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Sara Iverson, professor

A day in the life

Sara Iverson, professor

Sara Iverson_Marine Bio_36001 (214x214)

We have to do a better job of managing the oceans—as humans, we’re dependent on them for everything from food to tourism and regulating the climate. Sometimes people who don’t live on the ocean don’t always have a sense of that. But oceans affect everybody.

Tracking the oceans toward making better policy decisions


Sara Iverson, professor in Dal’s Marine Biology and Biology Departments since 1994, opens a video file on her computer. First, the sound: the fuzzy crackle of wind on a microphone and a deep, insistent roaring. Then, the animals: a pair of massive male fur seals lunge at each other, and it becomes clear the roars originate from them.

“The Northern fur seal is one of the most aggressive pinnipeds,” Dr. Iverson comments. And she knows first-hand: she’s tagged and tracked these seals in the Bering Sea, sometimes stalking through densely packed seal rookeries in small plywood blinds. “Actually, the job of one of the three guys in the box is to protect the person catching the seals from other attacking males,” she explains.

Dr. Iverson believes that “top predators” like fur seals can be used as ‘bioprobes’: “We have new tools to study the animals themselves—and they can tell us a great deal about what’s going on in the oceans.”

Currently, her research activities involve being the scientific director of the $10-million Ocean Tracking Network (OTN) Canada. “It’s part of a global initiative,” she explains, “a seven-year NSERC strategic network project that encompasses the Atlantic, Arctic, and Pacific regions.”

The aim of the project, Dr. Iverson explains, “is to use new acoustic technologies to better understand how animals migrate, how that relates to oceanographic features and ocean dynamics, and the concurrent effects of climate change.”

“Being director is a lot of work, but it’s really exciting,” she says. “It’s an enormous undertaking, coordinating the activities of universities, researchers, and social scientists in the research and towards better oceans governance. We’re not just doing this to see what’s happening, but to inform policy, aid conservation, and change the way people think about oceans.”

Back in the classroom, Dr. Iverson teaches the animal section of the Introductory Biology course, as well as third- and fourth-year animal physiology courses. “I bring in examples from my work to show how basic mechanisms are shared or unique among animal groups—that’s when students pay attention and get excited.”

“And they really do,” Dr. Iverson confirms. “Human physiology can be very dry and fact based. But comparative animal physiology—humans and animals in relation to one another—is so much more interesting. So it’s actually easy to get students excited, especially when you consider charismatic mega-fauna, like seals and bears and their amazing adaptations.”