What's in your vomit? Foster Scholar Anna Robuck explores contaminants in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary

By Yaamini Venkataraman

November 2017

Bird vomit is important for Anna Robuck. After a lot of practice as a wildlife rehabilitator, Robuck is now able to deftly flush the stomach contents from a bird. The bird beats a hasty retreat away unscathed, and Robuck is left with a treasure trove of diet information.

robuck holds a juvenile herring gull
Upon certification as a wildlife rehabilitator at the Wildlife Clinic of Rhode Island, Anna practiced lavage, or the flushing of stomach contents, on dead birds under strict supervision before she was permitted to work on live animals. Here she holds a juvenile herring gull. Photo courtesy of Anna Robuck

As a Ph.D. student at the University of Rhode Island and a Dr. Nancy Foster Scholar, Robuck connects the great shearwater’s diet with emerging contaminants in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Shearwaters are migratory birds that feast on the buffet of forage fish and squid in the Gulf of Maine in preparation for their long migration to islands in the South Atlantic. At Stellwagen Bank, they can be exposed to toxins from Boston’s urban runoff or passing ships. Looking at what shearwaters put into their systems allows Robuck to understand what contaminants are present in the larger ecosystem.

Robuck isn’t expecting to find high levels of contamination in the sanctuary. “I don’t think this project is necessarily looking for a smoking gun,” she says. “I was looking at the sanctuary management plan, as well as associated water quality information, and there just hasn’t been a lot of work on emerging contaminants.” Robuck explains that at Stellwagen Bank there is “a data gap that could very easily be addressed and provide a lot of information to other ongoing sanctuary projects.”

two great shearwaters
By studying great shearwaters, Robuck tracks contaminants in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Peter Flood

So far, Robuck has looked at contaminants present in young shearwaters. While there’s still a lot of work for her to do before she can draw broader conclusions, she has found dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) in tissue samples. DDT was used as a pesticide until it was banned in 1972 in part because of its negative effects on bird reproduction. Seeing DDT in young shearwaters now means that they’re getting the contaminant from their diet, indicating it’s still present in the ecosystem.

robuck conducts chemical analysis in a lab
Robuck uses chemical analyses to see if there are any contaminants in the stomach contents of shearwaters that feed in and near Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Photo courtesy of Anna Robuck

But before she can draw any large conclusions from this information, Robuck still has a lot of work to do. Ideally, she’d like to use more samples to make sure what she’s finding is relevant to the sanctuary. While her limited data set may highlight patterns here and there, she’ll only know if they’re significant across the population by looking at more shearwater stomach content samples.

Robuck’s work would not be possible without her partnership with Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. “It’s been a dream to work with the sanctuary staff,” she says. “I don’t know if the work would be doable without their monitoring, infrastructure, personnel, and the environment: what’s living there and the fact that people care about what’s living there.”

A range of user groups, including fishermen and environmentalists, find value in multi-use areas like Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Research coordinator Dr. David Wiley and his colleagues take these stakeholder interests into account when they formulate research questions and design their science missions. Using Robuck’s work, the sanctuary can also address issues raised in the sanctuary’s water quality action plan.

“Anna’s work will open a new page in our understanding of the sanctuary,” Wiley says. “Her ability to identify contaminants — particularly newer substances — and track them through the food web to predators such as shearwaters has been a priority for many of our user groups. Anna will enable us to finally make good on a portion of our management plan that has been neglected.”

robuck and research coordinator dr. david wiley lavage a great shearwater
Robuck works with Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary research coordinator Dr. David Wiley to lavage a great shearwater. Robuck’s partnership with the sanctuary will allow sanctuary managers to understand possible contaminants in the sanctuary and provide that information to the public. Photo courtesy of Anna Robuck

So, does Robuck enjoy her project analyzing shearwater vomit? The short answer is yes, but the long answer is even better.

“The staff, working with sanctuary user groups, the biological diversity — it’s astounding. I can’t pick out one thing that’s my favorite. I really just love the whole experience with them.”

Yaamini Venkataraman is a volunteer social media intern at the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and a graduate student at the University of Washington.