Magazine article Oceanus

Caller IDs for Marine Mammals

Magazine article Oceanus

Caller IDs for Marine Mammals

Article excerpt


magine extraterrestrials come to Earth, seeking to understand human life. They dangle recording devices beneath the clouds or occasionally tag people with retrievable recorders. They collect thousands of bits of conversations-from individuals and groups of people, at cocktails parties, Thanksgiving gatherings, baseball stadiums, and bedrooms.

They have mounds of data, but in a language they don't understand. Yet within those mounds are patterns-repeated phrases, sounds, inflections, rhythms. Unraveling those patterns is a key to revealing what humans are saying and doing.

Now imagine the poor extraterrestrial whose job it is to sort through all those snippets of sound and identify the patterns.

Marine mammal scientists face a similar situation. They have collected troves of recordings of calls from pilot whales, killer whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals. Many of these calls have similar acoustic features that biologists can categorize into call types. But examining and comparing thousands of calls and making careful judgments on how to sort them consumes huge chunks of time.

Alexander Von Benda-Beckmann, an astrophysicist at the Astrophysical Institute Potsdam, proposed an innovative solution to Peter Tyack, a marine mammal biologist formerly at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and now at the University of St. Andrews. The idea was to plug into the power of crowd-sourcing. Von Benda-Beckmann remembered Zooniverse, a citizen-science hub that asks people to help classify galaxy images from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope according to their shapes. He realized that something similar could be done for marine mammal calls. …

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