Students

Following Parks Lab undergraduate and graduate students as they conduct exciting research on diverse topics.

2017 SEUS Field Season

The official SEUS 2017 field season started on February 1st and ended on the 20th. A lot happened – and didn’t happen – over the 20 days I spent in Fernandina beach, Florida.  I was over the moon knowing that was about to see North Atlantic right whales; but I was also very anxious as I knew I would be around people I’ve never met, doing something that I had never done before but dreamed of doing since I started working with marine mammals – tagging whales. Moreover, while this was my first tag operation, the field team I was being added to has been tagging all sorts of whales all over the world for at least 6 years. Pretty intimidating, right? Well, I had a great time with the field team (on board and on land) and learned A LOT with everyone. Sadly, despite all effort, we only found one mother-calf pair. But mum and calf were very cooperative and we successfully deployed the tag after the first attempt.

NARW mother-calf pair at SEUS area. Successful tag deployment attempt on mum. Photo by Susan Parks.  

We were all very satisfied with the deployment, and hopping for more interesting information about our target species. However, on tag-recovery day, an unexpected turn of events: it turns out the calf might have crushed the tag and therefore we might never have access to the one single 2017 SEUS DTag data…

It is like they say: whale happens.

The lovely, precious and notorious tag crusher. How can anyone be mad at 6 tonnes of pure right whale love? Photo by Susan Parks.   

Julia Dombroski

 

Global Soundscape Patterns

As someone who studies ecosystem and animal sounds, it is hard not to get a little anxious in the middle of winter in Syracuse, New York, when all one hears is wind, human noise, and the occasional crow or house sparrow. The winter soundscape at high(ish) latitudes is a far cry from the blissful bird-, frog-, and insect-dominated soundscapes that we hear during spring and summer mornings and evenings, especially if we live outside of the city.

I have developed an interest in these annual soundscape patterns, and the differences in these patterns between tropical and temperate regions. A microphone placed in a temperate forest for one year would pick up a drastically changing signal from season to season, with the spring and summer dominated by animal choruses, the fall by the rustling of leaves, and the winter by the howling of winds. In the cold months, birds migrate to warmer climates, frogs hibernate, and insects become dormant or overwinter as eggs, leaving us with a bleak acoustic environment compared with that of springtime. However, in the less seasonal tropics, animal sounds can be a major aspect of the soundscape in every month of the year. Many places in the tropics likely do not experience such high variation in soundscape characteristics throughout the course of the year. A walk through the tropical rainforest at dawn, on any day of the year, will likely be accompanied by a cacophony of biological sound.

Morning rainforest soundscape in Borneo. Recorded in Kubah National Park by C. Swider

Acoustic complexity during any particular season is another soundscape characteristic that may vary with latitude. One might anticipate a more complex soundscape in a tropical rainforest than in a temperate forest, given the difference in the biodiversity between habitats. But is this necessarily the case? Perhaps not…

Investigating the differences in soundscape complexity and seasonal trends between temperate and tropical regions is one of my goals for the coming months. I hope to present some of my work at the joint conference of the Acoustical Society of America and the European Acoustics Association in June, at which there is a special session devoted to ecosystem acoustics. Thanks for reading!

Colin Swider, PhD student

It sounds like home.

I find it truly amazing how particular sounds can transport us anywhere in our memories.

Almost every day for few minutes before getting up, I just lay in bed and listen to the morning sounds: wooden floor cracks, dogs barking in excitement about their upcoming walk, wind on tree leaves, rain drops hitting the ground and the life around me calling for the day raise… I remember doing that since I was a child that has probably influenced a lot my decision to become someone who listens to the environment for a living.

As I left the freezing-cold winter of upstate New York to land on one of the hottest summers of all times in southwest Brazil, I couldn’t help noticing how different soundscapes are between my homes: the northern and southern one. For about 10 days I was back to my parent’s house, sleeping in my old bed and listing for the miscellaneous of sounds of a major tropical metropole.

While from my Syracuse home I can only occasionally hear cars and trucks passing on the streets, at my parent’s house the low-frequency sound of engines is permanent. Interestingly, although it is never gone, one can only actually realize that the constant rooring is there if one truly focus your hearing sense.

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That’s Sao Paulo, the biggest city in South America, the concrete jungle in which I was born. Yes, it’s big, yes it’s messy, but yes, I love it. Image credit: Wikipedia.

But it was the biological sounds I recognized that filled me with the sense of relaxation and belonging. Instead of crows call I hear in Syracuse, the morning chorus at my parents is composed mainly by bem-te-vis (Pitangus sulphuratus) calls and maitacas (Pionus maximiliani) screams. Whenever I hear this calls, it feels (and sounds) like home.  That and mom’s voice announcing that coffee is ready… Oh, how good it was to be home!

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Great kiskadee, or bem-te-vi in Portuguese. Image credit: Pinterest

 

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Scaly-headed parrot, or maitaca in Portuguese. Image credit: Natura Book.

How about you? Have you ever thought about the sounds that can take you home?

I wish you all a very Happy New Year!

Julia Dombroski

 

 

 

Working with Penguins at the Zoo

Happy New Year! My name is Keiya Akiyama, and I am an undergraduate research assistant in the Parks Lab. Ever since I came to Syracuse University with a strong passion for becoming a veterinary surgeon, I always wanted to be part of a biological research that involves studying animals. Therefore, when I first found out about the Parks Lab, I printed out my resume and went straight to Dr. Parks’ office in the Life Science Complex despite my lack of knowledge in the field of bioacoustics.

Over the course of the last two years, I learned so much about bioacoustics through reading a number of articles related to the field as well as getting involved in the NEON project in the lab. In late 2015, I was thrilled to be introduced to the idea of conducting my own project on the penguins at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, NY. However, due to many steps I needed to take in order to make this research possible, it took almost a year to actually start working on this project. I could not have done this without Dr. Parks and Holly (one of the postdoctoral researchers last year), who helped me through the process tremendously.

The objective of this research is to study the acoustic repertoire system of the Humboldt penguin (Spheniscus humboldti). My focus of this study is to quantify the species’ acoustic repertoire and to specifically measure within- and between-penguin variation in signal production and assess the potential for vocal individual discrimination and study their vocal ontogeny. Later, I will compare the results with previous publications describing the vocal signatures of other nesting and non-nesting penguin species.

Two of the penguins at the Rosemond Gifford zoo

Two of the penguins at the Rosemond Gifford zoo

We started our official, weekly data collection process in September 2016, after getting permission from the zoo. There are thirty-seven penguins in the studied captive colony, in which six of them are chicks that were hatched last March. Every Friday, Alexandra (another undergraduate assistant who has been helping me so much with the data collection) and I go to the zoo to collect audio and video data, utilizing recorders placed near the penguin exhibit. We are expecting the data collection to last for approximately one year while simultaneously identifying the callers and analyze the collected data in the lab.

Even though there are some modifications to be made in our data collection, we have been able to collect different data sets from different individuals within the colony. This year, we are hoping to eventually collect more data from individuals, from whom we have not been able to record calls. Once an adequate amount of data is collected for analysis, we will start measuring variation of signal production and looking at distinctiveness of certain call types at different age levels.

Conducting a bioacoustics research is tough, and there are a lot more for me to learn. However, the exposure I get from this research is very unique, and it is a once in a lifetime opportunity to work with marine mammals like the penguins. I look forward to continuing working on this project and hopefully to issuing publications from the study in the future!

– Keiya

Adventures in Teaching

My name is Elizabeth, and I am a second-year graduate student in the Parks Lab. As part of my education, I have served as a Teaching Assistant for three different biology courses at Syracuse, which has been an awesome experience, and definitely reinforced my love of sharing my knowledge and passion for science with others.

This semester, I was assigned to teach the lab section of the Introductory Biology class at Syracuse. We covered your typical freshman biology topics, like cell division (who can still name the stages of mitosis??), DNA and genetics, dissections, and cell structures (mitrochondria is the powerhouse of the cell, etc.). As the semester was wrapping up, our final week covered the incredibly broad field of “Ecology.”

This is what I had been waiting for! I consider myself a marine ecologist, and the behavior and interactions between species fascinates me. For my thesis, I am planning to study food web dynamics for baleen whale species in the North Atlantic, so this week, I was in my element. We talked about inter- and intra- species competition, modeled predator-prey dynamics, and made a collaborative food web of a hypothetical forest ecosystem.

I think my excitement was contagious! The students were engaged, curious, and proud to show off their artistic skills:

bio-lab-web

At the end of class, I had students asking me where they could take more ecology classes in the future, and one student told me this was the most he had learned in class all year. Since I plan to make a career as a college professor, this really touched me, and it reinforces the importance of great teachers – getting students involved and engaged, and inspiring them to become the next great scientists, or at the very least, informed citizens. Cheers to another great semester come to an end!

– Elizabeth

Adventures with Crickets

Yesterday, I went into the cricket room like I normally do to check on my crickets and switch out their boxes for the anthropogenic noise behavior experiment. I didn’t expect to see anything special or out of the ordinary happen with the crickets-except maybe the terrifying amount we now have-but I was in for a surprise during my husbandry routine.

After working with crickets for months, I honestly felt like I had seen everything I would ever have seen happen to a cricket, from a cricket missing a leg leap halfway across the room to a half-molted cricket being devoured by its brothers and sisters. Keeping that in mind while performing the same routine I had repeated for months on end, husbandry had become monotone in a way. There would be days where I would feel like a machine on an assembly line as I passed through each box, replaced and adding in what was necessary for the week to come.

But as I was moving to the second box of crickets, something caught my eye. For part of the experiment, I document the date that the crickets go through their last molt and gain their wings as they reach adulthood. Every now and then I would come across a freshly molted cricket and see its bright white wings and pale brown shell compared to brown-black crickets residing around it. But this time, I saw both in one, wiggling, squirming very slowly. It took me awhile to realize what it was, but I was witnessing a cricket going through its last molt before becoming an adult.

cricketmolt1

Immediately I pulled my phone out to try to capture pictures of the scene. It was about halfway through its molt when I found it. Head down, it looked like it was struggling to get through that last half of its molt. If not done right, many crickets can lose wings or even legs during this process, impeding their life. Honestly, I thought it was stuck and she was going to be mess up the molting. But nonetheless, she was a trooper and soon pulled through fully emerged 3 minutes later. Once she was done, it she seemed to stare at me for some time, fluttering around like she was proud of what she did before she continued on with the other crickets. Overall, I just found the whole thing to be really interesting and cool.

cricketmolt2

The main reason I’m writing about all of this is that I just felt like it’s nice to take a step back from data collection and analysis and actually see what’s happening. I could’ve easily just as well continued on with the husbandry and finished up like a robot over being interested in a process I’ve only ever documented and never witnessed. I guess what I am trying to get at is that while it’s fine to focus on your work, it’s even better to find things to enjoy and be interested in. Hopefully I can keep this in mind during the rest of my experiment.

Thanks for reading my rambling!

– George El-Amir, undergraduate researcher

The Meredith Symposium — Spotlight on Undergraduate Research

On Saturday, October 22nd I was lucky enough to present the research I had been working on in Dr. Parks lab at the Meredith Symposium. The Meredith Symposium is put on by Syracuse University and it focuses on undergraduate research in Chemistry and Biological Sciences. In the first week of October I submitted an abstract to the symposium for my research on the effects of temperature on female preference of male calls in Metrioptera Roeselii katydids. When I submitted my abstract, I had to choose whether I wanted to present my research with a talk, a poster or either one and since I do not like to make decisions I selected the “either one” option. I did not hear back for weeks and I thought for certain that my research had not been selected. Then on October 14, about a week before the Symposium date, I received an email saying that I was selected to be one of the eight speakers at the Symposium. I was extremely excited, but I also felt a lot of pressure because I had never given a professional talk before. Not only did I have to prepare for something that was new to me, I had to do it in less than a week.

The week leading up to the Symposium was a roller coaster of emotions. In the beginning of the week I primarily felt honored and although nervous, prepared for the work that lay ahead of me. I finished my presentation, aside from minor cosmetic touches, by Wednesday and that is when I had my first run through. It was awful. Every comment that I received made me feel as though my presentation was unprofessional and that I was trying to play into a role that was not me. I went home that night and updated my presentation according to the comments I received. By now I was beginning to think that maybe signing up for the symposium was a mistake and that I would just finish it out for the experience, but not in the hopes of winning. Thursday morning I had a second run through with Dr. Parks and other members of the lab. They again gave me many comments on how to better the presentation and again I updated all of my slides. I was as ready as I ever would be for the Symposium. I had to be at the Life Sciences Complex on Saturday morning by 8:50am.

I woke up at 7:30am, put on my uncomfortable business casual shoes, and headed out the door with the hopes of just getting through the day. When I got to the Symposium most of my nerves were instantly calmed. It was a much smaller group than I anticipated and talking with the other presenters I realized I was not the only one who had a few “I can not do this” moments during the week. Dr. Doyle, a professor and researcher at Syracuse University and one of the founders of the symposium, gave the welcoming speech. He talked about how the Symposium was supposed to be a learning experience and how all the undergraduate presenters had already proven their research abilities by having our abstracts selected. I was the first presenter following the lunch break and after getting to know all of the other presenters and hearing Dr. Doyle’s comforting pep talk I was feeling much more confident in my prepared speech. As I watched the other presenters, I realized that all of us did have very interesting and complex research topics and that it would be impossible for the judges to choose us simply based on what we studied. I knew that in order to stand out I would have to be creative with my presentation. I started to think of jokes I could say and ways to make my speech as entertaining as possible. When it was finally my time to present, I was surprisingly not nervous and I went to the front of the lecture hall ready for what was next. Honestly, the whole talk was a blur, but everyone gave me compliments on my presentation so I was feeling good about myself. I still did not think I would win, but I was still proud that I got up in front of so many people and talked about my research.

When the time for awards finally came I was exhausted and read to go home and back to bed. The major prize at the Symposium was awarded to the two best undergraduate speakers and it was $2500 that would go towards expenses for presenting the winning research at a national convention. The first winner was announced, then the second – and it was me. I was very surprised and so extremely proud of myself for not only getting through this presentation but doing very well at it. This moment really made me realize how happy and thankful I am to be a member of Dr. Parks lab. Without their help and guidance I would not have been able to create the presentation that I did and I would not have been able to win such a fantastic prize that will help my career. After I had won, everyone came up to me with their congratulations then slowly people began to leave. Finally, I left the Life Sciences Complex and headed home, straight for a long nap.

— Alexandra Logan

alexandra-2

Pilot playback trials with the katydids!

Pilot playback trials with the katydids!

Soundscapes and Ecoacoustics

I first visited a tropical rainforest eight years ago, and immediately fell in love with the sights, the aromas, the plants and animals, and most importantly the sounds. Since that first hike through the jungle in Guatemala, I have travelled to and spent considerable time in the rainforests of about a dozen countries, from Central and South America to Borneo to Madagascar. I think the main reason I return to the rainforest time after time is to immerse myself in the incredible soundscape. A myriad of animal sounds bombards one’s ears at all times, but particularly in the early morning and late evening. Frogs, birds, insects, primates and other mammals together produce a symphony of elaborate complexity exceeding that of any classical composer.

Evening rainforest soundscape in Madagascar, including frogs, birds, and insects. Recorded in Andasibe Park by C. Swider

After discovering the rainforest soundscape for the first time, I began bringing an audio recording device on my subsequent expeditions. Whenever I travel someplace new, I like to document any natural sounds that I can. I have often travelled around making recordings not for scientific purposes but simply for the pleasure of having those soundscapes at my disposal in the future, should I feel the urge to listen. Recently, however, I have been thinking about what these recordings can tell us about the natural world. The field of bioacoustics has long focused on a simple model of a sender of an acoustic signal, a receiver, and what happens in between. But what happens if we take a step back and look at this process on a larger scale? Suddenly we have multiple species with multiple types of songs and calls, contributing to a much more complex scenario. Investigating sound at this “zoomed-out” scale of animal communities and ecosystems is the focus of the emerging field of ecoacoustics. Whereas bioacoustics often focuses on single species or even single individuals, ecoacoustics looks at entire habitats and regions.

A tropical frog species at Kubah National Park in Borneo. Frogs contribute greatly to many soundscapes, tropical and temperate, particularly during the evening. (photo: C. Swider)

A tropical frog species at Kubah National Park in Borneo. Frogs contribute greatly to many soundscapes, tropical and temperate, particularly during the evening. (photo: C. Swider)

So how can this new perspective contribute to conservation and allow us to make new discoveries about the natural world? These are the questions I am interested in investigating while working in the Parks lab over the coming years. Of particular interest to me is the use of so-called “ecoacoustic indices” in conservation. These indices are physical measurements of an audio recording that quantify some aspect of the soundscape, often the level of complexity. In theory, the complexity of a soundscape should increase with the number of species present in the community, because more species produce not only more vocalizations but different vocalizations. Therefore, an index that quantifies the complexity of the soundscape should theoretically provide a useful way to examine how biodiversity changes from place to place, which would have huge implications for conservation.

Unfortunately, it is not that simple. The study of ecoacoustic indices is a relatively new endeavor, and just like any developing field, it is not without complications. The indices seem applicable in some situations, but fail in others. Nobody yet knows exactly what sort of information about an ecosystem, if any, is represented by these indices. This is the body of knowledge that needs to be developed before these indices can be implemented in conservation efforts, and it is a major area of interest of mine. Stay tuned for results of up and coming projects!

-Colin Swider, PhD student

2016 NARW Consortium Meeting

Year after year members of the Parks Lab have been attending the North Atlantic right whale (NARW) Consortium Meeting in order to present and discuss science toward the conservation of one of the most endangered and magnificent mammal on Earth. However, the 2016 meeting was especially important to me as it was my conference as an official member of the Parks Lab!

I was so looking foraward to this conference and one of the reasons for that was the meeting venue: the Whaling Museum in New Bedford, MA (https://www.whalingmuseum.org/). The museum was originally dedicated to tell history about the whaling industry in the new Bedford area.

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Pier view from the Whaling Museum. New Bedford still hosts an active fishing industry.

In my opinion though, in addition to the whaling history, the museum hosts one of the most exciting exhibitions about cetacean biology and conservation I have ever seen. My personal favorites: skeletons! From a complete sperm whale to a right whale’s fetus hanging from the selling they were the perfect scenario for this meeting.

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Skeleton of a right whale fetus placed at an adult female’s belly. Note how big it is! Life as a right whale mom is certainly not easy.

Another obvious motive for my excitement was to finally connect  faces to all right-whale-references I’ve been citing extensively over the last 4 years. I was positively surprised with how welcoming people were with new arrivals as me and how most of those present have dedicated their entire lives to study and protect the North Atlantic right whale. I felt proud of them and honoured that I am now be able to join them.  

Interestingly, the meeting audience was not completely made of scientists. Conservation asks for inputs from the general public, regulators and industry and all this segments had representatives at the Consortium meeting. Among non-scientists a very distinctive group from the Calvin Project, the young, brave and adorable Calvineers deserved especial attention. (http://us.whales.org/blog/2015/02/right-whales-love-story-calvin-project).

But sadly I must confess that after the first morning of presentations I felt sort of depressed and powerless. The North Atlantic right whale population as a whole is not healthy. Whales seemed just too thin (especially when compared to the southern folks- Eubalaena australis) perhaps because the prey aggregations are changing in distribution and abundance. A couple of actively reproductive females, vital to bring new calves into the population, are known to be entangled or died from entanglement in fishing gear. Unfortunately, despite restless efforts there’s no clear solution or obvious measures to help this guys. I can not help tracing a parallel between the north Atlantic Right whale current situation and vaquitas´ population status about 30 years ago. Nowadays we have only about 60 vaquitas left. Could that be fate of NARW as well?   

A side from the major concern about the future of right whales,  the meeting exceeded all my expectations in terms of science and networking. And most importantly, a life-long lesson was reinforced after my first meeting as Parks Lab member: collaboration is key! Dialog is vital! Listening (not only for whales but to humans as well) is fundamental!

Over here, we will continue to listen for right whales and to work hard to further understand how their behavioural and acoustic ecology is affected by a rapidly changing environment.

Thank you for let me share this great experience with you!

See you next time

Julia Dombroski – Research Assistant

(All opinions and interpretations posted here reflect only my own personal point of view)

 

 

 

Late Sunrises, Lots of Science

Have you even been so far north where you wake up in what you think is the middle of the night and realize that it’s actually 830am?

A few weeks ago I went to a conference in Fairbanks, AK.  Fairbanks is the northernmost metropolitan area in the U.S. – just 120 south of the arctic circle – and it’s the furthest north I’ve ever been.  As the seasons change, Fairbanks gets pretty dark pretty quickly.  The shortest day in Fairbanks only lasts 3 hours and 42 minutes!  It wasn’t that dark when I was there, but the 9am sunrise made rising and shining a bit more difficult.

Researchers from all over the state of Alaska gathered in Fairbanks to present at the National Park Service Centennial Science and Stewardship Symposium.  Talks ranged from managing caribou in Yukon-Charley, lake ice phenology in Southeast Alaska, incorporating Alaska Native perspectives into NPS management, and determining the true height of Denali.  I was there to present results of an acoustic study on harbor seals in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.

Back in 2000, a cabled hydrophone was installed in the Bartlett Cove area of Glacier Bay.  The hydrophone recorded 30-second clips every hour and all of these clips were analyzed for the presence or absence of harbor seal breeding vocalizations.  We used this presence/absence data to determine the peak months of the year and the peak times of day for harbor seal acoustic behavior.  This allows us to pinpoint the timing and duration of the breeding season for harbor seals in Glacier Bay.

Location of the cabled hydrophone (star) and nearby harbor seal haulouts (red circles).

We also used these clips to investigate the impacts of vessel noise on harbor seal acoustic behavior and got some pretty interesting results!  Hopefully those will be published soon, adding insight into the growing body of literature on the effects of vessel noise on marine mammals.

After the conference wrapped up, I had some spare time before my flight, and opted to take a drive towards Denali National Park in hopes of catching a glimpse of the peak.  Unfortunately, it was too cloudy to see much of anything, but I still got a few beautiful views of wintery Alaska.

An icy river running through Denali National Park (Photo: L. Matthews)

An icy river running through Denali National Park (Photo: L. Matthews)

After spending a few October days that far north, it’s safe to say I couldn’t cut it during the winter in Fairbanks.  The darkness is just too much for me!  However, the conference was a great chance to catch up with some of my Alaska friends and meet new NPS scientists.  I’m blessed to be a part of that research community and can’t wait to continue collaborating with them for years to come!

-Leanna Matthews, PhD Candidate