First, let me apologize for being a little late with this post. I generally post the second Friday of every month; It’s Tuesday. One of the reasons I’m late is because I flew back to my hometown in Birmingham, Alabama as an invited teacher at the N.E. Miles Jewish Day School. I had the privilege of running three lessons on whale communication for students ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade. Admittedly they kept me on my toes! Spending time with children is exciting and inspiring.

We did a number of activities to demonstrate how marine mammals use sound to communicate. Students were given a small shaker containing one of four materials (hazelnuts, tacks, aduki beans, or rice) and they had to use their ears alone to find their “pods”. We had fin whales, humpback whales, killer whales, and beluga whales. Each pod was then given a ribbon the length of their whale to stretch out across the activity room. Even I was impressed with how big a fin whale really is.

For the older groups we talked about the relationship between size and pitch (frequency), learned how to read spectrograms, and I introduced the concept of masking and noise pollution by playing a series of whale calls and adding vessel noise. For the kindergartners and first graders, however, it seemed more appropriate to introduce the concept of sound in the ocean with a story. I re-purposed a true story about a killer whale from Puget Sound named Springer who was separated from, and later reunited with her pod. In real life recordings were made of Springer’s vocalizations to help identify which pod she belonged to. In the story below, Springer uses her family whistle to try and re-connect, and she meets a number of other whales along the way. On each page I was able to play recordings of the animals in the pictures, so my young students could hear the actual voices of the animals. Enjoy!



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 for a comprehensive look at my research world***

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.

Classification of non-song repertoire in Southeast Alaskan humpbacks:  I am only cheating a LITTLE bit with the fact that this is Michelle’s paper, but it is also very very interesting and applicable! Congrats, Michelle!

Soundscape analysis shows parrot preference for old-growth forestthese researchers used acoustic monitoring to show that seven out of nine species of parrot preferentially perch in old-growth forest instead of regenerating forest. Deforestation has long-term consequences that can’t be corrected by simply regrowing things, guys.

Fun link of the week: Holger has successfully moved to Ithaca, NY only to find himself buried in another Northeastern Snowpocalypse. So this week’s link discusses why it’s so much quieter when it snows. Hey Holger, send the Pacific Northwest some of that–I want to go snowboarding!

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.

Chronic noise impacts anti-predator behavior in house sparrowsa lot of the time, bioacoustics researchers are looking at the impact of noise on communication behavior, but that’s not the only behavior that can be affected. Female house sparrows flushed more easily in chronic noise environments, but this didn’t have an impact on their reproductive success.

Traffic noise affects coloration, not calling, in European treefrogssome frogs use what’s called multimodal signaling to attract mates, where females are drawn not only by the calling but also by a visual cue, like vocal sac inflation (see my previous post). Here, it turns out that treefrogs don’t seem to be  able to change their calling structure, but they are less vibrantly colored in noisy areas. This means it’s likely that noise doesn’t just affect vocal species.

Fun link of the week: this song has been in my head all week, and it’s called WHALE, so I’m pretty sure you should go listen to it.

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. We’re back in the new year (after a holiday break) with all your favorite acoustics news!

Bowheads show increasing song diversity in Beaufort-Chukchi seasin perhaps one of the more hopeful papers to appear in Soundbites, these researchers report 12 separate bowhead song types found in this area, the most to date. What’s more, they attribute the greater variety to population growth!

Noise may affect signal evolution in grasshoppers: I’m loving all these papers coming out about female preference in the face of noise. Here, females of a species of grasshopper showed a change in shape of their preference function when presented with male calls in noise (as opposed to quiet). Since this signal has a sexual selection component, the noise features of a landscape may in part drive signal modification.

Fun link of the week: I give you five minutes of the cutest frog in the world. Listen to its little peeps. It sounds so grumpy. (Seriously, this will cheer you up. It’s great).

…A question that sometimes occurs when I tell people that I study the sounds of the whales. Still, my very close non-scientists friends do think that I try to talk to dolphins. This might not be accurate since my research equipment and purpose of my study do not allow anything like this, but essentially I do try to spy on their “conversations”.

Meet Dory, a (fictional but funny) colleague of mine

One of the functions of sound in dolphins and whales is communication. Communication is a keyword in bioacoustics and is defined as being “the transmission of a signal from one organism to another such that the sender benefits from the response of the recipient”. There are different purposes that it serves living organisms and different ways to express it.

A primary purpose of communication is to attract and repel. Plants use chemical signals that get transmitted through the air or their roots, people use the smell of pheromones to attract each other, and skunks use the same signal to repel. Dogs and foxes use face and body gestures to express submission and aggression. Elephants use touch interlinking their trunks as a means of close communication. Especially for attracting mates, vision (peacock elaborated feathers) and sound (bird songs) are both very useful.


Do you get the message?
Do you get the message?

Though the most common well-known animal communication signal heard by humans is the bird song, there are all sorts of animals that rely on their hearing and vocal ability to succeed and survive. Whales, the modern giants, appear to be experts in the art of sound communication with different species each having their own sounds. They use these sounds to navigate, locate and capture prey, communicate about the environment and the availability of food or predators, and to attract mates or repel competitors.

Whale chat #alltheycareforisfoodandromance
Whale chat #alltheycareforisfoodandromance

Such acoustic signals may be (a) instinctive that is genetically programmed or (b) learned from others through social learning.

Social learning is the information moving through communication from one organism to another. This information then passing on is what we call culture. Without this transfer there would be no life, no evolution, no biology. Culture is why we have the Parthenon, the South Park, boy bands and the MIT. What you read, like this blog, that you may pass it on is culture.

Random example of culture: the Parthenon
Random example of culture: the Parthenon

Cultural transmission, the social learning from conspecifics is believed to occur in a number of groups of animals, including primates, cetaceans and birds, elephants and bats. Cultural traits can be passed through different paths.

Cultural transmission can be done vertically: from parents to offspring, obliquely: from the previous generation via non related individuals to younger individuals, or horizontally: between unrelated individuals from similar age classes or within generations.

cultural transmission
3 families of sperm whales and how they get their culture transmitted

Of the several types of social learning which have been recognized, imitation is particularly significant for the propagation of culture. Humans can imitate new sounds and learn how to use them correctly in social situations. This is called vocal learning which is considered to be one of the foundations of language.

My favorite example of imitation in the animal kingdom is the lyrebird of S. Australia, which has an unbelievable capacity for mimicry. During the breeding season in South Australia, the male lyrebirds spend six hours a day calling, doing their best to attract the ladies. They have the most complex syrinx (vocal organ in birds), and they make a remarkable use of it!

I know I am repeating myself since I have posted a video of the lyrebird before  but this time the famous mime has enriched its repertoire with more sounds that will make you wonder how and why… Check out the lyrebird’s latest hits here.

Next I would like you to meet Luna, another excellent mime; Luna is a male orphan killer whale. Luna has been all alone since the age of two, living off the coast of Vancouver Island, Canada. There, in 2001, Luna became popular for getting in close proximity to people, interacting with local boaters and perfectly mimicking boat noises. A tragic result of this interaction was the tragic death of Luna in 2006 due to a tugboat collision!

Culture, through social learning, has been studied and papers have been published mainly in only four species of cetaceans: (1) the humpback whale, (2) the sperm whale, (3) the killer whale, and (4) the bottlenose dolphin.

Humpback: the Diva

Humpbacks are the most popular singers of probably all the non-human mammals. They have even released CDs with their songs ! When we think of whale songs the humpback is what we have in mind. They represent the best understood horizontal culture of cetaceans.

The males produce series of vocalizations that form songs used in sexual selection (through mate attraction and/or male social sorting). Their songs are very complex and can be heard mainly in breeding grounds and whales can hear them up to 10 km (about 6 miles) away. Whales sing the same song for hours and hours. Populations within an ocean basin have similar songs with this similarity dependent on geographical distance between populations.

Humpbacks can change their song after hearing other songs. A terrific example takes place in the southern ocean where the songs are horizontally transmitted from eastern Australia in the west across the region to French Polynesia in the east. The songs have been documented radiating repeatedly across the region from west to east, usually over a period of two years. The result: soon the song that was recorded on the east region is now fully replaced by the west region hit. This seems to me to be really similar to our music culture transmission.


Killer whales: The Intellectuals

The Sea Pandas (as some marketing teams have proposed renaming killer whales to help promote their conservation) are highly social.

The cheeky ones
The cheeky ones

The populations off the west coast of Canada have been studied for decades and are divided in different ‘‘types’’: the residents, transients and offshores. These 3 different types have diverse feeding preferences and subsequent vocalizations. The residents feed on fish and are highly vocal, the transients feed on marine mammals and are much quieter to not reveal their presence to their prey that has good hearing abilities. The offshores are also highly vocal and feed on sharks and rays.

Extroverted vs. Introverted (Resident vs. Transient)

Killer whales that are separated by great geographical distances have completely different dialects. An analysis of Icelandic and Norwegian killer whale pods revealed that the Icelandic population made 24 different calls and the Norwegian whales made 23 different calls, but the two populations did not share any of the same calls.

Besides dialects, killer whales have been shown to learn vocalizations from other species. Yes, they speak foreign languages! At a water facility, where they socialized with bottlenose dolphins, they changed the types of sounds they made to resemble those of their neighbors.

If I was not so enthusiastic about the sperm whales, killer whales would definitely receive most of my scientific admiration. They have evolved outstanding sophisticated hunting techniques and their vocal behavior is impressive, being specific to certain groups and passed across generations. Killer whales are great examples of cultural organisms.

Keeping these animals in captivity sounds like  even less of a good idea now, right?

Bottlenose dolphins: the Eponymous

Bottlenose dolphins are well known for their signature whistles. They have stereotypical signatures attributed to each individual that work as their name. This helps to maintain contact between mom and calf or between individuals in a group. Each bottlenose dolphin has its own unique whistle and it uses it to broadcast their location and identity to others.

3 different whistles from different individuals. Hard to call a dolphin by its name...
3 different whistles from different individuals. Hard to call a dolphin by its name…

Most of the characteristic whistles are usually fixed for all the lifetime of the dolphin. However in some cases, when a male dolphin leaves mom and joins with other males to form an alliance (which might last for decade), their distinctive whistles converge and become very similar. So the longer they stay together the more similar their whistles become. Based on the same reasoning, I can’t understand why my English accent is still the same after three years living in USA!

Sperm whales: the Bignose

Sperm whales are among the loudest animals on Earth, and my favorite (not sure if I have already mentioned my preference). They owe this to their huge nose which functions as a massive click producer. They also have the biggest brain. They produce a variety of loud and distinctive types of clicks for different functions. One of these types of vocalizations is called coda. It is stereotypical patterns of clicks resembling Morse code, and frequently serves social purposes. Codas are usually heard when the group of animals rest or socialize at the surface of the ocean. Similar codas used by one group may help maintain group cohesion after its members are done feeding.

Chilling after dinner

It is thought that each sperm whale has its own individually distinctive coda pattern and it has been reported that groups within one geographic area tend to have more similar codas than groups from further away. The “five regular” call is one of the few codas that all sperm whale groups around the globe use in their regional dialects; while the “plus one” type seems to be specific to Mediterranean inhabitants. These vocal behaviors are transmitted vertically, and loosing members of the population may seriously impact the transmission of this cultural trait that carries important information content vital for the survival of the population.

The "regular 5" and the "plus one" codas
The “regular 5” and the “plus one” codas



We don’t need to watch Interstellar to search for life in different solar systems and unknown worlds. Like Anne Stevenson said: “the sea is as near as we come to another world”.  The ocean is vast largely undiscovered. We can consider the open sea an intriguing new wet universe. In interstellar, communication or miscommunication played an important role and turned out to be vital for rescuing the world. Father and daughter that could not directly speak to each other used binary code to transmit their messages through different dimensions. The cetaceans also transmit their messages through codes that we try to identify and understand. It is vital for their world to be able to use these sounds to communicate. You can correctly guess that we are using their home for our anthropocentric purposes and we are being very noisy neighbors, polluting their ocean and impacting their survival. This can be changed… If you are looking for New Years resolutions…

Like in the movie, it’s not Them that will help us save the world. No external factors are required, all the power is in us!


Happy, quiet and peaceful holidays to y’all!!

This post was inspired by the presentation that me and Selene gave on Saturday 12/13/2014 for the Oregon Chapter of the American Cetacean Society entitled: “Do you speak whale?”.

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.

Really nice noise-canceling headphones: because we listen to a lot of stuff.

Xtratuf boots: land or sea, it doesn’t matter–a good pair of waterproof boots are necessary for any field season, anywhere.

Acoustics-themed art: how about a print of a waveform of something important to your bioacoustician of choice (like frog calls)? No? Well, you can always get a spectrogram poster instead.

But really, I think all the grad students in ORCAA can all relate to the following comic:


(“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Jam,

Happy holidays!

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.

Bill morphology shifts along with fundamental frequency in urban birdswe talk a lot in ORCAA about the way animals change their vocalization in response to outside pressure, but there are physiological constraints on the changes that can be made (for example, there’s no way I can sing bass, although I can get to tenor if I warm up). Birds in urban, disturbed areas had longer, narrower bills, which might help them get food at feeders, but actually makes it harder for them to vocalize at the higher frequencies that are more advantageous in noisy areas.

40-million-year-old protowhale was sensitive to low frequency soundI’m a little bit of a paleo-nerd, so this was pretty cool to see. They looked at CT scans of the inner ear structures of this fossil, Zygorhiza kochii, and compared it to current mysticetes, and found that they were similar, indicating Zygorhiza was probably also sensitive to low-frequency sound the way our current baleen whales are. This implies that the order developed with a sensitivity to low-frequency and toothed whales’ high-frequency sensitivity came later.

Baird’s beaked whales are affected by sonarbeaked whales are some of the most mysterious ocean-dwellers, and we know little about their life history, behavior, or response to noise. Using acoustic tags, these researchers found that a Baird’s beaked whale displayed unusual diving behavior after being exposed to sonar.

Fun link of the weekI’m taking next week off because it’s the day before Thanksgiving here, and I’ll be traveling and then spending four straight days eating my family’s amazing cooking. So this week I give you a video about turkey vocalizations! Bonus: if you have energy, a paper cup, some string, and a paperclip after gorging yourselves on turkey, you can make a simple turkey-ish call.

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).


Greetings extensive readership!

In the midst of the summer and early fall when I was traveling a bunch and doing field work, I remember thinking how nice the term would be to be in one place for a while and get some analysis/other work done. What I didn’t realize was how unexciting my life would be for blog posts….

I guess excitement depends on your interests, though, because for me there have been SOME exciting moments standing in front of my computer. I’ve spent the last month putting my master’s on hold, instead analyzing acoustic data collected from one of our gliders that was deployed back in March, and then deploying and analyzing another glider all within the month of October. Want to see what I found? Good. I was going to put in the images anyway.

Here's a Stejneger's beaked whale click.
Here’s a Stejneger’s beaked whale click. The top image is a long term spectrogram, or LTSA, that shows 15 minutes. All the little bits around 50 kHz are beaked whale clicks. The middle spectrogram just shows one click during a fraction of a second, and the bottom shows the wave form, or the amplitude of the click.

From the March deployment, the excitement came in the form of TONS of beaked whales. Like so many. Like all the time. Including the super weird looking Stejneger’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon stejnegeri). I can tell the species by what frequency the click is at, how much time there is between clicks (inter click interval, aka ICI fyi), and the duration of the click. They are all unique features for this species of beaked whale, which I know thanks to other people confirming that by combining visual and acoustic data like was done by theses lovely folks at Scripps.


Here's two porpoise species detected together - Dall's porpoise and harbor porpoise
Here’s two porpoise species detected together – harbor porpoise (the two higher frequency red specs) and Dall’s porpoise (the middle, slightly lower frequency). All together a bunch of those clicks make up that light blue section in the LTSA on the top.

The March deployment also brought excitement through porpoise recordings! Did I mention that glider was the first of its kind to record ultra high frequencies? We used a 394 kHz sampling rate, which means we could detect vocalizations up to 196 kHz, which is where porpoise and a few other odontocetes (toothed whales) vocalize. Most equipment doesn’t sample that high (memory gets filled too fast) so this was pretty neat-o. I’m a big fan of looking for these ultra high frequency encounters because they are so obvious in the upper part of the LTSA, far above the background noise.

And like I mentioned, I did go out in the field one day. We deployed one of our new gliders for a few days just outside of Newport in early October, and I went out on the recovery. I took this one super exciting picture of these gulls on the back of the ship. You’re welcome.

Piper helped Holger and Alex prep Will the glider before he got deployed in early October.
Piper helped Holger and Alex prep Will the glider before he got deployed in early October.
These gulls agree with "no excitement November". Until I threw pistachio shells over the side. Sadly this is the only picture I took of the whole glider deployment.
These gulls agree with “no excitement November”. Until I threw pistachio shells over the side. Sadly this is the only picture I took of the whole glider recovery.