The ice has grown thinner, the ship has grown boisterous with passengers, and with the exception of a few errant edits to cruise reports our scientific mission is complete. But the journey is not over; I still have a few days in New Zealand to tell you about, and a 30 hour transit home. Plus… we celebrated Christmas on the ship!
When I first started this trip I spelled out the cast of characters on the ship (my beloved Kiwi pilots, my Italian roommate Ombretta and her ocean acidification project). Well, the curtain has risen and fallen a few times on the passengers of the R/V Araon and it’s time for a new update. After our research cruise the R/V Araon returned to Terra Nova Bay to retrieve the scientists and crew that had overwintered there (that’s right, a year at Jang Bogo station). We also picked up a handful of KOPRI geoscientists who had spent the Austral spring at the base (and found a stunning meteorite!) to transit them back to Christchurch as well. The meteorite, which I feel privileged to have seen with my own eyes, is said to be the largest ever found by a Korean scientist and one of the largest in the world. It’s retrieval is exciting news in the geoscience world – history in the making.
In addition to our Korean colleagues, however, we picked up Scottish volcanologist John Smellie (if you aren’t immediately impressed with a volcanologist in Antarctica let me remind you that this man studies volcanic eruptions underneath the ice), and a motley crew of nine geologists, biologists, and zoologists and one fine soldier from Italy’s Mario Zucchelli Station,. Remember how I said the ship had become boisterous? You can imagine why.
Thanks to the graciousness of documentary filmmaker/marine zoologists Roberto Palozzi I resumed my Italian lessons (grazie mille, Roberto). Thanks to the sheer charisma of Nicoletta Ademolla I now have a sincere dream to study the vocal behavior of Adelie penguins (not forgetting of course the Weddell Seals). And thanks to my friend Arnold Rakaj I will forever look out for eels in shallow freshwater streams (although he is a marine ecologist by training, studying plankton… not eels). I won’t go into the specialties and details of all of the PNRA team, but suffice it to say that I was extremely impressed with the breadth and range of their work… I’d even go so far as to say envious. A comprehensive seal reproduction study which includes live captures and the weighing of seal pups? Yes, I would like to be included, of course. Oh you need a bioacoustician? I just happen to be one. I just need a few more weeks to improve my Italian.
I’ve mentioned in the past that every scientific mission is accompanied by a personal one. When I traveled to Glacier Bay this past summer one of my primary goals was to build a relationship with the landscape and the community. I did not have the same expectation of my time in Antarctica. I admit I’d cast the landscape as a barren bedfellow, and anticipated my time on the ship to be filled with solitude. I can happily admit that I was wrong. Relationships are forged in unlikely places, professionally and personally. While I thoroughly anticipated feeling scientifically awakened and inspired by the scenery, I’m pleased to report that it was in the conversations with the passengers on board the ship that I truly began to build collaborations.
But enough on the value of science and relationships… I want to tell you about Christmas.
Christmas in Korea is celebrated largely on Christmas Eve — which was amenable to our schedule given that we were slated to arrive in Lyttelton, NZ on Christmas morning. Christmas Eve we were treated to an early Korean Christmas dinner, complete with wine and roasted nuts for a bit of flair. Our five o’clock meal, however, was complimented by a midnight meal. The chef onboard the R/V Araon graciously agreed to turn over his kitchen (and his pantry) for the evening so that we might make Christmas Spaghetti. Let by Chef Roberto (though admittedly I may have tried to mutiny once or twice) we cooked three dishes, complimented by Italian cheese and salami courtesy of Mario Zucchelli Station. The evening was completed once Santa Claus himself (Kiwi Engineer Chris) made an appearance, passing out candies, and asking us all what we wanted for Christmas.
It was glorious, and festive, and fitting for our last night on the ship.
I realize that unlike previous posts that this entry lacks much sincere scientific merit. However, one of the things that was emphasized on the ship, and throughout my training as an ecologist, is the importance of balancing work and life. Nowhere does this seem more critical than transiting to and from the bottom of the world, where the lines are blurred. Following Christmas we docked in Lyttelton Harbor near Christchurch, New Zealand marking the end of my journey through the Southern Ocean. Bittersweet.
Don’t fret though, fearless readers, There’s one more post before I end this story, because New Zealand was glorious.
I’m happy to report (I’ll be it a bit late) that the OBH (Ocean Bottom Hydrophone… for those of you just joining us) has been safely recovered! It is now snugly packed on board the R/V Araon and prepared for transport back to NOAA. Our first attempt to contact our instrument was a success (we sang to it, it sang back… how I love acoustics); however, the glorious sunshine that graced us during our recovery was unfortunately accompanied by 45-knot winds. The ship, which is large and generally stable, pitched in the wind. Our instrument is robust, but not unbreakable, and requires hoisting onto the deck via an onboard winch once it appears at the oceans surface. This translates to a lot of potential swinging – particularly in choppy seas. As usual the crew of the R/V Araon did not disappoint. They recommended a delay, and the recovery was postponed.
What was not postponed, however, was our end of research cruise celebration. Despite the delay our research team was treated to a feast! Korean wine, sashimi and tempura, even chocolate cakes were served. We ate until we could not eat any more, and made merry in the mess hall until our sides split from laughing (ok, there may have been some dancing in the lounge as well, a cap with a beard knit into it, and Christmas carols). It was a glorious way to celebrate the ‘almost end of cruise’.
While the following day’s 8 AM recovery seemed early given the night’s festivities, the entire operation went off without incident. Our instrument appeared as predicted after the release command was sent, and the crew deftly maneuvered her onboard (despite another pick up in the wind). For me, the moment was one of blissful relief. This was my first large-scale recovery (of what I hope will be many). This trip was a gift and an opportunity, to successfully accomplish my mission was glorious. Further, the anticipation for seeing the instrument when she appeared from ~1000 m depth had been building for months. When it was finally placed on board I completely forgot about the lack of sleep. It was amazing. I was struck by how little bio-fouling took place (although admittedly the instrument was well beyond the photic zone), other than a thin film and what appeared to be a handful of deep water limpets.
By comparison, the OBS (Ocean Bottom Seismometer) recovery was significantly more dramatic. Two OBS’s were deployed last year, both locations are currently covered in ice. To recover our instruments the R/V Araon’s ice breaking capabilities were put into full use. The ship was used to break, and then clear, a hole in the ice directly above where the OBS was deployed. Nature abhors a vacuum, so as soon as the ice was cleared (which took hours) it would quickly drift back into position. Despite this, the ship’s captain managed to clear an opening in the ice about the size of a small lake. this required copious amounts of circular ice breaking, the ship track lines were dizzying. The operation, however, was brilliantly executed. The OBS was released directly into the center of the clearing (much to our relief).
Overall we successfully recovered one OBS, one OBH, deployed ~20 CTD casts (more if you consider that at times we deployed two separate instruments), and we successfully deployed to 500 m oceanographic mooring. Most of this was done in close proximity to the Drygalski Ice Tongue, which lived up in full to its reputation.
While our team was able to ride the euphoria of a successful mission for some time, I must admit the days following the end of the cruise were hard. Brett, the Kiwi scientist from NIWA (National Institute of Water and Atmosphere) joined us on the Araon for the duration of the cruise, but would not sail back with us. Similarly to our Italian colleagues Brett left via helicopter and disappeared across the ice. It strikes me as somewhat ironic that in a landscape that exists at such a large scale, that relationships here are formed so quickly. It’s a silly metaphor but I suppose this is not altogether unlike the ice itself, which freezes quickly (pancake ice anyone?), but has the potential to stay intact for many years. In any case we returned to the mouth of Terra Nova bay and bid a rushed goodbye to our dear friend. I hope he makes it home in time for Christmas.
As for the rest of our team? We’ll spend Christmas on the ship. We should be back in Lyttelton, New Zealand by December 27th, and will disembark shortly therafter. For now, we have a new group of Korean scientists on the ship. They have been at Jang Bogo for various durations, some only a week, others as much as a year! Additionally, we have a new group of Italian scientists from Mario Zuchelli Station who are in transit home. I’d thought my Italian lessons were over… I suppose we’ll have to see.
More on Christmas and the northbound transit soon!
Your Antarctic Correspondent,
**Disclaimer — This post was written a few days ago… but due to lack of internet I wasn’t able to post it. Stay tuned for notes on how Christmas turned out, and what our return to New Zealand looked like**
After a nine day sail the R/V Araon arrived in Jang Bogo Research Station! As a first time visitor to Antarctica the view not only took my breath away, but dumbfounded me. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and admittedly I haven’t found the words yet to describe it- the sheer scale of the landscape leaves me at a complete loss. Luckily ORCAA sent me with a camera, which should speak a little more clearly than I can these days.
After a short stop in Terra Nova Bay on Saturday to bid our Italian colleagues goodbye the Araon spent ~48 hours breaking through 1-2m thick ice (the noise was deafening and impressive). The ship, as I’ve mentioned before, is state of the art and extremely efficient at it’s job- breaking ice. The frozen sea stretches in front of us dauntingly, but the ship is not phased as she bows over the ice which creaks and breaks under the weight of the ship, blazing our path toward the continent.
After quite some time on the ship I think both passengers and crew were eager to step onto the ice and set foot on the continent of Antarctica. Admittedly, the only thing which seemed to satiate the passengers onboard the ship were the frequent sightings of Adelie penguins, and a very long encounter with an emperor penguin that curiously watched as we stopped to rearrange our cargo deck.
While I can’t underplay the thrill of watching penguins from the ship, it did not compare to the excitement of reaching the continent itself.
The Jang Bogo research station is one of the most impressive facilities I’ve ever seen. It is outfitted to comfortably hold multiple research teams investigating a range of environmental features including space weather, geophysics and seismology, geology, and oceanography. It is also outfitted with an indoor greenhouse where salad greens are grown for consumption throughout the year, a state of the art gym (with climbing wall), an espresso bar, multiple lounges and conference rooms, wet and dry lab space, and considerable charm.
The team currently in residence at Jang Bogo are extremely gracious, and generously toured me through the facility within moments of stepping foot inside the door. The facility, which officially opened its doors last February, is nearing completion, and various research projects are currently underway. Many of the researchers currently at the base will accompany us on the return journey to Christchurch, NZ.
For now, the crew has been working round the clock (the never setting sun allows for very high productivity- human and primary) to unload supplies, scientific cargo, and fuel for the base. Tomorrow our helicopter pilots will begin flying missions as various ice dynamic studies progress, and in two days time we will set sail for our oceanographic cruise.
For the first time in the last 13 hours the electronic plane icon that has been flying across the digital screen in front of seat 41C on this United Airlines international jumbo jet is traveling above land. We are flying over a small island chain to the northeast of Australia as I type this; the capital of Port Vila is marked with a white dot. Prior to this the plane on this screen flew over nothing but vast Pacific Ocean. We land in a few hours in Sydney. It’s my first trip to Australia, and a short one at about 2-hours before I catch a flight to Christchurch, NZ where the R/V Araon will be docked.
Getting to Antarctica takes a long time.
Three flights totaling ~20 hours of flying time across four airports and three countries, and that’s just to get to New Zealand. From there I’ll board the KOPRI ship the R/V Araon for a ~9 day sail to the Ross Sea. In a world where I can transit continents in a day, that it takes over a week to reach Antarctica is both satisfying and daunting. It really is that far away, but it’s Antarctica… shouldn’t it take a long time to get there?
I don’t have a lot to report yet. The days leading up to the trip ended with a flurry of activity. Equipment had to be shipped, driven, and then flown around the world. An early evening training session with PMEL’s Matt Fowler got me up to speed on what’s expected of me, what I’ll actually be doing on the ship, and why the expedition is happening at all.
The cruise is multi-purpose; resupplying the Korean Antarctic Base – Jang Bogo Station – is one of the expedition tasks. As is collecting valuable data on conditions near the Dragovski Ice Tongue, and recovering various instruments deployed last year to study seismic activity in the region. But my role is to recover an Ocean Bottom Hydrophone, or OBH for short, from approximately ~1000m (3300 ft) beneath the cold ocean waves for the Pacific Marine Ecology Lab (PMEL). PMEL and KOPRI are working together to improve our knowledge of ice dynamics in the Southern Ocean.
The seemingly impossible recovery task is accomplished by chirping. We’ll be using something called an acoustic release. What that means is I have a piece of equipment on the deck of the ship with an acoustic element that gets slung overboard to ‘chirp’ into the water. The right chirp, at the right frequency, and the right timing, will wake up an element built into the hydrophone on the ocean bottom. If it hears the right signal, it chirps back a predictable reply. It’s all very charming to hear, and slightly more technical than I’m describing but as Matt said when he was training me on it “it’s technician proof”. Once contact is made with the hydrophone, and I confirm that the signal it’s responding is in fact our own, I can send a release command that will theoretically release the hydrophone from it’s bottom mooring allowing it to float to the surface of the water (should take 5-20 minutes, Matt tells me).
It all sounds fairly straightforward and I’m assured that the technology is sound. Will it work? I don’t know yet, it should. But it’s going to take me another 9 days to get to the Ross Sea, so you’ll have to standby while I get off of this plane, onto another one, then into a taxi, and onto a ship, then sail south south south. This may take a while.
Before I went to ASA last week, I had this grand idea that I would do a sort of journal-blog thing, where I’d periodically write little snippets about what was going on and how I was feeling. I started off really well, too, but all of it basically went out the window when Holger came to pick me up Sunday morning.
Let me preface this post by saying that most of the other members of ORCAA have been to a big conference before, including this one last year. This was my first—I had given poster presentations at small symposia, but nothing like this. It was also my first proper presentation.
The first thing you have to realize about ASA is that it’s the Acoustical Society of America. This means that any field that has anything to do with acoustics is invited. Biomedical acoustics, architectural acoustics, musical acoustics…these are just a few of the technical committees represented at this conference. It’s overwhelming. Mostly I hung around with the Animal Bioacoustics crew, which of course makes sense—this is most of what our lab does. I met tons of amazing people: other students, post-docs, researchers, professors. I even reconnected with several people from my old lab, the Cornell Bioacoustics Research Program.
My talk was on Monday, in the first session. I honestly don’t remember giving it, except for the point when my slides skipped too far ahead too quickly and when Niki dropped her cup and made me laugh. I was told it went well, though. I do remember answering questions, and feeling like I was able to respond to whatever was thrown at me without embarrassing myself. I even worked in a great response involving natural selection.
The nice thing about having your talk in the first session on the first day is that you have the rest of the conference to relax. The bad thing about having your talk in the first session on the first day is that people don’t always make it to see you. Many friends I made throughout the week didn’t get the chance to see me speak, and nor did one of the best connections I made during the week, Andrea Simmons. Andrea has been doing frog bioacoustics work at Brown for a long time, and I got to talk to her about both her work and mine on the last day I was there. She seemed very interested in what I’m doing, especially moving forward with the work I’m planning for my Ph.D. She also wants to come out and record our invasive bullfrogs with her array!
There were so many amazing talks given by tons of amazing researchers. I learned about horseshoe bats and their weird head movements. I learned about greater prairie chicken vocalizations. I even learned about frog-biting midges that are attracted to their prey through mating calls! And oh, the things people are doing with marine mammals! Marine mammal researchers get the coolest toys, I swear. Arrays and tags and three-dimensional plots of dives…so cool!
The entire experience was overwhelming, intense, and immensely gratifying. I felt humbled to be a part of such an amazing group of researchers, and proud and grateful to be welcomed among them. You only get one first big conference, and I like to think I nailed this one.
I’ve made a Storify of my tweets and others from the conference that you can see here. There was a budding and tight-knit social media presence at the meeting this year, which was great to see; a lot of the friends I made were made through Twitter! Other awesome ASA Storify collections can be found here by Ben Taft, and here by Will Slaton (two of my fellow live-tweeters).
Classes have started again here at OSU. I know this is old news for those east coast universities that start classes in late August or early September, but here in Ye Olde Oregon fall starts late… so school starts late. As a PhD student I’m no longer required to take classes at the university, and having just pushed the paperwork through on our National Park Service Grant I will soon be exclusively a GRA (graduate research assistant) and will no longer be required to teach courses either. For now, however, I am both student and teacher — taking classes and teaching them.
I love teaching. Rare for many researchers I know, but for me – true. I find it helps me to synthesize my thoughts, to approach science creatively and simply, and to consistently reference back to the basics. In my tenure as a graduate student at OSU I’ve been privileged to both TA and instruct classes in basic biology, ecology, intro to anatomy, physiology and the disease, marine biology, marine mammal science, marine habitats, and (my all time favorite) field sampling. FW255 — field sampling — is a required course for all of our Fisheries and Wildlife undergraduate students; I’ve been a GTA (graduate teaching assistant) under the brilliant and compassionate guidance of biological oceanographer and community ecologist Dr. Doug Reese for four quarters. The course gives students the opportunity (under the instructors’ guidance) to design and execute field studies at the Finley Wildlife Refuge. Courses range from comparing predator habitat use, to investigating the impacts of beaver dams on water clarity, to chronicling avian community structure. I know. Our students are impressive, creative, young minds.
For my part I see participating in this course as an opportunity to introduce undergraduate students to acoustic ecology. In my tenure I’ve guided students through studies that seek to aquatically detect amphibian species, investigate the impact of diel vs. nocturnal raptors on songbird communities, and studies that use acoustics (playbacks and recordings in this case) to test for territorial responses of red-winged blackbirds to encroaching yellow-headed blackbirds. Currently we’re starting up two playback studies; one study uses acoustic playbacks to investigate the impact of raptors on waterfowl, the other which will asses behavioral responses of elk to breeding calls (assuming we can find the elk — backup plan includes tracking elk and using trail cams. No student left behind here).
While there’s a lot to love about teaching this class (I spend two days a week hiking through a wildlife refuge looking for animals, I can pay my rent each month), there are a few things that really strike me as I start up my fourth quarter interacting with out students in the field. First, I have a lot to learn. Whenever I start to feel like I understand something in its entirety, be it about ecology or about bioacoustics, a student asks me a question I don’t know the answer to. I then go home, look it up, and learn something for the both of us. It is simultaneously refreshing, inspiring, and humbling. Good qualities for any PhD student to embody.
Second, teaching is valuable. While I believe that my research has, and will continue to have an impact of the world around me, when I teach I can see the impact. My students start the quarter not knowing how to do something (“What is a quadrat?”), perhaps lacking direction (a.k.a. don’t know how to operate a GPS), and are sometimes a little short in the inspiration department (“What study do you think I should do, Michelle?”), but when then leave? By the time my students hand in their final papers — a full scale research paper, intro, methods, results, & discussions, stats and all — I can see that they have changed (“We used a one square meter quadrat to investigate insect biodiversity between the upland forest and the agricultural lowland riparian zone”). Further, the relationships that I see unfolding in our class between the students and their groups, and the students and Doug and myself, are proof to me that doing science is a powerful tonic for a healthy life. Not everyone loves teaching, not everyone gets it, but for me (at least for now) it’s nourishing to put big picture impacts into real world perspective.
So yes, I am a teacher. Yes, I am a student. The teacher is a student & the students are the teachers.
But enough with philosophy (Niki’s really much better at that than I am). While 99% of the time I love teaching… no one can deny that this is also true. Cross your fingers and I may just graduate some day.
Fall is here, the weather is cooling down, the leaves will soon start changing color, and the ORCAA students are back in class. I’ve spent the past few months collecting fieldwork data, doing extensive literature reviews, and taking over as the Hatfield Student Organization (HsO) social coordinator here in Newport.
However, my last week of summer before officially starting my graduate career was spent attending conferences and networking with others in my field. Last week I was lucky enough to sit on an impact panel for a joint Conference with Oregon Wave Energy Trust (OWET) and Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center (NMREC) with Barbara Lagerquist to represent Bruce Mate (Director of the Marine Mammal Institute here at Oregon State). Wave energy technology is new and evolving in its applicability, viability, and potential impacts. Very little information is available on environmental effects, and in some cases, no baseline information exists – which is where one of the main goals of my graduate research comes into play! The objective of this workshop was to identify studies that should be conducted to properly determine potential effects from power generating buoys on marine mammals of the Oregon coast, with emphasis on cetaceans, like my study species, the harbor porpoise. Special emphasis was put on the acoustic output from both the installation and operation of wave energy buoys (the two phases could be quite different acoustically), monitoring marine mammal behavior, detection of buoys by cetaceans, and the use of acoustic deterrence devices to prevent cetacean collisions and/or entanglements. Nonetheless, workshop participants included marine mammal biologists, marine acousticians, and representatives from the wave energy industry and regulatory agencies, so it was a great chance for me to Network! And if that wasn’t enough, Hatfield hosted Dr. Jens Koblitz last Thursday, who gave a presentation on Static Acoustic Monitoring of the Baltic Sea Harbor Propoise (SAMBAH), which is a multinational project with the primary goal of estimating the abundance and spatial-temporal distribution of the critically endangered Baltic Sea harbor porpoise. Check out the research here!
While spending a week with experts in my field was fun, it is now time to make the transition into the school year! Like most first year graduate students, I’m learning that organizing one’s free time is critical for first year students, and that probably won’t change throughout one’s graduate studies and after. I’m also learning the responsibilities of graduate school seem to be more task oriented then time oriented, and it seems that the designated task for me this quarter is learning programing! However, I am not alone! Fellow ORCAA students, Danielle and Michelle, will be joining me on the journey of learning Matlab. Without a doubt, if you’re at the beginning of your research career in the field of bioacoustics, learning Matlab is certainly one of the most useful things you could possibly learn. But as a first year, first term graduate student, Matlab will be joined with its programing friends R (a statistical computing program) and GIS (a computer system designed to create spatial or geographic data) on my course schedule. Check back next month to get an update on my sanity! 🙂
While, I’ve had a busy transition from conference season to classes starting up, my alma mater, Purdue University, has been celebrating Homecoming Week, which I was unfortunately able to attend. However, the university decided to send me a message just to let me know it was still thinking of me. As I was commuting to class this morning, I was listening to NPR, and heard that a “soundscape ecologist” has installed microphones around the world so he can capture the planet’s noises. Brian Pijanowski a “soundscape ecologist” at Purdue University, studies how environmental sounds interact, and he believes listening to the world can clue us in to the changing state of the natural world. Pijanowski has spent years traveling the globe and installing microphones everywhere from the rain forests of Borneo and Costa Rica to the Sonoran Desert and the streets of Chicago. His travels are part of an ambitious project in which he will record every sound the planet makes. Soon, sensors in Indiana will go online, and his collection of microphones will record oceans, birdsongs, insects, animals, traffic and every other sound on Earth for a full year. ISNT BIOACOUSTICS WAY COOL?!? You guys can read the full story Here. I couldn’t find yesterday’s podcast, perhaps it isn’t uploaded yet (?), Ill keep an eye out, but here is the first NPR podcast on the research from a few years ago. Finally, the researchers have created a 5-minute time-lapse audio and visual video of a full day’s soundscape where I did my undergraduate fieldwork at the Purdue Wildlife Area in Tippecanoe County, Indiana. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7PB65l9c8NM
Well ORCAA readers that’s all for now, if anyone needs me Ill be hanging with my best friends, R, GIS, and Matlab. Until next time! Cheers!
“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**
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!