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"I am excited to apply what I have learned thus far to the marine world as a Liber Ero Postdoctoral Fellow at SFU, where I will be studying southern resident killer whales in the Salish Sea."
Postdoctoral Fellow Profile: Peter Thompson
ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE Postdoctoral Fellow in the Faculty of Environment
I am a quantitative ecologist interested in developing innovative statistical methods that can be used to solve urgent problems in wildlife conservation and management. I earned my B.S. in Statistics from the University of Maryland and recently completed my Ph.D. in Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta. My ecological interests lie in animal movement modelling, and I am interested in uncovering how the spatial distributions of wild animals are affected by human activity in their habitats. Up to this point, I have explored this question in the terrestrial world, analyzing the movement patterns of bears, wolves, caribou, and more in Canada’s interior. I am excited to apply what I have learned thus far to the marine world as a Liber Ero Postdoctoral Fellow at SFU, where I will be studying southern resident killer whales in the Salish Sea. When I’m not doing science, I enjoy birding, running, and getting out in nature.
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO COME TO SFU?
SFU’s Faculty of Environment is extremely strong and full of brilliant scientific minds that I am excited to connect and collaborate with. Dr. Ruth Joy, who is involved in a variety of exciting conservation problems, will be my primary supervisor while I’m at SFU. Situated by the shores of the Pacific Ocean, it allows me to be physically close to a high diversity of marine mammals, including southern resident killer whales.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR RESEARCH OR YOUR PROGRAM TO A FAMILY MEMBER?
Humans have radically changed the world in many ways. For animals that have been genetically adapted to a world without this level of disturbance, this could result in catastrophic consequences including extinction. Identifying and conserving animal populations that are both important and sensitive to human-induced environmental change is a key challenge facing ecologists such as myself. The southern resident killer whales (SRKW) are such a population; these marine apex predators are culturally valuable to First Nations in the area, and there are only 73 of them left. These 73 whales are divided into three social groups, known as pods, that move through the highly crowded waters of the Salish Sea. Here, they encounter all sorts of marine vessels, from privately owned recreational crafts to hulking freighters that ship cargo across the Pacific Ocean. All these boats can harass the whales through physical displacement, but more importantly, their propulsion mechanisms are very noisy, limiting the ability for killer whales to communicate and forage underwater. We are worried that the constant pressure these boats produce may be inhibiting the whales’ ability to move freely through the Salish Sea, and we want to know more about what kinds of vessel behavior are most impactful to their survival. Answering this question requires knowing where the whales are going, and we have datasets that report visual observations at the surface as well as underwater hydrophone recordings of the whales’ calls. As part of my project, I will develop novel statistical methods that integrate these data sources to produce the clearest possible picture of the whales’ marine space use. Through these methods we hope to identify areas that the whales would typically use for foraging but avoid because of vessel traffic. We also want to characterize the effect that different vessel types have on whale movement. By collaborating with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, we hope that our work can have real impact on the survival of southern resident killer whales by managing how boats move in the Salish Sea.
WHAT ARE YOU PARTICULARLY ENJOYING ABOUT YOUR STUDIES/RESEARCH AT SFU?
I’m excited to meet and work with the wonderful faculty members and postdocs at SFU. There’s a fantastic diversity of backgrounds and scientific perspectives in the department, including of course Dr. Ruth Joy, who I’ll be working with.
HAVE YOU BEEN THE RECIPIENT OF ANY MAJOR OR DONOR-FUNDED AWARDS? IF SO, PLEASE TELL US WHICH ONES AND A LITTLE ABOUT HOW THE AWARDS HAVE IMPACTED YOUR STUDIES AND/OR RESEARCH.
I have received the Liber Ero Postdoctoral Fellowship to work on southern resident killer whales here at SFU. The Liber Ero Program emphasizes and prioritizes developing their fellows into conservation practitioners, and my interest in the program was driven by a desire to learn more about how to convert science into real-world change. I’m extremely grateful and excited for the opportunity that the program has given me to conduct innovative and goal-oriented science while also growing and learning as a person.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR PROGRAM/POSTDOC POSITION TO SOMEONE STILL SEARCHING FOR A PROGRAM OR POSTDOC POSITION?
As a postdoc at SFU, I will be working with and learn from a fantastic network of excellent scientists. For those interested in science-informed conservation, it is an excellent environment, and being part of the Liber Ero Program makes this experience even more fulfilling.