Paul Webb grew up in Australia, earned a basketball scholarship to the University of Richmond, and studied elephant seals in graduate school in California before arriving in Rhode Island to take a teaching position at Roger Williams University in 1999. He had sought a job at a small college in the Northeast, and he said his current position appeared “tailor made for me.”
He changed his research focus from elephant seals to harbor seals when he landed at Roger Williams, and he has provided his students with research opportunities studying the
animals ever since. He
also served as chair of the university’s Department of Biology, Marine Biology
and Environmental Science for 10 years.
|Paul Webb photo by Sabrina Polin|
Q: How did you get interested in studying seals?
A: I went to college thinking pre-med. My father was a surgeon, so I always thought I’d be a doctor. In college, my family took a vacation to Fiji, and when I went snorkeling in the reefs there, that did it – I knew I wanted to be a marine biologist. In graduate school, I wanted to work with something big, so I applied to study sharks in Miami, sea turtles in North Carolina, and seals in Santa Cruz. I decided that Santa Cruz was the one. My advisor was a world expert on elephant seals, so I studied elephant seals.
Q: How do you describe your current research animal, the harbor seal?
A: They’re like a fat sea dog. They look like fat dogs in a lot of ways, and they show a lot of the same kind of social behavior.
Q: What’s the most interesting thing about harbor seals?
A: A lot of people look at seals and other marine mammals and think they’re cute and cuddly, but for me it’s the physiology that’s interesting – things like their diving ability, how they can hold their breath so long and go so deep on an empty lung. There’s an awful lot going on behind the scenes that most people don’t even know about.
Q: Seals haven’t always been common winter residents in Narragansett Bay, have they?
A: They were hunted for many years. There were bounties on them in the New England area for a long time, about $5 a pelt, because people thought they competed with the fisheries. But once they were protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, their numbers really took off, and they expanded their range as the population got bigger. We’re seeing more and more in the bay, and now they’ve gone as far south as New Jersey. There’s even a small haul out colony in Virginia.
Q: What do they do here? Just hang out and eat?
A: For the most part, you’re right. They’re not breeding here. They breed in the spring in Maine and Canada. The ones down here are mostly just feeding, The thinking is that we may get a lot of the younger animals down here because there’s less competition for food.
Q: How many harbor seals do we have in the bay in winter?
A: Save the Bay organizes counts, and last year about 600 were counted. That only includes those visible, and there could be a lot more under water, so maybe around 1,000 would not be unreasonable. It has been growing, but it looks like we’re not likely to be getting a lot more as they expand their range further south. The last estimate for all of New England was about 75,000.
Q: Tell us about the research you’ve done on harbor seals?
A: They are notoriously difficult to work with because they don’t haul out on shore much. It’s logistically difficult to get your hands on one, so most of what I’ve been doing is behavioral studies and population counts. I’ve had students looking at vocal behavior and vigilance behavior – when you have a big group, do they spend more or less time looking around for predators? The bigger the group, theoretically, the less time each one has to spend paying attention.
Q: What did you learn about elephant seals in graduate school?
A: They’re amazing animals. We were studying diving behavior and foraging ecology. They’re capable of diving for two hours and going down over a mile deep. They’re incredibly deep divers and incredibly long divers, and based on what we know about their physiology, they shouldn’t be able to do what they’re doing.
Q: Everyone seems to love marine mammals. Why do you think that is?
A: People are fascinated by large animals, so they’ve got that going for them. In some cases, it’s the perceived intelligence the animals have – they have problem solving ability, they have complex communication, they’ve got individual-specific vocalizations in some cases or pod-specific dialects, a lot have very stable and complex social structures. There are a lot of parallels between humans and some of those species. But also it’s their freedom. Everyone says they’d love to be able to swim like a dolphin or hold their breath like a seal and stay under water for a long time. All those things that we see them doing that we’d like to do too is intriguing to us.
Q: Does this love for marine mammals translate into a lot of students studying marine biology at Roger Williams?
A: It’s one of our biggest majors. Marine mammals are what brings them in the door, but once they get here we hope they realize that there are so many other aspects to marine biology they can study. A lot of people come here thinking they want to be a dolphin trainer and three years later they’re presenting their research on the genetics of green algae or something. Part of our responsibility is to make sure our students see the wide range of possibilities and steer them to something that’s in their interest and a viable career option.
Q: What kind of hands-on opportunities are available to marine biology students?
A: There are a lot. Most faculty have students working in their labs on various projects. We’ve got field-based projects, like students looking at mercury contamination in fish and other species. We’ve got a lot of lab-based projects, too, like students studying marine viruses or algal diversity. It’s one of our strengths. Coming in as an undergraduate you can get involved in research with a faculty member right away.
Q: What are the career prospects for those studying marine biology?
A: So many people want to study whales, so it’s not an easy field to get paid in. But for other aspects of marine biology there are a lot of opportunities for jobs. A lot of students go to work for government agencies or to research foundations or labs or aquariums that do research. There are a lot of issues we still need to study. The impact of climate change is going to be big, ocean acidification is a huge issue that we’re just beginning to understand, pollutants and toxicology, issues related to vanishing species, fisheries issues. There’s plenty of science still to be done.
This article first appeared in the Newport Mercury on March 22, 2017.