This is going to be a different blog post than what you usually read, and it’s also the first one I’ve ever written. I hope you enjoy it!
My name is Ciera Edison and I am currently an undergraduate in the department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Oregon State University. But I’m going to rewind a bit. From a very young age I was obsessed with marine mammals. At eight years old my parents took me to SeaWorld where my future was decided. I knew from the moment I walked into that facility that I wanted a job with marine mammals. When I came back to Washington after that trip, I was a changed kid. I started doing research to see what my impact on the environment was, and wanted to do everything in my power to help minimize it. Over the next ten years, before heading off to college, I spent time volunteering at the Seattle Aquarium, PAWS wildlife rehabilitation center, beach naturalist programs, and multiple beach clean ups. I did anything to get closer to my favorite animals and help spread the word about human impacts. The Fisheries and Wildlife department was the perfect fit for me. The past three years have only solidified my dream, my passion, my desire to become a marine mammal biologist.
Simply taking classes was not enough for me. I became a volunteer mammologist at the Oregon Coast Aquarium and even president of The Fisheries and Wildlife Club. But going into my senior year (WOO!) I wanted to do more. The department offers a Mentor-Mentee program that allows students to work with grad students on their research. Obviously, I have no problem with volunteering my time which is why I contacted ORCAA Lab Ph.D. student Selene Fregosi. I was thrilled to hear back from her that she not only welcomed my help with her data, but was willing to act as my supervisor for research credits.
To assist in her research, I spend about 9 hours a week (usually more) running programs and recording any noises that I hear. Through this data processing my goal is to identify not only the species present in the Catalina Basin, but how often they are there (looking at it hour by hour). My inner child came out when I heard my first blue whale, then humpbacks, and even more when I heard sea lions barking (SEA LIONS, something we were not expecting at all)! Every day when I get done with my work the first thing my friends and family ask is “What did you hear today?!” Since January, I have been like a sponge soaking up everything I can. I have gone through ups and downs this term (my computer loves to crash on me while I’m in the middle of logging data), but overall I have thoroughly enjoyed my time. What more could I ask for!
I am continuing this research through spring term where I will be presenting at RAFWE and writing my first research paper (maybe I can even get it published)! I hope to post again during spring term to share with you guys what I found.
For now, here is a spectrogram of the sea lion vocalizations! When you listen to this, it really sounds like they are barking. Pretty neat stuff!
…that I would grow up to be a pseudo computer nerd doing stuff related to animals. (sarcasm…)
I was recently reminded of the online game Neopets*. Anyone out there remember this game? Mom – do you remember me playing it?
It was sort of like a computer based Tomogatchi and Pokemon hybrid. You had pets, that were cute and colorful and had names. You had to take care of them, and you could play games with them. You’d collect points (Neocoins) that you could use to buy things for your pet, all that good stuff. You could also have a store in the Marketplace where you could sell extra stuff you had, or buy from others. This is where I should have known I was going to grow up to be a giant dork who finds joy in creating things on computers. I LOVED working on my storefront. I loved teaching myself HTML. Then I could have the coolest fonts (WordArt anyone?), sweet backgrounds, terrible color combinations.
For many of you, this may also remind you of Myspace…another great venue for my web customizing talents. I was pretty late to the Myspace game, but when I did, I made sure to try and have the MOST personal and customized page.
So what does any of this have to do with marine bioacoustics? Um…nothing really? I was just having a lot of fun making some animated spectrograms (see here for the HOW TO – thanks MicheW!) and I think that is what got me thinking about all this. Plus Samara said she remembers this too, so I’m not the only one.
*this is somewhat deceiving. I made it sound like someone else reminded me of Neopets. That’s not true. Ah the pitfalls of passive voice. I (me, Selene) remembered Neopets all on my own. I’m not sure why or how. But then I ended up googling it and it still exists and here we are, and I’m writing this, fighting the urge to make an account again.
Last week I got to spend a week offshore, participating in the last field season (what?!) of the SOCAL-BRS project. This was a bittersweet week, to say the least. I’ve been involved with this project since before I even started grad school (see here and here for my blogs on it the last two years). It’s a long-term project (2010-2017) so I’m not sure I ever realized I wouldn’t be spending a week or two every summer, offshore of Southern California doing awesome whale tagging and behavioral response research. But, here I am, back at home, and that’s it! We still have a year of analysis left (already counting down to the analysis meeting in December!) so more science is still to come. But this week was a great time to reminisce and reflect how things have changed for myself and others on the project.
First off, there are at least 5 BRS babies. Never saw that coming! Everyone is a bit more sun damaged (despite our best efforts) and a bit more grey. I went from being a nervous, naive, some-what-lost-soul trying to find my way in the acoustics world to a full blown bioacoustician (is it ok to call myself that?). Although this research is not directly related to my PhD….it is in a system I work in regularly, with collaborators I love working with, can learn so much from, and want to keep working with, so it’s a week well spent.
That SOCAL Magic
While I had an amazing few weeks of field work for my own PhD research earlier this summer, this past week provided something a little different. It served as a reminder of the wonder, the inherent magic, that comes from working with animals out on the water.
I saw more marine wildlife in one week then I have ever seen in my life. I saw no less than 12 species (blue, fin, humpback, sperm and killer whales, common (x2 species), bottlenose, and Risso’s dolphins, California sea lions, elephant seals, and harbor seals) of marine mammals. And I not only got a glimpse of them, but got to enjoy them. From watching blue whales up close from the RHIBs, to seeing common dolphins sprint away from killer whales, to hearing bottlenose dolphins whistling while bow riding. Each day reminded me why I LOVE what I do. (Oh, and maybe I was simply less stressed because my entire dissertation didn’t depend on if I could get the stupid QUEphone to work the way I wanted it to…)
Don’t get me wrong, I love sitting in the lab. Discovering new calls, answering questions through detailed analyses, and playing with shiny new yellow AUVs. But I also just love being outside, and enjoying that offshore world. No cell service, seeing Risso’s buzzes come through in real time on the towed array, catching my limit of rockfish in the evenings, hearing the elephant seals calling on the Channel Islands.
I guess the simple point of this blog is to share that contentment, and again that wonder, that I enjoy while thinking back on the last week. Till the next adventure….
My broken heart limped off of Strawberry Island a few weeks ago on a day when the fog was too thick to permit my sentimental heart watch the island fade into the distance. But while our field season on the island had come to an end, my field work for the summer was not quite complete.
My work in Glacier Bay studying humpback whale acoustics is partially based on my previous work conducted from the Five Finger Lighthouse. I’m interested in comparing the two regions (both the soundscapes and the behaviors of the whales themselves), as we have historic population and acoustics information from both regions dating back to the late 1980’s (Thank you Malme and Miles! Thank you Scott Baker!). To get the ball rolling on this comparison I made my way to the Five Finger Lighthouse for a short 10 day foray into “late season acoustic behavior”.
I don’t have anything definitive to report, except that the team of volunteers who have been working on maintaining my favorite historic structure have been hard at work, and that the whales were abundant beyond my wildest dreams. If Glacier Bay is indicative of high quality interactions with individual humpback whales (remember Cervantes), than Frederick Sound is a strong argument for quantity over quality. In this, my tenth summer spent with Alaskan humpbacks, I finally broke the record for highest concentration of animals in a single area. Don’t believe me? Watch the short clip below and see a glimpse of the 40+animals milling around the region. Once you’re done watching, listen to the sound file to get an idea of what these animals were saying when this video was filmed. In my humble opinion, it is in this pairing of sight and sound that we begin to understand.
(These videos and recordings were collected under a research permit and with zoom lenses. Endangered or not it is a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act to approach a humpback whale within 100 yards, to alter the behavior of an animal, or to recklessly operate a vessel — even a kayak– in the presence of humpback whales).
Most of my time with bioacoustics, thus far, has been with playing sounds – my master’s work with an active acoustic tag – or with identifying odontocete, or toothed whale species, in glider data (typically known as high- or mid-frequency vocalizations).
For my PhD, I’ll be expanding what I know about whale acoustics and looking at baleen whales from glider and float data as well. I started into this the last few weeks and it has been fun, but definitely feels like a step back in time trying to look up literature and see what exactly I am hearing in the data – I’m not used to working with low-frequency sounds.
What do I mean with low- vs high-frequency sounds? These labels are based on human hearing (of course). Humans (babies!) can typically hear from 20 Hz (hertz) to 20 kHz (kilohertz…hertz*1000; 20 kHz = 20,000 Hz). As we get older we start to lose hearing on the higher end. But marine mammals vocalize both below and above our hearing range. The low/high delineation is “generally” accepted at 1 kHz, and typically baleen whales vocalize below this, and toothed whales vocalized above this. But remember, this is just USUALLY. There are always special cases that don’t follow the trend, and its all relative terms when calling things low and high.
This figure from Mellinger et al. 2007 is a great way of see where certain species typically vocalize. (Click he figure to link to the PDF of the paper and zoom in)
Looking at sounds
So since some whales make sounds below my hearing range, and some make sounds above, how do I hear them for analysis? Well first of usually I am identifying sounds by looking at them, at a spectrogram (we’ve posted those before right?).
Then sometimes I need to listen AND look to identify what the sound is, or gather more info about it. Wonderfully there is a work around. For really LOW sounds, you can play them faster, and then that increases the perceived frequency, so you can hear it. Vice versa, for really HIGH sounds, you can play them at half speed, which changes the perceived frequency, and then you can hear them. Does anyone remember Yakbaks? Speeding up your voice makes you sound like a chipmunk, slowing it down makes you sound like…a whale?
The ORCAA Lab recently returned from the Society for Marine Mammalogy’s (SMM) Biennial Meeting in San Francisco. It was a whirlwind to say the least. Of the 2,600+ marine mammal scientists, professionals, and students in attendance I’d be pretty surprised if more than 10 or 15 escaped the week’s activity without feeling exhausted. This was my first SMM conference and I found myself feeling uncharacteristically nervous.
All of the graduate students in our lab were slated to give either a talk (Myself, Selene, and Samara) or a poster (Niki). We were part of a much larger contingent of researchers from Oregon State (both NOAA and the Marine Mammal Institute) and in such had ample encouragement and feedback on our research and presentations; but this didn’t seem to curb my butterflies.
My talk “Temporal stability of North Pacific humpback whale non-song vocalizations at the decadal scale” is the culmination of the first chapter of my PhD dissertation, and while the title might not convey the scope of what I’m trying to understand about animal communication I knew that I had 12 minutes at this conference to do just that. This talk was my first chance to stand up in front of a room of my peers and tell them something true that I had discovered.
Unequivocoal truth is hard to identify in science. As the questions that we ask grown more complicated, and the body of known scientific literature grows, the ‘simple’ phenomena left for discovery become harder and harder to find. In my dissertation I ask the question: what impact does large vessel noise have on humpback whale acoustic behavior? That is not a simple question. Further, it doesn’t begin to encompass whether that impact if negative, positive, or insignificant. My hope, is that as I sift through the steps to collect the data, ask the question, and analyze the results that I’ll have not only the quantitative skill set to tease out the truth, but the ecological acumen to interpret it in a meaningful way.
But I digress.
Before I can dive into these complicated questions I wanted to ask a simple one. Are non-song calls stable over time? Over the past eight years I’ve had the good fortune of collaborating with an increasing number of marine mammalogists. From these collaborations (and my own field work) I was able to compile a data set of non-song vocalizations in Southeast Alaska that span from 1976 to 2015. Using some simple methods (looking, listening), and some slightly more complicated statistical methods (see my previous publication here) I was able to say definitively that, yes, these calls are stable over time.
Further, I was able to demonstrate that they are stable in different ways. While nearly all described call types were detected across the data set some calls were infrequently used but highly stereotyped, in that their acoustic parameters (pitch, duration, bandwidth, etc.) changed very little over time. Other calls were highly variable, but persistent; meaning that while there was more variability in the acoustic parameters (i.e. some were higher in pitch, or had wider bandwidths) the call type was extremely common throughout all four decades of the study. I proposed that this difference – persistence versus stereotypy – may imply something different about the function of the call.
One of the elements of this study that I love, is its simplicity. While certainly the study is rigorous – many thousands of hours of recordings were sifted through, calls measured and extracted, and a three-part classification method was used to reduce observer bias in determining call types – the study in its most basic form is about listening for something consistent over time… and finding it.
One of my first ecology professors are the University of Alaska once told me, good science should be elegant. I don’t know if my study fits this criteria or not but at the very least it was well received at the conference. Admittedly, this may be in part to a fairly substantial technical snafu that forced me to make a somewhat ridiculous public speaking choice on the day of the talk. On my third slide I have a series of recordings of non-song vocalizations that I intended to play for the audience. When I tapped the ‘play’ button of the first sound… nothing happened. So I swallowed my pride and my humility opened my mouth and imitated the four sounds; the fourth sound is a feeding call that you can listen to below.( I’m closing my eyes and reliving the pounding heart experience of producing this sound to an audience of 200 of my most impressive peers… remember those butterflies I mentioned earlier?).
By the time I’d finished, the audience was clapping (I think there may have been a few hoots out there as well), and my already rosy cheeks were a deep shade of red. But the show must go on (I was only in the introduction after all). I finished my talk with time for questions and applause. I was rewarded with multiple collaboration meetings, a few good laughs (Ocean Alliance’s Andy Rogan even bought me a beer), and an award from the Society itself… for best doctoral presentation.
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.
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.
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.
A few weeks ago I wrote to you about my upcoming trip to Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve and my big “Solo” adventure into the great Alaskan Wilderness. Well I’m happy to report the trip was an enormous success and — like so many endeavors in science — all of my “solo” work was accomplished through collaboration.
The purpose of the trip was threefold (1) familiarize myself with Glacier Bay and the surrounding community, (2) identify a viable field site that would enable Leanna and I to meet our dissertation goals, and (3) to build and maintain relationships (with the area and with the people). In short, my goal was all about getting my feet wet in the world of Glacier Bay research, which as it turned out was an extremely easy to accomplish literally and figuratively — Southeast Alaska is very very wet.
The nearest airport to Glacier Bay is in the diminuative village of Gustavus (small town, big character). Living in Juneau off and on for years I’d heard a lot about this tiny place — slow bicycle races and town-wide pancake breakfasts on the Fourth of July, a community garden that would make most Alaskans blush. With a population that ranges from 350-600 (with an influx of seasonal workers in the summer) Gustavus isn’t exactly what you’d call a city, even by Alaskan standards… and it’s not so easy to get there.
I traveled via shuttle from Corvallis to PDX (nothing new here) and hopped a flight to SeaTac Airport where I settled in for a cozy overnight on an airport bench. It felt very familiar. Traveling to and from Southeast Alaska (for less than a small fortune) requires patience, a little bit of traveler’s tenacity, and typically an overnight in Seattle. Sipping an evening tea and looking around the airport I was not the only one with Xtra-Tuffs on bunking down for the night… there were quite a few of us headed home.
A 6-hour layover in Juneau was just enough time for coffee with University of Alaska- Fairbanks PhD student and humpback whale biologist Suzie Teerlink, who filled me in on some of the details of her citizen science initiatives, whale watch cooperative efforts, and some of the in’s and out’s of her Juneau fluke ID project. My first foray into humpback whale research was working with Suzie on some of these projects in their infancy, and was exciting to see how much they’d grown! We wrapped up our reunion with a quick hike before heading over to Wings of Alaska and boarding the 6-seater Cessna 207 turboprop aircraft that would safely transport me over over the mountains and fjords and set me down in Gustavus, AK. There I was warmly greeted by the Park whale biologist (and co-PI on our project) Chris Gabriele.
Over the next few days I had the chance to meet a number of the Park Staff (fisheries biologists, bear biologists, research technicians, administrators and more!), and importantly Chris and I had the opportunity to talk (face-to-face) about humpback whale non-song vocalizations — also called social sounds — produced in Southeast Alaska. Chris and her colleague Lauren Wild of the Sitka Sound Science Center have a new study coming out in the Journal of the Canadian Acoustics Associations on the acoustic properties and usage patterns of the humpback whale “whup” call. The call (which can be heard here), which is a putative contact call, plays a large role in my research past and present. I hope to build off of the work they began at the Park to understand more about how humpback whale use this and other vocalizations, as well as how vessel noise may change vocal behavior (including producing the “whup” call) or limit acoustic communication space. More details on that, and the first chapter of my dissertation, in my next blog post.
Back to the trip, I would be remiss if I led you to believe that we spent all of our time talking (remember goals 1 & 2!). While initially we didn’t think we’d have access to a boat (hence my initial decision to camp on the island for a few days), much to my excitement the Park research boat R/V Capelin came available. My second day in the Park was spent on the water scouting for field sites, measuring bottom depths, marking waypoints for locations of interest, and kayaking through non-motorized waterways to scope out potential field sites. I’m happy to report that we found one! After eliminating what looked to be a lovely cliff (with lots of blind spots and bear scat), and a good hike around Bartlet Cove where the Park’s current hydrophone is deployed (and where vessels transit daily), it was the north east tip of Strawberry Island that made the final cut. It might not look like much in the photos (did I mention that Glacier Bay is part of a rain forest?), but I think it’s exactly the spot we’re looking for.
With a field site decided (Goal 2, check!) one of the last things I was hoping to accomplish on my trip was to familiarize myself with the area, both terrestrial and aquatic. I was fortunate to spend another day on the water with Chris during one of her many whale surveys. It was a great opportunity to view whale behavior in the Park, which I’d anticipated would be different than the behavior I’d observed in Juneau or in Frederick Sound (and qualitatively, it was different); but it also gave me the chance to see more of the Park wildlife (otters! so many otters!) and get a feel for how operations work there. Part of getting familiar with an area involves knowing how to have the least negative impact both ecologically and culturally.
I took a camper orientation which gave me some good tips on how to minimize my impact on the island, but I also spent some time walking through the exhibits and chatting with Park employees, trying to get a feel for both the scientific community at the Park and the rich cultural heritage of the native people in the area. Long before Glacier Bay became a national park it was the ancestral home to the Huna Tlingit people. Near the end of the Little Ice age the glaciers (of which there are MANY) surged forward and the Tlingit were forced to abandon their settlements in the bay and move across Icy Straight to establish a new village. To the Huna Tlingit, Glacier Bay remains their home. In Barlett Cove (where the Park headquarters and the Glacier Bay Lodge are located) the presence of the Tlingit culture is palpable. A Tlingit canoe is on display and current plans are underway for a Tlingit Tribal House.
In what I thought was a poignant manifestation of the culture of science alongside the culture of people, on the same path as the canoe is a structure housing the recently re-articulated skeleton of a humpback whale named Snow, who was struck by a vessel in the Park in 2007. Snow’s bones were buried, cleaned, sent to Maine for articulation and organization, and then finally returned to the Park for the final installation. In a “Alaska’s such a small place” sort of way, one of my first field technicians, Linsday Neilson, was on the articulation team. The skeleton was complete by the time I arrived, but I did manage to catch her for a long overdue hug on the dock.
My last day in the Park I headed out early (5am early) and was fortunate enough to catch a ride on the small cruise ship the Baranof Dream which was headed up-bay toward the glaciers. I spent the day on the boat as a tourist admiring the spectacular scenery and mingling with the passengers. I spent the following two days as the “marine-biologist in residence”, giving talks about our research in the Park, pointing out wildlife, and harkening back to my days as a naturalist in Juneau (the killer whales were certainly a highlight too).
After a few days on the boat, I disembarked in my hometown Juneau, Alaska, exhausted, happy, inspired, a little damp and ready to go home….
But c’mon this is Alaska, you never get out that easy!!! Despite my efforts to leave straight away I ended up with an extra day in Juneau, and while I won’t go into the details of how the extra 36 hours went (that’ll have to be another blog post) you can see from the photo that it turned out pretty well. Until next time!
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