Charisma comes at a cost. Whales, dolphins, and seals have captured the attention of millions for generations, and with time hunting pressure has morphed into abject reverence (sometimes to the same mortal end). I am by no means immune to the pull of the leviathan. My fascination with humpback whales has driven my life choices for over a decade, and even now I am planning our 2019 fieldwork at the Five Finger Lighthouse to keep our studies of whale communication moving forward. I am also not naive, however, to the great myriad of other life on this planet. In my postdoc at Cornell’s Bioacoustics Research Program (BRP) I’m working closely with Dr. Aaron Rice who is opening my eyes to a wide range of spectacular creatures.
Starting with the humble toadfish.
Toadfish are a sound producing benthic ambush predator (hide in the mud making breeding sounds, and later BAM jump out and grab a meal). They can be found throughout Gulf Coast, and in particular I’ve been listening to them in the estuaries of the Florida Everglades.
Male gulf toadfish produce an amazing sound often referred to as a “boatwhistle” (listen below). This is extremely important for my purposes, as I am using a series of hydrophones widely distributed throughout the Florida Bay Estuary in order to (a) detect cool fish sounds like the toadfish and (b) investigate whether toadfish alter their calling behavior in response to conditions in the estuary.
See, the estuaries in Florida Everglades are not what they once were. Farmers needed water to keep crops alive; new settlers needed land in which to build (settling on a gently sloping swamp was ‘unappealing’ to say the least) – and so the massive re-routing of freshwater in South Florida began, and with time it continued until the once brackish water became hyper-saline and a once rich estuary grew unrecognizable. Now, resource managers are working to bring freshwater back, and are tasked with figuring out how these changes in water flow impact the critters who live here, and how (or if) the estuaries can be restored.
Enter our vocal fish. Toadfish have a few qualities that potentially make them a good (if not obviously charismatic) species for ecosystem monitoring. They nest in estuaries, and males stick to their nest sites during the breeding season. They are resilient to a wide range of oceanographic conditions, and – importantly – the males call predictably and loudly throughout the breeding season.
My aim is to see if these muddy little chatterboxes are a good indicator of overall ecosystem health. This is likely because, beyond being easy to listen to, toadfish are mid-level predators. They are important in terms of eating the little guys (crabs, shrimp, small bottom fishes etc), but they are also a potentially important prey species (dolphins eat lots of toadfish). If toadfish are responding to changes in water quality, it’s highly likely that there are shifts up and down the food web.
For now, I’ve got ears in the subtropics listening to the songs of fish, but for our next field trip we hope to be more active participants as we playback the sounds of toadfish to the predators of Florida Bay. They may not be as flashy as a humpback whale, but you know what they say: beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
PS- I didn’t manage to get a toadfish on video- but I did spend some lovely time with this ray when I was changing our hydrophones in Bob Allen Key!
On October 28th, the global scientific community wrapped up the Open Access Week. Open Access Week (according to wikipedia, and fact-checked by openaccessweek.com) is a scholarly communication event that focuses on Open Access and related topics. Events include talks, digital seminars, symposia, curated blog communities, or the announcement of open access mandates or other milestones in open access. All free of charge, of course.
This is well and good (very good in my opinion), but what is Open Access and what does it mean to me? First and foremost Open Access means information (often in the form of peer reviewed publications) that is freely available to anyone who seeks it. Which is, strangely, not always or even typically the case.
I published my first manuscript shortly after finishing my master’s degree at Oregon State University. I’m early enough in my career that I still have a visceral memory of the joy associated with getting the acceptance notification. When the manuscript finally made it out in the journal, I emailed my undergraduate field technicians – beaming with excitement – to share this enormous accomplishment with them.
One of them, a first generation college student and a woman of color, wrote me back: “My mom doesn’t have a library login, am I allowed to share this with her?” I didn’t know the answer, the paper was not published in an open access journal. I said yes, because I believed it was the right thing to do.
My student’s mother is not an academic, but she read the manuscript and beamed with pride herself to see her daughter’s name mentioned in the acknowledgments section. She shared the manuscript at work, paraphrasing it the way her daughter had paraphrased it for her. In this way the paper grew legs and slipped quietly out of the ivory tower and onto the streets, which ultimately is where research belongs.
The sharing of information is ingrained in the modern technological world. I can freely download secret family recipes, instructions on how to change a flat tire, poems by e.e. cummings and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, or algebraic proofs. I cannot however, without some sort of institutional login, freely download peer reviewed literature on the media’s influence (or lack thereof) on frequent dieting in adolescent girls. Why? Cookies are free, but legitimate studies on social pressures and health is available only to those affiliated with an institution? Without pointing fingers, it is time for the research community to shift our own culture, and value the dissemination of work above all. Open access seems to be one of the torches being carried in support of this goal.
The move to open access publishing is palpable. Even journals that function on a traditionally subscription based model still have an open access option (at a hefty, dare I say, occasionally insurmountable fee of $2-$7k). Nonetheless, this is an important transition in the culture of science. Until the open access movement gained legitimacy, the potentially dramatic skew in access to scientific information – which is disproportionately biased against independent researchers, small NGO’s, and the general public – remained unchecked. Open access allows us, as a scientific community, to make a commitment to minimizing access disparity, and maximizing access to merit based research across subjects.
But open access publishing is only the first step. Opening the front door is not the same as giving someone directions to the house.
Open access publications ensure equal access. But equality and equity are not equivalent. Equality is about sameness – everyone gets to read the paper. Equity is about fairness – each person has the ability to find, and also understand the paper. As researchers we have developed a vocabulary that we’ll gently call ‘inaccessible’ to many, if not most. This phenomenon is so widespread that without batting an eyelash we’ll ask a scientist to quickly summarize their work for ‘non-specialists’, with the cogent implication that this means simplifying it to the utmost. While the vocabulary of research is to a large degree topically specific (one cannot talk about osmosis without using the word ‘osmosis’ at least once), the language of research has grown so obtuse that we ask “Do elasmobranchs possess the cognitive ability to discriminate between complex auditory cues?” rather than asking “can a shark tell the difference between two types of music?” (You can read this compelling study here, for a subscribers fee). I feel quite confident that my grandmother understands what it means to play music to sharks, but complex auditory cues may not get much of a reaction.
So yes, open access publishing levels the accessibility playing field (this is the equality portion of publishing). However, publishing research in an open access journal does little to increase the scope of dissemination to the members in our global community who may most benefit from the information (this is the equity part of the conversation). We have some choices to make. Is equity important enough to us as a community that we will shift both our language and our access? Do we cultivate a research culture in which every scientific manuscript is accompanied by straightforward translation? If I can successfully write an entire manuscript in “layman’s english” will my peer reviewers accept it?
Albert Einstein wrote “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” As a research community we are moving in the right direction, but let us do more than remove all of the fences from the trees and post signs that say “Climb me”. Let’s examine how we can be better communicators of our work, both in the peer review literature and beyond it.
Decibels function on a logarithmic scale instead of a linear one, which means instead of increasing in a straight line fashion, when decibels increase acoustic power increases exponentially (see the figure for a tangible interpretation of this).
Now, ignoring for a moment everything you know about how we perceive loudness (obligatory caveat for the acousticians in the room), I’ve discovered something else in the academic world that seems to function logarithmically: research.
I should be clear: I can’t take complete credit for the productivity outlined in this graphic. It’s largely a function of the academic system I came through. My PhD advisors, wisely I say in retrospect, required me to have at least 3 of my dissertation chapters in review before I was allowed to defend – and nothing will inspire publication submission like the desire to finish a PhD! Additionally, however, what shifted is that early in my graduate career I was doggedly trying to solve problems alone. But as I waded deeper into the community of research, I made friends, developed colleagues, and the process of making science got … well, easier. It has become almost cliche, but the truth behind collaborative work is that it increases both quality and yield (it also gives you friends to sip a celebratory beer with when the hydrophones go into the water, and again three years later when the paper comes out). Couple that with one amazing writing professor (OSU folks really should take Dr. Vicki Tolar-Burton’s class!) and boom- Year 5 happens.
So, forgive me the self-centered nature of this post. I’ve been absent from the world of science communication for a while, so here’s a quick recap of what has happened since May in once concise graphic (with only a little forward extrapolation).
I’ll pop in again soon with a more detailed description of what we found in these manuscripts (check out a blog post written for Nature Ecology and Evolution if you just can’t wait) and a whole mess of information about life at Cornell and our Florida Everglades Project; but for now, know that life after PhD marches on.
In her poem “What we want” Mary Oliver writes:
In a poem
but even more
they want something
easy to swallow—
not unlike a suddenly
in an otherwise
difficult and sometimes dissonant
even if it is only
for the moment
of hearing it.
This has become both one of my favorite poems, and my favorite concepts: the inexplicable made plain. Oliver writes of poetry, but isn’t this (shouldn’t this) be the goal of science as well?
Science is complicated; but only in so much as we strive to dissect parts of the natural world independently, and often fail to put the pieces back together again. It is in the putting back together that we ‘make plain’ the essence of nature, where we as storytellers are obligated to share with the world what we have uncovered. It is what I strive to do in my work professionally, and personally.
So, with that prelude, I invite you all to attend (virtually or in the flesh) my dissertation defense. On almost exactly the ten year anniversary of when I began studying humpback whales in Southeast Alaska I will present my doctoral dissertation. It will be technical (for me to pass it must be), but I will also make every effort to tell the story of my work once I have explained the pieces.
After? We will celebrate. I will hike with my pups (as I do most days). I will begin a new story…. but more on that to come.
It’s been some time in the making, but after months in the rain, and hours in the cold (not to mention a roller coaster of a relationship with statistics, which I’m pleased to report ended in a happy marriage) a few of our humpback whale research projects can be marked complete.
Last week we published two short manuscripts on the calling behavior of Southeast Alaskan humpback whales. Note that I said “calling-behavior”… not “social calling behavior” or “non-song calling behavior.” Now why might that be?
While the field of marine bioacoustics is vast, the number of people who have research programs dedicated to humpback whale vocalizations that aren’t song is relatively small (growing, but small). The first publication came out in the 1980’s by Dr. Greg Silber, who recorded a suite of vocalizations in groups of competitive male humpbacks on breeding grounds. Thus the term “social call” was born.
The running definition of a social call, however, has always been “a vocalizations produced independently of the structure of song”. Bearing this in mind several researchers, including myself, adopted the term “non-song vocalization”, to more specifically describe the vocalizations.
Here’s the rub… as it turns out these independent vocalizations sometimes pop-up as song units (As Bec Dunlop and Mindy Rekdahl have taught us) and as we recently discovered these vocalizations definitely aren’t always social.
In one of our new publications we describe how humpback whales in Southeast Alaska produce feeding calls, even when they are foraging alone. This call, we propose, is a prey manipulation call, and doesn’t always occur in social situations. In our second publication we demonstrate that when humpbacks in Southeast Alaska produce vocalizations in Alaska, they are doing so quietly. Which may indicate that they are intentionally restricting their audience (think whispering into someone’s ear versus yelling across the room). So while these calls almost certainly facilitate interactions between individuals humpbacks, they aren’t as widely broadcast as say… song (if Alaskan whales whisper, Hawaiian whales scream).
So what do we call these sometimes-social-sometimes-NOT-social-usually-not-song-unit-vocalizations?
I think we should refer to them as calls.
The use of the term ‘calls’ to encompass any short vocal unit that doesn’t occur in a song structure is well established in the animal communication literature (birds, frogs, primates). The term covers all manner of sins, and can be qualified (alarm call, flight call) to increase the specificity.
So, without further ado, let me introduce this borrowed lexicon into the marine mammal literature with this publication:
Let’s increase the specificity just a bit with:
When I was 21 years old and backpacking through Central America I met a man named Paul North at a dive shop. For a few precious weeks we shared an underwater community, diving among friends on the coral reefs of Utila, Honduras. We became friends, we talked theatre and fish (we were both studying playwriting at the time), swam in the wine dark sea and parted ways.
Ten years later I receive an email from Mr. North. His path and mine had converged again, this time over a shared love for science, communication, and most importantly the ocean.
Paul is now the director of a non-profit organization called Meet the Ocean ,dedicated to educating the public on the importance of the saltwaters of our planet. At the heart of the organization is a combination of storytelling and science used to combat environmental apathy. He invited me to join the team as their resident acoustic ecologist. He remembered the version of me from my early 20’s that was dedicated to telling stories, and honored the me now who has committed my life to acoustic ecology. I accepted his invitation, honoring also this new version of him.
Well, Paul and the Meet the Ocean team have just released their 8th podcast, this time focused on the Alaska Whale Foundation, where I am a Research Associate. I listened to the podcast today, and immediately wanted to share it. Not only because I’m featured (listen for a tutorial on acoustic ecology), but because it’s really nicely done. I encourage you to listen and share the podcast as well. It paints a picture (using sound) of what our organization is like, how we got here, and why what we do is so important.
If you like what you hear, please don’t hesitate to donate. Meet the Ocean is just getting off the ground, and it means a lot to us.