luck was with him and he landed his current position as a fiscal technician with the UAF College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences in Juneau.

Karl’s main duties involve travel and purchasing, but as with many small offices, he covers a variety of other tasks as needed. And as befits his eclectic nature, “I’ve also picked up snow shoveling and lawn mowing since we do not have a facilities person here in Juneau anymore.”

Karl appreciates the good working environment he shares with his fellow staff, and enjoys interacting with the faculty and graduate students. He especially likes working with the students, whether they’re in need of purchasing or travel assistance or, on occasion, when they just need to talk. “Grad school can be kind of stressful sometimes,” he says, “and sometimes they just need a friendly ear.”

Besides job satisfaction, Karl’s position with CFOS provides the income that allows him to live and play in Juneau, which has become something of an adopted hometown. “It’s a great place to be,” he says. “And I love the community events that make me feel connected with the town.” He especially enjoys attending local storytelling events, and has season tickets to Juneau’s highly regarded Perseverance Theatre.

But Juneau’s real draw for Karl is the great outdoors. “I really love hiking around Juneau and enjoying the wilderness that’s right outside out my backdoor,” he says. He enjoys skiing, snowboarding, camping, kayaking—“pretty much anything and everything outdoors. That’s why I live here.” He has also used his outdoor skills to give back to the community by volunteering with ORCA, an adaptive outdoor recreation program.

Karl’s love of wild places and adventure frequently takes him around the state and into Canada. Kluane National Park in the Yukon is one of his favorite destinations for camping and hiking.

Hanging out with the elephants in Chiang Mai, Thailand

When time and funds permit, he likes to go farther afield and explore new places and cultures. This past winter he went to Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. “I was blown away by how amazing Laos was,” Karl says. “Vietnam was very exciting and Hanoi is a crazy city that I fell in love with.”

While he sometimes wishes he had the time and money to travel more, Karl is glad to be where he is. “I’m pretty lucky to have a job I enjoy, the ability to travel occasionally, and a great community to come back home to.”

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Long-term site status will boost Gulf of Alaska studies

by Lauren Frisch

Graduate students prepare to deploy the water bottle

Photo by Sarah Thornton Graduate students prepare to deploy the water bottle and sensor package to record conductivity, temperature and depth at a point on the Seward Line as part of the Global Ocean Ecosystem Dynamics program.

A 20-year effort by University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers to monitor the northern Gulf of Alaska’s animals and environmental markers will soon expand.

The National Science Foundation has designated the northern gulf as a Long-Term Ecological Research site and will provide grant money for future science in the area. It is one of two new LTER sites. Each will receive $5.6 million in funding over five years.

Since 1997, UAF College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences researchers have striven to understand the processes that support the region’s thriving fish, crab, seabird and marine mammal populations. Every May and September, the researchers travel by boat along the Seward Line, a route from Resurrection Bay’s mouth across the continental shelf to a point 170 miles offshore. They map the species encountered and measure ocean nutrients, temperature and salinity.

“We have monitored the shelf and Prince William Sound long enough to know where the interesting features are,” said Russ Hopcroft, a CFOS professor and the principal investigator for the new LTER project. “But, until now, we haven’t had the funds to actually dig deeper and learn more about some of the processes and mechanisms behind what we have been observing.”

The funding provided by the new LTER grant will allow the researchers to continue to monitor core ocean parameters across a greater geographic region, add new measurement types and include an additional expedition each July. This will help the researchers better understand what regulates this highly productive ecosystem that supports part of the nation’s largest fishery.

Hopcroft will work with CFOS professors Seth Danielson, Ana Aguilar-Islas and Andrew McDonnell, in collaboration with other scientists at UAF, Western Washington University, Oregon State University and the University of California Santa Cruz.

LTER sites are intended to be funded over the long term. The program is designed so researchers can study and compare distinct ecosystems in order to generate and test fundamental ecological theories. New sites are chosen in ecosystems that are not yet represented in the program and usually tend to be established in places where researchers have a proven track record of collecting meaningful data.

“We feel very lucky to have this opportunity,” Hopcroft said. “It’s a great culmination of our efforts to keep the Seward Line observation program going and demonstrate its importance.”

There are 25 previously established LTER sites, including two in Alaska at Bonanza Creek and Toolik Lake.

The Seward Line program began as part of the U.S. Global Ocean Ecosystem Dynamics program, jointly funded by the NSF and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Over the past two decades, it has received additional support from the North Pacific Research Board, the Alaska Ocean Observing System and the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.

ADDITIONAL CONTACT: Russell Hopcroft,, 907-474-7842

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Lifelong fascination with nature drew Rivera to Alaska

by Lauren Frisch

Pat Rivera

Jennifer Questel photo Pat Rivera, pictured standing at the bow of the NOAA ship Ronald H. Brown during an ocean acidification project in summer 2015, is the facilities coordinator for the UAF College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences.

One of Patricia Rivera’s most vivid childhood memories is from a family trip to a beautiful white sand beach in Panama, near their home at Fort Gulick Army base. Rivera, who was about four years old at the time, remembers playing in the clear, bright ocean water that was no more than knee deep. Behind her, a long line of young stingrays sunbathed, offset in what seemed to be a purposeful pattern.

Growing up in Panama, at the bottom tip of Central America, Rivera was regularly exposed to nature and different environments.

“Even when I was this young, I remember saying to some adult that when I grow up I want to protect the animals,” Rivera said. “That must have come from the great exposure I had to a large variety of animals that were part of everyday life in Panama.”

Rivera, who has worked on and off at the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences since the late 1980s in various research and technical roles, attributes much of her adventurous and animal-loving personality to the positive experiences she had in her outdoorsy, close-knit community as a kid.

She said living on an army base as a child made her feel as though the world was small. Her multicultural community was filled with all sorts of interesting people from different parts of the world. Everyone and everything felt accessible to her, and she appreciated learning from people with different stories and burdens.

“Growing up like this, nobody was surprising to me,” Rivera said.

In addition, Rivera explained, Panama is filled with animals that can seriously hurt you if you aren’t careful.  “We grew up with this very real awareness and respect for our surroundings, which helped foster my desire to protect them.”

Rivera moved from Panama after the first grade, but she maintained her interest in learning about animals, protecting the environment and surrounding herself with complex people.

Rivera’s adventurous nature has led her to a variety of jobs all over the United States. During her time as an undergraduate at the Agnes Scott College she worked as a blackjack dealer. While finishing up her bachelor’s degree at the Florida Institute of Technology, she surveyed loggerhead sea turtles. During graduate school at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Rivera helped pay her tuition by catering. After graduate school, she worked for Fairbanks Animal Control.

Since moving to Fairbanks in 1988, Rivera has worked in various research positions with CFOS, preparing and analyzing soil, water and species samples. Her favorite position with CFOS was as a lab manager for a group that studied the health of Steller sea lions in Alaska from 2004-2010.

Rivera is currently the facilities coordinator for CFOS, where she manages maintenance logistics, tracks equipment and maintains safety standards for the college. This includes coordinating use of freezers and storage to serving on safety-related committees. One committee is a campus-wide group that helps UAF workers dealing with Title IX issues while conducting field work.

UAF’s Pat Rivera, with Nick Delich from the NOAA

Photo by Jennifer Questel UAF’s Pat Rivera, with Nick Delich from the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, samples from an oceanography instrument during a 2014 cruise in the Gulf of Alaska.

When she first moved to Fairbanks, Rivera was quickly drawn to the ambitious lifestyle, as well as the willingness to help others in need.

In many ways, the connection Rivera feels to the people and culture in Fairbanks resembles the connection she had felt to Panama when she was younger. Here she knows friends from all over the world, who came to Fairbanks with different unusual experiences, many whom are excited and inspired by the natural world.

“I was immediately comfortable in Fairbanks,” she said. “People here feel like they can do anything. And whenever I have car trouble, or need help fixing something, there is no shortage of friendly neighbors who are willing to provide assistance. I’ve become very spoiled by the high quality people I have met here.”

ADDITIONAL CONTACT: Pat Rivera,, 907-474-6312

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Professor receives award to study global oceans

by Lauren Frisch

A University of Alaska Fairbanks assistant professor will study tiny animals and particles across the world’s oceans after receiving an award from the National Science Foundation.

Andrew McDonnell, with the UAF College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, received a five-year, $750,000 Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award. The NSF program is designed to support teacher-scholars who effectively integrate research and education. McDonnell’s project will also aim to educate Alaskans about ocean sciences and what it means to be an oceanographer.

McDonnell will use underwater cameras to measure the sizes, concentrations and types of particles and zooplankton in ocean water. This research has implications for how carbon is transported to and stored in different parts of the ocean.

Andrew McDonnell

Andrew McDonnell poses by the UAF sign at the Seward Marine Center. Photo by Claudine Hauri.

McDonnell has used underwater cameras since graduate school but has focused on particular regions. This project will allow him to apply what he has learned to oceans around the world and compare different regions.

“Looking at what is happening from a global perspective will help us better investigate the role of these particles and plankton in the global carbon cycle,” McDonnell said.

McDonnell will create a museum exhibit for the Alaska Sea Life Center focused on the important microscopic world of particles and plankton that are not always seen by aquaria curators and visitors alike. The exhibit will also include information about what ocean scientists do and how they collect samples and data at sea. It will display different sampling technology, as well as videos and photos that illustrate how oceanographers work, especially in the oceans around Alaska.

“The exhibit will be a great opportunity to showcase the research project, but also teach Alaskans what it means to be an oceanographer. We are hoping to inspire those who otherwise may not have access to this sort of information,” he said.

McDonnell’s project also seeks to bring the knowledge displayed in this exhibit to Alaska Native communities with the hope that he can inspire children growing up on Alaska’s coastline to consider oceanography as a career choice.

“A lot of communities around the state are highly dependent on our oceans, but not many oceanographers come from those communities,” he said. “We are going to work towards building up a workforce of Alaska Native scientists capable of studying parts of the natural marine environment that really matter to their communities, economies and cultures.”

The prestigious NSF CAREER award honors junior faculty members who have excelled in both research and education in their fields. McDonnell’s project is scheduled to start in July, 2017.

ADDITIONAL CONTACTS: Andrew McDonnell,, 907-474-7529.

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