Published: September 18, 2019
Emma Stange ’21 spent her summer south of the equator on the coast of Namibia, a country in South Africa. However, it wasn’t all sunshine and swimsuits.
A majority of the time, Stange was on a boat with a research team collecting photo identification data of dorsal fins, acoustic recordings, behavioral data and occasionally procuring biopsy samples for genetic information on focus groups of Heaviside dolphins, bottlenose dolphins and humpback whales.
“This internship has checked off a lot of ‘firsts’ for me,” Stange said, listing traveling outside of the U.S. by herself, driving a boat, shooting a crossbow to get a biopsy, disentangling a cape fur seal pup from fishing line, encountering dolphins right under her nose, skydiving and somersaulting down a steep sand dune. “For the first time ever, I felt like I was actually a part of something very special and very important to the marine mammal community around the world,” said Stange.
As a research intern with the Namibian Dolphin Project, Stange collected photo, audio and behavioral data that was used to identify individual dolphins to track their social relationships.
“To collect data yourself and then analyze it to find real-time results and conclusions from your own work is one of the most exhilarating feelings,” she said. “It just makes you want to get back out and collect more data to see what else you can learn.”
Stange, a marine science-biology and environmental science double major, was in Namibia as a recipient of the Timothy M. Smith Inspiration Through Exploration Award.
The annual grant, which is given to stimulate international travel and writing among Honors Program participants, has given students a variety of experiences, such as researching coral reefs in the Bahamas, studying mixed-ability dance concepts in England and researching homelessness in Dublin. The award was established to honor the life of Smith, a lawyer by trade, whose true passion was traveling the world.
Namibia was the first African country to protect its environment within its constitution. However, the marine life in Namibia is under-researched. Stange’s team with the Namibian Dolphin Project was primarily researching marine wildlife in Walvis Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.
On days when she wasn’t out on the water, the team conducted weekly land surveys. They would travel to Pelican Point, a Namibian peninsula exposed to both the Atlantic Ocean and Walvis Bay, which is home to a substantial cape fur seal population, black-backed jackals and various seabirds.
“For every land survey, our team scanned every seal colony for entanglements in plastic or fishing line by taking systematic photos of the colonies. These photos also helped us to build a data log for the compositions of each seal colony including sex ratio, age ratio, etc., in order to observe fluctuations within and between the years,” Stange said.
“Both at Pelican Point and Cape Cross we used a microphone and a boom system to record mom and seal pup calls. Our goal was to follow a specific pup or mom around and track their vocal calls to develop a catalog similar to that of the dolphins.”
Stange was drawn to the work the Namibian Dolphin Project was doing because of her previous research in underwater noise pollution both in high school and while a UT student.
Marine mammals rely on their auditory systems to communicate with one another. Noise from shipping traffic, sonar systems and oil drilling can interfere with marine mammals’ ability to communicate properly. When shipping sounds are at the same frequency level as their communication, it’s confusing for these animals, often leading to health complications and beaching.
“This can be dangerous for the health of marine life, because it effects not only their communication but other activities such as mating and forging for food,” Stange said.
Solving noise pollution can get complicated because politics come into play. Stange is hopeful that through education and awareness, there could be a solution in the future.
“For me it’s educating the public, getting them involved and getting them emotionally attached to these marine mammals and seeing these pictures of what happens to them, and hopefully that will spark some change,” said Stange, who is vice president of philanthropy for the UT Diplomats and lab mentor for biology and biostatistics.
Encouraged by her internship, which helped her build confidence both personally and academically, Stange hopes to pursue a career as a traveling veterinarian and work with wildlife rehabilitation centers around the world.
“I learned how to take myself outside of my comfort zone and experience a new way of life,” she said. “I have a renewed sense of confidence in myself, and I have realized just how strong of a woman I am.”
Story by Mallory Culhane '21, journalism major, and Jamie Pilarczyk, web writer