Peter Hodum

Updated: December 2012

My research background and interests focus on a variety of questions and issues within avian ecology and conservation biology. I am broadly interested in how patterns and processes in ecology and conservation biology are shaped by mechanisms. In the past, my research has addressed the role of energy in structuring ecological patterns and processes. While still interested in these questions, my research interests have evolved over the years and now focus more explicitly on applied ecological questions. I am particularly interested in conservation-based research, including the impacts of anthropogenic threats (e.g. habitat alteration/loss, introduced species, and interactions with commercial fisheries) on bird population dynamics and island ecosystems. My goal is to undertake applied research in conservation biology that simultaneously addresses basic ecological questions. This is the underlying philosophy behind my current projects on Washington islands, in the Juan Fernández Islands, an archipelago of global biological significance off the coast of central Chile, and on marine plastic debris.

The research on Washington islands, a collaboration with colleagues at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and NOAA, focuses on the ecology and population dynamics of burrowing seabirds, principally rhinoceros auklets (Cerorhinca monocerata) and tufted puffins (Fratercula cirrhata). This long-term research program provides opportunities for student research projects on a variety of topics including aspects of breeding biology, marine habitat use patterns, behavioral and foraging ecology, and conservation biology. Tufted puffins are a species of conservation concern in Washington, and rhinoceros auklet populations declined significantly during the 70’s through early 90’s, presumably as a result of increased mortality in salmon gillnet fisheries. We are particularly interested in using reproductive performance and diet of these species as metrics to assess oceanographic conditions and productivity. With growing interest in the dynamics of forage fish species in the Puget Sound and Outer Coast areas, we are investigating the utility of using these piscivorous seabird species as indicators or samplers of relative forage fish availability and how it may change interannually. Thus, students interested in fisheries biology may find this aspect of the research of particular interest.   

At present, we are working on Protection and Smith islands, at the eastern end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Tatoosh Island, immediately off Cape Flattery, and Destruction Island, on the Outer Coast of Washington southwest of La Push.  In addition to the focal work on rhinoceros auklets and, secondarily, on tufted puffins, we are also interested in a broad range of questions related to island biology and conservation.  For example, European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) were introduced to Destruction Island in the 1970s.  Nobody has quantified impacts of the rabbits on flora and fauna native to the island.  Thus, there are interesting opportunities to develop studies that investigate rabbit impacts, including how they affect populations of two native rodent species, the Destruction Island shrew (Sorex trowbridgii destructioni) and the American shrew mole (Neurotrichus gibbsii).   

Puget Sound is a regionally significant wintering site for a diverse community of marine birds.  During the academic year, there are research opportunities to study aspects of the wintering seabird community, including questions related to distribution, abundance and habitat use patterns.    

Our research program in the Juan Fernández Islands, Chile focuses on the ecology and conservation of the native bird communities, both marine and terrestrial, and the impacts of introduced mammals. Our goals for the project are to combine research on breeding biology, population dynamics and community foraging ecology and trophic structure with applied conservation research to better understand both the ecology and conservation needs of the communities and contribute to conservation and restoration planning. For example, we are studying the breeding habitat requirements of the Juan Fernández firecrown (Sephanoides fernandensis), a critically endangered hummingbird endemic to a single island in the archipelago. Concurrently, we are conducting controlled invasive plant removals within the forest habitat used by firecrowns to assess the effectiveness of plant control in restoring critical breeding habitat for the species.

We are employing a similar multi-perspective approach with the seabird assemblage of the islands, comprised of six species, three of which are endemic to Chile and four of which are globally listed as threatened. The seabird community is extremely poorly studied. Thus, it is necessary that we develop an understanding of breeding biology, including habitat use and reproductive parameters, population dynamics and foraging ecology, in order to better assess the impacts of predation by, and competition with, introduced mammals, breeding habitat loss through anthropogenic erosion, etc.

In addition, I am particularly interested in the role and impact of seabirds as upper trophic level predators and how perturbations in marine communities and ecosystems (i.e. seabird-fisheries interactions, oceanographic regime shifts) may impact populations. These questions will also provide insights into fundamental questions about parental effort and reproductive strategies. For example, with the development of increasingly compact and lightweight remote tracking devices (satellite and GPS), we are now able to develop spatial models of seabird foraging and potential interactions with fisheries by combining data on diet and foraging locations with satellite data on oceanographic features and conditions. We are using this approach to quantify foraging behavior of the pink-footed shearwater (Puffinus creatopus) in the Juan Fernández Islands to better understand their use of the marine environment and the potential threat of bycatch in commercial fisheries.

Plastic pollution is increasingly recognized as an escalating threat to marine ecosystems. The pervasiveness of plastics in our lives suggests that issues related to marine plastic debris will only continue to grow. As such, understanding the impacts of this global marine issue and monitoring trends over time are important priorities. In collaboration with Slater Museum of Natural History, my lab is working on a number of questions related to marine plastic debris by using seabirds as bio-indicators.  

Student Research Opportunities

Having had wonderful research opportunities as an undergraduate student, I truly appreciate the value that such experiences provide. As such, I enjoy creating similar opportunities for students.

My work is primarily field-based, with research on the Washington islands occurring from late May through August and on the Juan Fernández Islands between mid-Dec. and mid-Jan., typically, depending on the season. The research related to plastic marine debris may involve primarily lab-based work or a mix of lab- and field-based research. In addition, I have a number of data sets that need to be analyzed if someone is interested less in the fieldwork but more in gaining quantitative experience in analyses and writing.  

1.  Washington islands research
Funding permitting, I envision continued opportunities for students to conduct research project related to the ecology of seabirds and of islands.  Our focus is on tufted puffins and rhinoceros auklets, but there would also be opportunities to study pelagic cormorants (Phalacrocorax pelagicus) and glaucous-winged gulls (Larus glaucescens).

2.  Puget Sound marine bird surveys
This project, initially focusing on several sites in and around Tacoma, will provide opportunities for students interested in gaining experience in survey methodologies and seabird identification.  In addition, the project will generate a number of possibilities for independent research. 

3.  Juan Fernández Islands research
Funding permitting, there are numerous opportunities for students to participate in field seasons and undertake research projects in Chile, typically during the winter break period.  Projects could focus on aspects of plant, insect, avian, community or ecosystem ecology and invasion biology.  Previously, students have conducted research on impacts of European rabbits on pink-footed shearwaters, colony behavior of pink-footed shearwaters, impacts of cattle on pink-footed shearwater colonies, the importance of light gaps for Juan Fernández firecrown breeding, etc. 

4.  Marine plastic debris research
There are ongoing opportunities for students to become involved in our long-term marine plastic debris program. Students can gain experience preparing and analyzing seabird stomach content samples (as well as learn how to prepare museum specimens) as well as conduct independent research on questions related to plastic ingestion by seabirds. Future work may involve more field-based sampling of plastics in marine systems.

5.  Sample and data set analyses
For students who are more interested in analyzing samples and data sets and subsequently participating in writing up the results, there are a number of opportunities to work with samples and data from the Juan Fernández Islands research program.

6.  Your own project ideas
I am always open to mentoring students who have ideas for their own research projects that may not overlap directly with my specific interests.  If you have an idea for a project that has a conservation or ecological focus, marine or terrestrial, please do not hesitate to contact me.   

Please contact me if you are interested in discussing research possibilities.