Research Interests


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I am broadly interested in doing science that helps sustain wild things and wild places. Through field expeditions, collections-based research, and investigations in the genetics lab, I work to understand the evolution and interconnectedness of whales and dolphins and their habitats. My highly collaborative research efforts, dynamic teaching and public engagement initiatives are all designed to guide critical conservation decisions.



I collaborated with Drs. Eric Archer and Phillip Morin to test subspecies hypotheses of fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus). This paper was published in PLoS One in 2011.

I also worked with an international team to investigate the global genetic diversity of humpback whales. This work was an enormous undertaking and was published in 2014 thanks to the hard work of collaborators all over the world. In this paper we propose that there are three subspecies of humpback whales: the north Atlantic, the North Pacific and the Southern Hemisphere.

  • Jackson J., D. J. Steele, P. Beerli, B. C. Congdon, C. Olavarria, M. S. Leslie, C. Pomilla, H. C. Rosenbaum, C. S. Baker. 2014. Global genomic diversity and oceanic divergence of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae). Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 281:1786. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2013.3222.

I’m very interested in the modernization of taxonomic methods. Last year I published a policy-science essay on the intersection between modern nomenclature (i.e., Phylogenetic Nomenclature) and the Endangered Species Act.

  • Leslie M. S. 2014. Phylogenetic Nomenclature Will Not Gut the Endangered Species Act. 2014. Conservation Biology. 00:1-9. DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12375. Online August 22 2014

I am also working with several scientists at the NOAA-SWFSC and elsewhere to develop guidelines for delineating subspecies of marine mammals. This review is important because of the increasing ease with which genetic data are being collected and the importance of these data for marine mammal taxonomy, given the difficulty of collecting and maintaining large osteological collections. This work consists of a literature review of marine mammal subspecies designations and a collation of the evidence used to designate them. In addition to the broader review, I am involved in three publications in this series, including an in-depth review of the appropriate analytical methods. The guidelines will be published as a special issue of Marine Mammal Science this winter.

  • Martien, K. K., M. S. Leslie, P. A. Morin, F. I. Archer, B. L. Hancock-Hanser, et al., Analytical approaches to subspecies delimitation with genetic data. In Review – Marine Mammal Science.
  • Rosel P., Taylor, B. L., B. L. Hancock-Hanser, P. A. Morin, F. I. Archer, A Konopacki, A. R. Lang, S. L. Mesnick, V. L. Pease, W. F. Perrin and K. M. Roberstson, M. S. Leslie et al., Molecular genetic markers and analytical approaches that have been used for delimiting marine mammal subspecies and species. In Review – Marine Mammal Science
  • Taylor, B. L., B. L. Hancock-Hanser, K. K., Martien, P. A. Morin, F. I. Archer, A. R. Lang, M. S. Leslie, S. L. Mesnick, V. L. Pease, W. F. Perrin and K. M. Roberstson et al., Guidelines and quantitative standards to improve consistency in cetacean subspecies and speciesdelimitation relying on molecular data. Accepted – Marine Mammal Science.


Population Genetics:

Also in collaboration with Dr. Rosenbaum’s lab and many international colleagues, we investigated population connectivity in southern hemisphere humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliea) from 2004 through 2008. The scale of this collaboration was tremendous (it included over 1500 samples from 9 different countries). I was invited to help present this work to the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission. This work is now published in PLoS One.

I collaborated with Dr. Francine Kershaw (Columbia University), Dr. Howard Rosenbaum (Wildlife Conservation Society), and Dr. Robert Brownell (NOAA-SWFSC) investigate the population genetics of Bryde’s whales (Balaenoptera edeni and B. brydei) from the Indo-West Pacific. In this study, on which I began work in 2006, we investigated the genetic diversity and population structure of Bryde’s whales from several previously unsampled locations in the Northern Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific Ocean.

  • Kershaw, F., M.S. Leslie, T. Collins, R. Mansur, M. Rubaiyat, B.D. Smith, G. Minton, R. Baldwin, R. LeDuc, C. Anderson, R.L. Brownell Jr., H.C Rosenbaum. 2013. New data reveals cryptic species and populations of Bryde’s whales from the Northern Indian Ocean and western North Pacific.  J Hered. 104 (6): 755-764. doi: 10.1093/jhered/est057

One of the major findings of our work on southern hemisphere humpback whales was that the Arabian Sea humpbacks were very distinct from other populations in the region and that this population’s abundance was very low. Because of our work, this Arabian Sea population has been given special protection.


Dissertation Abstract: My dissertation addresses a series of nested topics on the biology and evolution of two pantropical dolphin species (Stenella longirostris and S. attenuata) including: within-ocean population connectivity, global phylogeography and molecular evolution. To address these topics, I collect and analyze next-generation DNA sequencing data using phylogenetic and population genetic methods. I have sequenced entire mitochondrial genomes to test the hypotheses of population structure across the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean (ETP). In addition, I am using restriction site-associated DNA sequencing to collect several thousand markers for a population-level genomic data. These data are will be used to estimate connectivity within and between ocean basins on a global scale. This work, using cutting-edge genetic methods and novel analytical approaches, fills a void in our knowledge of regional genetic connectivity, global biogeography, and connections between oceanography and evolutionary processes in open-ocean odontocetes. It also provides desperately needed information for steering the recovery of populations heavily impacted by the tuna purse-seine fishery in the ETP. Coupled with the wealth of data collected by the NOAA-SWFSC over the last 50, these new genomic data offer great opportunity for unlocking a range of mysteries about cetacean biology beyond my dissertation.


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