Animal Bioacoustics

Technology. Ecology. Noise

Animal Bioacoustics

Hurry up and wait

I’m sitting at my desk, while delightful Niki is out on the water to deploy Will and Otis, Jr. So I figured I should maybe write a blog.

Niki…ready and waiting! Look at that sun!! (not seen…fairly large swell for such a small boat….)

Niki is helping me out (SO MUCH) by going out and being my acoustician on the water – actually deploying the gliders while I am stuck at my computer piloting them. She has the help of the awesome Jim and Doug from the Oregon Coast Aquarium dive team, and their wonderful, fast boat, the Gracie Lynn.

We got up nice and early and got to the lab before first light to load the truck and transport the gliders to the South Beach Marina (such a long drive…not). Here I ran some self-tests on both gliders, connected to them via serial connection. Of course what should have taken 45 mins took 1.5 hours, but that’s science! We loaded everything up and off they headed – straight west about 35 miles off shore, to get the gliders over deep water.

We are conducting a short engineering test before the gliders head to the Gulf of Mexico for their summer field work. Otis Jr is new (to replace our beloved SG608, Otis), and his PAM system needs to be tested. Will got new batteries after his flight  in Catalina last summer, so we want to test that he is all in good working shape too (his weight is slightly different now so gotta check how he flies.)

So why hurry up and wait? Well the last few weeks have been crazy hectic trying to get SG639 set up and tested, with LOTS of issues. We are in a time crunch to get the gliders shipped to Louisiana before the June cruise. So we got them ready for the test flight (rush rush rush) and then we had to wait for a weather window to actually deploy them because, well, weather on the Oregon Coast in April (wait wait wait).

But today we got a window. And fingers crossed we will recover on Sunday (its just a short test).

Niki took pics of me in action…this was my favorite obviously because it is so flattering. Also, yes we were wearing the same jacket. Lab sharing at its best.

Cultural Phenomenon

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Album cover of Roger Payne’s 1970 LP. Due to this record humpback whales are arguably to most listened to whales on earth.

One of the special things about studying marine megafauna is how completely and unequivocally devoted their fans are. Judging from the popularity of Roger Payne’s best selling  1970 LP “Song of the Humpback Whale”, I think it’s fair to rank humpback whales  among rock idols like David Bowie, Mick Jagger, and Madonna in terms of popularity. I feel quite confident, however, that the number of students willing to dedicate their careers to spying on and eavesdropping on whales, is higher than those that are actually interested in professionally shadowing Cher for months at a time.

Whales are a part of our human culture; this is unequivocal. The traditions of Inupiat whalers are passed between generations, skills are shared among whaling teams, and successful bowhead whale hunts are the inspiration for song, story, and festival. Historically, the oil of whales has shaped course of human history. The first street lights to brighten the dark streets of London burned whale oil; the city saw an almost immediate drop in crime as a result. Spermaceti literally greased the wheels of the industrial revolution, not to mention the gaskets on US spaceships. Our human history, — our human culture — has been shaped by the body of whales.

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Whaling is a community event in Barrow. Even Inupiat children too small to help process bowhead catches are still brought to see the whale. (Photo credit: AP Photo|GregoryBull)

The cost was enormous.

Industrial whaling was responsible for the largest removal of biomass from the world’s oceans… ever. Great whale species were hunted to the brink of extinction, or in some cases past the brink of extinction, to fuel the market for oil and other whale products.

While arguably the loss of life at this scale for any species would be considered a tragedy, there was a concomitant loss of something that makes the epoch of industrial whaling somehow more poignant: cetacean culture.

Whales and dolphins have culture. While this phrase makes some cultural anthropologists cringe, and has certainly sparked its fair share of debate, this phrase is generally accepted among behavioral ecologists and marine mammal biologists.  But what does it mean?  Technically and in terms of conservation?

Culture can be defined as shared behavior propagated through social learning. In humans an example of this can be culturally specific foods. For example my grandmother taught my mother how to make seafood gumbo. My mother in turn taught me how to make gumbo. The act of making gumbo is a shared behavior that was learned; making gumbo it is part of our culture.

Humpback whales don’t cook, they do eat. In the same way that methods of cooking vary between human populations, methods of hunting vary between humpback whale populations. In Southeast Alaska humpback whales use feeding calls in combination with bubble blowing to herd herring toward the surface of the ocean and then *gulp*.  No other population of humpbacks in the world, that we know of, pair this call with this behavior. It appears to be a learned behavior; culture.

Similarly, in the North Atlantic humpback whales slap their flukes to herd fish in a behavior known as lobelia feeding.  Based on years of observations, and the hard work of a bright you grad student, we learned that this foraging technique was spread culturally throughout the population. Which means to say that individuals learned it from each other. Significantly, humpback whales also learn where to forage. They gain information from their mothers during their first year of life that tells them where to migrate to, good spots on foraging grounds to find and catch a meal, and what is good to eat.  This is where conservation comes in.

During the height of industrial whaling large portions of whale populations were extirpated. When those whales were removed from the system, their traditions died with them. For some baleen whales that loss of cultural knowledge has led to the abandonment of fertile foraging grounds, and in other populations it has led to high fidelity to poor foraging grounds without the knowledge of any alternatives.

So understanding culture in whales matters. It matters because it helps us to understand their adaption to population recoveries, it allows us to track their plasticity and resilience, to understand how and why one whale population differs from another, and maybe  it allows us another way to relate to these animals.  More personally, perhaps by understanding the importance of culture in whales we can begin to value the importance of culture in our own world, in our own country, in our own lives. Something, I would argue, that we might need right now.

Humpback whales bubble net feeding in Southeast Alaska. Culture in action.

 

 

Through Passionate Eyes…

Hello ORCAA enthusiasts!

This is going to be a different blog post than what you usually read, and it’s also the first one I’ve ever written. I hope you enjoy it!

My name is Ciera Edison and I am currently an undergraduate in the department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Oregon State University. But I’m going to rewind a bit. From a very young age I was obsessed with marine mammals. At eight years old my parents took me to SeaWorld where my future was decided. I knew from the moment I walked into that facility that I wanted a job with marine mammals. When I came back to Washington after that trip, I was a changed kid. I started doing research to see what my impact on the environment was, and wanted to do everything in my power to help minimize it. Over the next ten years, before heading off to college, I spent time volunteering at the Seattle Aquarium, PAWS wildlife rehabilitation center, beach naturalist programs, and multiple beach clean ups. I did anything to get closer to my favorite animals and help spread the word about human impacts. The Fisheries and Wildlife department was the perfect fit for me. The past three years have only solidified my dream, my passion, my desire to become a marine mammal biologist.

Simply taking classes was not enough for me. I became a volunteer mammologist at the Oregon Coast Aquarium and even president of The Fisheries and Wildlife Club. But going into my senior year (WOO!) I wanted to do more. The department offers a Mentor-Mentee program that allows students to work with grad students on their research. Obviously, I have no problem with volunteering my time which is why I contacted ORCAA Lab Ph.D. student Selene Fregosi. I was thrilled to hear back from her that she not only welcomed my help with her data, but was willing to act as my supervisor for research credits.

To assist in her research, I spend about 9 hours a week (usually more) running programs and recording any noises that I hear. Through this data processing my goal is to identify not only the species present in the Catalina Basin, but how often they are there (looking at it hour by hour). My inner child came out when I heard my first blue whale, then humpbacks, and even more when I heard sea lions barking (SEA LIONS, something we were not expecting at all)! Every day when I get done with my work the first thing my friends and family ask is “What did you hear today?!” Since January, I have been like a sponge soaking up everything I can. I have gone through ups and downs this term (my computer loves to crash on me while I’m in the middle of logging data), but overall I have thoroughly enjoyed my time. What more could I ask for!

I am continuing this research through spring term where I will be presenting at RAFWE and writing my first research paper (maybe I can even get it published)! I hope to post again during spring term to share with you guys what I found.

For now, here is a spectrogram of the sea lion vocalizations! When you listen to this, it really sounds like they are barking. Pretty neat stuff!

ORCAA work in the news!

My PhD work was recently featured in a press release by the Acoustical Society of America! I just got back from the 172nd Meeting of the ASA/5th Meeting of the ASJ in Honolulu, HI. I presented on data from this glider and float deployment. Michelle and Dave were there too…representing OSU as best we could!!

Read the full article here:
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/12/161201094452.htm

Hearing is a vital sense for marine mammals who use it to forage communicate and navigate. Many of these mammals produce specific vocalizations that can be used to identify the species and track their locations via acoustic monitoring. Traditionally scientists have used underwater microphones to listen for marine mammals either on the seafloor or towed behind a boat. But now scientists can use autonomous underwater vehicles gliders and floats specially equipped with hydrophones to listen to marine mammals in ways impossible until now.

I should have known

…that I would grow up to be a pseudo computer nerd doing stuff related to animals. (sarcasm…)

I was recently reminded of the online game Neopets*. Anyone out there remember this game? Mom – do you remember me playing it?

One of my favorite Neopet species – the Bruce. Image from: http://www.neopets.com/allpets.phtml

It was sort of like a computer based Tomogatchi and Pokemon hybrid. You had pets, that were cute and colorful and had names. You had to take care of them, and you could play games with them. You’d collect points (Neocoins) that you could use to buy things for your pet, all that good stuff. You could also have a store in the Marketplace where you could sell extra stuff you had, or buy from others. This is where I should have known I was going to grow up to be a giant dork who finds joy in creating things on computers.  I LOVED working on my storefront. I loved teaching myself HTML. Then I could have the coolest fonts (WordArt anyone?), sweet backgrounds, terrible color combinations.

For many of you, this may also remind you of Myspace…another great venue for my web customizing talents. I was pretty late to the Myspace game, but when I did, I made sure to try and have the MOST personal and customized page.

So what does any of this have to do with marine bioacoustics? Um…nothing really? I was just having a lot of fun making some animated spectrograms (see here for the HOW TO – thanks MicheW!) and I think that is what got me thinking about all this. Plus Samara said she remembers this too, so I’m not the only one.

Disclaimer

*this is somewhat deceiving. I made it sound like someone else reminded me of Neopets. That’s not true. Ah the pitfalls of passive voice. I (me, Selene) remembered Neopets all on my own. I’m not sure why or how. But then I ended up googling it and it still exists and here we are, and I’m writing this, fighting the urge to make an account again.

Remembering Why

Last week I got to spend a week offshore, participating in the last field season (what?!) of the SOCAL-BRS project. This was a bittersweet week, to say the least. I’ve been involved with this project since before I even started grad school (see here and here for my blogs on it the last two years). It’s a long-term project (2010-2017) so I’m not sure I ever realized I wouldn’t be spending a week or two every summer, offshore of Southern California doing awesome whale tagging and behavioral response research. But, here I am, back at home, and that’s it! We still have a year of analysis left  (already counting down to the analysis meeting in December!) so more science is still to come. But this week was a great time to reminisce and reflect how things have changed for myself and others on the project.

My friend and colleague Caroline, and I, trying to catch us dinner after getting blown off the water in the afternoon.

My friend and colleague Caroline, and I, trying to catch us dinner after getting blown off the water in the afternoon.

First off, there are at least 5 BRS babies. Never saw that coming! Everyone is a bit more sun damaged (despite our best efforts) and a bit more grey. I went from being a nervous, naive, some-what-lost-soul trying to find my way in the acoustics world to a full blown bioacoustician (is it ok to call myself that?). Although this research is not directly related to my PhD….it is in a system I work in regularly, with collaborators I love working with, can learn so much from, and want to keep working with, so it’s a week well spent.

That SOCAL Magic

While I had an amazing few weeks of field work for my own PhD research earlier this summer, this past week provided something a little different. It served as a reminder of the wonder, the inherent magic, that comes from working with animals out on the water.

I saw more marine wildlife in one week then I have ever seen in my life. I saw no less than 12 species (blue, fin, humpback, sperm and killer whales, common (x2 species), bottlenose, and Risso’s dolphins, California sea lions, elephant seals, and harbor seals) of marine mammals. And I not only got a glimpse of them, but got to enjoy them. From watching blue whales up close from the RHIBs, to seeing common dolphins sprint away from killer whales, to hearing bottlenose dolphins whistling while bow riding. Each day reminded me why I LOVE what I do. (Oh, and maybe I was simply less stressed because my entire dissertation didn’t depend on if I could get the stupid QUEphone to work the way I wanted it to…)

Sperm whale flukes + spunky bottlenose dolphins + tagging boat. Photo taken under NMFS Permit # 14534, J. Calambokidis.

Sperm whale flukes + spunky bottlenose dolphins + tagging boat. Photo taken under NMFS Permit #19116, J. Calambokidis.

Don’t get me wrong, I love sitting in the lab. Discovering new calls, answering questions through detailed analyses, and playing with shiny new yellow AUVs. But I also just love being outside, and enjoying that offshore world. No cell service, seeing Risso’s buzzes come through in real time on the towed array, catching my limit of rockfish in the evenings, hearing the elephant seals calling on the Channel Islands.

I guess the simple point of this blog is to share that contentment, and again that wonder, that I enjoy while thinking back on the last week. Till the next adventure….

Goodbye Glacier Bay

The 2016 Alaskan field season is officially over. I can drag my feet and hang my head all I want, but the acoustic and behavioral data collection for 2016 is done and the process of studying for my comprehensive exams is in full swing (I’m taking a short break from outlining the management procedures of the IWC to write this blog). Admitting that I will not wake to the sound of humpback whales breathing outside my tent is a tough reality. Going a day without seeing a seal or an otter has been harder than I expected, but I realize it is time to say goodbye.

This summer was challenging, for various reasons. Year two, I think, always is. Expectations are variable, hopes run high, and the delicious satisfaction that comes with problem solving doesn’t always happen. The problems are already solved.

Despite this, the 2016 field season remains the most lucrative of my career , with hundreds of hours of data collection and a total of nearly a thousand surveys to compliment the anticipated 3,000 hours of recordings. I learned a great deal about nature, humanity, and myself, and I have high hopes that our scientific efforts will be fruitful! Further, I deepened some of my most valuable relationships (scientifically and personally) which colleagues that intend to keep for a lifetime.

But my writing this blog post doesn’t adequately paint the picture of what life felt like on the island, or why we study what we study. PBS, however, has done a pretty nice job of doing that for us. So I encourage you to watch the five-minute film below. It was produced by PBS and Alaska public media, but really it’s the brainchild of Hanna Gomes.  She did a really nice job capturing our world of Strawberry Island. I can’t think of a better way to say goodbye.

Watch and Listen: fieldwork isn’t over yet

My broken heart limped off of Strawberry Island a few weeks ago on a day when the fog was too thick to permit my sentimental heart watch the island fade into the distance. But while our field season on the island had come to an end, my field work for the summer was not quite complete.

My work in Glacier Bay studying humpback whale acoustics is partially based on my previous work conducted from the Five Finger Lighthouse. I’m interested in comparing the two regions (both the soundscapes and the behaviors of the whales themselves), as we have historic population and acoustics information from both regions dating back to the late 1980’s (Thank you Malme and Miles! Thank you Scott Baker!). To get the ball rolling on this comparison I made my way to the Five Finger Lighthouse for a short 10 day foray into “late season acoustic behavior”.

I don’t have anything definitive to report, except that the team of volunteers who have been working on maintaining my favorite historic structure have been hard at work, and that the whales were abundant beyond my wildest dreams. If Glacier Bay is indicative of high quality interactions with individual humpback whales (remember Cervantes), than Frederick Sound is a strong argument for quantity over quality. In this, my tenth summer spent with Alaskan humpbacks, I finally broke the record for highest concentration of animals in a single area. Don’t believe me? Watch the short clip below and see a glimpse of the 40+animals milling around the region. Once you’re done watching, listen to the sound file to get an idea of what these animals were saying when this video was filmed. In my humble opinion, it is in this pairing of sight and sound that we begin to understand.

Watch

 

Listen

(These videos and recordings  were collected  under a research permit and with zoom lenses. Endangered or not it is a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act to approach a humpback whale within 100 yards, to alter the behavior of an animal, or to recklessly operate a vessel — even a kayak– in the presence of humpback whales). 

The Little Things

<img class=”alignnone size-full wp-image-1824″ src=”https://mfournet.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/img_1169.jpg” alt=”IMG_1169″ width=”5184″ height=”3456″ />What is 5 1/2 feet long, weighs 135 pounds, and isn’t an intern? My favorite odontocete: <i>Phocoena phocoena</i>, the harbor porpoise.

Due to their vessel aversion they are slightly hard to study, and their distribution, population structure, and acoustic behavior in the Park is still largely unknown. Harbor porpoise, while not an endangered species, are very susceptible to disturbance from noise. I’m not personally studying the impact of noise on these graceful creatures here in the park, but I am encouraging my team to come up with some creative study ideas.

While deterred by motorized vessels, harbor porpoise don’t appear to be disturbed by kayaks. These lovely animals often swim within meters of us when we survey on the water. Their vocalizations are too high frequency for our hydrophones to pick up, but I can’t help but wonder if they’re echolocating our equipment.

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Meet Cervantes

Going to bed (and by bed I mean tent) on the island is easy. It is often rainy and cold;  recently the days have been growing shorter revealing black starless nights that challenge my trust of these old woods, and when the weather is clear enough to work our days can be long. But occasionally as we are tucking ourselves into our sleeping bags at night something happens that’s worth getting up for.

This was the case a week or so ago when the exhales of one whale (SEAK-1899, a.k.a. “Nacho”, a.k.a. “Cervantes”) persisted for so long, and with such intensity, that we left our tents and made our way in the fading sunlight out to the beach to see what was going on. As it turned out Cervantes was feeding in our intertidal; take a peek.

Cervantes visits us often these days. This isn’t unusual for for Glacier Bay whales, which exhibit strong maternal site fidelity to the Park (for a really interesting scientific read on local recruitment of humpback whales in Glacier Bay and check our Sophie Pierszalowski’s master’s thesis here), but it is new for our field team here on Strawberry Island. The ability to recognize and interact with an individual humpback whale in such close proximity requires patience, attention and time. While our team last year grew capable of discriminating between individuals whales (a requirement for focal following a whale that’s a mile and a half away), the ability to recognize an individual whale with certainty every time one sees it requires repeated interactions. For humans who are a measly 1.75 meters tall, these interactions are imprinted for efficiently if they occur at close range.

Individuality matters. Increasing evidence for personality in animals confirms what pet owners for decades have intuitively known – animals have unique dispositions. Not all whale are created equal, and to understand how the population as a whole may respond to changes in the environment, necessitates sampling a wide swath of individuals. For example, if we follow Cervantes around from birth until death we may conclude that all humpback whale forage intertidally (likely not the case), that all whales annually migrate (also not entirely true) and that all humpback whales blow bubbles at their prey (which would be interesting… but unlikely).  Further, what if Cervantes proved to be an anomalous whale? Not wholly on the “average” spectrum for whale behavior. Cervantes is of unknown sex; it is tempting to infer that an adult whale of unknown sex who has never had a calf must be male (this is in fact what our field team inferred). The possibility, however, fully exists that Cervantes may be a late bloomer who will calve in the future and against what we anticipate given the average age of first calving, prove herself to be a lady whale after all. If Cervantes was the only animal we studied, we might infer an age of first calving for humpback whales that wasn’t accurate for the majority. So if we want to understand whales instead of understanding whale we have to look at many individuals.

Cervantes (SEAK-1899) visits the Strawberry Island survey point frequently. The entanglement scars near the dorsal fin help our team to identify this whale.

Why then are these repeated interactions with Cervantes so valuable? They are valuable scientifically in that we have the ability to investigate individual variation by linking behaviors with a known animal. More importantly for our team right now, however, these interactions are valuable to us personally. Living in the presence of giants inspires a person; knowing the giants’ name and saying good morning to him everyday, in my humble experience, moves a person beyond awe and into action. As overused as the Jacque Cousteau quote is, one cannot deny that people protect what they love. Cervantes’ ability to exist in such close proximity to our camp give us permission to love these animals, this shoreline, and this ocean just a little more strongly. This is a gift, and I am grateful.

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