SEA Days: Whale Tales

by Lisa Gilfillan, education specialist

Every month, the third Saturday is a special day at Birch Aquarium: SEA Days! As the tagline suggests, SEA Days are always full of  “Science, Exploration and Adventure.” Visitors and members can meet a Scripps Institution of Oceanography or UC San Diego researcher and get hands-on with science, participate in activity stations, and get creative with a thematic craft. 

Identifying and classifying animals is no easy task, but fortunately it has become more accurate over time. “Modern” taxonomy was revolutionized in the 1700s by Carl Linnaeus. Whereas his work focused on grouping organisms based on observable physical characteristics, today’s classifications are based on molecular genetics, or DNA sequences. By determining an organism’s genetics, scientists are able to better understand its genes, heredity and genetic variation…all of which will allow us to better understand populations and how to help them thrive.

Our visiting scientist for January’s SEA Days is Matthew S. Leslie, a graduate student and researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Matthew is investigating the genetics of whales and dolphins to try to determine the number of populations that exist and how these species are related. Below, Matthew answers questions about his experiences and gives some advice to future scientists.

Matt Leslie

Where did you go to school?

I went to undergrad at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma, and I am currently attending graduate school at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

What is your area of research?

I study whales and dolphins, and specifically my research focuses on the following themes:

Population Genetics: How many populations of whales and dolphins are there?

Systematics: How are species related?

Taxonomy: What do we name them?

Ecology: How to they make a living?

Conservation: How do we make sure they stick around?


Who or what inspired you to become involved in marine science?

About all you can do to beat the oppressive heat of summertime in Oklahoma is go to the lake. I learned to swim at age three and by age seven I was waterskiing. Almost all of my summertime memories are set at the lake. Then, when I was about eight, my family went to Boston on vacation. Looking out from the beach at Cape Cod and I remember a dizzying feeling when I realized I couldn’t see the other shore across the ocean; the enormity left me aghast. I had never been unable to see across the lake. On that same trip my parents bought me a button with a photo of a humpback whale. “What a weird creature!” I thought. This probably planted the seed.

Several years later, bored to tears while grocery shopping with my mother, I found a coffee table book by Jacques Cousteau called Whales. I couldn’t put it down. My mother bought it for me as an early birthday or Christmas gift, or just out of guilt for dragging her poor son grocery shopping.When I finished the book I wrote letters to scientists and aquaria for more information. I was constantly asking my Dad for stamps. In a roundabout way, I suppose it was the combination of my love for being underwater, and a feeling of curiosity about whales – they were so alien to my existence as a boy from Oklahoma – that drew me to study them.

What qualities do you need in order to become a scientist?

Curiosity, creativity and persistence.

Why is your research topic important?

Most whale species were brought to the brink of extinction by industrial whaling. Many of these still haven’t recovered. The lack of knowledge about the number of species (and populations within species) is a serious stumbling block to efficient and sustainable conservation strategies that promote adaptability.

Our oceans are rapidly changing and these animals will have to adapt or they will go extinct. My work helps identify species and populations, so we protect them and allow them to adapt. 

What will you be bringing with you to SEA days?

In addition to my infectious enthusiasm, I will bring skulls, books, and biopsy gear.

What is the best advice you have for people interested in becoming involved in your field of research?

Study hard. Get involved. Be responsible for your own fate and ensure a high quality of work. Oh, and always play nice with others. 

What is your favorite ocean organism?

I can’t choose just one…

Join us on Saturday, January 17 for SEA Days: Whale Tales—there’s something for everyone!

SEA Days are 11 a.m – 3 p.m., are included with aquarium admission, and always free to aquarium members. Not a member? Join today!

SEA you there!

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Scripps Institution of Oceanography UC San Diego