The ORCAA Lab recently returned from the Society for Marine Mammalogy’s (SMM) Biennial Meeting in San Francisco. It was a whirlwind to say the least. Of the 2,600+ marine mammal scientists, professionals, and students in attendance I’d be pretty surprised if more than 10 or 15 escaped the week’s activity without feeling exhausted. This was my first SMM conference and I found myself feeling uncharacteristically nervous.
All of the graduate students in our lab were slated to give either a talk (Myself, Selene, and Samara) or a poster (Niki). We were part of a much larger contingent of researchers from Oregon State (both NOAA and the Marine Mammal Institute) and in such had ample encouragement and feedback on our research and presentations; but this didn’t seem to curb my butterflies.
My talk “Temporal stability of North Pacific humpback whale non-song vocalizations at the decadal scale” is the culmination of the first chapter of my PhD dissertation, and while the title might not convey the scope of what I’m trying to understand about animal communication I knew that I had 12 minutes at this conference to do just that. This talk was my first chance to stand up in front of a room of my peers and tell them something true that I had discovered.
Unequivocoal truth is hard to identify in science. As the questions that we ask grown more complicated, and the body of known scientific literature grows, the ‘simple’ phenomena left for discovery become harder and harder to find. In my dissertation I ask the question: what impact does large vessel noise have on humpback whale acoustic behavior? That is not a simple question. Further, it doesn’t begin to encompass whether that impact if negative, positive, or insignificant. My hope, is that as I sift through the steps to collect the data, ask the question, and analyze the results that I’ll have not only the quantitative skill set to tease out the truth, but the ecological acumen to interpret it in a meaningful way.
But I digress.
Before I can dive into these complicated questions I wanted to ask a simple one. Are non-song calls stable over time? Over the past eight years I’ve had the good fortune of collaborating with an increasing number of marine mammalogists. From these collaborations (and my own field work) I was able to compile a data set of non-song vocalizations in Southeast Alaska that span from 1976 to 2015. Using some simple methods (looking, listening), and some slightly more complicated statistical methods (see my previous publication here) I was able to say definitively that, yes, these calls are stable over time.
Further, I was able to demonstrate that they are stable in different ways. While nearly all described call types were detected across the data set some calls were infrequently used but highly stereotyped, in that their acoustic parameters (pitch, duration, bandwidth, etc.) changed very little over time. Other calls were highly variable, but persistent; meaning that while there was more variability in the acoustic parameters (i.e. some were higher in pitch, or had wider bandwidths) the call type was extremely common throughout all four decades of the study. I proposed that this difference – persistence versus stereotypy – may imply something different about the function of the call.
One of the elements of this study that I love, is its simplicity. While certainly the study is rigorous – many thousands of hours of recordings were sifted through, calls measured and extracted, and a three-part classification method was used to reduce observer bias in determining call types – the study in its most basic form is about listening for something consistent over time… and finding it.
One of my first ecology professors are the University of Alaska once told me, good science should be elegant. I don’t know if my study fits this criteria or not but at the very least it was well received at the conference. Admittedly, this may be in part to a fairly substantial technical snafu that forced me to make a somewhat ridiculous public speaking choice on the day of the talk. On my third slide I have a series of recordings of non-song vocalizations that I intended to play for the audience. When I tapped the ‘play’ button of the first sound… nothing happened. So I swallowed my pride and my humility opened my mouth and imitated the four sounds; the fourth sound is a feeding call that you can listen to below.( I’m closing my eyes and reliving the pounding heart experience of producing this sound to an audience of 200 of my most impressive peers… remember those butterflies I mentioned earlier?).
By the time I’d finished, the audience was clapping (I think there may have been a few hoots out there as well), and my already rosy cheeks were a deep shade of red. But the show must go on (I was only in the introduction after all). I finished my talk with time for questions and applause. I was rewarded with multiple collaboration meetings, a few good laughs (Ocean Alliance’s Andy Rogan even bought me a beer), and an award from the Society itself… for best doctoral presentation.
As Niki mentioned in her post earlier this week, Niki, Danielle, and I gave a presentation at Hatfield Marine Science Center this week as part of the Monday Tech Talk Series. On the first Monday of the month, someone from the community shares their knowledge on a new bit of technology they use/feel is important, and the talk is a relaxed discussion type setting so the audience can ask questions and learn more about if that technology would be useful in their work. I’m a big fan of these talks so was happy to be able to give one.
Our lab signed up to talk about social media, because, we think we are pretty good at it (not a #humblebrag, just an actual #brag)! You are reading our blog aren’t you? And you may have followed a link to it from our Twitter or Facebook page? I wanted to use this week’s blog post to share our presentation and some of the discussion it sparked, for those of you who couldn’t attend (*cough cough* Sharon).
What exactly is social media?
A lot of people think of it as teenagers buried in their phones and computers, taking selfies, tweeting about Alex from Target. But it has become much more than that! The official definition from the reliable source, Wikipedia, is:
“Social media are computer-mediated tools that allow people to create, share or exchange information, ideas, and pictures/videos in virtual communities and networks.”
The point is, social media allows people to share information, over long distances, and very quickly, enabling them to reach lots of different people they may not know directly.
Science – Social Media Connection
That is where science and social media can come together. A huge part of our job as scientists is to communicate our science – to share what we find with colleagues, students, the general public, whoever is interested (or maybe not)! Social media is an outlet to share publications, glimpses into field work, what is happening at conferences, resources that may be helpful, events happening, conservation concerns, I could go on and on. To paraphrase Danielle at the end of our presentation – social media allows people to see scientists as real people, doing cool important stuff, who love what they do, not robots hidden away in a lab somewhere. We get excited about learning, about day-to-day new discoveries, and we have struggles, where things go wrong and we have to start over (or lock our keys in our car).
Types of Social Media
We covered four main types of social media, because those are the four our lab uses, and I posted the corresponding slides below. We wanted to highlight the differences between the different types, because that is the somewhat tricky thing about social media, each outlet serves a different purpose. Each has its pros and cons, and each should be used in a way that best takes advantages of the pros and minimizes the cons.
The audience asked “well which is best?” And I really didn’t have a single answer. Here’s the general consensus:
The website provides an official portal to the lab. Official information, links to all other social media, it comes up when search through OSU and has contact info for the lab. We don’t update it that often. It’s got long term blurbs about people an research.
The blog provides a more personal look into life in the lab. Each of the 5 grad students post once a month (we rotate through) and Danielle posts a fun Soundbites section ever Wednesday. These posts are longer, have pictures, and can be about anything we want…my parents and grandparents follow it to see what I’m actually doing, its sort of like an email to lots of people who care.
Twitter is our quick communication. It keeps us connected with collaborators, colleagues, “fans” (followers) and we have to condense what we want to say into 160 characters, or a picture. We can “retweet” things from other labs we follow, to share exciting papers, or new field work. This is a quick way to connect, but its over the short term.
Facebook is again a more personal way to communicate. It reaches out the same way as twitter in some sense, but posts can be longer, pictures are easier to browse, and we can connect with people through events, and more (see Niki’s post for more detail!!)
Other types of social media exist, such as Instagram, Google+, LinkedIn, and the science-specific ResearchGate. We are less familiar with these so didn’t discuss as much, but they are out there and maybe we will be on them in the future.
I feel like this blog is getting on a little bit. Describing social media in science could probably be an entire series of posts, but I wanted to just give a brief intro here. I thought I’d wrap up with some of the great discussion questions we got during the presentation (we didn’t get to the end of the slides because of the great interest!!) We don’t have all the answers, but please feel free to ask questions in the comments below and one of us will chime in (that’s the point of this interconnetivity isn’t it??)
How much time should we be spending on this as scientists? Is this taking away from our research?
What about the issue of misrepresentation of your research? (misquotes go misquoted go misquoted)
Where do you start?
Do you think it improves your writing?
What is the value in being able to condense your research to 160 characters? Should that be what we strive for in titles? Should a tweet of your abstract now be included?
Oh, and on a final note…
What the heck is a hastag (#hastag)??
For you scientists out there, think of it like a keyword, the keywords you would put on a paper. By putting the # in front of a word or phrase, it becomes searchable, and then connects your post (on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc) to other posts with the same hashtag.
#SciComm is a great one to start with to tell your followers you are communicating your science!
*Disclaimer: Niki and Danielle, I’m sorry if I didn’t do this post justice… I feel like I didn’t, but it’s hard to describe a discussion in a blog post!! Feel free to augment!!
All you wanted to know about Facebook and science and you were afraid to ask.
Most of us agree that communication is important. It is vital in every aspect of our lives and in everything that we do. It is the reason that most human belong in the category of social animals. For this reason sharing becomes important; sharing experiences and information. It has been mentioned before: this sharing is the foundation of culture.
Science is part of the information and experience that is ought to be shared. The term Science derives from the latin (yup,it hurts that is not a Greek reference this time): scientia that means “knowledge”. And what is the point of knowledge if it is not communicated? Writing, itself has been invented for the more efficient transmission of knowledge that allows less spread of falsehoods and enforces memory.
Successful science is not only good results with powerful correlations and desired p-values. Significant part of the success is related to the impact that can have to the community. And the first step towards that impact is making it available to people.
Sharing our research results with fellow scientists helps to improve it, discuss future steps and enhances the knowledge on which other scientists will base their own research. That happens usually through conferences and publishing peer reviewed articles. It isn’t of any less importance to share it with the rest of the world. Until not very long time ago, the way to do this was through the news, documentaries, books and newspapers. Some scientists get a lot more of this type of exposure than others. Nowadays, everyone can give publicity to his/her scientific research and share it with family, friends, “friends” and more.
The ability to communicate and share information has been switched to another dimension since the internet and the social media have taken off. Social networks offer easiness in socializing in long distances and in the long term, and that has transformed this platform into an integral part of most people’s lives. I don’t argue that this media has also altered irreversibly the way we interact with each other; for good or bad.
But this is a subject for another blog or even a whole social sciences’ conference.
Social networking animals
Connections and networking are useful, especially if you are an early career scientist. And that is what Facebook is about. Using it to make people aware of science seems to be a good idea considering its impact. Numbers talk for themselves: 1/7th of the world population has a Facebook profile. In this fraction we don’t even account for China having it censored (I know what you are thinking: what do Chinese use to procrastinate and waste time?). This number can even be compared to the Catholic Church members!
Do the math:
World population: 7.291,658,406 billion
Facebook users: 1.35 billion and 757 million daily users (fake profiles: 81.000.000)
Catholic Church: 1.2 billion members
China’s population: 1.4 billion.
This network has changed so much human communication that in tech culture the year 2015 is translated as the year 11 a.F.; with “a.F” standing for “after Facebook” (it was funded in 2004). It has undoubtedly spawned a big variety of nasty and unpleasant habits but we largely agree that it is an effective platform for long distance communication.
I don’t blame you if you are skeptical about the relationship of science and Facebook but there are certainly advantages in using it for this purpose. A good example is the Facebook page IFLS described as the lighter and funny side of science that has almost 20 million followers! There are plenty of similar profiles with millions of users around the world that get people interested into science. And this is the first main advantage of Facebook. It is global (besides China, North Korea and Tajikistan) and it allows international connections not just among friends and family members but also among colleagues and former lab members. It is particularly helpful for scientists since they tend to travel a lot (good reason to be one). Even the non-scientific Facebook contacts can be useful since you never know who is connected to whom. I have been a few times contacted through Facebook for work offers even by non-scientists friends. Information about new publications is immediately shared since researchers often, if not always, post their new publication as soon as it is accepted and often when it is just submitted. It is also a convenient way to follow updates and conversations if you are introverted since you don’t have to physically step into groups of people.
Almost all universities and research institutes have Facebook pages and that can be used for former or potential employers. Our ORCAA lab maintains a Facebook account. We use it for all sorts of updates that are related to bioacoustics and graduate student life and it is a direct and easy mean for people to contact us by sending us a message. New publications from our lab members are posted, as well as information related to conferences or meetings. However, the main reason we utilize it is for sharing our blog posts. Exactly, we post on Facebook to tell you that we blogged!
Since we concluded that Facebook can be useful for scientific purposes, here are a couple of tips on how to increase the impact of your posts.
I am sure that from personal use you will have noticed that the timing of your posts matters. It has been shown (there are figures below to confirm) that the most productive time to post on Facebook and get the most interaction (likes and shares) is during the weekends, especially on Saturdays and on a daily base just before and after lunch time. Too many posts are not a good thing; oversharing/overposting can have the opposite from desired results. Specifically one post every two days is highly recommended. When not to post? On Fridays. People are already away from their screens celebrating the entrance of the weekend. No worries, you will get them again on Saturday.
Now the question is what to post. It is important to translate your science in the most amusing and approachable way possible. Humor always helps; try to use quotes, jokes and fun facts. Everyone likes and remembers fun facts. ZeFrank is the King of fun facts and his True Facts (watch this link) series is legendary. I am surprised he doesn’t have an episode on sperm whales, they provide abundant “fun fact” material!
Pictures, photos and videos are worth a thousand words and an easy way to get messages across. Tagging people is a way to encourage interaction but do it with relevant to your post “friends”. Same is the case with questions; they raise interaction. To connect the scientist and his work with a non-scientific audience, to get people interested and involved is the goal. The challenge is to not vitiate your results or your methods in the process of simplifying them so they can be accessible. Just change the wooden, stiff scientific language into a more fun and personal expression.
You don’t have to be a professional science journalist. It would help but it’s not necessary. Writing never gets easy anyways. At least that’s what Elizabeth Kolbert said yesterday at the presentation she gave at OSU. She is the author of the book 6th extinction and she writes a lot! Her comment caused an empathetic feeling to a lot of students in the auditorium. Including me.
*This post is based on the Tech Talk that Selene, Danielle and me gave last Monday at the Hatfield Marine Science Center with the title “#SciComm”. Selene will be posting a more comprehensive text on the use of different social media in communicating science*
“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**