Animal Bioacoustics

Technology. Ecology. Noise

Animal Bioacoustics

Archives for ORCAA students

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!

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.

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). 

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.

New Normal

I’ve spent a lot of time on the Henry B. Bigelow. Or at least it feels that way. The familiar chirps and beeps pinging at all hours, the frigid temperature of the dry lab, the way the marine smell lingers on the back deck on a humid day and the salty ocean air makes my skin feel dry and sticky at the same time. I know exactly what clothing to bring for the various jobs I will have, how sleep in my athwartships bunk in rough weather, and that (unless I’m really unlucky) the satellite Internet will allow me to iMessage my friends and family back on land. I’ve been enjoying boat life for years now and I find so much comfort in the little routines.

After departing another ship following a trying journey this spring, I spent a long time thinking about why I couldn’t embrace the quiet weeks at sea that I usually love. Usually spending time offshore offers perspective, fresh air and space to think through ideas and goals and potential plans, but on that trip I spent most of the time wishing I was back at home. Back home at…work? Instead of embracing the break from daily life in Oregon, I was overcome with anxiety about the progress I wasn’t making towards my degree. Perhaps the jumpy response of the ship to rough weather translated directly to my restlessness?

But when my friend and colleague asked me if I was ready to head back to sea this summer on the Bigelow, I didn’t hesitate to tell her “yes”, I was ready. How could I not be – I love sailing on the Bigelow and working as a passive acoustics observer. It is amazing to listen to the whistles, clicks, and buzzes of cetaceans around us in real-time. One of my non-acoustician friends used to describe my job as “eavesdropping on whales”, which, sounds a bit silly, but really is a pretty accurate description of what I do on the boat. The days are long, but most of them are good.

In previous years I would balance my time in the lab with breaks outside to try and spot the animals I spent so many hours listening to. But this year the cruise nears conclusion and my tube of sunscreen is still full. Furiously trying to keep up with my academic responsibilities has limited the number of dolphins I’ve seen, but will allow me some peace returning to Oregon knowing that I won’t have weeks of ignored emails to attend to.

There is a quiet isolation that develops with time spent as a graduate student in academic research. Digging deeper into our own holes of scientific obsession, our theses wouldn’t be viable projects if someone else was already working on the same questions.  I am aware of this at school, but the camaraderie of being surrounded by other students takes away a little of the loneliness. But at sea, secluded in my cabin to focus on my project, it feels more pronounced. A couple days ago I was analyzing a recording and identified a useful sound clip. Excitedly I considered who I could share my news with…but quickly realized that probably no one else would be quite as thrilled to look at a spectrogram of wind noise.

The next morning I woke up before my alarm and, not wanting to disturb my sleeping roommate, I got ready quickly and went to begin the daily set-up routines for our equipment in the dry lab. Ready to go half an hour early, I stood out on the back deck to watch the sunrise. And there, unhurried and under-caffeinated but still feeling accomplished from my thesis progress the day before, I finally reconnected with the sublime peace of being at sea.

This summer has been an experiment in re-adjusting my expectations, but I think I’m figuring out how to balance and prioritize. While I spend most of my hours staring at screens, moving between my laptop and the acoustics workstation in the dry lab, I keep a walkie-talkie on the desk just in case someone spots an animal close to the ship; it’s a lot harder to see a blue whale from my office in Oregon.

 

The Talking Earth

*This post is dedicated to my mom, who taught me how to read and how to listen*

When I was a small child my mother read a book called “The Talking Earth” out loud to my sister and I. As an adult I can’t quite remember the details, but it was about a Seminole girl alone in the woods interacting with plants, animals, wind and water in an effort to regain her faith in the power of nature. I vaguely remember her saving an abandoned otter pup and nursing it back to health and something lovely about a panther. What I poignantly recall, however, is a passage in the book about listening to the language of the earth as she nurses the otter; the beating hearts and warm bodies of mammals, the beating wings of the birds, and the sounds of rain and wind that collectively gives all animals a way of understanding the world. Book inspired a lot of thoughts in me as a child.

Now, I spend a lot of time thinking about one species, as it communicates with other animals of the same species, underwater, in the Beardslee Island Complex, in Glacier Bay Alaska. I dream about humpback whales calling in these waters at night (and often as I nap between shifts throughout our long days). But living on this island does something very kind for me, it speaks about more than just the whales. So a few days ago I stood alone on the beach at 4:07 am preparing to survey for whales and as the sun rose I took a few moments to listen to what the earth had to say to me.

The tide was shifting; I could see the water converging at our survey point. The clouds were rolling in on a southwest wind, and the fog was preparing to slowly take over the coastline in front of me. The loons called to each other in the pink turquoise rising sun. The family of oystercatchers that we watched last year gave one another their high cackling good morning call. The gulls squabbled, the sea lions yawned angry yawns. The earth woke up in pastel glory. When I was experiencing my first Alaskan winter I wrote that the Alaskan sun doesn’t burn, it blushes. This particular morning at 4am, the sun blushed and I was there to experience it.

It was a lovely moment for me. One of the few moments on the island when I was truly afforded solitude. Fieldwork is a strange bedfellow- the six of us are isolated on this island, yet we are never out of earshot of one another. I joke that we are isolated, together- and at 4am if given the chance to sleep in, our team will take it (and deserve it). Why I stayed up to survey myself? I’m not sure. Maybe I needed the space. Maybe when I woke up to check the weather it was too beautiful to go back to bed, and too foggy to be worth rousing my snuggling crew.

I’ve been going back and forth to that moment in my mind and it reminds me again of the book, The Talking Earth that my mother read to me as a child. It isn’t just about sound of the earth that I found remarkable, though certainly sound is what resonates with me, it is about the subtle signals that the earth gives all those who inhabit it, humans included. It requires an attentiveness to hear the messages in nature, and therefore a desire to listen in the first place. Subtly is a divinely natural quality.

I realize in writing this that this is important to me because it’s how I try to run my field team. With grace and intention, routine and subtlety, with the expectation of the best of my crew, and with consistent communication. Sometimes I succeed, often I fail, but it is in this emulation of nature’s voice that I think we can both collect the best data possible (you can go back here to learn more about the technical rigors of our field collection), while absorbing the many lessons that come from simply observing a place for as long as we are privileged to observe the waters of Strawberry Island.

The scientist in me doesn’t sleep through these sorts of introspections. My job, among many in science, is to try and take these intangibles and make them tangible. My job as a creative human is to do this without losing the essence of what makes these observations incredible. So I won’t deny that in my grand sunrise moment I grinned a little knowing that all of the glorious things I was listening to were being recorded by a two tiny terrestrial recorders that were lent to me by the Cornell Lab or Ornithology (thanks to my advisor Holger and BRP!). When I’m not in the field I’ll post some clips of the Talking Earth here in Glacier Bay, I’d encourage you to close your eyes and imagine being here. Here is a photo from my 4am sunrise to get you started.
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Your Alaskan Correspondent,

Miche

 

#SeaBASS2016

As a graduate student in bioacoustics, my education is interdisciplinary. Bioacoustics is a relatively small field, and (together with my peers) I am challenged to find my way through coursework in ecology, physiology, physics, oceanography, statistics, and engineering to learn the background information that I need to develop and answer research questions. While this challenge (for all young bioacousticians) presents itself a little differently at every university, the information gap is essentially the same. Hence, just over 6 years ago, Dr. Jennifer Missis-Old and Dr. Susan Parks recognized a need to fill this gap for graduate students in bioacoustics and created SeaBASS, a BioAcoustics Summer School.

This year, for the 4th iteration of the week-long program, I was lucky to have the opportunity to attend SeaBASS. I first heard about SeaBASS as a research assistant in Dr. Sofie Van Parijs’s passive acoustics group at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, but the workshop is limited to graduate students only so I had to wait until I was officially enrolled in grad school to apply. My ORCAA lab-mates, Niki, Selene, and Michelle are all alumni of SeaBASS (read Miche’s re-cap from 2014 here) so by the time I was preparing for my trip to upstate NY this summer to attend, I had a pretty good idea of what was to come.

As expected, the week was packed. I flew to the East Coast a few days early to visit our fearless ORCAA leader, Holger, at the Bioacoustics Research Program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, so I was lucky to be somewhat adjusted to EST by the time I arrived at Syracuse on Sunday afternoon. After exploring the campus, it was time for official SeaBASS programming to begin. Our first class, an “Introduction to Acoustics and Proportion”, began early on Monday morning. In the afternoon and through the rest of the week we also learned about active acoustics (creating a sound in the water and using the echo to detect animals or other things) and marine mammal physiology, echolocation, communication, and behavior. We also heard about passive acoustics (listening to existing underwater sounds), including the different types of technology being used and its application for population density estimation. On Friday afternoon, the final lecture covered the effects of noise on marine mammals.

Some SeaBASS-ers testing the hypothesis that humans are capable of echolocation.

In addition to the class lectures given by each instructor, we also heard individual opinions about “hot topics” in bioacoustics. This session was my favorite part of the week because we (the students) had the opportunity to hear from a number of accomplished scientists about what they believe are the most pressing issues in the field. Unlike a conference or seminar, these short talks introduced (or reinforced) ideas from researchers in an informal setting, and among our small group it was easy to hear impressions from other SeaBASS-ers afterward. As a student I spend a lot of my time working alone, my ORCAA labmates are focused on related projects, but we do not overlap completely. The best part of SeaBASS was sharing ideas, experiences, and general camaraderie with other students that are tackling questions very similar to my own.

SeaBASS 2016

Although a full week of class would be plenty to take in by itself, our evenings were also filled with activities. We (students) shared posters (this was mine) about our individual research projects, listened to advice about life as a researcher in the field, attended a Syracuse Chiefs baseball game, and at the end of each day reflected on our new knowledge and experiences over pints. So, needless to say, I returned home to Oregon completely exhausted, but also with refreshed excitement about my place in the small world of bioacoustics research.

Luckily we had beautiful weather for the baseball game!

Home team

Grad school isn’t all work….sometimes it means taking off a Friday afternoon and rooting for the home team. Go Beavs!!

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more science next time 🙂

Adrift in a sea of noise

I’ll be talking about my research on the radio this Sunday (2/28/16) at 1900 PST  – stream the show online at http://kbvr.com/listen

Repost from: Inspiration Dissemination Inspiring Stories From Oregon State Graduate Students on KBVR FM

“Imagine walking around your neighborhood in a dense fog as night settles in; you may be familiar with the layout, but everything seems different. Innocuous obstacles like low-hanging tree branches and broken sidewalks become invisible right until you stumble upon them. You must be extra vigilant in order to avoid blindly injuring yourself as visibility drops.

For many humans, sight is our most valuable sense, but for marine mammals like dolphins, whales, and seals, their hearing is most precious. As sound travels better through water than air, the ocean is already a noisy place with atmospheric activity and other animals passing around, but their senses have had millions of years to evolve in such an environment. Unfortunately, because of an increased human presence in the ocean, like a fog bank rolling in, the ocean is getting noisier and putting these already threatened animals in danger.

Samara ready to deploy a hydrophone

Samara Haver, a Masters student of Holger Klinck in Wildlife Science is interested in knowing about how the noise is affecting marine life. To do this, she must first characterize the ocean soundscape with hydrophones (pictured right) situated in various parts of the globe. With these data, she hopes to understand how loud the ocean is, how much noisier it’s getting, and where the noise is coming from. Tune in on Sunday, February 28th at 7PM PST on 88.7 FM in Corvallis or stream us online at http://kbvr.com/listen to hear Samara’s journey into the sounds of science.

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