Hello! My name is Jens Hegg and I’ll be joining Ben, Sasha and Jeff as an editor here on the PLOS Ecology Community blog. I’m excited to have this opportunity to explore with you the breadth of the current goings-on in ecology and to do some science communication while we do.
I am currently a PhD student in the interdisciplinary Water Resources program at University of Idaho. I chose this program for many reasons, but one of the biggest was my belief that science is inherently bigger than scientists. Ecology, especially, reaches across disciplinary boundaries and has affects on our daily lives. So, while my research into the ecology of fish migration might feel awfully narrow it feeds a much larger story that affects our field, our ecosystem and all of our lives in some way. I’m excited to have the opportunity to read and write broadly about ecology as a member of this team.
My PhD research investigates the migration of juvenile salmon. I’m intrigued by how they balance their decisions in order to successfully survive and spawn, how changes in their environment affect their decisions, and ultimately how these strategies evolve. The population of fall Chinook salmon I study have survived the effects of harvest and multiple hydropower dams that have decreased their freshwater habitat as well as changing the way the river functions in basic ways. These changes have presumably changed the balance of risk and reward for juvenile fish as they mature and migrate to the ocean, and in response we they have shifted their outmigration timing and behavior significantly
To investigate these changes in migratory strategy I reconstruct the details of individual salmon migrations using the chemicals trapped inside their ear bones. Yes, this sounds crazy but it isn’t as insane as it sounds! Fish have an organ called the otolith which is made up of sequentially deposited rings of calcium carbonate that is analogous to our inner ear. Those rings trap small amounts of the elements and isotopes unique to the watershed they pass through, making it possible to reconstruct their movements over just a few kilometers, but also over a few hundred during the course of their life. The rings also allow us to determine the age and growth rate of the fish, just like the rings of a tree. Comparing the reconstructed movements, growth, and age of many fish to the environment they experienced allows us to learn about the factors that select for successful migration strategies.
These techniques are not limited to salmon. I recently published an article in PLOS One with a Brazilian colleague in which we determined, for the first time, the details of one of the world’s longest migrations. Several species of catfish in the Amazon basin migrate the length of the Amazon river, as much as 4,500 miles, to reproduce, movements that have been obscured to science by their sheer scale, remote location and incredibly large, muddy rivers. We now know that these fish show much greater diversity in their migration than we realized, which may be important as dams are being built and planned at a rapid rate in their spawning areas.
I wasn’t always an ecologist, although I dreamed of becoming one as early as my undergraduate days as a biology major at Macalester College. I took a detour before graduate school that led to research into production of plastic from corn biomass using engineered microbes. This detour concluded in the world of medical device engineering where dreaming up new patents, designing cutting edge coronary stents, and 3D imaging of the beating heart made up most of my day. I truly believe that cross disciplinary communication is a spur for creative science, so these detours are only slightly diminished. I currently am actively working on projects using virtual reality as a communication tool for salmon ecology and converting data to sound as both an artistic and data analysis tool.
I’m very excited for this latest detour in my path in ecology and look forward to writing and interacting with you, the ecology community here at PLOS blogs.