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USA Science & Engineering Festival – Role Models in Science & Engineering Achievement

Kristin Laidre

Kristin Laidre --Marine Mammal Biologist

One of the world's foremost experts on the elusive, mysterious Narwhal whale. Her work with native communities in Arctic regions of Canada and Greenland is helping to preserve the Narwhal and other sea mammals from the effects sea ice loss due to climate change

She spends the majority of her time in the frigid Arctic between Canada and Greenland studying one of the most elusive creatures on the planet: the Narwhal -- a mysterious species of whale known for it incredible tusk on its forehead, and for its ability to dive to mind-boggling depths in Arctic waters. But Kristin says her love of marine life and the sea go back to her childhood days growing up in land-locked upper state New York.

"I was always interested in marine biology, marine animals, and even science as a junior-high and high school student," she recalls. "In upstate New York I rarely got to visit the ocean, but when I did (usually on Long Island), I loved it and knew if I could create the opportunity, I'd like to spend more time around the sea."

She pursued that dream, encouraged by her mother, "who supported my independence and creativity, while my grandfather always told me I could do anything and to follow my heart." Such mentors gave her the confidence to survive the competitive process to get into graduate school to study marine mammals -- for which she had to apply twice. And as for field work in the high Arctic, this has also presented challenges. "I've had to get used to living in very remote conditions, eating whatever is placed in front of me, being cold almost all the time, and living out of a small bag for several weeks at a time!"

Why She's Important: Kristin Laidre is currently a research scientist at the Polar Science Center, Applied Physics Lab at the University of Washington, where she is partially funded in her work by the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources in Nuuk, Greenland. In her research as a marine mammal biologist, she has become a leading expert in the study of Arctic mammal species, especially the elusive and mysterious Narwhal whale, but also in the investigation of other Arctic animals such as the Bowhead Whale, Beluga Whale, and different species of seals and seabirds.

But it is the Narwhal that has been most challenging to her. The Narwhal, with its grey and white mottled skin and that incredible tusk on its forehead (in males), is surely one of the world's most enigmatic creatures. It's a true creature of the ice, staying in Arctic waters all year round and diving to mind-boggling depths – over 4500 feet has been recorded. But living where they do in remote and often inaccessible places means that Narwhals still hold plenty of secrets for scientists to uncover. Where do they go to in winter, for example, is still not quite known.

Says Kristin: "It's true, Not very much is known about Narwhals. They have not been well studied and that is simply because they are very difficult to investigate; they live in remote places, far from civilizations (in areas of the Canadian Arctic and east and west Greenland), and they live in a habitat that is dark for half the year, covered in ice for half the year and not easy to access. So any information we can collect on the species is of interest to biologists or marine mammal scientists."

Other Achievements: In her study of the Narwhal, Kristin and her team are also working closely with Inuit native communities in the Arctic to help preserve the whale as a primary source of food for this population, and in saving the Narwhal from the impact of sea ice loss due to climate change.

"In these studies," says Kristin, "we attach satellite tags to the whales to track the movements and behavior of Narwhals. Tags mounted on a whale transmit signals at frequent intervals which are picked up by polar orbiting satellites high above the earth. Many positions are received from a whale each day but not all are adequately accurate because the tags can come off due to the elusiveness of the whales. But satellite tags give us an idea where whales go and also what they did underwater" and what challenges they face in their environment, and how science can assist.

Says Kristin: "Narwhals live in an Arctic environment that is rapidly changing, and as resource managers, we must understand the structure and dynamics of the Narwhal populations in a changing climate so that we can ensure they remain sustainable resources." In addition, Narwhals are very important to native communities culturally and as a food source. The meat, blubber and organs of these creatures have been harvested for subsistence for thousands of years by people in Arctic villages in both Canada and Greenland, she adds.

However, the primary threat today to Narwhals is climate change, Kristin maintains. This includes loss of sea ice habitat and changes in the distribution of their key prey (the Greenland halibut), with warming ocean temperatures. These warmer temperature changes may also soon attract other sub-artic predatory creatures such as killer whales to the region to compete with Narwhals for limited food supplies.

Education: After completing her undergraduate studies, Kristin went on to the University of Washington for her Ph.D. in marine biology, completing her dissertation on space-use patterns of Narwhals in the high Arctic.