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!

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


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 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.

cricket molting

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.

cricket immediately after molting

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

student giving powerpoint presentation on katydids

student in lab experimenting with katydids
Pilot playback trials with the katydids!

Back in business

The business of catching bugs, that is. We officially started up our 2014 insect acoustics field season this week and went on our first bug catching expedition just this morning. We planned on just heading out to a couple of our favorite sites from last year and setting up traps for spring field crickets. We also set out to deploy an acoustic recorder which we will leave up for the next few months to monitor the soundscape. We are lucky we planned ahead (good thinking Jess) and brought some port-a-bugs. We ended up finding 9 male spring field crickets at the very first site, and we weren’t even there for that long! We are getting pretty good at this I think…Hannah actually caught three in one swoop. She is just weirdly awesome like that.

team members in field
traps filled with bugs

We did leave out three pit traps as well, and Leanna and I plan on going back tomorrow morning to see if we caught anything. Hopefully there are crickets in them, and hopefully not much else.

trap in bushes
One of our homemade pit traps. We used a plastic bottle, cut the top off, inserted the cut off part backwards into the bottle, filled it with bait and some leaves for a hiding place, added a “ramp” to the opening, and placed it in prime cricket territory.

Apparently, crickets can get into these traps but have a hard time getting back out. We shall see! We also set up some traps using mason jars placed into holes we dug in the ground.

trap hidden under twigs
Mason jar pit trap. The crickets fall into the jar which is filled with bait (carrots that are on the slimy side) and can’t get back out.

All in all a successful first day. Here’s to an awesome summer filled with the sound of many tiny insects desperately trying to find a girlfriend.

four lab members posing in front of tree
A Parks Lab field trip!

Curious Calf

Wednesday, February 19:

Once I was back on the Barber, we began surveying.  It wasn’t too long before I saw some splashes and a large black body: a right whale in the distance!  When we arrived, we found #2503 (Boomerang) and her calf.  The calf was surfacing several times before mom came up, making it difficult to predict when and where she would surface for a good tagging attempt.  After working with her for a while, we decided to give everyone involved (including the whale) a break for lunch.

whale calf head above water
We got a great look at the calf of #2503 during its curious approach

Fortunately, she had settled down a bit for the afternoon, and we were able to get a tag on.  Over the course of the day, the calf treated us to two curious approaches, including one toward the end of the tag deployment where it splashed a bunch of water into the boat after surfacing very close to our starboard side.  The calf then surfaced with its mom some ways away, and the tag had just come off.  Hopefully it recorded something from the curious approach! 

active tagging of a whale
Tagging of #2503

–Jess McCordic

Smooth and Successful

Tuesday, February 18:

As if all of that wasn’t exciting enough, the next day we had glassy smooth seas and spent the morning helping our friends on the R/V Selkie track down an overnight acoustic tag that had been deployed the afternoon before.  Soon after, a survey plane had a sighting of a mom/calf pair (#3157) that was so close we could already see the plane circling to take photos.  We went to that sighting, where the mom was logging at the surface for long intervals—a great opportunity for tagging!  We puttered in for an approach and tagged her.  She barely seemed to notice, and after a few minutes’ dive she resumed her previous behavior of logging and resting at the surface.

whale at calf at surface of water
#3157 and her calf
tag on back of mother whale with calf next to her
DTAG attached to #3157 while her calf surfaces next to her

The tag was programmed to stay on overnight, and I hopped on the Stellwagen to help track the whale.  Luckily, she didn’t really seem to have intentions of going anywhere quickly.  In fact, she only moved a couple of miles and essentially made a big circle before the tag came off around 11pm.  The next morning, we woke up and met the R/V Richard Barber.


–Jess McCordic

More Dolphins and an Uncooperative Mom

Monday, February 17:

We met the Stellwagen about 60 miles to the southeast of Fernandina.  After a quick crew change, we surveyed and found more spotted dolphins.  We got a few more biopsy samples, and I got to practice my dolphin photography skills—in case you were wondering, dolphins are a LOT faster than whales, and it definitely took some getting used to.

dolphin at surface of water
Juvenile spotted dolphin coming to the surface
dolphin with scared fin
Choosing dolphins with distinctive dorsal fins like this one help to avoid sampling the same animal multiple times

After finding and sampling a few different groups of dolphins, including some offshore bottlenose dolphins, one of the survey planes relayed a sighting of a mother/calf pair of right whales farther inshore.  We traveled toward the sighting when we got another call from a group working with Florida Atlantic University who had sighted an additional mom/calf pair closer to our location.  It was getting late in the afternoon, so we went to the closer sighting.  Unfortunately this mom (#2746) was a little too wily for us.  She waited until we were almost ready to tag, then sank down at the last moment.  At this point, it was late enough in the afternoon to call it a day and head home, hoping for better luck tomorrow.

tag missing whale
#2746 sinking down during a tag attempt

–Jess McCordic