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Research Methods in Coastal Wildlife

Overview: How do we know what is “true” in ecology? How can we research and understand the ecology of coastal vertebrate species to inform conservation? Why do coastal wildlife species occur in one place, but not another? Ecological insights and conservation decisions are only as good as the data that fuel them, but coastal wildlife species offer unique challenges to data collection and analysis.

Research Methods in Coastal Wildlife takes students through all the steps of ecological research: (1) forming good, testable questions; (2) turning questions into hypotheses; (3) creating sampling designs; (4) statistical tests of hypotheses; and (5) seating results into the body of ecological theory. Moving daily from classroom concepts to boat-based field work, this is more than a whale-watching course; we will discover the interacting abiotic and biotic processes affecting the distribution of marine mammals and seabirds. Informed by lectures on spatial ecology, mammalian ecology, and conservation biology – with a focus on the practical realities of conservation management – we will conduct boat-based sampling to implement the concepts we learn. RMCW is equal parts ecological theory, field data collection, and statistical modelling using the latest techniques for studying coastal wildlife distributions. We will work together using student-led seminars, peer teaching, and group research projects to design, collect, analyze, and interpret ecological data.

Research Skills: You will learn ecological principles of species distributions, and the latest survey and analysis methods for wildlife. We will be using R for data analysis – a flexible, open-source statistical program you will encounter frequently as an ecologist, so why not learn it now? We will take you from a brief refresher of parametric statistics basics through more advanced methods, including regression for non-normal distributions, generalized linear mixed models, and multi-model selection. As one student put it: “No one has ever taught me statistics like I’m a human before.” This is our objective.

Practical Skills: Scientific method from question formation, experimental design, surveying, analysis, and interpretation. We will use cutting-edge techniques, recently developed, that promise to be in future demand. Moreover, they are fun when done right. The ecological concepts we discuss will provide a solid basis for anyone interested in continuing in ecology as a consultant, researcher, or manager. Peer teaching sessions will help you practice working in groups (as almost all work is done in the real world), as well as your public speaking skills.

Prerequisites: Third year standing in biology, intro ecology, and intro statistics, or instructor permission. Students without a good statistics background must be prepared to do some background legwork before arriving.

Physical Requirements: We will be outside for at least part of most days. The surveys are largely boat-based; these surveys in tidal waters can be choppy, so students must be comfortable in boats. Additional field trips may require hiking through rain forests, walking in rubber boots along slippery rocky intertidal zones, and getting in and out of boats.

Boat Use: All our field work is boat-based, and you will be given the opportunity to drive boats yourself. Boat driving is strongly recommended but not required. Students who wish to drive boats at BMSC must hold a PCOC and valid first aid certificate and will participate in an introductory boat check-out on the first day of orientation.

Textbook: None; readings will be provided.

 

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