Daniel P Costa

TitleDistinguished Professor
DivisionPhysical & Biological Sciences
DepartmentPBSci-Ecology & Evolutionary Biology Department
AffiliationsEnvironmental Studies Department
Web Site Costa Lab
OfficeCenter for Ocean Health
Campus Mail StopLong Marine Lab
Mail100 Shaffer Road
Santa Cruz, CA

Research Interests

Physiological Ecology of Marine Mammals and Birds

Our laboratory is interested in the adaptations of marine mammals and seabirds to life in the marine environment. Our research integrates physiology, behavior and ecology, focusing on how marine mammals and birds are adapted to life in the ocean. Current research focuses on the movement and habitat utilization patterns, foraging ecology and energetics of pinnipeds and seabirds.

We study the diving, foraging, and searching behavior of marine mammals and seabirds, in order to determine areas and characteristics of the marine environment that are important for prey acquisition, and ultimately, the reproductive success of these animals. We investigate individual and population-level variability of diving and movement patterns in sea lions, fur seals, seals and seabirds in a variety of habitats including the Coastal California, The Galapagos, Australia, South Africa, South America and the Antarctic. We also look at how individual variation and intrinsic factors (sex and age) affect foraging behavior and movement patterns of these marine predators, and their association with differing oceanographic features. For example, we examine the relationship between animal behavior and habitat use: specifically, what oceanographic features are used by animals while they forage. This research is being conducted in northern and southern elephant seals, Weddell and crabeater seals, California, Galapagos and southern sea lions, Laysan and black-footed albatrosses, and sooty shearwaters. Collectively, these data will be used to investigate multi-species assemblages in the ocean environment and the identification of oceanic regions where these predators aggregate.

Our research on relating animal behavior to oceanography is enhanced by collecting oceanographic data from the tags deployed on the animals. By equipping our study animals with instruments that not only record the animals behavior, but collect data on water temperature, light level, and salinity we can acquire information on the animals habitat at the scale and resolution that the animal operates within. Further, such animal collected oceanographic data are proving invaluable acquiring data in regions where it is difficult or not possible to collect using existing methods (Antarctic sea-ice). Such oceanographic data are making a contribution to studies of climate change and are providing insights into how marine mammals and seabirds might respond to climate change.

Our lab has a long history in exploring the physiological mechanisms that allow animals to live where they live and to carry out their specific life histories. By investigating the interaction between physiology, behavior, and reproductive ecology of free-ranging animals we can elucidate the environmental factors influencing their distribution and abundance. Energetic expenditure is a central theme in these investigations; we are particularly interested in how animals acquire and allocate energy toward various activities. Currently, we are examining diving physiology in California and Galapagos sea lions and northern elephant seals, fasting physiology of elephant seals.

Biography, Education and Training


Daniel Costa completed a B.A. at UCLA and a Ph.D. at U.C. Santa Cruz followed by postdoctoral research at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. His research focuses on the ecology and physiology of marine mammals and seabirds, taking him to every continent and almost every habitat from the Galapagos to Antarctica. He has worked with a broad range of animals including turtles, penguins’ albatross, seals, sea lions, sirenians, whales and dolphins and has published over 400 scientific papers. His current work is aimed at recording the movement and distribution patterns of marine mammals and seabirds in an effort to understand their habitat needs. This work is helping to identify biodiversity hotspots and that factors that create them.  He has been developing tools to identify and create viable Marine Protected Areas for the conservation of highly migratory species. In addition his research is studying the response of marine mammals to underwater sounds and developing ways to assess whether the potential disturbance may result in a population consequence. He has been very active in graduate education having supervised 22 masters and 30 doctoral students as well as 15 post-doctoral scholars. With Barbara Block he co-founded the Tagging of Pacific Predators program, a multidisciplinary effort to study the movement patterns of 23 species of marine vertebrate predators in the North Pacific Ocean. He is an internationally recognized authority on tracking of marine mammals and birds. He has served as member of a number of international science steering committees including the Integrated Climate and Ecosystem Dynamics program, The Census of Marine Life, Southern Ocean GLOBEC, CLIOTOP, the Southern Ocean Observing System (SOOS) and the Integrated Marine Biogeochemistry and Ecosystem Research (IMBER).

Honors, Awards and Grants

Ida Benson Endowed Chair of Ocean Health, 2008-2013

Eminent Scholars Lecture, University of South Florida February 2008

Secretary Society of Marine Mammalogy, 2002-2006 

Zoologist in Residence, University of Tasmania, Hobart, Australia, 1999

Costa Spur Antarctica.  Feature on the Antarctic Continent named in recognition of the contribution of D. Costa to Antarctic Research.

Fellow California Academy of Sciences

Antarctic Service Medal

Prize of Excellence, 58th Annual Meeting AAAS Pacific Division, 1977

Bausch and Lomb Science Award 1970