Birgitte McDonald

Birgitte McDonald and students

Moss Landing Marine Labs Assistant Professor Birgitte McDonald (left) shares a satellite tag with Lauren Cooley, ’21 MS Marine Science and Parker Forman, ’21 MS Marine Science. Once attached to a marine mammal, the tag transmits to the Argos satellite network and allows researchers to determine the animal’s location.


Marine mammals in extreme environments

To survive and reproduce in an ever-changing world, organisms must adapt, both behaviorally and physiologically. These adaptations are precisely what Birgitte McDonald investigates, with a focus on marine mammals that survive in extreme environments.  

Marine mammals are an ideal study system because of their large size variation, geographic distribution and daily challenges, including hypoxia, extreme temperatures, and fasting. McDonald’s research addresses fundamental questions in their life history and ecology with a special interest in divers. Already her research has improved our understanding in how divers manage their oxygen when balancing the conflicts of exercise and the need to conserve oxygen during natural and disturbed dives.

“Understanding the mechanisms that allow an organism to interact and survive in its environment is crucial for predicting, and potentially mitigating, their response to climate change,” she explains.

All of McDonald’s graduate students participate in her research, both locally and internationally, and interested undergraduate students volunteer in her lab. Last year one of her graduate students received the Best Student Presentation Award at the World Marine Mammal Science Conference in Barcelona for her investigation of  the energetic cost of disturbance in sea otters.

MLML student

Lauren Cooley operates a VHF receiving antenna to locate tagged northern elephant seals within a close range of Moss Landing Marine Laboratories.


“Because of my experience at MLML I am considering pursuing a Ph.D. in marine biology and hope to work with marine mammals at a conservation focused non-profit.”

Lauren Cooley
’21 MS Marine Science