The Little Things

IMG_1169What is 5 1/2 feet long, weighs 135 pounds, and isn’t an intern? My favorite odontocete: Phocoena phocoena, the harbor porpoise.

Due to their vessel aversion they are slightly hard to study, and their distribution, population structure, and acoustic behavior in the Park is still largely unknown. Harbor porpoise, while not an endangered species, are very susceptible to disturbance from noise. I’m not personally studying the impact of noise on these graceful creatures here in the park, but I am encouraging my team to come up with some creative study ideas.

While deterred by motorized vessels, harbor porpoise don’t appear to be disturbed by kayaks. These lovely animals often swim within meters of us when we survey on the water. Their vocalizations are too high frequency for our hydrophones to pick up, but I can’t help but wonder if they’re echolocating our equipment.

 

Antarctica Part VIII- Homeward Bound

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, zoologists and one fine soldier from Italy’s Mario Zucchelli Station,. Remember how I said the ship had become boisterous? You can imagine why.

My Italian friends and colleagues and I on the bow of the R/V Araon, departing Terra Nova Bay en route for New Zealand.

My Italian friends,  colleagues and I on the bow of the R/V Araon, departing Terra Nova Bay en route for New Zealand.

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.

Weddell Seal Mom and Pup.  My new favorite animal.  (Photo credit Nicoletta).

Weddell Seal Mom and Pup. My new favorite animal. (Photo credit Nicoletta).

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.

DSC01836

Amico Mio, Roberto. Cuciniamo gli spaghetti di Natale. (My Friend Roberto and I cooking Christmas spaghetti).

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.

 

Your (former) Antarctic Correspondent,

Michelle

 

 

Listening to the Past

…but first a name

This is what we see when we study humpback whales... but what do we hear?

This is what we see when we study humpback whales… but what do we hear?

I’ve dedicated the past 3 years to understanding non-song vocalizations, which admittedly is just a drop in the bucket. Now, as I venture into my fourth year of this relationship I have to acknowledge that I’ve moved from one chapter of my research into another. The Rapunzel Project (the whimsical name for my M.S. project) was my first foray into bio-acoustics, large scale fieldwork, and in internship development. While I wouldn’t consider myself an expert at any of these things, I’m also no longer a novice. I defended my thesis, we’re working on publications, and by and large I’ve put the Rapunzel Project to rest (I even retired the blog!).

All that being said I’m thrillingly eyeball deep in my PhD (first committee meeting: check!), and my research is actually rolling along in advance of my first field season (patting myself –very lightly – on the back). I’ve been giving talks on my research, and the blog posts are rolling out in various forms and locations. With all of this communicating about my research I became aware of something, my project didn’t have a name. Now I know that naming each project isn’t mandatory. Some people name their cars, some don’t; some people name their research, others don’t. But I have to admit writing the words “my dissertation research” over and over has grown tedious. As someone who values accessible communication as well as the role of creativity in science, I reached out to my fellow lab mates and asked for help with a name.

Calypso as she wistfully watches the sea... for humpback whales of course

Calypso as she wistfully watches the sea… for humpback whales of course

Suggestions varied wildly (“Life is the bubbles” anyone? How about a Calypso reference… so much fun). The name we settled on was astutely suggested by none other than ORCAA’s Selene Fregosi (maybe that writing workshop she wrote about helped with more than just her thesis). Without further ado let me introduce you to ORCAA’s Acoustic Spyglass: investigating the impact of vessel noise on humpback whale non-song behavior from the shores of Glacier Bay National Park.

I’m please with this name because (a) it incorporates both the visual and acoustic elements of the study, (b) because the use of a hydrophone array to localize animals is quite literally a form of “acoustic spying”, and (c) the use of a spyglass implies both antiquity and a sense of looking forward. When you pair visual observations with passive acoustic monitoring you are often looking forward (to the sea, tracking whales), but often technological constraints require that you listen retroactively after the hydrophones have been recovered. In this way I am quite literally listening to the past.

Listening to the Past

Nowhere is this more poignant than in the first chapter of the Acoustic Spyglass (see that… not “my dissertation research”), where I investigate non-song call stability at the decadal scale. I’ve acquired recordings of non-song vocalizations in North Pacific Humpbacks from the mid-1970’s through present day. I’ve been reviewing these to assess if non-song vocalizations, similar to song, change rapidly with time, or if humpbacks exhibit vocal stability. It is well known that humpback whale song changes annually, and this change is believed to be culturally mediated. Little is known, however, about how non-song vocalizations stand up to the test of time. Understanding the stability of non-song vocalizations may tell us something about call innateness, and may provide clues into how these vocalizations are used. Further, if non-song vocalizations (or specific types of non-song vocalizations) have been relatively stable for the past four decades then they may act as a metric against which to quantify change in the face of a shifting baseline (increasing ocean noise, climate change).

What’s so exciting (to me and possibly the ~twelve people who study non-song communication in humpback whales) is that based on first glance at least one call type – the SEAK Whup call – is remarkably stable over time! I’ve detected this vocalization in every data set currently in my possession. I want to be clear, that these findings are anecdotal at this point.  I’ve only just started quantifying my samples, and I have a long way to go before everything is sufficiently measured and described.  But from first glance would you agree that these two spectrograms look pretty similar?

"Whup" calls, R-L: 1976, courtesy of Roger Payne; 1982 courtesy of Greg Silber and Adam Frankel; 1995 courtesy of Fred Sharpe

“Whup” calls, R-L: 1976, courtesy of Roger Payne; 1982 courtesy of Greg Silber and Adam Frankel; 1995 courtesy of Fred Sharpe

There’s something magical about listening to vocalizations that were produced in the 1970’s and hearing some of the same purrs that I’ve grown familiar with.  That the scientific community forty years later is just now beginning to investigate what these non-song vocalizations mean is a testament to the breadth of research yet to be done on Southeast Alaskan humpback whales.  Humpback whales are long-lived, with lifespans that can reach 90+  years.  This means that the whales in these historic recordings may still be vocalizing in Southeast Alaska today.  Or perhaps these recordings may be a link between a previous generation of whales and those who have only recently made it to Southeast Alaska to forage.  In either case the analysis of this long-term acoustic data set is the first step to answering some of the basic questions about how humpback whales communicate and I’m extremely excited to be listening.

~This work is extremely collaborative. Data contributions have been made my individual researchers referenced above as well as the National Park Service, and the Alaska Whale Foundation~

***Follow my personal research blog here, or check out my lab’s blog blogs.oregonstate.edu/bioacoustics for a broader view of bio-acoustic research***

Staying Afloat

It’s springtime here on the Oregon Coast.  The white-crowned sparrows are singing at the Hatfield Marine Science Center,  the seagulls are growing audacious at the sight of beach picnics and barbecues, and on top of our normal research load here at the ORCAA lab (bowhead whales, how I love thee singing on my computer screen), the field season is upon us in full force!

Part of my job over the last year has been to coordinate a marine mammal observation effort here in Oregon’s near coastal ocean.  We’ve been very fortunate to partner with a number of labs and projects — including Sarah Henkel’s Bethic Ecology Lab, Jay Peterson’s Zooplankton Ecology Project, and Rob Suryan’s Seabird Oceanography Lab — who’ve invited us to share their sea time and tag along on cruises recording marine mammals.  We’ve had some inspiring cruises (bow riding dall’s porpoise, a possible pilot whale sighting!) and a few rocky days (my stomach hasn’t forgiven the Elakha yet), and we’re not through yet.  Now that the summer season is around the corner it’s time to recruit additional observers, and get our lead observers (Amanda and Niki) up to snuff on their safety certifications.

If you’ve ever been a part of a marine research cruise, you may be familiar with the rigor of safety training.  We take safety very seriously;  as marine scientists we have a keen awareness of both the awe and danger associated with the open (or even near coastal) ocean.  All of that severity, however, doesn’t stop us from having a little fun.  As you can see by today’s photos of Amanda and Niki (a.k.a. Gumby #1 and Gumby #2).  I didn’t go through safety training myself today, but that didn’t stop my from doing a little spying.

 

More to come soon on how projects unfold here at the ORCAA lab.

Michelle