Diving into marine life mysteries with UOW’s MAVE Lab

Uncovering the work of the Marine Vertebrate Ecology Lab

With humpback whales migrating along Illawarra shorelines, we get daily reminders of the amazing marine life that exists right on our doorstep.

Dr Katharina J Peters is a Lecturer in Biological Sciences and Research Leader of the Marine Vertebrate Ecology Lab (MAVE Lab) in the School of Earth, Atmospheric and Life Sciences (SEALS) at the University of Wollongong. 
The ocean is widely known as the last frontier, and it holds many secrets yet to be discovered. Initiatives like World Ocean Day and ORRCA Whale Census Day on Sunday, 30 June shine a spotlight on the efforts and initiatives aimed to study and protect our marine life.
The Marine Vertebrate Ecology Lab (MAVE Lab) was established at the University of Wollongong’s School of Earth, Atmospheric and Life Sciences in 2023. As Research Leader, I oversee the lab’s search for answers to the burning questions about marine vertebrates, particularly marine megafauna such as whales and dolphins.

Bottlenose dolphin pod in Jervis Bay, NSW. Photo by KJ Peters. Bottlenose dolphin pod in Jervis Bay, NSW. Photo by KJ Peters.
We run a range of different research projects in various locations (or, sometimes just on our computers) to study the ecology of these iconic animals. We are interested in how these species interact with their environment, and how, in turn, their environment affects their behaviour, abundance, and distribution. The team uses a variety of methods including field and remote sampling, ecological modelling, and molecular approaches such as genetics, genomics, and stable isotope analyses to focus on several research themes:

Warming oceans

Climate change severely affects marine life worldwide with warming oceans generating unprecedented cascading effects that include the melting of polar ice, rising seas, marine heatwaves, and ocean acidification. Cetaceans, such as whales, dolphins and porpoises, are ideal indicator species of ecosystem change and ocean health given their high trophic level and cosmopolitan distribution. We study cetacean ecology in relation to climate change, for example by investigating how species ranges may shift in the future with progressing warming of the oceans.

Bottlenose dolphin with a recently captured fish. Photo by KJ Peters. Bottlenose dolphin with a recently captured fish. Photo by KJ Peters.

Foraging ecology

Oceania is home to several species of odontocetes (toothed whales) of different shapes, colours and sizes, feeding on a variety of prey species on different trophic levels, occupying different foraging niches. We investigate the trophic ecology of Oceania’s odontocetes using stable isotope analysis approaches on tissue samples obtained from animals that stranded or where biopsy-sampled in the field.

Environmental contaminants

Given their ecology and life history as apex and mesopredators (a mid-ranking predator), marine megafauna such as sharks and cetaceans accumulate high concentrations of environmental contaminants which are biomagnified via the food web. These contaminants can suppress the animal’s immune systems, causing disease susceptibility, and affect their reproductive capacity. We study the prevalence of environmental contaminants such as per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), multi-residue pesticides (DDT, HCB, oxychlordane, dieldrin and mirex) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), as well as trace metals, in marine megafauna.

Whale and dolphin strandings

In many cases, strandings of whales and dolphins still pose a puzzle for scientists. Particularly mass strandings, where sometimes hundreds of seemingly healthy animals beach themselves, are difficult to explain. We investigate potential connections between mass strandings and environmental variables, such as wind and ocean currents. We also use stranding data to learn more about the involved species, such as their wider distribution and seasonality.

Mass stranding of pilot whales, New Zealand. Photo by Cetacean Ecology Research Group, Massey University. Mass stranding of pilot whales, New Zealand. Photo by Cetacean Ecology Research Group, Massey University.

Get involved

Do you want to contribute to whale research, or become trained to help stranded whales?

The annual Whale Census Day organised by ORRCA is on this Sunday, 30 June. Simply pick your favourite headland and register for this event to log your location. Then, head out this Sunday to start counting our beloved humpback whales. For workshops and training in whale rescue operations, sign up for ORCCA workshops and join the pod of ocean lovers.

Dr Peters’ research with the Marine Vertebrate Ecology Lab (MAVE Lab) demonstrates UOW’s commitment to United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, in particular SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production), SDG 13 (climate action), SDG 14 (life below water) and SDG 15 (life on land).

UOW academics exercise academic freedom by providing expert commentary, opinion and analysis on a range of ongoing social issues and current affairs. This expert commentary reflects the views of those individual academics and does not necessarily reflect the views or policy positions of the University of Wollongong.