//
you're reading...

Behavior

The story behind the story: Understanding how mother whales communicate and the challenges of studying an endangered species

Parks SE, Cusano DA, Van Parijs SM, Nowacek DP. 2019 Acoustic crypsis in communication by North Atlantic right whale mother–calf pairs on the calving grounds. Biology Letters. 15: 20190485. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2019.0485

When a paper is published in a scientific journal, there’s a story you see laid out in structured sections alongside carefully crafted figures, and then there’s the story of the research that doesn’t make it onto the clean pages of the journal. There are complexities and nuances of doing science research, particularly endangered species research, that are often hidden. I had the chance to sit down with my research advisor, Dr. Susan Parks, to ask her about her most recent paper. The paper, published in the journal Biology Letters last week, describes the calls North Atlantic right whale mothers use to communicate with their calves. But what you don’t see as clearly are the challenges behind collecting the data.

A North Atlantic right whale mom and her calf. Source: NOAA Photo Library via Flickr.

New quiet calls

North Atlantic right whales produce a variety of calls which have been recorded from males and females of all ages. But while listening to the calls from mother/calf pairs in the Southeastern US, Dr. Parks and her colleagues noticed something odd. It makes a lot of sense that mothers would want to be quieter when they have their vulnerable calf alongside them, and the researchers did find that mothers make quiet calls 90% of the time. But instead of producing those same calls that have been recorded across the right whale population, the quiet calls made by right whale mothers are entirely new call types.

An example of an upcall from a North Atlantic right whale. Upcalls are produced by males and females of a variety of ages. (Sound from Parks et al. 2019)

“As a biologist and studying behavioral ecology, I found this result really surprising and interesting,” Dr. Parks told me.  “What we had expected was just that they would not make any sounds, or if they did, they would make the normal sounds more quietly. But, I think this is the uninformed human making assumptions about an animal system without really thinking through the central complexity.”

Dr. Parks found herself thinking about this complexity by relating it to her own experiences as a mother. “When I had a child,” she explained, “the sounds that I made to my son when he was born were not part of my normal repertoire, but they were still necessary, or I felt they were still necessary for soothing or communicating to my son. And so I think that in hindsight, we probably shouldn’t be surprised that there might be a different set of sounds that are produced by a female mammal when she has offspring.”

An example of one of the new quiet calls recorded from a mother North Atlantic right whale with her calf (Parks et al. 2019)

The challenges of endangered species research

This result on its own is an exciting one to think about as we try to understand how animals communicate. But what about the story that doesn’t make into the journal article? Take the number of tags the researchers were able to deploy on whales, for example. The information regarding the sounds these whales make to communicate is obtained through suction cup tags stuck on the back of a whale using a really long pole. These tags, once on the whale, track the movement of the whales and include an underwater microphone to record the sounds, up until the tag pops off.

This paper describes data recorded on 16 whales, but not all at once: the field work was done in 2006, 2016, and 2017. The paper wasn’t submitted until this year, which isn’t all that surprising given the long process of peer-review and scientific publishing. What is surprising is that the team tried to collect more data in 2018 and 2019 and were unable to. In 2018, there were no calves born across the entire species of North Atlantic right whales, so there were no mother/calf pairs to tag and collect data from. This year, a few calves were born, but none of the researchers or members of various aerial survey teams studying the species were able to find them, making it impossible to collect more data once again.

“So 16 is good enough for pointing out this change that’s really interesting,” Dr. Parks concluded. “But getting the data took a decade of effort and a lot of time in the field by a lot of dedicated people.”

The tail of a North Atlantic right whale as it dives below the surface. Source: Penn State via Flickr.

This struggle to collect enough data because of the limited availability of the study subjects highlights what it’s like to study an endangered species. Sometimes you can’t collect the amount of data you might feel is sufficient for the same reason the species continues to decline – there just aren’t enough individuals, and particularly reproductive individuals, in the population.

Dr. Parks told me that one of the things that strikes her most about this paper is that the sound included in the online version of the paper was recorded from a whale named Punctuation, who was named for the comma-shaped markings on her head, and who unfortunately was found dead from a vessel collision just a week before this paper was submitted.

“So that’s been the other tough part about this, is we get to know these individual animals and spend time with them and they’re really awe-inspiring, but a lot of them end up not living very long,” explained Dr. Parks.

This part of the story is really hard to tell, and it’s the part that lies unseen behind the journal article except to those close to the research. Even when the text on the page and the statistical analyses may seem like it, science is never the sterile and un-emotional narrative that it is often presented as. There is a challenging and human saga behind every study. In this case, it’s one of the reasons I admire Dr. Parks and other endangered species researchers so much. It’s their ability to push forward and remain dedicated to the science through all of the hardships faced by both them and the subjects of their studies.

Another example of one of the new quiet calls recorded from a mother North Atlantic right whale with her calf (Parks et al. 2019).

The story of mother/calf communication in right whales is not over yet, nor is it easily concluded. “We don’t know for certain that these quiet sounds are meant to be for communication, or whether they’re some mechanical byproduct of nursing or some other interaction between a mother and a calf,” Dr. Parks explained to me while discussing the new sounds described in the paper. “At this point we’re still just discovering these signals, let alone figuring out why they’re using them.” With so much still unknown about the behavior of these ocean giants, I am excited to see where future studies from these remarkable scientists will lead.

Discussion

No comments yet.

Post a Comment

Instagram

  • by oceanbites 3 months ago
    Happy Earth Day! Take some time today to do something for the planet and appreciate the ocean, which covers 71% of the Earth’s surface.  #EarthDay   #OceanAppreciation   #Oceanbites   #CoastalVibes   #CoastalRI 
  • by oceanbites 4 months ago
    Not all outdoor science is fieldwork. Some of the best days in the lab can be setting up experiments, especially when you get to do it outdoors. It’s an exciting mix of problem solving, precision, preparation, and teamwork. Here is
  • by oceanbites 5 months ago
    Being on a research cruise is a unique experience with the open water, 12-hour working shifts, and close quarters, but there are some familiar practices too. Here Diana is filtering seawater to gather chlorophyll for analysis, the same process on
  • by oceanbites 6 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  on  #oceanbites  we are featuring Hannah Collins  @hannahh_irene  Hannah works with marine suspension feeding bivalves and microplastics, investigating whether ingesting microplastics causes changes to the gut microbial community or gut tissues. She hopes to keep working
  • by oceanbites 7 months ago
    Leveling up - did you know that crabs have a larval phase? These are both porcelain crabs, but the one on the right is the earlier stage. It’s massive spine makes it both difficult to eat and quite conspicuous in
  • by oceanbites 7 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  on  #Oceanbites  we are featuring Cierra Braga. Cierra works ultraviolet c (UVC) to discover how this light can be used to combat biofouling, or the growth of living things, on the hulls of ships. Here, you
  • by oceanbites 7 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  at  #Oceanbites  we are featuring Elena Gadoutsis  @haysailor  These photos feature her “favorite marine research so far: From surveying tropical coral reefs, photographing dolphins and whales, and growing my own algae to expose it to different
  • by oceanbites 8 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  on Oceanbites we are featuring Eliza Oldach. According to Ellie, “I study coastal communities, and try to understand the policies and decisions and interactions and adaptations that communities use to navigate an ever-changing world. Most of
  • by oceanbites 8 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  at  #Oceanbites  we are featuring Jiwoon Park with a little photographic help from Ryan Tabata at the University of Hawaii. When asked about her research, Jiwoon wrote “Just like we need vitamins and minerals to stay
  • by oceanbites 8 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  on  #Oceanbites  we are featuring  @riley_henning  According to Riley, ”I am interested in studying small things that make a big impact in the ocean. Right now for my master's research at the University of San Diego,
  • by oceanbites 8 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  at  #Oceanbites  we are featuring Gabby Stedman. Gabby is interested in interested in understanding how many species of small-bodied animals there are in the deep-sea and where they live so we can better protect them from
  • by oceanbites 9 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  at  #Oceanbites  we are featuring Shawn Wang! Shawn is “an oceanographer that studies ocean conditions of the past. I use everything from microfossils to complex computer models to understand how climate has changed in the past
  • by oceanbites 9 months ago
    Today we are highlighting some of our awesome new authors for  #WriterWednesday  Today we have Daniel Speer! He says, “I am driven to investigate the interface of biology, chemistry, and physics, asking questions about how organisms or biological systems respond
  • by oceanbites 10 months ago
    Here at Oceanbites we love long-term datasets. So much happens in the ocean that sometimes it can be hard to tell if a trend is a part of a natural cycle or actually an anomaly, but as we gather more
  • by oceanbites 10 months ago
    Have you ever seen a lobster molt? Because lobsters have exoskeletons, every time they grow they have to climb out of their old shell, leaving them soft and vulnerable for a few days until their new shell hardens. Young, small
  • by oceanbites 11 months ago
    A lot of zooplankton are translucent, making it much easier to hide from predators. This juvenile mantis shrimp was almost impossible to spot floating in the water, but under a dissecting scope it’s features really come into view. See the
  • by oceanbites 11 months ago
    This is a clump of Dead Man’s Fingers, scientific name Codium fragile. It’s native to the Pacific Ocean and is invasive where I found it on the east coast of the US. It’s a bit velvety, and the coolest thing
  • by oceanbites 12 months ago
    You’ve probably heard of jellyfish, but have you heard of salps? These gelatinous sea creatures band together to form long chains, but they can also fall apart and will wash up onshore like tiny gemstones that squish. Have you seen
  • by oceanbites 12 months ago
    Check out what’s happening on a cool summer research cruise! On the  #neslter  summer transect cruise, we deployed a tow sled called the In Situ Icthyoplankton Imaging System. This can take pictures of gelatinous zooplankton (like jellyfish) that would be
  • by oceanbites 1 year ago
    Did you know horseshoe crabs have more than just two eyes? In these juveniles you can see another set in the middle of the shell. Check out our website to learn about some awesome horseshoe crab research.  #oceanbites   #plankton   #horseshoecrabs 
WP2Social Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com