First Publication Using Data from Whale FM

This post is part of Citizen Science September at the Zooniverse.

I am Laela Sayigh, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. I have been working with a team from the University St Andrews in Scotland trying to categorize the different calls of pilot whales recorded from the Tongue of the Ocean in the Bahamas. Some of the calls in Whale FM come from the same recordings I use in my research, made on acoustic recording tags attached to pilot whales. This year, our research on the characterization of the pilot whale vocal repertoire used your classifications from Whale FM. In fact, they were really useful!

In our study, which involved over 4,000 pilot whale calls, several observers grouped the calls based on visual assessments of similarity. This is similar to the task Whale FM volunteers perform on the site. We found evidence for repeated call types, which had not been previously reported for pilot whales. However, to make the case, we really needed to see how generalizable our classifications were. We initially tried to use data from additional observers, but the vast and variable nature of the data made this very difficult. We were working on this right at the time that Whale FM launched, and we decided to see if preliminary results from the site might provide the corroboration of our classifications that we needed.

At the time, the website had been available to the public for about one month, and there were 255 instances of users being presented with a categorized call from our study as the “main call” to be matched. Users matched calls according to our categorization scheme in 189, or 74% of these instances. Since we do not have information about how many misclassifications may have resulted from users not being presented with a call from the same category as a possible match, the percentage of classifications that agreed with ours could have been even higher than 74%. So, although these results are preliminary, with any given “main call” only occurring once or twice in the data set of 255 matches, we feel that the level of agreement found is very positive. Thus the Whale FM data provided an independent measure of reliability to our results.

Sayigh L, Quick N, Hastie G, Tyack P. 2012. Repeated call types in short-finned pilot whales, Globicephala macrorhynchus. Marine Mammal Science, DOI: 10.1111/j.1748-7692.2012.00577.x


A First Peek At the Whale FM Data

Hi there! My name is Sander von Benda-Beckmann, one of the members of the Whale FM science team. The Whale FM project is about understanding what whales are saying. On the Whale FM site people are asked to look for similar Killer Whale and Pilot Whale calls and help us establish the repertoire of sounds that these magnificent animals use. In this post I briefly want to take you for a look behind the scene to see what we are doing with the whale calls that have matched.

We have been connecting all whale calls that were matched into a map that we call the Whale FM Mesh. A zoom-in on this map of calls is shown in the picture below. You see a lot of colored circles connected together, some forming larger clusters. We were so happy to see these clusters of calls, because they are exactly what we have been looking for! Let me tell you why…

Each such cluster is a set of whale calls that constitutes a potential call category. If the circles are larger, more people have matched them to their neighbors. The colors indicate different recordings (recorded at different locations and for different groups of animals). If a cluster of calls contains many different colors, it is likely that this type of calls is shared amongst different whales, which is very exciting! Some groups like the top green one consist of primarily one color, indicating that these calls are only used by the single animals, or the group that it was living in. You can still see many little groups of pairs of calls. These are either not really part of a real call category of a haven’t been matched to enough other calls to make sense of yet. We have about 150,000 matches performed by almost 10,000 volunteers. This is already excellent, but still need more matches to link up all the little groups.

So I hope you liked seeing a bit of what we are doing with all the work you are doing. The first look looks very promising! We still need more careful analysis to see what is going on, but we are very excited with the data that the Whale FM volunteers are providing us with. Stay tuned to Whale FM!

Meet Calliope

It has been decided by you – our previously unnamed Whale FM whale is now called Calliope. Congratulations to Twitter user @koksmotte who suggested the name and to everyone who voted. 2,452 vote were cast, and the name Cetus was a close second. In Greek mythology, Calliope was the epic muse of poetry and her name means ‘one with a beautiful voice’.

The final result was Amelia (6%), Cetus (42%), Calliope (44%), Hascosay (2%), Swimmy (2%) and Vox Maris(3%).

Vote For Your Favourite Whale Name

We had lots of great suggestions for our unnamed whale. So many that we can’t decide which one to use. So here’s your chance to vote for your favourite whale name!

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The names have come from Twitter, Facebook and the comments on he blog. We picked out our favourites below, alongside the reasons for the name. The first person to suggest the name is given in brackets – well done everyone!

  • Amelia, for Amelia Earhart (@irenadubrovna)
  • Caliope, the one with the beautiful voice in greek (@koksmotte)
  • Cetus, the whale constellation (Francis Vail)
  • Swimmy (@RadioVicki)
  • Hascosay, Norse for ‘spray from the sea’ (Claire Chroston)
  • Vox Maris, Latin for voice of the ocean (@achigerutshang)

You can vote for more than one and voting closes in a few days.

Name a Whale

As part of the 2011 Zooniverse advent calendar we’ve created a fun competition for Whale FM where you get to name a Whale! The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that there is one whale on the site with no name. This unnamed whale was tagged near Norway and has 200 calls in our database. We don’t know anything about it, so we’d like suggestions for names via twitter and the best name/reason will be honoured with a permanent position on Whale FM, as one of our featured cetaceans.

To suggest names, just tweet @WhaleFM (or use hashtag #whalefm) with a name suggestion and reason. The best tweeted suggestion wins and we’ll be deciding in a week’s time or so. The top five will also get an honourable mention on the blog. We’re looking for great names and also great reasons for that name too.

If this competition isn’t enough for you there is also one running over on Planet Hunters too!

[Image shown is Creative Commons image from flickr user rjdudley]

Welcome to the Whale FM Blog

Today the Zooniverse launched Whale FM a new project in partnership with Scientific American. We have been working with marine biologists and have collected together more than 16,000 recordings of Whale calls. These calls come from Killer Whales and Pilot Whales – both actually species of dolphin! – and we need your help with listening to them. Whales can talk to each other in quite sophisticated ways. For example, each family of Killer Whales has its own dialect and closely-related families share calls. We know this because biologists have begun to categorize the complex calls of Killer Whales and to try and understand what they mean. We are attempting to decipher even more of these Killer Whale ‘words’ and are also throwing in several thousand Pilot Whales calls too.

To join in you just visit and listen to the large, main call. An array of computer-identified, smaller calls are shown and you have to pick the one that sound most like it. By pairing up all the best-matches we hope to begin to create a web of similar sounds and see the web of ‘words’ these whales are using to communicate.

Whales and dolphins have very sophisticated hearing sensory organs and can produce loud sounds that they use for communication, orientation and foraging under water. Biologists can listen to the sounds that whales and dolphins produce by putting microphones under water (so-called ‘hydrophones’). Many of the calls that you will encounter on this site have been recorded from animals that were tagged using ‘D-Tags’. These are non-invasive tags that are attached to the whales using suction-cups, which eventually fall off. They also allow us to use GPS to track the Whales as they move around.

This blog has been see up to allow the Zooniverse team and our new biologist friends at St. Andrews, WHOI and TNO to keep everyone updated with the progress of the Whale FM site. Don’t forget you can ask questions and make comments on out Whale Talk site and also find us on Twitter and Facebook.