This Dolphin Research Made a Splash Despite Pandemic Challenges

Eric Angel Ramos and dolphins recorded by his drone sharing food. (Images courtesy of Ramos)

By BETH HARPAZ
Editor of SUM

When the pandemic shutdown hit in March, Ph.D. candidate Eric Angel Ramos (Psychology) was in Belize studying dolphins and whales. 

“I had to rapidly come back for fear of being locked out of the U.S.,” he said. 

That was just the start of COVID-19’s impact on Ramos’ work. “I’ve had to delay my dissertation by a good half-year because the timing of finishing things was really difficult,” he said. “And a lot of projects I wanted to work on, things I had planned for fieldwork that collaborators had invited me to do in other countries, were completely squashed.” 

Ramos is one of many CUNY students who have been hit hard in these pandemic times. Grants he applied for have been delayed, and his postdoc plans, including a move to Florida, were put on hold. “Instead, I’m stuck in New York paying more money for rent than I want to,” he said, adding that a $1,000 grant he got from The Graduate Center was a “huge help” in paying bills. 

Despite these obstacles, Ramos is already making his mark as a scientist. He’s published a half-dozen articles on marine mammal research this year alone. One of them was even covered by the Daily Mail with a tantalizing headline about “frisky behavior” among dolphins. He hopes to turn in his dissertation soon and graduate in May, and he’s shifted his postdoc plans from Central America to Puerto Rico, where he wants to study the impact of invasive seagrasses on manatees. Ramos spoke with The Graduate Center about his research, his challenges, and his successes — including using social media to network with other scientists. 

The Graduate Center: Your Marine Mammal Science article was based on research you did by boat and by drone off the Pacific Coast of Mexico. You observed rough-toothed dolphins sharing food by passing a fish back and forth while taking bites out of it. Why is this significant?

Ramos: Food sharing is a sign of a certain kind of social complexity. It takes awareness of reciprocal roles to effectively share like this. 

In dolphins, this food-sharing behavior has been reported in only two previous reports, and one of them was from 1979. So it’s interesting because it’s a very rarely reported behavior for this species, and one that we were able to characterize really well by analyzing footage from the drone. 

In studying marine mammals, you see a lot of different versions of what intelligence can look like. Humans are not so incredibly unique in a lot of their behaviors. 

GC: How did the study end up in the Daily Mail? And please explain that intriguing Daily Mail headline: ‘Drones capture rare footage of dolphins socializing with each other out in the ocean as they share food before getting frisky.’

Ramos: Along with the food-sharing behavior, we saw a variety of socio-sexual behavior between different animals, which was interesting but not conclusive. We don’t know if it was a kind of reciprocal sex-food exchange or if it was just coincidence. The odds of seeing them doing multiple behaviors in one group is high. 

My colleague (and study co-author) Jeremy Kiszka, a professor at Florida International University, has a colleague who writes science news for various outlets. After he wrote something for Phys.org, the Daily Mail Facebook-messaged me. It’s only because I’m on Facebook all the time that I saw it in my message requests. I called the guy at like 10 p.m., and he interviewed me. It was cool! Not all studies have the capacity to interest people like this one, but it’s nice to be able to share cool things when you can. 

GC: Your Twitter thread on the dolphin food-sharing is a masterful example of how to present research on social media. What role does social media play in your work? 

Ramos: I wasn’t on social media much until eight or nine years ago. But it’s become an essential tool for everything I do. A big chunk of my publications and projects have come from interactions via social media. And I’ve published enough papers to know that getting your work out to the public is a separate but equally important tangent of publishing in scientific journals. 

The marine mammal community is big on social media. It can feel small, but it is quite large — thousands of people. When you need to find those people, oftentimes email isn’t the best way. I do send emails, but I’ve built enough of a network that it’s easy to connect to them on social media. 

I’ve met collaborators on social media who gave me ideas for papers. Part of the idea for my dissertation came from browsing Facebook and seeing one of my current committee members, Laura May-Collado (Ph.D., University of Vermont) posting about a drone she was getting for her work in Panama. Drones were just coming out then, in 2014, and becoming commercially popular. I went to my adviser, Diana Reiss, at Hunter College [and The Graduate Center], who’s my primary mentor, and our collaborator, Marcelo O. Magnasco (Ph.D., Rockefeller University) and said, “Can we get this? This would be amazing where we work, because the water there is clear.” Luckily we had funding available and I was fortunate to have had advisers who had the capacity and drive to push this project forward. Most of my research for my dissertation is now drone-based.

Social media is also just a good way to connect to colleagues. I live in Brooklyn but I work with people all around the world. And when I was working remotely in Belize on a tiny little island with no cellphone service, I often relied on social media to connect to people and find information. (The island had internet service via satellite.) 

There is this funny breakdown, though. You meet younger scientists on Twitter and older colleagues on Facebook and then Instagram is somewhere younger and in between. 

GC: The pandemic forced you to leave Belize and has delayed your path to a degree. Tell us more about yourself and how you see the pandemic impacting CUNY students. 

Ramos: I’m Puerto Rican. I grew up in Brighton Beach. Similar to a lot of people in the CUNY community, I come from a family with a lower socio-economic status, so there are not a lot of resources to fall back on. Unfortunately, I find that similar to a lot of other doctoral students, graduate school can also be a time of personal loss. I lost my grandparents in the past few years and my mother last year. After all that, it felt like, ‘OK, this year, I’m going to get it together and finish my Ph.D.!’ And then the pandemic hit. 

The stress of minimal jobs and restricted funding has definitely taken a toll on everyone in the scientific community. Laboratory work, survey work, human-based, animal-based, whales, ants — it’s across the gamut. It’s difficult and I don’t necessarily feel like I’m looking at light at the end of the tunnel. I’m just looking forward to a time when things will calm down again.

 

Resources for Students During the Pandemic

If you are a Graduate Center student who’s been impacted by COVID-19, you may be eligible for a grant to help with a personal emergency or to support your research. The Graduate Center’s Wellness Center can also connect students to free emotional support.

 

Beth Harpaz is the editor of SUM. Follow her on Twitter at @literarydj.

Submitted on: OCT 7, 2020

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