Soundbites is a weekly (biweekly, occasionally) feature of the coolest, newest bioacoustics, soundscape, and acoustic research, in bite-size form. Plus other cool stuff having to do with sound. It’s officially the last Soundbites before the fall term at OSU begins!
Light and noise pollution from urban developments may affect ecosystems: the authors did a literature review on studies done on the impacts of light and noise pollution across Australia, and found some glaring and disconcerting gaps in the research. They highlight several effects from light and noise pollution, including stress, changes in foraging, increased predation risk, and reduced reproductive success. They propose that more careful city planning could mitigate the impacts.
Cuttlefish change visual signals in presence of high noise levels: I’m a sucker for cephalopods, and this study is great. Cuttlefish aren’t acoustic animals; in fact, they use complex visual signals to communicate. However, in the presence of anthropogenic noise playback, they changed their color more often than in the absence of noise. This suggests that anthropogenic noise can affect behavior across modalities, and can have an impact on non-acoustic species. Very cool.
Fun link of the week: it’s the first day of school for OSU students on Monday! And granted, as graduate students, that doesn’t really mean much for most of us in ORCAA, since the work doesn’t stop with the end of term. But trust NPR to deliver when I type “sounds of back to school” into Google.
“Whistling while you work is only acceptable if you are one of the 7 dwarves. You are too tall to be a dwarf; or the Snow White”, I can imagine Holger, my advisor, saying.
In reality Holger is too wonderful to mind if I whistle while I work or not. But I actually don’t. Which a few unfortunate people that have witnessed it will unanimously agree that it is for the common good. Nevertheless, I get to work on whistles!
The animals that I work with are notorious whistlers! You might consider yourself skillful in whistling, an expert in whistle-flirting and dexterous in folding you tongue and sending loud whistles miles away to your friends on the other side of a soccer field, but that is just like whistling against the wind to dolphins. If you compare your selves to their whistling capabilities you will be embarrassingly defeated. (In every case, several analysts and Experts of Life support that comparing yourself to others can only make you unhappy.)
Dolphins and killer whales, which belong to the Delphinidae family, produce 3 types οf sounds:
1. Clicks used for echolocation that help them navigate, find food and capture it,
2. Burst pulses that are rapid rate clicks and serve similar purpose but with higher definition, and 3. Whistles
Dolphin whistles are generally of narrow bandwidth and frequency modulated sounds that commonly last for half to a few seconds, much longer than the individual clicks and they are of lower frequency. Their characteristic lower frequency allows them to propagate in longer distances and their function is believed to be primarily social.
Whistles are considered to be a product of the same mechanism that generates the clicks: air that goes through the nasal passages of the dolphin’s head. The odontocetes (toothed whales) don’t literally vocalize, since they don’t use vocal cords like we do. They use the air that enters their blowhole to make sound by canalizing it through passages and their melon (the fatty tissue that makes their forehead look rounded). This video: Echolocation and sound production mechanism can give you a good representation of it.The production of whistles seems to require larger volumes of air which makes them unsuitable for echolocation since air volume is reduced by hydrostatic pressure during diving and foraging. Instead, the dolphins are thought to use them for communicative purposes, to stay in touch with their gang in the vast oceans.
I am particularly interested in the whistles. Especially the dolphin whistles. As I described at my previous post, this past summer I collected a bunch of different dolphin species’ acoustic recordings from the Aegean Sea. These recordings will help me create a sound library for the dolphin populations that dwell the eastern Greek Seas, essentially a whistle-bank for the populations in that area.
In addition to the different dialects or accents that the dolphins populations have and I have previously mentioned, they also have names that the scientists call signature whistles. Specifically, the bottlenose dolphins are known to learn and recognize whistles that are unique for every individual in a group and these whistles are used to broadcast the identity and location of the animal that produced them. This characteristic is crucial for the contact between mother and offspring, for feeding and protection from predators. Most of the characteristic whistles are usually unchanged for all the lifetime of the dolphin. But occasionally, when the male dolphins leave their mom to experience the adult life in a group of other males their distinctive whistles actually converge and become very similar!
Besides the dolphins, more animal species seem to find names meaningful. A striking example is the one of the green-rumped parrotlet that lives in Venezuela.
This cute little green parrot is attributed a whistle name by its parents and it gradually learns it by them. In this delightful video you can see how the researcher discovers the learning ability of the parakeets in contrast to the genetic encoding of communication mechanisms in this species.
Birds have actually been the very first research target of bioacousticians. Even though they can fly away and escape the
claws of their scientific fate, it is still easier to study them than the marine mammals that slip away in the open ocean. A remarkable example of unusual bird vocalizations and intriguing to research specie is that one of the superb lyre bird of
South Australia! In this specie the male, in order to attract the girls, besides the elaborated dance and feather display, can also imitate the calls of more than 20 other bird species. This bird is so good at mimicking others that it can confuse even the birds that it is copying.
But the lyrebird is not only imitating other birds; it has evolved his skills beyond living organisms. A real master of mimicry! It is able to incorporate in its repertoire any sound that hears in the forest. Like that of a camera shutter, or a car siren, or chainsaws! Or the sound of the fridge door opening and closing (would be the case if my house was its habitat)…
But seriously, I am not making this up! Check this jaw dropping video to see for yourselves. This bird is either desperate to reproduce or the females don’t really know what they want.
At this point I will paraphrase Snow White; whistling is a lot of work!
Some people seem to have a talent in whistling. They can whistle entire songs, or the more eccentrics can whistle the whole alphabet. They use their lips, teeth and tongue to do it, their fingers in all sorts of strange formations, their palms, and a wide range of imaginative accessories. Personally, it took me several weeks at the age of 23 to learn how to whistle. Soon I was glad for my achievement as it turned out to be a remarkably useful skill when I got a dog. Loud, piercing and sharp… a whistle is hard to ignore. Even if you are a dog.
You might be surprised to discover that whistles are not used uniquely by animals for their communication. Since the Antiquity people used whistles to communicate in very long distances. Whistles can travel much longer than speech and can overcome ambient noise much more effectively. You might have noticed that often people that work in bars use them to signal among them.
In the natural environment, in locations where the landscape consists of deep valleys and steep ravines, whistled languages were common within some human communities. Before the 1940s, when the phone was not widely used yet, people replaced words with whistles to send messages that would overcome distance issues. Whistles have the ability to travel up about to two miles (3.2km), which is much further and with less effort than shouting. Initially these languages were invented and largely used by shepherds, and for long time they were a common way in agricultural communities at isolated villages to transmit news, events or emergencies.
Examples of these communities and their whistled languages still exist! The cases of the Village Antia in the Greek island of Evia, the Kuskoy Village “Bird Village” in Turkey, and the “Silbo” language at La Gomera at the Canary Islands in Spain, are the exceptional cases of alive whistled languages.
In this uncommon language, consonants are distinguished by changes in pitch over different intervals of time and the whistle is a substitute of the original language which gets compressed. The whistled language is not a code, has rather defined characteristics.
Evidently marine scientists are charismatic people with variable interests and acute curiosity . It appears that Cousteau was also interested in analyzing the characteristics of La Gomera’s whistled language!
Nowadays these languages are slowly becoming extinct. However, it is encouraging that in La Gomera at least, the Canary Islands’ government links the whistled language to the identity of the people and recognizes its value as part of the traditional culture in this area and try to preserve it. As a result, La Gomera is one of the few places in the world where children learn to whistle in schools!
Aristotle in the History of Animals wanted to describe what separates animals from people. What is that makes us different: is it the reason, the language or the laughter? Several recent researchers and philosophers suggest that it is the culture. But what do we define as culture. Is it the ability to learn, to mimic, the language? It turns out that both people and dolphins use certain sounds, in this case whistles, in form of language in order to communicate. The human community considers the human whistled language as a cultural heritage worth protecting and maintaining. Similarly, without me trying to attribute human qualities to the animals, cetaceans have social learning skills and cultural capacities that are advanced and worth maintaining as well. It is our doubtless responsibility to protect them.
During my childhood, my mom would wake me up every morning with whistling melodies. I surely despised it. Mainly the wake-up- in-the-morning part. The whistling part was also very disturbing, especially because it was such an effective mean to get me off the bed! Now I am particularly attracted by whistled melodies and I am a fool for songs that include them. So I prepared my favorite Top 10 of songs with whistling, with extra 2 Greek tracks. #1 on the list is my current wake-up-song. I love it! Not the wake-up part, I still cannot get over that…
11. Το ποδηλατο (the bicycle)- Ελένη Βιτάλη
12. Συννεφούλα (the little cloud)- Διονύσης Σαββόπουλος
**Stay tuned in our “vocalizations” through our tweets @ORCAAlab and our facebook updates at Orcaa Lab**
Soundbites is a weekly (biweekly, occasionally) feature of the coolest, newest bioacoustics, soundscape, and acoustic research, in bite-size form. Plus other cool stuff having to do with sound.
Frequency and amplitude can be used to identify individual wild wolves: these researchers developed a code that was able to identify captive Eastern wolves by their howls. Naturally, they wanted to see if it was possible to do a similar identification on wild wolves, and lo and behold, it worked! They used both frequency and amplitude to identify wolves; the use of amplitude is especially interesting. This has really great implications for use of acoustic monitoring in wolf surveys.
I’ve dedicated the past 3 years to understanding non-song vocalizations, which admittedly is just a drop in the bucket. Now, as I venture into my fourth year of this relationship I have to acknowledge that I’ve moved from one chapter of my research into another. The Rapunzel Project (the whimsical name for my M.S. project) was my first foray into bio-acoustics, large scale fieldwork, and in internship development. While I wouldn’t consider myself an expert at any of these things, I’m also no longer a novice. I defended my thesis, we’re working on publications, and by and large I’ve put the Rapunzel Project to rest (I even retired the blog!).
All that being said I’m thrillingly eyeball deep in my PhD (first committee meeting: check!), and my research is actually rolling along in advance of my first field season (patting myself –very lightly – on the back). I’ve been giving talks on my research, and the blog posts are rolling out in various forms and locations. With all of this communicating about my research I became aware of something, my project didn’t have a name. Now I know that naming each project isn’t mandatory. Some people name their cars, some don’t; some people name their research, others don’t. But I have to admit writing the words “my dissertation research” over and over has grown tedious. As someone who values accessible communication as well as the role of creativity in science, I reached out to my fellow lab mates and asked for help with a name.
Suggestions varied wildly (“Life is the bubbles” anyone? How about a Calypso reference… so much fun). The name we settled on was astutely suggested by none other than ORCAA’s Selene Fregosi (maybe that writing workshop she wrote about helped with more than just her thesis). Without further ado let me introduce you to ORCAA’s Acoustic Spyglass: investigating the impact of vessel noise on humpback whale non-song behavior from the shores of Glacier Bay National Park.
I’m please with this name because (a) it incorporates both the visual and acoustic elements of the study, (b) because the use of a hydrophone array to localize animals is quite literally a form of “acoustic spying”, and (c) the use of a spyglass implies both antiquity and a sense of looking forward. When you pair visual observations with passive acoustic monitoring you are often looking forward (to the sea, tracking whales), but often technological constraints require that you listen retroactively after the hydrophones have been recovered. In this way I am quite literally listening to the past.
Listening to the Past
Nowhere is this more poignant than in the first chapter of the Acoustic Spyglass (see that… not “my dissertation research”), where I investigate non-song call stability at the decadal scale. I’ve acquired recordings of non-song vocalizations in North Pacific Humpbacks from the mid-1970’s through present day. I’ve been reviewing these to assess if non-song vocalizations, similar to song, change rapidly with time, or if humpbacks exhibit vocal stability. It is well known that humpback whale song changes annually, and this change is believed to be culturally mediated. Little is known, however, about how non-song vocalizations stand up to the test of time. Understanding the stability of non-song vocalizations may tell us something about call innateness, and may provide clues into how these vocalizations are used. Further, if non-song vocalizations (or specific types of non-song vocalizations) have been relatively stable for the past four decades then they may act as a metric against which to quantify change in the face of a shifting baseline (increasing ocean noise, climate change).
What’s so exciting (to me and possibly the ~twelve people who study non-song communication in humpback whales) is that based on first glance at least one call type – the SEAK Whup call – is remarkably stable over time! I’ve detected this vocalization in every data set currently in my possession. I want to be clear, that these findings are anecdotal at this point. I’ve only just started quantifying my samples, and I have a long way to go before everything is sufficiently measured and described. But from first glance would you agree that these spectrograms look pretty similar?
There’s something magical about listening to vocalizations that were produced in the 1970’s and hearing some of the same purrs that I’ve grown familiar with. That the scientific community forty years later is just now beginning to investigate what these non-song vocalizations mean is a testament to the breadth of research yet to be done on Southeast Alaskan humpback whales. Humpback whales are long-lived, with lifespans that can reach 90+ years. This means that the whales in these historic recordings may still be vocalizing in Southeast Alaska today. Or perhaps these recordings may be a link between a previous generation of whales and those who have only recently made it to Southeast Alaska to forage. In either case the analysis of this long-term acoustic data set is the first step to answering some of the basic questions about how humpback whales communicate and I’m extremely excited to be listening.
~This work is extremely collaborative. Data contributions have been made my individual researchers referenced above as well as the National Park Service, and the Alaska Whale Foundation~
***Follow my monthly blog posts here, or check out my personal blog mfournet.wordpress.com for a comprehensive look at my research world***
If you’ve been keeping up with all the goings on of ORCAA students this summer, you might think our lives as grad students are full of glamorous field work. I’m sorry to report that there is more to being a grad student then picturesque moments with charismatic study species in beautiful locations. We spend the majority of our time in front of a computer, and much of that time is spent writing. I used to find the idea of writing a thesis quite overwhelming, and sort of dreaded it. But writing is how we, as scientists communicate with our peers and with the public; it’s the most fundamental way we make our research mean something! So I decided I better get used to it, and get better at it ASAP.
This summer I was lucky enough to spend an entire week learning about writing. I took the special Thesis Writing class taught by Dr. Vicki Tolar Burton of the Writing Department here at OSU. This class wasn’t just about sentence structure or grammar (affect vs effect, anyone?), but was all about figuring out how I operate as a writer and developing writing-habits and productivity tools so I can sit down to write and, well, actually write! We wrote all day for 5 days – no cell phone, no email, no errands – then met for 2 hours each evening for peer review and discussion. I was surprisingly exhausted by the end, but I finished the class with a more positive confidence about writing. I not only gained some valuable writing habits, but more importantly I learned how to try new tools and evaluate their effectiveness for me personally so I can continue to develop as a productive writer.
My favorite part of the class was discovering my five Character Strengths and learning how I can use them to find success as a graduate student, in writing and otherwise. My top five described me perfectly, and although I first thought they seemed like weaknesses when it came to writing, by the end I was able to see how I can use them in the best way possible. You can find your own here; it’s worth registering.
Play “but also counts as work” Hard
So after my week of writing I was ready to get back to the fun stuff (someday writing might be fun…). Some folks from Hydronalix and NOAA came out to Newport to train Holger, Alex and I to drive and care for one of ORCAA’s newest toys: the EMILY. The EMILY is a totally awesome remote-controlled boat I suspect was built just for scientists like us who aren’t ready to be adults quite yet. They are currently used by beach lifeguards as rescue buoys and there are plans to send them kamikaze-style into hurricanes to collect storm data. ORCAA has plans to tow a hydrophone behind it and listen for ultra high frequency cetaceans (eg harbor porpoise) off Newport’s coast where NNMREC tests wave energy devices. EMILY needed some modifications for the conditions here in Oregon (too much seagrass!!) but we got her up and running and only had to carry out a few rescue missions with the skiff. I’m looking forward to getting some more time with these little torpedos!
These pictures may look familiar if you follow us on Twitter @ORCAAlab.
Beautiful day for some remote-controlled boat driving on the OSU dock.
Our fleet of EMILYs, ready to be launched.
Software used to steer EMILY just where we want her.
Joe and Holger bringing an EMILY in after the intake sucked up too much seagrass.
Our very fancy mesh and duct tape kelp-excluder-screen. Best part is, it actually worked!
Soundbites is a weekly (biweekly, occasionally) feature of the coolest, newest bioacoustics, soundscape, and acoustic research, in bite-size form. Plus other cool stuff having to do with sound. Can you believe it’s September already? I can’t! This is a frog-heavy post because a lot of interesting frog stuff has been coming out lately; my apologies to marine mammal fans.
Multimodality as a frog coping mechanism for traffic noise: what’s multimodality, you ask? Multimodality refers to communicating in more than one sensory mode; in this case, using both vocalizations and visual cues to communicate with potential mates. While these authors found that switching sensory modalities wasn’t the case for European tree frogs, they do say that this may happen in other species (like the tungara frog I mentioned in my post about the Frog Communication Symposium).
Traffic noise causes stress in frogs: this is VERY cool. Traffic noise playback causes physiological signs of stress in the form of increased corticosteroids in female wood frogs, who use the chorus of male frogs to orient toward the breeding pond. Not only is there stress, but they tend to freeze up and not move, which may impede breeding migration. This may be because the stress hormone is causing an immobility response, or because they can’t figure out where the chorus is due to masking.
Fun link of the week: you know how usually I post a pop press article or a video here? Well this week, it’s a third paper. It’s a paper on coffee roasting acoustics. Apparently it might be helpful for coffee roasters to listen to their beans cracking. I don’t drink coffee, but many of the ORCAA do (Holger especially!), so this seems like a great way of combining two of the lab’s loves!