Innovative Marine Mammal Course Blends Biology, Conservation

Posted: December 19, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Karen Akerlof

How does a university located far from the reaches of the open sea end up with one of the nation’s most cutting-edge courses in marine mammal biology and conservation? It’s due to a species particular to inside the Washington, D.C., Beltway, explains Mason professor Chris Parsons.

Smithsonian Institution photo, Dolphin in Bay of Panama, by Carl C. Hansen, 1991.

The nation’s capital may not support many cetaceans (the scientific order that includes whales, dolphins and porpoises), but it is prime habitat for international marine mammal conservationists. “A lot of the decisions are made in D.C.,” says Parsons.

Policy blends with science in Parsons’ annual spring class, Marine Mammal Biology and Conservation (EVPP 490/505; BIOL 507), where students get more than just a textbook experience. This year, they’ll participate in a mock International Whaling Commission in the weeks before Parsons himself leaves for the international organization’s June meeting. And a planned visit to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., will give the class – a mix of graduate and undergraduate students – a chance to see normally off-limits marine specimens and talk to scientists.

Many of the species most affected by the advance of climate change are marine mammals in Arctic habitats, such as polar bears. “Polar bears are seeing some of the effects first,” says Parsons. The large animals – whose marine diet and physical adaptations such as webbed paws put them in the same category as whales and dolphins – are “very good indicators of the environment,” according to Parsons. The species’ decline has sparked conservation efforts, which Parsons expects will continue to publicly play out this spring as students discuss the same issues in class.

Smithsonian Museum of Natural History
A field trip to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., will give students in the class a chance to see normally off-limits marine specimens and talk to scientists.
Smithsonian Institution photo by Dane A. Penland, 1980.

“You can’t study marine mammals today without studying the conservation,” says Parsons. As a whale and dolphin researcher for more than a decade, member of the International Whaling Commission and scientific consultant to groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, Parsons is up on each new twist and turn in the fight to preserve marine mammal species.

The course’s guest lecturers speak to the current hot topics, such as the effects of sonar on marine mammals and upcoming regulations. Tim Reagan, the head of the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, and Steve Leathery of the National Marine Fisheries Services are regular guests, as well as Parsons’ wife, Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with Humane Society International.

Joe Milmoe, who took the course as an undergraduate, attributes his decision to enter graduate school and concentrate on conservation science to Parsons and the course. “I had no intention of going to graduate school before … enrolling in Chris’ course. The course was intellectually stimulating and related to real-world conservation issues,” explains Milmoe.

Parsons himself says he wouldn’t have pursued marine mammal science as a career if it hadn’t been for a mentor. While he first aspired at age 5 to being a marine biologist after watching Jacques Cousteau, college instructors told him there were no jobs in the field. However, a supportive instructor he had during an undergraduate internship studying humpback whales in South Africa convinced him otherwise. Now, as a professor himself, he tries to do the same for his undergraduate and graduate students at George Mason.

“He’s a very dynamic teacher,” says undergraduate biology major Heather Cooke, who took the course in the spring. “You can just feel that this is something he loves.”

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