Lab Life

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!

Parks Lab Holiday Party

This week the Parks lab continued its tradition of a holiday party to celebrate the end of a year of hard work and accepted publications. We ate pizza and treats until we were bursting and exchanged our “Secret Snowman” gifts to reveal who got a gift from which lab member. And most importantly, we poured all the creativity the Parks lab has to offer into decorating a gingerbread house!

We get a little intense in our decorating fervor. Our goal was to make this year’s creation better and more elaborate than ever. With the addition of “stained-glass windows,” I’m pretty sure we succeeded. And we couldn’t resist shaping one of the windows into a whale fluke!

Dana wielded the frosting while Leanna crushed lifesavers to make up the windowpanes.

student frosting gingerbread house gingerbread house student crushing lifesavers

Jess made the most beautiful gumdrop creations I have ever seen, including two wreaths and accessories for our snowman.

gumdrop wreaths

We were all very impressed – Jess is pretty crafty with gumdrops. The rest of us threw in ideas and took photos as our gingerbread house was completed.

student admiring gingerbread house two students posing with gingerbread house

Santa had a slight mishap that was corrected via the application of more frosting…

gingerbread house with broken santa

And, done!

completed gingerbread house

Happy Holidays from the Parks Lab!


Spectrogram Shenanigans

In my ongoing quest to classify individual right whales using upcalls, I’ve spent the past couple of weeks adding in some new parameters that may help discriminate among the animals.  Following in our postdoc Holly’s footsteps, I’m adding amplitude measurements to see if amplitude variation is as important for right whales as it seems to be for wolves. In addition, I’m adding a categorical measurement of nonlinear phenomena classifications.  What are nonlinear phenomena, you might ask?  Although they sound like yet another Star-Trek-esque aspect of my project, Tyson et al. explain these phenomena quite well in their 2007 paper.  In short, nonlinear phenomena occur when the vocal folds aren’t behaving themselves; think of how hoarse your voice gets while yelling, for example.

Before the Thanksgiving holiday, I went through spectrograms of all of my upcall clips and labeled them according to the type of nonlinear phenomena that were present in the calls.  I wanted to double check my decisions to make sure I was on the right track, so I emailed Dr. Reny Tyson (Doug Nowacek’s former PhD student) to see if she would be willing to take a look.  She responded with lightning speed and we have since been emailing back and forth about these upcalls and which phenomena are actually there.  At first I was confused and somewhat disheartened when it seemed that I had gotten most of my classifications wrong, but then I looked at Reny’s spectrograms that she sent back to me, reminding me that not all spectrograms are created equal.

A spectrogram is a visual representation of sound, dependent on a number of user-defined parameters.  In other words, there are a number of methods to take the same sound and end up with very different images.  The various adjustments relate to an inherent tradeoff between time resolution and frequency resolution in the image: when digitally representing sound, you can’t simultaneously have high resolution in both aspects.  Frequency resolution tends to get better as you increase the number of samples in each slice of the spectrogram, itself comprised of subsequent spectra.  As you increase the number of samples per slice, though, the slices look wider along the x-axis, decreasing your time resolution but increasing your frequency resolution.  Similarly, decreasing the number of samples per slice increases your time resolution at the expense of frequency resolution.  There are some ways to “trick” the spectrogram into looking a bit nicer. For example, overlapping adjacent slices can recover some of the time resolution even when the slices have a high number of samples.

spectrogram at 256 samples per slice
An upcall with 256 samples per slice, showing great time resolution at the expense of frequency resolution.
spectrogram at 1024 samples per slice
The same audio file represented with 1024 samples per slice – now you can really see all of those harmonics!
spectrogram at 2048 samples per slice
Just for another extreme, here’s the file with 2048 samples per slice. You can really see how “smudged” everything looks since we’re starting to really lose the time resolution. Not great.

It’s a great reminder to be very specific and thorough when discussing your data with colleagues–especially when asking for help!


Field Trip to the Zoo

I came to Syracuse to study right whale calls, but as Susan’s passion for bioacoustics is indefatigable, I shouldn’t have been surprised that my first trip out had a very different target, albeit one much easier to observe. Asian elephants are charismatic, huge and have complex social lives, and now we hope to have the privilege of studying their calls in captivity. So a field trip to our nearest elephant herd was in order.

Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse has what is generally considered the best elephant program in America and they have not one but two pregnant elephants for us to observe. I find any species big enough to dwarf an SUV irresistible, particularly ones as beautiful and charming as elephants. So when Susan explained that she wanted me to spend time recording and analyzing elephant calls, I jumped at the chance. As it happened, our field trip fell on my birthday so I had the pleasure of ‘working’ on a trip that I would happily have used for a celebration anyway.

two students posing in front of red panda exhibit
Dana and Jess posing with a red panda

A bit more luck was involved as Syracuse has missed the 7 feet of snow that recently hit Buffalo or the visit would have been off. Wrapped up well enough to barely notice the 25°F temperatures, Susan, Hannah, Jess, Dana and I trooped off to the Zoo for a first look at our elephants and their enclosure. The elephants, lacking our parkas and gloves, were taking the sensible precaution of staying inside while the snow fell around us. There the luck ran out and the reflection on the window glass stopped us from taking any good photos or getting very close. The portraits of our subjects will have to wait for another day – I’m sure there will be no shortage of volunteers for the next trip.

From what we could see under the snow, the enclosure was large and well situated for our kind of direct behavioral observations with good lines of sight. It’s surprising how well an animal as big as an elephant can hide what they’re doing when it’s the sole object of your focus and you just need them to shift a few feet to the left or turn a quarter to the right, please! We’re planning on filming them and recording their calls to be able to compare the behavior and the sounds that different individuals make for different reasons. The next step is to put forward a proposal and make sure the keepers are satisfied with our plans. As soon as we have approval, the real work can start.

We also took the opportunity to look for other good photo research opportunities and walked all the way around the Zoo. It has a lot of great species in suitable enclosures, but for our purposes the Humboldt penguins and red wolves were the most promising potential research subjects. There are around 30 penguins, which is a great sample size for any study, and the red wolves are an attractive species because they are both rarely kept in zoos and critically endangered. They were also a little camera shy.

That didn’t mean we ignored the rest and we had particular fun watching the red panda scent mark its entire enclosure after the snow had buried all its previous efforts.

red panda in exhibit
Red Panda

Before we left, we paid a visit to the Zoo’s lion pride and watched in awe and some trepidation as Joshua chewed his way through a piece of massively thick bone. While his sister, Kierha, waited impatiently to claim her own piece, Joshua was playing lion in the manger as he lay close enough to deny her the other bone while totally ignoring it for his own. As soon as she approached, he would snarl and she would back off, visibly frustrated. Eventually he got bored and she quickly claimed her prize. This picture doesn’t quite go justice to his majesty, so we’ll have to try again soon…

Lion at zoo
Joshua the Lion


The North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium – 2015

This past week three members of the lab, Dana, Jessica and myself, travelled to New Bedford, MA to attend the 2015 North Atlantic right whale consortium meeting at theNew Bedford Whaling Museum. The right whale consortium is a group of individuals interested in the conservation of the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale, and it consists of academics, researchers, veterinarians, representatives from government and statement management agencies, non-profits, and students, and the meeting provides an annual opportunity for us all to come together and update the current status of the population, highlight ongoing research, and to discuss the current conservation issues and upcoming threats to the recovery of this species.

whale skeletons hanging from ceiling
A view of the magnificent whale skeletons at the New Bedford Whaling Museum

This meeting marks my 17th consortium meeting, and it has become a bit of a reunion of old friends and colleagues that I look forward to each year. This year marked the first that I was nominally ‘running’, as the current Chair of the North Atlantic Consortium Board. I have to say, despite being at 16 previous meetings, I neglected to notice the fine details of how the sessions worked and who made all of the announcements (turns out, the chair). So I got to do a lot of standing up to make announcements, like, “Please don’t bring food or beverages into the auditorium” and had the pleasure of thanking everyone who actually organized the meeting and made sure it ran smoothly, most notably the staff at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, Bob Rocha, and Heather Pettis, from the New England Aquarium. They made my job extremely easy and I got to enjoy the meeting as an eager audience member for the most part.

This meeting also marked another first for me, advisor to one of my student’s presenting their independent research to the consortium. Jessica gave an excellent presentation on her research investigating the individual distinctiveness of North Atlantic right whale “upcalls” and the potential for these sounds to aid in monitoring and detection (and counting!) right whales in the wild. Jessica did an outstanding job, and at the end of the meeting, I was very proud to announce that her presentation received the top score from a panel of judges, and that she would be receiving the NARWC Endangered Species Print Project Student Presentation Award.

This was a great end to a productive meeting and the lab is traveling back to Syracuse to dive back into more research next week.

– Susan

sign warning mariners of whale presence
A sign developed to warn mariners of the presence of right whales to potentially reduce the risk of ship strike

The Parks Lab at the Animal Behavior Meeting

This past week, Dana, Hannah and I travelled to Princeton, NJ for the 51st annual meeting of the Animal Behavior Society. It was only my second time attending the meeting, and a first for both Hannah and Dana. The setting at Princeton University was beautiful, though it did take a day or so to orient to the circuitous routes around campus. The first day I felt as thought I was inside some sort of 19th century maze.  My niece and nephew are current students at Princeton, and my brother and his wife both attended, so it was fun to see where they all went to school.

entrance to building with lion statues on sides

For those not familiar with the Animal Behavior Society, it is an organization founded in 1964, to study all aspects of Animal Behavior in all species. For example, at this meeting, there were scientific presentations on a range of topics from gene expression related to behavior in swordtail fish to documentation of an infanticide attempt in dolphins. The species covered the full range from small insects (even a talk on mosquitos) to some of the largest animals on the planet (elephants and our presentations on humpback and right whales).

lab members standing next to their posters


The meeting was much larger than the last one I attended, with 5 concurrent sessions of talks running most of the day, and poster sessions from 7-9pm in the evenings. It made for long days with lots of science.  We all had great interest in our posters, sticking with a Syracuse University theme to link our three posters together.

One of the highlights of the meeting for us was interfacing with the members of the Schul Lab at the University of Missouri. Two of the groups’ graduate students had posters directly across from ours leading to long discussions about our forays into insect research. We picked up several very useful tips. For example, Meadow Katydids like to eat horse meat (NOT what we’ve been feeding them) and katydids are easiest to catch at dusk in the evening when they aren’t actively moving behind vegetation to hide from would-be katydid catchers in the field. Dana and I also, sadly, had to mostly claim ignorance for the scientific names of our study species (a faux pas in any field of biology, but doubly so with insects!). Hannah made us proud though, with her encyclopedic knowledge of scientific names. We’re excited about staying in touch with this research group as we venture into the world of katydid research.


Bioacoustics in the Classroom

Who knew insects could be so useful?

Last week, the Parks lab lent a hand to the Summer Science Institute held here in the Syracuse University Biology Department. This program introduces high school students to some of the ways science is done here at the university, using short lectures, demonstrations and hands-on activities. It’s a great way for the students to get some early exposure to science, and is also something they can put on college applications.

Until the past year most of the bioacoustics research done in our lab involved only marine mammals, which are large, require a lot of permits, and are not located in upstate New York. Read: not very amenable to hands-on high school-level activities. Luckily, since we’re smack in the middle of our second insect field season, we have over 100 acoustically-signaling katydids and crickets right here in the lab. Much more practical!

We started our program with some short talks on animal communication and insect diversity, followed by a game of “guess the insect.” This activity involved seven cardboard boxes hiding seven insects, which the students had to try to determine were either katydids or crickets just by the sound of their calls. When we lifted the boxes they seemed to get a kick out of examining the insects up close, and from a perspective not of “ew, a bug!” but as animals and research subjects.

Next we took them out to a nearby park to make their own recordings, both of any animals calling and the anthropogenic (human-generated) noise around them. The two girls I was chaperoning were tasked with recording anthropogenic noise, but after getting some good clips we started listening for animals as well (they wanted to find some crickets – who was I to deny them?). Instead, some of the other students called us over to an awesome find – two eclosing annual cicadas!

students gathered around tree

students observing katydids on tree

The students who crowded around the tree were clearly fascinated by the cicadas and their recently-vacated exoskeletons. They continued watching the eclosure process to its conclusion while I shared more cicada info. Molting cicadas come straight out of the back of their exoskeletons, and the students were concerned that they would fall out and onto the ground!

cicada on tree molting
It does look a little precarious…

I pointed out the limp, curled wings of the cicada that was mid-molt (above) and compared it against the one who had completely emerged and straightened out its wings, allowing them to begin drying (below).

cicada next to its molt

We found old molts on the ground and on the tree, and I passed them around so that the students could take home a souvenir.

student with molts on shoulder
I even started a fashion trend!

Afterward, Jess compiled the students’ recordings and the next day they were able to see and measure the spectrograms of their recordings. You can see a couple of ambulance sirens at the bottom of this one.

spectrogram of cicada recording

Overall the program seemed to be a success, and hopefully the students learned something new about insects and the world of bioacoustics!

Bonus: Here’s a video of the final emergence of one of the cicadas: Cicada Emergence


Adventures in Macro Photography

Although our insects are generally favorable as far as logistics and productivity, looking at tiny critters presents its own challenges.  The insect work in the Parks Lab has inspired me to make several adjustments to my sense of scope.

Just as the telescoping lens is a necessity for fieldwork with whales, the macro lens provides a means of documenting our insect charges, tracking their growth from nymphs to adults, and even aiding in identifying species (often difficult with live, moving specimens).

There is just one problem: a steep learning curve.

I had never used a macro lens before—until a couple of weeks ago, I thought the “Macro” setting on my SLR camera was as good as it got.  I have since learned that a macro lens is a prime lens that magnifies the image onto the camera sensor; a “true” macro lens creates a 1:1 ratio of the subject’s size in real life to its size on the sensor.  More info here. Similar to the telescoping lenses we use for whale photo-identification, the macro lens takes a bit of experience, some knowledge about photography, a bit of finesse, and a whole boatload of patience, but once I get everything figured out, I have no doubt it will change the way that we see our creepy crawly friends.

I’m not even going to pretend to know enough yet to offer a macro tutorial, but I’ll let the rest of this post serve as a brief, photographic account of my own mishaps thus far in macro photography.

eagle eye view of brown cricket
First attempt at a ground cricket nymph through the plastic walls of its enclosure
side view of a brown cricket
Not too bad, but it’s still blurry – insects move a lot! And I’m sure shooting through the extra “lens” of the plastic didn’t help. It’s almost cute…
back end of a green katydid
Looking at the veins on a deceased bush katydid. The species identifier for this group is the supra-anal plate on the dorsal side of the tip of the abdomen (currently obscured by its wings)
blurry back end of a green katydid
Holding the camera and the insect introduced way too much shake to be useful. I was using Av (aperture-priority) shooting mode. It will compensate for the small aperture (high f-stop) used with the macro lens by slowing the shutter speed. This issue can be helped by adding light and/or stabilizing the camera.
in focus back end of a green katydid
Not perfect, but definitely enough detail to get that species ID! This one is a broad-winged bush katydid (Scudderia pistillata)
side view of a brown fresh molted cricket
A newly-molted adult striped ground cricket (Allonemobius fasciatus)
close up of a green katydid
An oblong-winged katydid nymph (Amblycorypha oblongifolia). To avoid the pictures-through-plastic problem as well as the issue of lighting, I set up a photo booth. The white background give the camera more light and, all else being equal, will allow faster shutter speeds.
collage of green katydid getting closer to camera
The oblong-winged nymph decided to walk towards the camera, which made focusing very interesting.
Katydid sitting on top of a camera
Photography is so much fun that even the katydid gave it a shot! Well, sort of.

If you’re interested in using macro lenses to photograph your own insects, check out this site with some great tips!