Well… it’s that time of year again. I see little flashes of red out of the corner of my eye when I’m out walking; everyone in my Ecological Stats class is talking about it, some with dread, some with stars in their eyes. The air is abuzz with courtship, pretty little love songs, and dare I say it… hormones?
That’s right. The red-winged blackbirds are back.
What? You thought I was talking about some silly holiday?! Tsk tsk.
Let’s be serious. Spring seems to be coming early this year in Oregon (see Danielle’s post about the heavy rain, warm weather, and early frog calls) and the blackbirds are no exception. Red-winged blackbird males sing for a multitude of reasons, but most are directly related to securing and maintaining a mate (and the territory to defend her, house her, and raise lovely red-winged blackbird babies). The part of this whole ordeal that I love most however is the song. Red winged blackbirds produce one of my favorite bird songs, while not as complex as say a Pacific Wren or a Song Sparrow, it might be one of the loveliest sounds on earth. Go on, have a listen.
Admittedly, I am not a bird song (or bird call) aficionado. I’m not even a novice birder, but I do love the morning chorus when I walk by the river, and the evening chorus when I ride my bike home. It is one of the perks of living in the Willamette Valley. As you likely know, however, I am a marine acoustic ecologist by training (see my earlier post on SeaBASS), and I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you that blackbirds aren’t the only boys singing right now.
It’s breeding season for northern hemisphere humpback whales, and males in the tropics and sub-tropics can be heard singing in nearly any hour of the day. Thanks to the Jupiter Project anyone with a broadband connection can listen to the live feed of a hydrophone in the Hawaiian Islands here. By contrast in the high Arctic male bearded seals are singing in and around the sea ice- presumably to establish and defend breeding territories… and impress lady-seals too. Listen to their strange love-song below.
While I eschew Valentine’s Day in general, it does bring me great joy that some of our most genuine expressions of human love, love songs, are something that we share with many animal species. So while I’m unlikely to set aside my Saturday bonfire plans in favor of candy hearts, when I head out this weekend to walk my wild pups by the river and I hear the blackbird singing, I might for a moment imagine he is singing for me.
Have a wonderful weekend friends.
***Follow my monthly blog posts here, or check out my personal blog mfournet.wordpress.com for a comprehensive look at my research world***
Well, I took last month off from blogging because I didn’t have much exciting to share. Then my turn came up again this month and again I realized I don’t have much to share. So I decided to go with it and just ramble for a bit. I have been working on wrapping up my master’s thesis and so I’ve been very busy writing, and reading, and writing, and editing, and making Holger read stuff, and writing. But the end is near, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, all those other catch phrases about finishing something!
I spent the Christmas holiday with my family but headed back to Oregon soon after to get back to work. I’ve been fortunate enough to be hanging out on the coast while doing all this hectic finishing up, and it has been surprisingly nice weather. I have been spending a lot of time staring at this screen, but at least the sun has been out my window!! And it makes taking breaks to walk the dog all that much easier.
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.
Soundbites is a weekly (biweekly, occasionally) feature of the coolest, newest bioacoustics, soundscape, and acoustic research, in bite-size form. Plus other cool stuff having to do with sound. Can you believe it’s already December?
Okay, so, the holiday season is upon us, and I thought I would do something a little different (mostly because end-of-term has meant I am fed up with reading papers and would rather look at holiday stuff). Today I present to you: a holiday gift guide for your favorite bioacoustician.
Species of interest cookie cutters: who doesn’t love holiday cookies? Better yet, let’s make holiday cookies in the shapes of bioacoustically relevant species! You’ve got your suite of marine mammals: seals, dolphins, and whales. Let’s throw in a bat for good measure. And of course, we can’t forget about my frogs! And let’s put a penguin in there for Michelle.
Last week I attended the 5th Biologging Science Symposium in Strasbourg, France (Yes, France!! All thanks to student travel awards from the OSU Mastin Travel Award, the Hatfield Student Organization, and the conference itself).
OSU had quite the showing. Almost all the PI’s from the Marine Mammal Institute were there, plus Dr. Rob Suryan from Hatfield’s Seabird Oceanography Lab, and Shea Steingass and I as student presenters. I presented a poster on my master’s research, and the poster sessions (all 4 of them!) were super productive. I was able to meet people from the Marine Mammal Commission who were interested in my work and suggested some research grants I could apply for to conduct future field work. I got feedback from my collaborator David (the raccoons in chimney guy) on my analysis and got to hang out at his exhibitor booth like a cool kid. And I got to talk with leading dive physiology researchers from Scripps Institute of Oceanograpy about how to use my tag to study specific physiological responses to extended deep dives. I think my favorite part was meeting Dr. Gerald “Jerry” Kooyman, the inventor of time-depth recorders, and hearing him say he thought my research was awesome.
Biologging is all about putting tags on animals and studying their behavior, whether it’s large-scale migrations, fine scale flight, foraging kinematics, or vocal production and communication. There were countless interesting research presentations and I was able to make some great new connections, but all week something felt like it was missing. Acoustics!! This was my first major conference that was not all acoustics, all the time, and I have to say there were moments sitting in a talk I found myself wishing for more dB’s. Don’t get me wrong, I am so thankful I was able to attend and I learned a ton. But to satisfy the acoustician in me, I recorded all over Strasbourg and now I’ll share with you the sounds of France! Or, at least a small subset recorded by your’s truly.
Free beer to anyone who makes the sounds into spectrograms and leaves them in the comments!
Siren and street sounds from outside my apartment window:
Inside the conference center during an oral presentation:
The tram that got us all over town:
Some performers at the open-air market:
The hum of a coffee break at the conference:
The bell’s of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg:
(A story that follows the adventures of Niki Diogou, the first person that hitchhiked at the Aegean Sea to record dolphin “voices” before somebody else does it)
Since it has been suggested that the idea of leaving the oceans (and then coming down from the trees) was not a wise thing to do, I decided to return to our distant ancestor’s water element for this summer. I spent 2 weeks of late
July and early August at the remnant of the ancient Sea Tethys, where also happens to be my motherland. Tethys Sea, prior to its closure into the Mediterranean Sea, it was the one of the 2 world oceans during the Earth’s early life, when geography class would had been so much simpler (history too) with Pangaea being a unique super-continent. Greece was covered by the
Tethys and nowadays there are fossils at the Aegean islands to prove this intimacy. The Tethys Sea was named by Eduard Suess (don’t get confused, this is a different Dr. Suess ) after the Greek goddess Tethys. She was the daughter of Uranus (Sky) and Gaia (Earth), both sister and wife of Oceanus (there are no taboos if you are a god).
After praying to all the Greek sea gods that I could remember for an opportunity to collect the data I needed for my 3rd thesis chapter, the opportunity arose. Well to be accurate, didn’t really arise itself. I did push it a bit to come up…
The history of every major marine research has passed through 3 recognizable stages, those of: Survival, Enquiry and Sophistication. Otherwise known as the How, Why and Where phases. For instance the first phase is characterized by the question “how can I get funding”. The second, by the question “why do I do this research”, and the third “where in the world is the seawater warmer and clearer”.
To answer the first question I wrote this post.
To answer the second question, I wrote my previous blog.
And for the third ultimate question about the meaning of life, universe and absolutely everything, eeeh I meant the sampling site, the ultimate answer: Greece!
Concerning the second question, I will give you a summary of my field work purpose. Though, Douglas Adams has already expressed the importance of my research:
“Man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much — the wheel, New York, wars and so on — whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man — for precisely the same reasons. The last ever dolphin message was misinterpreted as a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to do a double-backwards-somersault through a hoop whilst whistling the ‘Star Spangled Banner’, but in fact the message was this: So long and thanks for all the fish”.
To avoid this sort of misunderstandings, bio-acousticians have been feverishly working on decoding the dolphins’ vocalizations.
First step towards this direction is telling the voices of different species apart.
Different species of cetaceans are known to produce different types of sounds, resulting from various factors such as morphology, genetics, ecology, sociality, and culture. For example, the calls that sperm whales, humpbacks and common dolphins produce are significantly different from each other in so many ways that are clearly distinguishable by an expert ear (and eye that inspects the spectrograms). This fact makes the lives of the bio-acousticians easier because it helps us to identify different species of whales and dolphins by just listening to them.
Things though are more complicated than this. It has been shown that within the same species, some cetaceans tend to produce different sounds when they live in different areas. So the sperm whales in the Pacific produce codas (a type of vocalization indicative of sociality and communication) that are different to the ones of the Mediterranean sperm whales. Similar is the case for pods of killer whales that use different habitats and target different prey. Likewise, different geographic populations of dolphins that belong in the same species have different call characteristics. It is like speaking dialects or simply having an accent. The differences seem to be greater when the geographical distance increases.
The geographic variations of cetacean sounds are usually divided microgeographically and macrogeographically. For instance the striped dolphins in the Mediterranean Sea produce different whistles than the ones in the Atlantic. Also the striped dolphins that live in the western Med sound differently than the ones that dwell in the eastern side. Applying the same logic, the ones that inhabit the Aegean Sea will have a different “accent” than the Ionian Sea habitants. Past studies have revealed the existence of variations in the whistle acoustic structure of a striped dolphin within the different regions of the Mediterranean Sea. However the Aegean Sea is still an acoustically pristine place. The dolphins we encounter there (common, striped, bottlenose, and risso) have not been acoustically recorded (during visual encounters) and classified. YET!
Being a communicative creature myself, I feel the need of these dolphins in the Aegean to be understood. 🙂
And the same time I will use this information to identify different dolphin species in my N. Aegean acoustic dataset. 😉
I return to the first survival question. If you have read my previous post you will probably remember my public invitation for funding to achieve the acoustic sampling in the area of my interest. In case you are not fortunate enough to study and work on the field with the charismatic megafauna, I should enlighten you into the specific requirements of cetacean research: HIGH BUDGET! Cetacean research is particularly expensive. Money for renting a boat, gas money for the boat, money for the boat crew (a captain at least is required) and money for the acoustic instrumentation.
Because the times are hard and funding appears dimly or not at all in the horizon, I had to recruit some old skills of mine to make this happen. Hitchhiking skills (contacts also help, so get your selves out to these conferences)!
I first thumbed a ride when I was doing my undergraduate at the island of Lesvos, in Greece. With my friends we would hitchhike to the university which was slightly further from downtown. Too far to walk when you are already late for the morning lecture, too close to wait for the bus that has a very irregular schedule, too expensive for taxi while being a student, and just the right distance to be given a lift! That is when my hitchhiker’s career commenced. Now that I have reached a Ph.D level and I only possess a bicycle, my hitchhiking skills have equally improved and can be utilized for science. In this case, the thumb got replaced by emails, phone calls and meetings.
Not too far from the area that I have my hydrophone deployed and I get part of my acoustic data; there is the island of Alonissos. T
here, it is founded the first Marine Protected Area in Greece that happens also to be the biggest in Europe. The marine area around Alonissos Island, together with 6 more islands, 22 islets and rocky outcrops is one of the few remaining habitats of the Mediterranean monk seal; the only seal specie in Med. In the past, the monk seal was very common all along the Mediterranean coasts.
Nowadays, it is on e of the world’s most endangered marine mammals and
nd regulations that limit certain anthropogenic activities that could interfere with the animals’ welfare and the population’s survival. To impose these regulations and ensure the good management of the reserve, the guards of the Marine Park patrol daily the marine protected area. And this is where my thumb comes up. The lovely people that work for the Marine Park accepted me on their daily patrols, allowed me to get on their boat and look for dolphins while they were looking for any illegal activity.
So I bought a big hat, I got my dipping hydrophone, swimming suit as my uniform and my Dolphin Quest began!
First day on the boat was mind blowing! Traveling with 35 miles/hour, stop every now and then to exotic locations, blue caves, a long break to rest the engine and the guards, have some drinks and swim in turquoise water coves. Marvelous sites that few have had the chance to visit.
And you will rightfully ask: did you find the dolphins?
No. But it was a good way to break the ice!
The following days were much more effective. I explained that for the purposes of my research we would have to go slower. As a hitchhiker I hesitated to reinforce my own rules to my hosts but soon our zodiac was going with 15 miles/hour and had 2 extra visual observers on board scanning the horizon for dorsal fins and splashes.
Still though, no dolphins in sight.
You see, the ocean is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to ocean. Searching for dolphins there is not an easy job. It is fun but not easy. It can take unpredictable amount of time until you get to see them. And I had only a few days before my flight back to USA…
Fortunately dolphins are curious creatures and if the boat is not too noisy they will swing by for a bit to check it out and hopefully play with its wake. Just like this. Eeeeeh, I wish.
A couple of days went by without any dolphin luck. And the thump comes out again for extra rides. I needed more time in the sea.
and Protection of the Monk seal who has been monitoring the monk seal population and promoting the establishment of a Marine Park for almost the last 30 years also operates in the same area. The last 2 years Mom has been running the Northern Aegean Dolphin Project . A team of volunteers and their lovely project leader, also called Niki, perform daily visual transect surveys to study the population and ecology of the dolphins in the Marine Park region. I
hitched a ride with them too. Success from our very first cruise! A monk
seal sighting first thing in the morning and a big group of striped dolphins that we were able to stalk for a while. Stalk and eavesdrop on their conversations! This raised my expectations.
My days passed with me jumping from the one vessel to the other exploring extensively the N. Aegean Sea. But without enough dolphin sightings. And while I was trying to compromise with the idea of having only striped dolphins’ recordings and thinking of the shift I would give to my research, disappointingly looking for any dolphins, the common dolphins appeared and gave me hope again! Fortunately, trustworthy hope. Later on the same day a mixed group of common and bottlenose dolphins was having a long dinner close to our boat. After recording them for long time, I did not resist jumping in to the water. There were far enough to not be interrupted by my presence but close enough to hear them while I had my head underwater. I was shaking with excitement. Dream comes true. Check.
My field trip ended with recordings from 3 different dolphin species, 2 monk seal encounters, countless seabirds, and 3 illegal spear-gun divers. The sea CSI in action!
The only problem was that I had to go. Too soon I think. But would there ever be a right time to leave this heavenly place?
And now I am back in Newport, my skin has still some tan left and all the Greek memories are still fresh with strong salty flavor. My suggestion is the following:
Do you want to implement research but you don’t have funds to do it? DON’T PANIC. There are ways and alternatives. Consider the hitchhiking method. It is an inexpensive way to do your sampling and it essentially means collaborating, meeting people, working together, sharing and having a common direction. I assure you, it’s the journey not the destination that matters.
My gratitude to the National Marine Park of Northern Sporades and MOm, the Northern Aegean Dolphin Project, for their hospitality and help. Definitely worth a visit and I am already craving my return!
It’s Summertime here at ORCAA and in case you haven’t noticed that means fieldwork. We’ve got Amanda eavesdropping on porpoise here in Oregon, Selene is tagging whales in California (yawn, who would want to do that I ask, green with envy), Niki (while not technically in the field) is reporting to us from the turquoise Mediterranean, and our honorary labmate Leanna is in full blown seal tagging development. I am, admittedly, not spending my summer in the field this year (probably just as well… I need some time at home with my data, my dogs and my sunflowers: read about previous summer field adventures during my M.S. here) that doesn’t mean that I’m going to disappoint you. While my 2014 summer field season may be short, it’s just the beginning for 2014.
Solo, Southeast, Social Sounds
For those of you who don’t know me, I finished my M.S. here at OSU in the Oceanography department. I received an M.S. in Marine Resource Management with a focus on conservation. I studied humpback whale communication in Southeast Alaska (you can read my M.S. thesis here). I moved to Juneau in 2007 after traveling through wet sunny tropical Central America. I thought Alaska was going to be a brief pit stop on my way to tropical living. Little did I know that 7 years later I’d still be working in the inside passage, that it would have slowly become home to me, or that I somehow would have become a cold-weather biologist (I blame it on the whales).
So, I’m headed to Glacier Bay National Park on Monday to scope out a field site for my dissertation research. For my dissertation I’ll be investigating the use of social sounds in humpback whales (how do social sounds fit into the general repertoire of humpback whales?) and what impact noise has on social calling behavior (Lombard effect in migratory corridors has been documented in Australian humpbacks , what might vessel noise do to calling rates on a foraging ground?). For this study I’m paired up with our own seal enthusiast Leanna Matthews (see her previous post for details on the other side of seal research), who will be looking at the impact of noise on harbor seals. We’ll be sharing a field site, and more importantly we’ll be sharing a bottom mounted hydrophone array that we intend to use to localize vocalizing animals. Concurrent with our acoustic deployment we’ll be making visual observations with a theodolite from a nearby elevated platform. My job next week, is to investigate potential field sites, with elevated observing options, calm waters, seals, whales, and a sleeping location as far away from the bears as possible. Should be easy right?
The glorious part? I’m taking the trip Northward alone- Solo. Though I will be well tended to by GLBA biologist Christine Gabriele, if the weather holds I’ll be spending a night, or two, alone at our potential field camp. Hiking around the island, observing whales and seals, and breathing in the cold wet Alaskan air all by my lonesome. Call me old fashioned, but I still think that seeing an area is the best way to choose a field camp. I’ve done my research, looked at velocity charts, bathymetry charts, and topo maps… but without seeing it, listening to it, and being there I don’t feel prepared to set our precious hydrophones on the bottom on the ocean and hope for the best. So, solo I go.
But… like I said earlier, this short trip (a week total) is just the start my 2014 field season.
I think secretly every biologist imagines the day that something like this happens to them:
Brilliant Super Scientist (a.k.a Holger) *on phone*: Good morning! Did I wake you?
Me: No of course not (I’ve been awake for at least 15 minutes, and you don’t know I’m in my pajamas. Who makes work phone calls before 8am?).
Brilliant Super Scientist: Good. Do you want to go to Antarctica?
Me: Yes. Yes I do.
This actually happened. I’m going to Antarctica! This November I will head as far South as you can get. I’ll be joining a crew of scientists on the Korean icebreaker the R/V Araon as we head southbound from New Zealand toward the Ross Sea. My role will be the recovery of a U.S. hydrophone that was deployed in the area last year. The hydrophone was deployed as part of an interdisciplinary project to track oceanographic and geologic (namely glaciers) conditions in the Antarctic. The ocean is a noisy place, and lots of features biotic and abiotic contribute to the ocean soundscape. Human activity in the Southern Ocean is limited… making it an ideal place to use acoustics to study natural phenomena like ice (and whales… lets not forget that there are lots and lots of whales in Antarctica).
We will be at sea for almost a month, with a stop at one of the the Korean Research Stations at the midway point. I don’t know all the details yet, but rest assured there will be many stories to tell. Lastly, while this isn’t technically a “solo” expedition, I will be the only one from my lab and possibly one of the few native English speakers on the boat. I spent the evening listening to Korean phrases, luckily I have a few months left to figure out how to say hello.
In short, it’s going to be a big field year for me. Followed up by an intensive field season in the summers of 2015 & 2016 (with interns! I love interns!)- and all it cold weather places. If you pair my upcoming trips with my past year of Arctic data analysis (Marvin The Martian was a Bearded Seal… remember?) then I suppose my dreams of becoming a tropical bioacoustician are out… or are they?
***all cartoons reprinted from www.michw.com an excellent blog about science, and comics***
Every scientific journey begins with an idea. These ideas can go one of two ways: 1) after countless trials and brainstorms, they actually work; 2) after countless trials and brainstorms, they don’t. I think you can guess which one happens more often.
I came to the ORCAA lab as a visiting graduate student about a month ago with intentions of testing out some ideas. Ideas that, when I posed them, were more like off-handed comments to my advisor rather than valid approaches to realistic data collection. Let me back up a tiny bit… I’m currently working on my PhD at Syracuse University with Dr. Susan Parks. My interests are in pinniped behavior and physiology, and for my dissertation, I’m looking at the variation in male harbor seal mating behavior and its influence on reproductive success. I’m also interested in the effects of shipping noise on harbor seals during the breeding season, but that’s another blog post for another time.
A few months ago, as I was furiously preparing for my PhD candidacy exam (one part proposal defense, one part general knowledge exam, all parts stressful), I met with Susan to discuss how I could get the data that I wanted for the project I was proposing. I wanted underwater movements of harbor seals during the breeding season. I wanted to map out male territories and really figure out how and where they were spending their time when they were below the surface. Harbor seals, along with the majority of phocids, mate underwater. Underwater behavior of any marine mammal is difficult to obtain. We, as researchers, are limited in our visual observations to what happens above water. The best method we have to tracking animals subsurface is tagging. But tagging is expensive, time consuming, and logistically difficult – it typically involves getting a boat and a team of able-bodied persons, capturing the animal, and gluing a tag to its fur. It’s doable, but not with solely my grad student resources. Susan and I began spitting out other ideas:
“What about how they track fish, like a tiny PIT tag?” “Can we localize with a fish tag?” “They do it for salmon, no?” “But how could we get the tag on the seal?” “Some sort of remote attachment, so you wouldn’t have to capture them.” “Could we feed it to them?” “That probably wouldn’t be a good idea…” “I guess we could just shoot it at them in a paintball.”
And there you have it, ladies and gentleman. The mildly sarcastic comment that snowballed into a cross-country trip to Oregon and countless hours of researching glues and paintballs.
After a bit of post-meeting research, I came across some small high frequency acoustic transmitters (made by Vemco, pictured on the right) that are used to study fish movement. They’re small, only about 16mm in length, and they emit 180 kHz signals about every 30 seconds. These acoustic signals are picked up on receivers that are strategically moored in the study site. By looking at differences in the times of arrival of specific signals, it’s possible to determine the location of the transmitter, i.e. the tag, i.e. the animal of interest. Acoustic tags are great for looking at subsurface behavior because of how efficiently sound travels underwater (it’s much more efficient compared to air – you can read more about that here). These tags seemed perfect! They were small enough to fit in a paintball, they were the right kind of tag for studying underwater movement of individuals, and they emitted signals that were above the hearing threshold of harbor seals (and killer whales)*.
*Researchers have also used 69 kHz tags (instead of 180 kHz) to monitor fish populations. The problem with these tags is that seals and sea lions can hear at 69 kHz. Implanting a tag that emits a sound in the hearing range of the fish’s predator is basically attaching a dinner bell to the study organism. When considering using acoustic tags on the seals, I wanted to make sure that they (and their predators) couldn’t hear the acoustic signal being emitted. That way I could avoid any potential behavioral disturbance (or increased predation) caused by the sound coming from the tag.
I took my PhD candidacy exam, finished the semester, and packed my bags for Oregon, where ORCAA commander in chief Holger Klinck had agreed to help me test this weird tag attachment idea.
Current emotions: Excited.
Things we had to figure out:
How do we get the tag inside the paintball?
What kind of glue do we use? – something that doesn’t solidify inside the paintball, but cures almost immediately to the seal…hmmm does this product even exist?
How do we close the paintball once the tag and the glue are inside?
Will it actually stick to the seal? – we were going to need a real seal to test that one…
And thus began the Amazon binge-purchasing. I bought glues. Super glues. Rapid cure super glues. Super instant curing no drip super glues. Veterinary grade surgical glues. One-minute instant mix two-part epoxies. Clear-dry power grip instant grab all-purpose interior adhesives. I also bought some regular paintballs and some empty paintball shells. And thanks to my paintballing sister, I already had the gun.
Current emotions: Overwhelmed – who knew there were so many options for adhesives?
The next step was to get the tag into the shell and fill it with glue. This took a bit of finagling, but I finally did it! I was so proud! I made three types of paintball tags. The first were regular paintballs that I emptied, stuffed with a tag, and filled with super glue (the green ones in the pictures below). I sealed them with some glue and a sprinkle of baking soda. It turns out that baking soda is an accelerant for cyanoacrylates (fancy name for super glue). A tiny bit of baking soda and BOOM that super glue is SOLID. The second type of tag ball was basically the same as the first, but I used the empty paintball shells (the clear ones in the pictures below). Bonus – no emptying of paint required. I was most proud of the third kind. These were half filled with super glue and half filled with baking soda. In theory, when it hit the seal, the tag would cure instantly to the fur of the animal because of the addition of the accelerant.
Current emotions: Feelin’ creative and accomplished.
I’m going to keep this long post from becoming too long and just tell you that it didn’t work. No tags stuck to anything.
Current emotions: Disappointed, to say the least.
But this is science! So what do we do? We brainstorm more ideas! And what do we do when those don’t work either?? We brainstorm even more ideas! I went from my failed paintballs, to thinking about crossbows, tiny pistol crossbows, compound and recurve bows, drones (no one would buy me drones though…). After lots of trial and error, with an emphasis on the error, I landed on the pistol crossbow. It was small, manageable, and didn’t have too much power. I crafted some bolts out of wooden dowels, foam floats, electrical tape, PVC end caps, fishing line, empty paintball shell halves (might as well use them if I’ve already got them, right?), and of course, duct tape. With a little finesse and the right adhesive, I shot these homemade arrows out of my little crossbow and somehow got a tag to stick to my target. I. was. shocked. Did all of my brainstorming actually just pay off??
Current emotions: Chest-pounding, can-crushing, fire-breathing, unstoppable POWER.
At this point it had been a roller coaster of successes and failures, which I thought was going to end with my, what could only be described as, legendary tagging success. However, after some preliminary field-testing, it was revealed that in order to make these tags work in the locations I wanted them to work, I would have to outfit the study area with an impractical number of receivers. Had all the time and research and effort and crossbow target practice all been for naught? Probably.
Current emotions: Uggggghhhhh seriously?? COME ON. I just got the tags to stick!
Back to the drawing board. Conversations with Holger, conversations with Susan, and conversations with Holger and Susan at the same time led us all to the conclusion that the classic tagging approach would probably be the most logical way to go about getting my data. Luckily, it’s looking like I’ll be able to collaborate with some other groups here in Oregon on a tagging trip that’s already planned for next year. My sample size will be lower, it’s not exactly the data that I thought I was going to get, it’s not even in the same field site I thought I’d be working, but thus is life. As a scientist, you can’t be married to a certain data collection method or even to a certain location. You have to keep the big picture in mind – what were the original scientific questions/objectives? If you’re still able to get at these major objectives, then you’re probably still doing alright. Any data I can get to better understand the underwater mating behavior of these seals is beneficial for conservation and even just marine mammal biological knowledge in general. There’s still so much we don’t know about the organisms that live in our oceans (even ones like seals that spend part of their lives on land), but slowly and surely, we’re picking away at the mysteries.
Current emotions: Back to being excited. This scientific journey, though so far has been more madness then brilliance, is only beginning. New pinniped adventures await!
-Leanna Matthews, PhD Candidate, Syracuse University
All of my labmates are currently at SeaBASS having an awesome time, while I am in Corvallis beginning the analysis of my data. It’s required a lot of thinking outside the box. So rather than talk about research or even strict bioacoustics, I thought I’d talk about something I find really interesting: sound design in the movies, and the way animal calls can be turned into something completely otherworldly.
I touched on this idea a couple of weeks ago with my fun link of the week to the sound design for the newest Godzilla, but Hollywood is littered with monsters galore with interesting roars. One of the most near and dear uses of animal sound in movies is the prevalence of choruses of my own study subject, the Pacific chorus frog.
When they’re trying to create a sort of nature setting in movies, sound designers often use clips of the Pacific chorus frog. It has that characteristic “ribbit” you want from a stereotypical frog, and you can hear the sound clip of it in places where the species definitely doesn’t live (I think I picked it up once in a movie that was set in Thailand. Yeah, no Pacific chorus frogs there.).
But why this particular frog? I mean, I personally love the way it sounds, but did sound designers pick it because of that? Turns out that’s not the case. Pacific chorus frog choruses are regularly featured in movies because early sound designers could go out to the ponds in California, even in the Hollywood area, and easily record the sound of the chorus. It was more a factor of convenience than desire.
There are some other stereotypical animal sounds that are often heard in movies. Every owl that you see (unless it’s a nature documentary) is probably going to have the call of the great horned owl, even if it’s not in fact a great horned owl. Now think about that sound that you hear whenever a bald eagle is shown onscreen, that piercing call—that’s actually a red-tailed hawk. Bald eagles sound more like this (follow the link).
What I find more fun is trying to pick out what vocalizations go into monsters. I’m kind of a big Lord of the Rings nerd, so naturally first we have to talk about Peter Jackson’s interpretations of the monsters there.
The Moria orcs (scrabbly little guys) have a really distinct high-pitched noise they make. Part of this sound is made up of the calls of some very vocal baby elephant seals, which sound designer David Farmer thought would be perfect after hearing them at the Marine Mammal Center in the Marin headlands. Do these guys sound like orcs to you?
The cave troll, too, had some animal vocalizations included, notably walrus and tiger. That sad moan when it dies comes from the walrus. Poor cave troll. I always felt bad for him.
To my everlasting dismay, we don’t know what dinosaurs sounded like: that kind of vibratory tissue just doesn’t fossilize well (with one notable exception: the duckbill dinosaur‘s oddly shaped crest may have been used to make sound). That doesn’t stop Hollywood from trying to recreate the calls of dinosaurs, however. Jurassic Park sound designer Gary Rydstrom used sounds from whales, lions, alligators, tigers, elephants, and even a koala to create the soundscape of the ill-fated imaginary park (this video of an elephant will convince you).
There are so many more monsters in Hollywood with their own signature noises. However, for the most part sound designers are pretty close-lipped about how they create their characters. And that’s really understandable. After all, if they didn’t keep some secrets, how could the new Godzilla sound so much more dramatic and scary than everyone else?
This post was brought to you with very little science and a lot of Googling. Some helpful sources are included below. Sound design isn’t a peer-reviewed field, remember.