Monitoring the cetacean species living in the Pelagos Sanctuary, in the western Mediterranean Sea

Internship position (6 ECTS)
The Tethys Research Institute is a non-profit research organisation supporting marine conservation through science and public awareness, which is focused on the ecology of the cetacean species living in the Pelagos Sanctuary, in the western Mediterranean Sea. Interns will have the opportunity to gain experience in all the field phases of the research project, collecting and managing a wide variety of environmental and sighting data using different methods, like visual and acoustic surveys, photo-identification, behavioural sampling and acoustic recordings. Main Field Research Techniques: -Visual and acoustic surveys A survey consists of a standard navigation in search of cetaceans with the aim of obtaining data on animal presence and abundance. This is achieved both visually, by having observers always on watch, and acoustically, by towing a hydrophone array in the water. Once spotted, cetaceans are approached and followed for a period that may last several hours. Geographic position, group size, group composition and environmental data are always recorded, together with other variables. -Photo-identification Most cetacean species posses natural long-lasting features that enable individual recognition. The necessary information will be gathered using a digital camera that will make the images ready to be analyzed on board. -Photogrammetry A photogrammetry technique - by means of a camera and a laser range finder - is also applied with sperm whales, to determine the body length of the different individuals photographed. This data can provide information on stock structure and allow estimation of population parameters. -Behavioural sampling and respiration pattern recording Cetacean behaviour is investigated through a series of sampling techniques. Respiration patterns and surface and aerial displays are recorded. The diving behaviour is studied applying Time and Depth Recording Tags to the animals. Finally, passive tracking is used to determine any possible avoidance of vessels that the whales may show as a reaction to the approach. -Vocalizations recordings All the cetacean species inhabiting the Mediterranean basin produce sounds. Recordings of the sounds emitted by cetaceans, especially those of the sperm whale, the striped dolphin and the Risso’s dolphin are systematically taken. This data can be used for different purposes, such as (a) expanding knowledge on marine mammal behaviour, ecology, distribution and abundance; (b) monitoring the level of underwater noise pollution; (c) monitoring critical habitats for the different species; (d) evaluating the effects of sound exposure on an animals’ behaviour. All the data gathered in the field will be added to those collected in the last 22 years in Ligurian Sea and will be used for different studies, like: Distribution of cetaceans and habitat use In order to properly deal with the problems of conservation, it is important to know the distribution of cetaceans, how they use their environment and aspects such as their site fidelity, home range and group structure. Physiographic and oceanographic variables play a major role in partitioning the habitat of the different species. The project focuses both on the distribution of cetaceans with respect to these variables as well as on the behaviour of these animals in order to determine how important ocean depth, substrate, escarpments, canyons, water temperature, salinity and chlorophyll concentrations can be to them. Significant differences were found in the habitat preference of most of the species inhabiting the Sanctuary. Research techniques: Visual surveys, acoustic surveys, spatial analysis, behaviour recording, photo-identification. Population identity and structure Information on population identity and structure are strictly necessary to address strategies for the protection of cetaceans. Genetic isolation or genetic proximity among different populations and among groups of the same population can reveal important information about the genetic flow and social structure. The latter is also investigated through the photo-identification of individual animals. Research techniques: skin swabbing, molecular analysis of mitochondrial DNA and micro satellites, photo-identification. Monitoring cetacean populations – Analyzing trends in abundance and in habitat use The project focuses also on the abundance estimate of the different species inhabiting the Sanctuary and how cetacean populations react to changes in their environment (natural fluctuations of their prey, seasonal variations, habitat alterations, anthropogenic impact, etc.). Population abundance of fin whale and Risso's dolphin have been already estimated using mark-recapture studies. Research techniques: distance sampling, visual survey, acoustic survey, photo-identification, spatial analysis, behaviour recordings, mark-recapture analysis. Public awareness Data, images and sounds produced by the research cruises are used for the production of educational materials, employed mainly in the local schools.
Essential prerequisites for internship applicants are: - a background in biology/environmental science or similar - a strong interest and knowledge of Mediterranean cetaceans - good computer skills - good English language skills - ability to get on well with others in a small team and shared accommodation - be enthusiastic, hard-working, team oriented, motivated and willing to work and learn - be adaptable, and flexible and patient, as fieldwork is highly weather-dependent - be comfortable with living on a boat for several days without the usual commodities - have a good and sociable attitude towards the eco-volunteers - be committed and able to work long hours for several weeks in a row - be safety conscious - be fit and healthy - cooking skills Desirable requirements are: - prior experience on sailing boats - prior experience in boat-based survey work. Those with no experience should demonstrate their willingness to learn - good verbal communication skills and public speaking - experience in interacting with the public - be willing to drive a car
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Reference Number: RP-48331