Skip to main content

Frances Gulland fulfilling dream to work with marine mammals

Dr. Gulland works on a seal at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California. (Photo: Marine Mammal Center)

Dr. Frances Gulland is covered up to her chest in sea lion guts. Blood runs down her heavy-duty apron. In one hand she wields a scalpel to expertly cut out the vital organs. She places them in a silver bucket. On a side table sits the animal's head.

Gulland wipes the sweat from her brow with the sleeve of her T-shirt. Just yards away, she can hear the sea lions calling out — deep barks, aggressive growls, rapid-fire grunts. The sounds carry across The Marine Mammal Center, bounce off the mountains, and travel down to the Pacific Ocean. It's a sunny, warm fall day in Sausalito, California. The air is fresh and salty.

Across the necropsy table, research assistant Emily Andrews works quickly to keep pace with Gulland, her mentor. Soon the bucket is full of tissue samples. Andrews takes the samples down to the basement for storage in a giant freezer for future study. Up in necropsy, Gulland keeps cutting.

As the center's Director of Veterinary Science, Gulland leads staff and volunteers in an effort to help treat sick and injured sea lions, elephant seals, and harbor seals. Helping marine animals requires detailed understanding of their anatomy and physiology, and this autopsy may yield clues that will help Gulland treat living sea mammals.

Gulland has published over 100 peer-reviewed articles and has co-edited the CRC Handbook of Marine Mammal Medicine, a textbook for field researchers and vets. Her research discovered a link between high cancer rates in California sea lions and concentrations of toxic chemicals in their blubber. One in six female sea lions die of cancer, she says. She's also been tracking a harmful poisoning of the animal's food supply.

California sea lions eat a variety of fish including herring, anchovies, squid, and salmon. These fish eat algae and phytoplankton. Within phytoplankton is a natural neurotoxin called domoic acid. While scientists aren't totally sure, it appears that warmer-than-normal sea temperatures caused by certain events such as El Niñoand agricultural runoff can trigger a bloom of harmful neurotoxin-rich algae. Once sea lions eat fish with high levels of neurotoxin, they get sick. Symptoms include tremors, head bobbing, lethargy, and seizures. Chronic cases are fatal. The dead sea lion in necropsy is another suspected case.

The implications of these deaths goes well beyond the health of the sea lion population. What we learn about what is affecting sea lions can have an impact on human health, Gulland says, because we share their marine environment and some food sources. In 1987, over 100 people developed toxic symptoms after eating shellfish with high levels of domoic acid from Prince Edward Island, Canada. Three people died.

A high-energy personality, Gulland, 50, is an avid runner and rock climber. She's known to use knives like climbers' pitons to hoist herself up and onto giant whale carcasses. Last year, speaking engagements took her all over the world including Tokyo, Quebec, and Rome. But the field is her passion. "It's the most enjoyable part of my work," she says.

Gulland on working with marine mammals

Gulland was born in England but moved with her parents to Italy when she was four. As a child she would hand-rear lambs that were abandoned near her house just outside of Rome. She knew then she wanted to be a vet. "My parents were not so sure," she says. They were pushing her toward being a scientist. "I was interested in science," she says, "but as it applied to animals."

She returned to England at 18 to attend the University of Cambridge's veterinary school. Nearby was the sea mammal research facility. She'd wander over and talk to people working with marine mammals. The combination of marine life and the sea fascinated her.

Following school she spent a year working with large animals at Edinburgh University. "Sheep, cattle, animals for farm work," she says. She then landed a job at the London Zoo as their house surgeon. "I got to work with a variety of wildlife, some sea lions, but also rare species like okapis and giant pandas," Gulland recalls. A Ph.D. back at Cambridge and years of research out in the field followed.

It was in 1994, while working with a friend on her research project in Tanzania, that she heard about an opening at The Marine Mammal Center. "I signed up for a two-year fellowship," she says. Her initial plan was to buy a truck and go on a road trip after it was over. She got the truck but didn't get around to the road tip. "I never left," she says smiling.

Representative Image Caption
Dr. Gulland works on a seal at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California. (Photo: Marine Mammal Center)
Blog Name