On being a right whale biologist

By Susan Parks

“Calf!!!!”…Shouting this abruptly while a passenger in a moving car is probably not the best idea. This is what happened yesterday as I was checking my phone and received the following email:


Within seconds I was close to tears, as this email indicated that researchers had spotted the first North Atlantic right whale calf born to the species in almost two years. There had been no documented births for North Atlantic right whales during the 2018 winter season, following after a devastating 2017 with 5x the ‘typical’ reported right whale deaths. So this little calf brings hope, to me, and to a group of very special people who work together to conserve this species.

If you aren’t familiar with North Atlantic right whales, I’d direct you to the following website: This is the home to the North Atlantic right whale consortium, and amazing organization of individuals from a wide range of backgrounds who work together to find solutions for the conservation of this endangered species. It is an organization where fishermen, lawyers, conservation organizations, government agencies and researchers meet each year to work together for a common goal. For me, this was the intellectual starting point to my independent research career; its annual meeting was the place of my first scientific talk, and its members were mentors for everything I needed to learn about large whale research and conservation. The members of this organization are some of the most amazing people I’ve had the privilege to meet in my life. These people have so much dedication and put in such enormous effort (and blood, sweat, tears, and hours staring at the ocean with no sign of a right whale) to push for the recovery of this species in an international effort.

What also happened yesterday is that I realized that I am a “right whale biologist”. Often people ask me to define my area of research and depending on the audience the answer might be biologist, marine biologist, or bioacoustician. While these labels are more inclusive of the all the research that I do, “right whale biologist” is a better identifier for what has most shaped my career. My first scientific paper in 2003 was focused on North Atlantic right whale research for my Ph.D., and my most recent paper in 2018 continues to explore how understanding the acoustics and behavior of right whales can aid in their protection. Research in my lab group encompasses a wide range of species these days (from crickets and penguins to elephants and whales), but right whale conservation stays a major focus in my life, 20 years after I saw my first right whale and attended my first consortium meeting. This meeting is still the one I look forward to each year, for a sense of community that I don’t find anywhere else.

Each year the consortium comes together at its annual consortium meeting, which Julia Zeh described in our last blog post. At the right whale consortium meeting in New Bedford, MA this year, I was able to snap a picture with three of the consortium members who have played major roles in my career.
                                                                (From left, Doug Nowacek, Michael Moore, me, and Philip Hamilton)

I want to end this year with a special thank you to them, and to all the other members of the consortium, who have help me, and helped right whales, over the years. Even now, there is hope for this species, in large part due to the dedication of consortium members.

Thank you all and here’s to right whales in 2019!

The 2018 North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium Meeting

By Julia Zeh

The front entrance to the New Bedford Whaling Museum, where the 2018 North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium Meeting was held.


There are 411 remaining North Atlantic right whales. For me, the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium Meeting was a sobering experience. I attended the meeting at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in November with Julia Dombroski and Dr. Parks. The first few hours of the meeting were spent recounting all of the deaths and injuries to right whales this year, replete with images and necropsy reports. I saw pictures of entanglements, of hemorrhaging deep into the blubber of a whale who was struck by a ship, of a decomposed whale found floating offshore, of weird growths caused by rope tightly wrapped around a dead whale’s flipper. These were pictures that would make most people queasy and which deeply upset me. In a room full of people who care very deeply about these callosity-covered giants, I learned about the unsustainable mortality rate of right whales off the east coast of the United States.

This was my first time attending the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium Meeting, which is why I was considerably more sad during the mortality and injury presentations than most of the other attendees. In fact, I think most people were actually happy to be hearing about only three right whale deaths this year as opposed to the fifteen (!) deaths they would have had to hear about last year.


Blue whale skeleton

A blue whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Spot the model of the blue whale heart (below) and the drone flying above the blue whale!


It’s difficult to hear about all the ways in which right whales are dying and it’s concerning to think about what the future holds for the species. But, at a meeting like this, it’s also inspiring to see so many people actively working on right whale conservation. I had the opportunity to hear from experts in the field who have been studying right whales for decades and whose names I immediately recognized from their countless papers. It was exciting to be introduced to a community I will be working with, and to see Dr. Parks as the expert everyone else was excited to meet! Hearing so many great presentations from scientists, conservationists, and people in industry, I still remain optimistic for right whales – they have a great group of people working to help them.


Julia and Julia (I’m the Julia on the right!) pose in front of a North Atlantic right whale skeleton at the museum.


One of my favorite parts of the meeting was hearing from the Calvineers, a group of middle school students from Maine who presented posters on their group’s history as well as the potential for ropeless fishing to help right whales. I got a chance to talk to some of the Calvineers about what they do and why they got involved and it was great to hear from the next generation of scientists and legislators who have the opportunity to get inspired and have fun learning about right whales so early on in their education. The Calvineers are named after a right whale named Calvin, whose inspiring story the students recounted to me. When Calvin was just 8 months old, her mother was struck by a ship and died. But Calvin survived, growing up to endure an entanglement, be the subject of a rescue mission, and give birth to her own calf, Hobbes. The Calvineers even have a song dedicated to Calvin, which they sang for us during the meeting.

After the meeting, I returned to Syracuse from seaside New Bedford with my head full of names of people I had met, resources available for studying right whales, and exciting methods I’d heard presentations on. With my brain working on overload, I was excited to dive into my own right whale acoustics research.

Also, congratulations to Julia for winning the Endangered Species Print Project Student Travel Award for her poster on “Dive Behavior of North Atlantic right whales on the southeastern US Calving grounds”! I’m glad I got to attend the meeting with two right whale superstars!

A Year in Review: Perspectives from an Undergraduate Researcher

Hi! I’m Elaine Alberts, I am an undergraduate research assistant in the Parks Lab. I have been a part of the lab for just over a year, and it has been one of the most fun and eye-opening experiences of my entire life.

When I sat down for a meeting with Dr. Parks on a sunny afternoon last February; working in a research lab hadn’t even crossed my mind. A week later I was dipping my toes into research for the first time. My first hands-on research experience was working in the “cricket room” with Gryllus bimaculatus and Teleogryllus Oceanicus. I have always been TERRIFIED of insects, so needless to say, my first couple of weeks working in the cricket room were pretty comical.

I began to learn the basics of bioacoustics, and about research as a career. Working in Parks Lab has given me countless opportunities, including spending a semester at Stony Brook Southampton focusing my studies on different research projects centered around marine ecology.

female researcher looking at jar, male researcher looking at papers

As cheesy as it may sound, working in research has given me the chance to do a lot of soul searching and has helped direct my focus onto my career goals.

A year ago, I had absolutely no clue what I wanted to be when I grew up. After one year of being fostered by the Parks Lab, I know that I want to help ensure sustainable marine conservation practices via policy. Although I will probably not be a researcher forever, I have an incredible amount of respect for scientists who ask tough questions, and help us understand our world. I look forward to helping bridge the gap between science and reliable policy, and continuing to collaborate with scientists as a part of my job. This journey of self-discovery would not have been possible without the constant support of the Parks Lab, especially Dr. Parks and Julia Dombroski.

Studying Down Under

It has almost been two months since I started my new semester 9,500 miles away from Syracuse University and 4,400 miles away from my home country, Japan. In Queensland, Australia, where a constellation of exotic animals you would not find anywhere else reside, I work in the University of Queensland (UQ VETS) Small Animal Hospital on Gatton campus as an extern while taking classes as a full-time student on St. Lucia campus. I specifically work with avian and exotics at the hospital, encountering various native species every week. As a pre-veterinary student, I have a lot of experience working with small companion mammals and equines in Japan and the U.S. However, until I came to this country, I had never given injectable antibiotics to an eastern bearded dragon, helped place a gastronomy tube into a sand monitor, taken care of a lost baby common brushtail possum, or observed an entropion surgery on a joey (i.e., an Australian slang for a baby kangaroo)!

While I am not able to participate in the Penguin Project at the time, I am keeping myself busy working with different avian species, such as the scarlet macaw and the lorikeet, that come into the hospital for a variety of medical conditions. I have also had an opportunity to tag along with Dr. Bob Doneley, one of a few avian specialists in Queensland and also an assistant professor of School of Veterinary Science, to join a lab practical for the third year veterinary students at UQ. At the practical, I was able to learn about the treatment and the handling of small avian species as well as reptiles and exotic mammals, letting me experience an authentic taste of what it is like to be a vet student. I am also slowly learning each species’ unique, distinct sounds and behavioral traits as well as the anatomical and physiological differences among the species. I cannot wait to apply the knowledge and experience I gain here in Australia to the Humboldt penguin project back in Syracuse even if only slightly.

~ Keiya


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.

north atlantic right whale mom and calf tagged

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.

north atlantic right whale calf at water surface

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.

sao paulo skyline

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!

yellow bird sitting on tree limb

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

two green birds sitting on tree limbs

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 penguins on a rock at the 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

Cool Cockroaches

Cockroaches. Just the mention of them is enough to elicit a negative response. Bringing them up in almost any situation often leads to stories of revulsion from the first time someone saw them running across their kitchen floor, or flying directly at them (more often than not touched with a bit of exaggeration). When I tell people that I did research with them and would like to continue doing so I get the same responses from nearly everyone: Why?! They’re so disgusting! Then a story of how disgusted they were when they saw one in their kitchen, or bathroom. It’s a shame really that everyone associates the relatively few pest species, only about 30, with a group that encompasses at least 4,600 species.

Their diversity may not be that impressive as far as insects go, but they certainly put any single group vertebrate species, except possibly fish, to shame in terms of numbers. They range in size from 3mm, Attaphila fungicola which lives with ants, to  8cm, Macropanesthia rhinoceros or the rhinoceros cockroach from Australia. They survive in a diverse array of habitats, there’s a species that’s supposedly at least semi aquatic, some that are specialized for a life in sand dunes, and some that specialize in living on bromeliads in the canopies of rain forests. They also come in a wide variety of shapes and colors. There are the common looking species that everyone associates cockroaches with, but some have horns and are quite chunky, while others are nearly completely flat, a couple species have males equipped with two small bumps on their “heads” that have been noted to glow in the wild. There are brilliant metallic species that resemble rolly pollies, or pill pugs, some bright green species, some even have streaks of brilliant blue!

green bug on a table
Robert Lord Zimlich
brown pill cockroach in a ball
Melvin Yeo
blue cockroach on a rock
David Rentz

The overwhelming majority of research on cockroaches has focused on quite a small percentage, we’ll say .7% and that’s an overestimate, that are regarded as pest species. Just as a side note here: cockroaches tend to be associated with filth, but when they’re found in a home it is usually due to an excess of food waste left around the house that they’re exploiting. They’re just using the resources that are available to them! I guess that is why I decided to focus on cockroaches. I’d like to change how they’re perceived, at least to a few people, and show that they’re more than the gross bug running across your kitchen floor in the middle of the night. As E.O. Wilson once wrote “Let the lowly cockroach crawl, or, better, fly up, to its rightful place in human esteem!”, or at least let’s try not to hate on them too much.

Oh I forgot to write about what my research was actually on… I was aiming to describe the defensive acoustic signals produced by the flat horn hissing cockroach, or Aeluropoda insignis. I’ll get into that more with my next post.

— Elliot

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:

animal drawings on whiteboard

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