Choose the best courses to study marine mammals

If you want to study marine mammals but don’t know which courses to take, this post is for you. Multiple times I have found myself confronted with the typical student dilemma of which courses to take. Do you want to work within the marine mammal sector? Then most people will respond with “you need to study marine biology.”. However, neither my bachelor’s nor my master’s was focused on marine biology, and here I am, studying cetaceans.

If you are currently struggling to find the right master’s program, then our post might help you.

When it comes to the choice of courses and subjects, then hang on to your hats, I got some tips for you!

The right focus

When browsing the course catalog, most tend to focus on that one specific word: marine. And that is a good start to narrow the selection of the myriad of courses available. Some universities are lucky enough to have their own courses on marine mammals. However, not all-important classes use the term “marine” as their focus might be on a different environmental system. Many methods and approaches can be transferred to other areas and other species. So, the right focus is essential – which does not necessarily mean every subject needs to be focused solely on marine life.  

Aiming broader

Would you like to focus on marine mammals? Thinking broadly, let’s focus on the second term: Mammals. Of the about six thousand species belonging to this class, there are copious amounts of ways to study them. And the majority includes skills that can be transferred between many species – and even from different courses.

Let us say a course is mostly using birds as the focal species, which was the case for most subjects during my bachelor and master. Birds communicate and migrate, just like a lot of marine mammals do. For example, you will need skills in recordings or tagging to study acoustics or movement patterns. Methods used to tag or record animals, and the software used to analyze collected data are very similar if not even the same for many species — whether birds, seals or whales. The key is to aim broader and choose courses that provide you with knowledge and skills that are transferable to marine mammals.

Data, data, data…

So now you might be wondering, which ones are the right ones if not marine-based? What keywords to search for?  I got a few examples to steer you in the right direction:

The first one pops into my head is probably the one most of us are reluctant to take: statistics or stats. “Unfortunately,” this is a MUST and can be fun once you get the hang of it. It is essential to know how to process and investigate biological data, and there are various types of statistical tools (or software) to make your data shine. 

A course in R is what everyone should have taken at least once. R is a programming language – but do not panic; it is easier (and even more fun) than you might think! Matlab and SPSS are other alternatives, and the uses vary between countries, universities and fields. I recommend focussing on R and having at least a trial course in the other two if possible.

Besides the statistical computing that R can help you with, it can also create graphics, such as maps. However, GIS is more commonly known and is another subject you should look into. GIS stands for geographical information systems that allow us to capture, analyze and visualize spatial and geographic data. Why do you need to be able to map, you might ask? You might like to visualize the coordinates you took of a species, show some hotspots or just a nice map of the research area.

Most biology departments offer courses in both R and (Arc)GIS – for beginners and advanced. Some stats courses include modeling but some universities offer them separately. In the latter case, you should put both stats and models on your list. Models are very useful tools to disentangle and present complex relationships or even to make predictions about the future.

Non-stats courses

If you are passionate about how marine mammals are adapted to their environment, you should choose wildlife biology or ecology. Other options would be molecular ecology or evolution to dive into the genetic world of marine mammals. If cetacean vocalizations are something you always wanted to know more about, you should choose a course focused on (bio-)acoustics. Let’s say you are interested in pollution, study toxicology and environmental chemistry. If you are more into hardcore biology, go for physiology and metabolism courses. If you are into veterinarian science, you can see if your school can let you attend vet classes. The possibilities are endless, and the skills are transferable.

If you do not know yet, it’s alright. You can start with a bit of everything and find out what you like. But more importantly, find out what you do not like!

Practice the theory in the field

Although my studies were strictly speaking not related to the marine environment, I am currently writing my MSc thesis on humpback whale acoustics in northern Norway. What helped me get a brilliant project like this was the choice of courses and work experience

During both my bachelor’s and master’s programs, I’ve interned in a variety of cetacean research projects. These projects helped me apply and improve my theoretical knowledge and skills in the field. The MARMAM email list is your new best friend to find internships. You can also join Facebook groups. You can contact Wildlife/Whale Watching operators or researchers directly if you are looking for a project. To find more information about internships or volunteering experiences, you can click here.

Another form of practice might be conferences. If you have the chance, attend a conference to get yourself out there and expand your professional network!

In a nutshell

So, it is not all about marine biology when studying and working with marine mammals. It is the knowledge and skills you will learn that count.

  • If you have flexibility in choosing your own courses within your programme, go for stats.
  • If you cannot find courses on marine mammals specifically, you can still transfer knowledge from other courses and apply them to whales.
  • Try to aim broader. Just because you have been focussing on a different species right now does not mean the door to marine mammals is closed. There are plenty of researchers out there who’s theses and dissertations were on birds or other not even distantly related to marine-mammal-species. Now they are well-known within the marine mammal field.
  • Network, and volunteer to get some precious contacts and end up working on the project of your dreams
Animal Ecology MSc student at Lund University

Saskia Cathrin Martin is an MSc student in Animal Ecology at Lund University, Sweden. Her focus is cetology, with main research interests in population ecology and bioacoustics. In her current projects, she is investigating the lunar cycle influence on cetaceans in the Azores and the song structure of humpback whales in Northern Norway.

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