Who Doesn’t Like Penguins? Introducing the PLOS ONE Marine Megafauna Collection

smaller_MarineMegafauna-blue-blogsMarine ecologist David W. Johnston introduces a new Duke University MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) on charismatic marine megafauna, including such popular species as penguins, dolphins and sea turtles. Offered on the Coursera platform beginning Feb 3, Marine Megafauna: An Introduction to Marine Science and Conservation is the first MOOC to employ a curriculum focused on the use of PLOS ONE Open Access research, including original articles, along with field data and multimedia.


Linking Open Access Marine Science with Open Online Learning: The PLOS ONE Marine Megafauna Collection

By David W. Johnston

emp penguin by Christopher Michel

Emperor Penguin by Christopher Michel

 Healthy oceans are essential to all life on earth, yet many people – college students and the general public alike – know very little about marine species and ecosystems and how they function.  To address this, I’ve been teaching an undergraduate class at Duke University that seeks to introduce students to the basics of marine science and conservation through engaging and inspirational examples, including some of the most compelling creatures in the ocean: those we call charismatic marine megafauna.  By learning about sea turtles, whales, dolphins, seals, penguins, sharks, giant squid and other large ocean creatures, students gain an understanding of how the ocean works and a bit about why it is so important for all life on earth.


This approach to marine science is even more essential as we take this class into the open online learning environment through Coursera, starting February 3, 2014.

Enter the Marine Megafauna Collection at PLOS Collections 

Teaching a class like this – either traditionally or in the online realm – has many challenges, one of which is there really is no single textbook that covers it all. Requiring background readings from traditional textbooks would force students to buy four or five books (at over $100 a piece) of which only a small portion would likely be relevant.

To overcome this textbook problem for both traditional and online courses that focus on charismatic marine megafauna, my colleagues Ari Friedlaender (Oregon State University), Jeremy Goldbogen (Stanford University), Lars Bejder (Murdoch University) and Nick Pyenson (Smithsonian Institution) have curated a collection of open access articles from the primary literature that can form the core background material needed for any marine educators employing a similar approach. These readings – all published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE – capture the real science behind concepts taught in class, linking students directly to up-to-date sources of knowledge.

First Things First: Teaching Students How to Read a Journal Article

The main challenge of using journal articles as textbooks stems from the fact that they are often written for experts. In this course, students must first learn how to read journal articles and decode the facts they contain before moving ahead, and our curriculum provides resources and guidance to help accomplish this task.

Experience with Data Supplements

The articles published in PLOS ONE often have data supplements that can be used by marine educators to take students into the realms of computation and visualization in class or in the lab.


Thiebot J-B, Cherel Y, Crawford RJM, Makhado AB, Trathan PN, et al. (2013) A Space Oddity: Geographic and Specific Modulation of Migration in Eudyptes Penguins. PLoS ONE 8(8): e71429. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0071429

Students enrolled in my upcoming Marine Megafauna MOOC will be using Google Earth to work on animal movement data obtained from endangered yellow-eyed penguins fitted with satellite tags. These data, for example, published as an article supplement recently in PLOS ONE provide an amazing opportunity to give students first-hand experience visualizing spatially-explicit data and measuring movements of animals obtained through satellite telemetry.

The Next Best Thing to Being There: Multimedia

The utility of the Marine Megafauna Collection for teaching marine science goes beyond teaching students how to read research articles and work with data. Several papers in the Marine Megafauna Collection have multimedia supplements that can be used in class to directly demonstrate important concepts in novel ways. For example, without actually going to Antarctica in the winter (brrrr), there really is no better way to teach the mechanics and energetics of emperor penguin temperature-control than by using time-lapse videos of their amazing huddling behavior – published as open access supplements in the journal PLOS ONE and available to everyone with a tap or a click.

There is much to be excited about when it comes to using open access marine science publications in the classroom and lab, and the growing synergy between open online learning and open access science remains largely undiscovered. We’ve only scratched the surface with the Marine Megafauna Collection and it will hopefully evolve into an even more valuable resource in the years to come. To learn more about the most compelling creatures in the ocean directly from the scientists that study them, visit the collection and enroll in the Marine Megafauna MOOC on Coursera today.

Brief Marine Megafauna Course Outline


The PLOS ONE Marine Megafauna Collection presents research focused on the biology, ecology and conservation of the most captivating creatures in the ocean. These (75+) articles represent a broad survey of fascinating organisms and systems, and provide a core set of reading materials for marine science educators seeking to increase the engagement of students in class using compelling examples.


Unit 1: Paleoecology, Evolution, and Systematics

These papers address important aspects about the evolutionary and ecological history of marine fauna from geological to historical timescales, including taxonomically focused studies, ecological problems and studies in evolutionary morphology.

Unit 2: Anatomy, Functional Morphology and Energetics

This unit provides examples of studies addressing the anatomy, functional morphology and energetics of large ocean organisms, highlighting the constraints of living in the ocean and how these organisms overcome these constraints.

Unit 3: Marine Ecology and Technology

This unit provides examples of studies that address the behavior and ecology of marine megafauna through the use of new technology and novel analytical tools.

Unit 4: Social and Behavioral Ecology

This unit provides examples of studies focused on the social and behavioral ecology of large marine organisms, highlighting how scientists study the complex relationships amongst animals in the ocean.

Unit 5: Marine Habitats and Conservation Biology

This unit focuses on species/habitat relationships of large marine organisms and provides specific examples of the conservation issues associated with some of the ocean’s most compelling creatures.


dave jDr. David W. Johnston is Assistant Professor of the Practice of Marine Conservation & Ecology at the Duke University Marine Laboratory in the Marine Science and Conservation Division of the Nicholas School of the Environment.  From February 2013, he will be teaching Marine Megafauna: An Introduction to Marine Science and Conservation as a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC).


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4 Responses to Who Doesn’t Like Penguins? Introducing the PLOS ONE Marine Megafauna Collection

  1. Thomas Mattern says:

    “…from endangered yellow-eyed penguins fitted with satellite tags.”

    I think you’ve mixed up species here… you are showing data from Eudyptes species, i.e. crested penguins (e.g. Rockhopper penguins). There has never been a study involving satellite tags on Yellow-eyed penguins. GPS loggers, sure, but not satellite tags (as in PTT tags).

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