Lindsay Moulton ’15 gently grasps the webbed foot of a herring gull chick as it vigorously kicks her hand away. “All right, Pele, calm down,” she coos and jokes, “this one could be in the World Cup.” Moulton’s humor is appreciated under the harried conditions of the field research in which she plays an integral role as this summer’s ornithology intern at the Shoals Marine Laboratory on Appledore Island. In this ten-week Research Internships in Field Science (RIFS) program of the Shoals Marine Laboratory, Moulton will develop research skills through actively taking part in the safe handling of wild birds, leg banding for identification, drawing blood for DNA testing, and sampling feathers for measuring radio isotopes to determine what the gulls are eating.
As a Zoology major in UNH’s College of Life Sciences and Agriculture (COLSA), Moulton developed her interest in birds—particularly the rehabilitation of raptors—during an ornithology class with Professor of Zoology Dr. James (J.T.) Taylor. “It was absolutely engaging,” says Moulton. “Dr. Taylor would take us on birding trips to view eagles, owls, and water birds at the Parker River Reserve in Massachusetts.” In addition, the students visited various local bogs as well as Adam’s Point in Durham to study native and non-native birds in these habitats.
After learning about the RIFS opportunity at the Shoals Marine Laboratory during a presentation by Assistant Director for Appledore Programs Dr. Jim Coyer, Moulton applied for an internship and was later accepted. The Shoals Marine Laboratory—established in 1966 by UNH and Cornell University, and jointly operated ever since—is unique among marine research laboratories in its mission to foster undergraduate research opportunities. As Director of the Shoals Marine Laboratory, Dr. Jennifer Seavey has advanced such opportunities through establishing additional internships for truly immersive, field studies-focused experiential education in underwater research, engineering, sustainable engineering, horticulture, and more. In addition to research internships, there is an average of twelve courses offered each summer—including Field Ornithology, Anatomy and Function of Marine Vertebrates, Evolution and Marine Diversity, Wildlife Forensics—which are typically team taught by experts in the field and have a low student-to-faculty ratio. “There are very few labs with a core mission that has a primary focus on undergraduate education and research,” says Seavey. “Our students are living and breathing their course or research topics, with a minimal distraction level, learning by fully immersing themselves in our island classroom.”
One of those students, Animal Science and Pre-Vet major Justin Stilwell ’11 is now pursuing his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Florida. “Justin is a rock star on Appledore,” says Seavey. “He’s taken six courses here—more than any other student—and has worked on gull research for five years. He started out as a ornithology intern, like Lindsay, and now he’s in charge of gull banding.”
In spite of his expertise with birds, Stilwell is interested in becoming a veterinary pathologist in order to work with fish. “I’d like to teach a fish disease course at the Shoals Marine Lab,” he says. Meanwhile, he’s happy to share his knowledge of the gulls, teaching students how to properly restrain the seabirds to prevent injury and take samples for further research. “In hotter weather, the gulls’ veins are dilated to dissipate their body heat and it’s easier to draw blood,” says Stilwell who teaches bird anatomy and physiology to the group before anyone physically handles the seabirds. “There aren’t many places like this where you can help with gull banding. A lot of banding stations focus on songbirds, some do raptor banding, but very few involve seabirds,” says Stilwell. “In a class on campus, you learn in the classroom, in the lab, and during a field trip. Here you experience all that, but you’re also living it,” says Stilwell, noting that during bird migratory seasons, students often see over 120 different species of birds on the 95-acre island. “In addition to the field aspect, there’s a research project component to most Shoals classes. So you not only get the benefit of experiential education, but also develop experience in collecting data and learning what field research is all about and how it works.”
“Getting bands on the gulls is very challenging,” says Moulton, who observes that she’s gotten better and faster with practice. “It’s really important to get the chicks in and out quickly [from field research sampling] so they don’t get flustered and overheated.” Moulton’s research project, overseen by Principal Investigator Dr. Julie Ellis of the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and Dr. David Bonter of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, aims to compare sub-adults—who are usually first time nesters—with adults through analyzing chick growth and mortality rates between these groups. “The theory is that sub-adults have a harder time in life, but based on my data I’m not seeing much of a difference.” Moulton is still collecting data by measuring weight and head-to-bill length, calculating how long the gulls nest on Appledore Island, and recording their dates of death. Additionally, she takes blood samples from gulls to send to Cornell for further testing, which includes DNA barcoding. “If we have the blood of the parents, we can do paternity tests,” says Moulton. “We can record whether or not the gulls are participating in what’s called extra pair paternity during which the males leave their nest to copulate with females from other nests.”
Moulton is excited to contribute to the broader gull research, which has been ongoing at the Shoals Marine Laboratory since 2004. “I’m interested in tracking where these birds go and how they are doing when they come back. Through this research, I can see how often they reproduce and what their offspring do. With re-sight data, paternity, and genetics, I can track how a bird is moving throughout its life,” says Moulton.
Stilwell knows how important Moulton’s contributions are to gull research and beyond. “Seabirds are an excellent sentinel species to study for impacts on the ocean. Gull populations have been declining from Maine to New York for a few decades now,” says Stilwell. “Our monitoring of them and learning about their ecology and behavior is key to managing the population as well as managing our impact on them and the environment.”