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MSU’s Zipkin Takes Key Role in Large-Scale Seabird Study

With a length of 35 to 45 inches, the Magnificent Frigatebird is the largest species of frigatebird. It occurs over tropical and subtropical waters off America, between northern Mexico and Ecuador on the Pacific coast, and between Florida and southern Brazil along the Atlantic coast. Photo courtesy of Elise Zipkin.

Flying 200 feet above the oceanic waters of the Gulf of Mexico, scientific observers peer out a small plane’s windows in search of seabirds. Sometimes they see a flock of birds, or just a few, but nevertheless, they document the species, how many, and where they saw them.

Back at Michigan State University (MSU), quantitative ecologist Elise Zipkin will play a lead role in the model development of aerial seabird data for the Gulf of Mexico Marine Assessment Program for Protected Species (GoMMAPPS). The study area spans the coast from the Texas-Mexico border down to the tip of Florida.

MSU will receive $300,000 for its role in the multi-million dollar, four-year venture funded by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), part of the U.S. Department of the Interior. The project is anticipated to be one of the most spatially extensive avian research efforts in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

Researchers will document the distribution, abundance and diversity of bird species to help better inform regulatory decisions that influence the conservation of migratory birds, such as the masked booby and magnificent frigatebird. The overall effort will also study marine mammals and sea turtles using both aerial- and vessel-based surveys.

Elise Zipkin

Elise Zipkin

“Trying to figure out what’s going on at such a large spatial scale makes it a real challenge, because obviously we will not be able to survey the whole area,” said Zipkin, an assistant professor in the Department of Integrative Biology in the College of Natural Science. “We need to think of clever ways to design the survey and analyze our data to deliver meaningful results in terms of the ecology of seabirds and any potential anthropogenic impacts on the ecosystem.” 

Zipkin is working in collaboration with partners at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The team completed a pilot field season over the course of two weeks this past summer, with the next round of surveys set for February 2018. Flights took place from the nearshore environment out to 50 nautical miles offshore.

“During our pilot season, we explored the use of hexagon-shaped flights against traditional straight line flights as a means to maximize data collection,” Zipkin said. “Right now, we are examining the data from the two different collection techniques to evaluate the optimal design for our upcoming winter surveys.”

After two more years of data collection, the project’s last year will be dedicated to analyzing and modeling the data.

MSU graduate student Allison Sussman has been working with Zipkin in the project’s early stages, and plans to continue working on the project as a database manager for the USGS in Maryland after she graduates in December. Graduate student Matt Farr will begin preliminary modeling work on data collected this past summer, and Zipkin plans to recruit another graduate student to begin work this fall.

The models and other empirical data will be used to interpret the influences of natural and anthropogenic variables on avian species. Other factors that will be evaluated include presence and density of offshore oil and gas platforms; proximal fisheries activities; micro-habitat and forage indicators; oceanographic features; and broad scale weather patterns.

Zipkin recently completed a project documenting water bird hotspots in the Great Lakes.

Banner image: With a length of 35 to 45 inches, the Magnificent Frigatebird is the largest species of frigatebird. It occurs over tropical and subtropical waters off America, between northern Mexico and Ecuador on the Pacific coast, and between Florida and southern Brazil along the Atlantic coast. Photo courtesy of Elise Zipkin.

  • College of Natural Science website

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