Tag Archives: Nature

Is it a plane? A duck? A police car? No, it’s a fish…

For the last few weeks I have been working on the first chapter of my PhD describing the underwater soundscape of the Swan River.  Overall, this has been a really good way of becoming more familiar with identifying underwater sounds.  By far the most baffling of which have come from fish.

Hard-core headphones are becoming my default fashion accessory at the moment...

All about that bass: Hard-core headphones are becoming my default fashion accessory at the moment…

It turns out that many fish species produce a whole variety of ridiculous sounds, including quacks, knocks, grunts, sirens, trumpets and even Rolf Harris impersonations (sounds like his infamous wobble-board).  These sounds are all produced in different ways:  some are made using sonic muscles located on or near the swim bladder; others sounds are the result of the fish rubbing together or striking its skeletal components; and sometimes even changes in swim speed or direction can result in noise production.

But, like many animal sounds, the purpose of many fish noises is still to be determined.  Sound production might be intentional, in the form of vocalisations or calls, in which case noises are most likely signals to other animals (e.g. to attract mates, warn off competitors, co-ordinate with conspecifics, or raise the alarm about predators).  However, sounds can also be produced unintentionally as the result of feeding or swimming.  And when your subjects are mostly occurring in the cold, dark oceanic depths it can be pretty tricky to figure out the behavioural context of recorded sounds!

The majority of sounds produced by fishes are of low frequency, typically less than 1000 Hz.  By themselves they can be pretty hard to pull out of a large dataset, thus requiring a systematic search through potentially months of data.  But a really cool characteristic of some fishes is that they call in choruses.  This is when multiple (dozens or even hundreds) of individual fish within the same area produce the same call.

These choruses occur all over the Australian continental shelf, in both tropical and temperate waters and were first discovered in the late 1960s.  Many show significant seasonal trends in chorus levels and differences between years, potentially indicating that chorus activity reflects secondary productivity (see “Continental shelf fish choruses in Australian Waters” by Robert McCauley and Douglas Cato).  Others are reliably produced at specific times of year, and are believed to be associated with reproduction (see “Fish choruses from the Kimberley, seasonal and lunar links as determined by long term sea noise monitoring” by Robert McCauley), although the nature and intensity of some reproductive choruses can change in association with physical and environmental cues (see “An investigation into active and passive acoustic techniques to study aggregating fish species” by Miles Parsons).  Thus, these calls can play significant roles in the life function of many species.

Great to know that, in all these long hours you spend sitting at the computer, you are probably listening to fish sex!

Christmas Corals!

I’m not usually one for mass Christmas greetings, but this one was too cool not to share!

Christmas Corals

These letters are spelled out using natural shapes found on brain corals in the Caribbean!  A husband and wife team spent two years searching for all the letters of the alphabet, and created this pretty funky card as a result!

Happy holidays everyone!

Discovering Conservation

Discover Conservation_Sarah InterviewA couple of weeks ago I had a very fun interview with James Borrell, a conservation biologist with a passion for science communication.  Apart from studying the genetics of trees, James is also the founder of Discover Conservation – a website which aims to tell the stories of field scientists and, by doing so, inspire an appreciation for conservation in people around the world.

My interview with Discover Conservation discussed my PhD research on bottlenose and snubfin dolphins in Western Australia, but also touched on my “science story” and how I got where I am today.  It finishes off with some of my advice for young conservationists, particularly those currently trying to find work experience.

Interested in more information?  Read the full article here!

And the winner of the 3-Minute-Thesis competition is…

3MT Trans-Tasman Competition 2014 Sarah Marley and Rosanna Stevens

3MT Trans-Tasman 2014 Sarah Marley and Rosanna Stevens

…  Sarah Marley from Curtin University

When I heard those words, my heart stopped.  I did the “shocked-actress-wins-award” face.  I hugged my friends sitting on either side.  I repeatedly gasped “oh my goodness“.  I may have even made a rather embarrassing Oscar-worthy acceptance speech.  Now over a week later and I am still riding the high 🙂

View the talk below:

Now let’s back up a bit.

The 3-Minute-Thesis (3MT) competition was developed by the University of Queensland back in 2008.  It was intended to be an exercise in communication for graduate students, giving them just three minutes to explain their PhD to a generalist audience.  Since then, the competition has expanded to universities around the world.

I’ve known about this competition for a couple of years now, after seeing various friends compete to present their own PhD at other universities.  I couldn’t wait to become a student myself and give it a go!  So when Curtin University emailed around to announce that registration was open for the 2014 competition I immediately sat down, wrote my talk in 20mins, and started practicing!

The Curtin heats were a couple of months ago, where I surprised myself by not only making it through to the Curtin Final top ten but also by winning my heat.  “A great start,” I thought.  “Now back to fieldwork!” as I prepared for the second trip up to the Kimberleys.  A few weeks later, I made the special one-night-only trip back from Broome to Perth for the Curtin Final, and won both the Final and the People’s Choice award!  Certainly justified the trip down!

All the competitors from the 3MT Trans-Tasman 2014 competition at UWA

All the competitors from the 3MT Trans-Tasman 2014 competition at UWA

But the Trans-Tasman Competition was the hardest yet.  I was competing with winners, so you can imagine that the standard of talks was extremely high!  Most amazing of all was the team spirit – everyone was so nice to each other!  After every presentation, the speaker would return to the “green room” amid cheers and high fives from their opposition 🙂  It was a great vibe!

Then it was time to give my talk…

Not a stutter in sight!  Quite different to a couple of years ago...

Not a stutter in sight! Quite different to 4 yrs ago…

As I stepped on stage, I felt such a buzz.  I love the work that I do, and the opportunity to talk about it always gets me excited!  Quite a far cry from four years ago, when I could barely give a short talk to a group of friends without blushing and stuttering my way through the presentation.  So I felt a certain glow of accomplishment at having enjoyed something that just a few years would have terrified me!

From a happy glow to radiating surprise, I was ecstatic to be chosen as winner of the 3MT – but the whole experience was a delight!  From the thrill of presenting to the team spirit backstage to the happiness of making new friends, the whole 3MT journey has been a blast.  If you ever have the opportunity to take part I would thoroughly encourage you to do so!  Even if you’re not confident of your presenting skills, just ask yourself – when will you get a better opportunity to try?

But work on your potential acceptance speech beforehand, and practice your photo face:

Me laughing manically as I receive my giant novelty cheque from sponsor James Mercer.  Sorry James...

Me laughing manically as I receive my giant novelty cheque from sponsor James Mercer. Sorry James…

Now all that is left is for me to thank my partner, my friends, my family, my university, the organisers, the sponsors, the judges, the competitors, the audience, the backstage staff, my high school science teacher, my pets…

Studying Snubfins in the Kimberleys

Have you ever heard of a snubfin dolphin?  Not many people have – and up until 2005, no one had at all.

Snubfin dolphins in Roebuck Bay (Photo Credit:  Sarah Marley)

Snubfin dolphins in Roebuck Bay (Photo Credit: Sarah Marley)

In that year, what was previously considered to be a bunch of Irrawaddy dolphins swimming around off the northern coast of Australia, was discovered to actually be a separate species entirely.  And so snubfin dolphins became Australia’s first endemic species of cetacean.  But now, almost ten years later, we still don’t know a whole lot about them.

As part of the Kimberley Marine Research Program, the Western Australian Marine Science Institution (WAMSI) is funding research into the distribution, abundance and genetic connectivity of Australian snubfin and humpback dolphins across the Kimberleys.  This is a collaborative research project, involving scientists from Murdoch University, Curtin University and Australian National University.  Through a mixture of visual observations from vessel-based surveys and acoustic monitoring using underwater noise loggers, the project hopes to improve our knowledge of where and when dolphins occur.  It will also investigate the effectiveness of using noise loggers as an alternative technology for collecting data on distribution and seasonality of dolphins across the Kimberleys.

Listening for snubfin dolphins in Roebuck Bay

Listening for snubfin dolphins

During July and August this year, I was fortunate enough to be involved in the Roebuck Bay component of this project.  My supervisor Chandra and I spent a few weeks working with Dr Deb Thiele (Australia National University) to collect visual and acoustic data on the snubfin dolphins of Roebuck Bay.  It was a real pleasure to work with Deb, who has been conducting research in Roebuck Bay for several years on the abundance, habitat-use and behaviour of this snubfin dolphin population.  We were also working in with local Yawuru Indigenous Rangers Cornell and Johani, who helped us on the boat to collect observational and photographic information on the dolphins.  And to finish off our Snub-Team, we had Jason from Environs Kimberley who helped us navigate through the bay.  The Kimberleys are a stunning place in general, but it was especially great to explore it with people who know the area (and its wildlife) so well!

Over five weeks, we spent a lot of time out on the water and became familiar with a whole host of Roebuck Bay’s other marine residents.  Sightings of dugong, turtles, manta rays, sharks, sea birds, and various fish made every day unpredictable but very special!

Chandra, me and Deb

Chandra, me and Deb.

I’ve been remarkably quiet the last wee while partly because I’ve been away on fieldwork.  But also because it involved such amazing animals, cool people, and beautiful surroundings that I had no idea how to begin describing it!  A large part of PhD life revolves around stress – the pressure of making progress, meeting deadlines, producing outcomes.  But an important part of PhD life is to realise how lucky I am to have these experiences, travel to these places, and meet these people.  And this trip was definitely one of those fortunate events.

The Last 55: Final chance for Maui’s dolphins

Maui's dolphinFifty-five is not a big number.  But it could mean a world of difference to one small dolphin species in New Zealand.

Maui’s dolphin is the world’s rarest and smallest known subspecies of dolphin.  Found only in New Zealand,they typically range close to the coast in small pods although they can also be found around harbour mouths and further offshore.  But their numbers have been decreasing due to entanglement in fishing gear and disease, with approximately 4 to 5 Maui’s killed each year.  Which doesn’t seem like too many, right?

A bit of maths

In the 1970s, the dolphin population was reportedly around 1,800 individuals.  But the species has rapidly declined since net-setting and trawling were introduced in the 1970s.  A 2012 research study estimated that only 55 Maui’s dolphins now remain.  Suddenly that 4 to 5 death rate seems a lot bigger.  So just since that study was conducted, we are probably already approaching a population size of around 40 animals. Extinction isn’t just a threat – it’s a very real likelihood.

If we are losing 10% of the population each year, you don’t have to be a mathematical genius to know that things aren’t looking good for the Maui’s.  Especially given their slow reproduction rate – females reach maturity at approximately 8 years of age, and only have one calf every 2 – 4 years.

What is being done?

The New Zealand government generally has a pretty good standing when it comes to conservation.  In 2003, a ban on commercial set nets was added to an existing ban on recreational netting from north of Auckland to north of Taranaki, covering out to four nautical miles from shore.  In 2008, this was extended to seven nautical miles and in 2012 the ban on set nets extended further south.  Last year, the Minister of Conservation finalised a Maui’s Dolphin Threat Management Plan, which includes codes of practice for seismic surveys, regulations for inshore boat racing, and the establishment of a Maui’s Dolphin Research Advisory Group.

So are things improving?

Debatable. Although various marine protected areas have been created with the aim of conserving Maui’s dolphins, the government has failed to extend protections to areas where there have been credible recent sightings of the animals.  That’s the thing about marine mammal conservation – these are free-ranging animals who cover large areas in a dynamic habitat.  Thus, the distribution of populations will change over time and so needs constant re-assessment if protected areas are to have a positive effect.  But this is an investment the NZ government seems unwilling to make.

And despite several promising moves on the government’s part, it looks like money might win through in the end.  This week, it has been reported by several news groups that the West Coast North Island Marine Mammal Sanctuary – home to the Maui’s dolphin – has been signed off for oil and gas exploration.

The NZ government signed off a block offer of sea and land in April, which includes a 3,000 square kilometre overlap into the sanctuary.  Oil and gas development in this area could have a devastating impact on Maui’s habitat by increasing levels of underwater noise through seismic surveys, as well as putting the area at greater risk of oil spills.

The government has already had previous bungles with the block offer, with Simon Bridges, the Minister of Energy and Resources signing off New Zealand’s biggest forest park for drilling – despite having never heard of it.  Not exactly reassuring that the government is taking conservation seriously.

In fact, politicians are arguing whether this is even an issue, and NZ Conservation Minister Nick Smith is insisting that there hasn’t been a single observation of a Maui’s dolphin in the proposed exploration area.  So no need to worry.

But you have to wonder how hard they’ve looked?

What you can do

Numerous scientific and conservation groups have already called for the New Zealand government to take action to save the Maui’s dolphin.  Just last week, the International Whaling Commission urged the government to do more to save the species, stating that it had “extreme concern” about the decline in Maui’s dolphins.

In a recent report, the IWC estimated that Maui’s will decline to just 10 adult breeding females in six years and become functionally extinct in less than 20 years – unless their full range is protected from gillnetting and trawling.

Screen Shot 2014-05-19 at 9.15.55 amWWF have stepped up their “Last 55” campaign to save the Maui’s dolphin, urging parliament to announce permanent measures that remove fishing gear which kills dolphins and help affected fishermen adopt dolphin-friendly fishing methods.   “Anything less will not give the species a fighting chance at survival.”

Support their campaign by signing the WWF online petition here.  And hopefully we can convince the New Zealand government to stop faffing around and start taking effective steps to save the Maui’s dolphin.

The (After) Life of a Whale

Over the last few weeks, a small town in Canada has lived in fear of exploding whales.

Seriously.

A Whale of an Explosion

At the end of April, a dead blue whale washed up on the shore of Trout River, Newfoundland.  Amid concerns it could be a shipping hazard if dragged out to see, locals were forced to leave the whale decomposing on the beach whilst local and federal authorities argued over who should deal with the remains.

Inside a blue whaleThe carcass then proceeded to expand to about twice its normal size due to bloating from methane gas, a normal by-product of decomposition.  Unfortunately, there is only so far a bloated blue whale can stretch, leaving local residents on stand-by for a pretty big bang.  Strange as it sounds this is a legitimate concern – last year a washed up sperm whale in the Faroe Islands exploded as a biologist attempted to dissect it (warning:  video not for the faint-hearted).

Eventually, a team from the Royal Ontario Museum headed over to dismantle and remove the blue whale – a feat which took them almost a week.

A Sight to See (and Smell…)

Whale carcasses aren’t that great in general, regardless of their explosive potential.  A few years ago in Scotland, I took my sister to see a washed up sperm whale at our local beach.  We arrived at the car park and started walking.  When we were 1km away, she sniffed a few times and asked “What’s that smell?”.  It only got worse.

Dead sperm whale - winner of Aberdeen's Top Tourism Attraction 2009.

Dead sperm whale – winner of Aberdeen’s Top Tourism Attraction 2009.

But despite this, hundreds of people came to see it.  The carpark was overflowing for days whilst people made the trek to see the spectacle because, dead or alive, it’s just not every day you see a sperm whale.  People brought their kids (who poked it), dogs (who rolled in it), and cameras to remember the experience.

So, given the high number of marine mammals out there, why aren’t we constantly assaulted by the stink of washed-up whales?  When they’re not washing up on our beaches and becoming a gruesome attraction, what happens to the remains of whales and other marine life?  The answer:  Whale Fall.

Whale Fall

Deep-sea zones are pretty special when it comes to food-chains.  A lack of light means no plant life, which is generally the foundation of most food webs.  Instead, the deep sea ecosystem consists mostly of scavengers, who are fed from above by a constant drizzle of organic particles and detritus known as ‘marine snow’.

But every so often, a really big particle falls in the form of a whale.  And when this happens, the whole community turns up for a feast.

Recently, a deep-sea graveyard was discovered off the coast of Angola by remotely-operated vehicles (ROVs) conducting oil and gas exploration.  Consisting of a dead whale shark and four rays, this represented a surprisingly high concentration of deceased megafauna over a relativley small area.  Scientists are now using this footage to compare the species composition of scavengers on the shark and ray carcasses to the scavenger species present on whale falls.

Ecosystems within ecosystems.  A pretty cool example of how life goes on!

Fashion in the Field

Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest scientist of all…

This week I was re-reading some old Women’s Health magazines (being a student I’m too poor to buy new ones so use the oldies for fitness motivation!). I came across an article called “(Don’t) Take a Good Look at Yourself“, which was about the trend of mirror fasting. This got me thinking about the effect fieldwork can have on your appearance…

Mirror Fasting
Bloggers in the US started the craze of mirror fasting a few years ago. The idea was that by avoiding your reflection for a set period of time (generally a month), you will start to realise how much time and attention you waste worrying about your appearance. And hopefully by the end of the period, you will have weaned yourself off the need for constant visual consultation, and thus be devoting more time to other things such as relationships, career, etc.

Generally people find this pretty tough, especially with regards to hair-dressing and make-up application, combined with the fear of looking like a crazy homeless person without realising. Which is admittedly pretty concerning when you’re on your way to a big work meeting or presentation. Once on a work trip, a girlfriend and I stayed in a motel for a couple of days which didn’t have a single mirror in the unit. Each morning I would find her pressed against the side of the truck, applying her make-up in the side mirrors.

Dressing Like a Biologist

Dressing like a biologist in 2004...

From dressing like a biologist in 2004…

Several years ago, my sister told me I dressed like a biologist. I looked down at my red hoodie, baggy jeans and sneakers, and thought “Huh, I guess so!”. Fashion sense wasn’t a part of my teenage self, and it only occasionally makes an appearance even now, generally prompted by third-party advice.  Although this is partly aided by the fact we only have an above-counter bathroom mirror and a small square mirror in our house, meaning it is impossible to get a full-ensemble view without balancing on the bed and moving furniture around.

... to dressing like a biologist in 2014!

… to dressing like a biologist in 2014!

Particularly during fieldwork, comfort and practicality are my key clothing choices.  So it’s not unusual to find me rocking up to uni in between theodolite shifts rugged up in holey baggy jeans and a hoodie, with the latest addition to this ensemble is my big cosy ski jacket.  Not especially sexy, but means I don’t have to worry about wear and tear (mostly because it’s already happened…).

Looking around our office, you can usually see the distinction between desk- and field-based scientists. Pretty skirts, nice boots and proper shirts vs. fleeces, walking shoes and multiple layers. There are always a few ambiguous characters – but generally if people look surprised when you dress smart, you’re probably edging into the latter category!

Fashion Evolution

Whenever I have volunteers new to the experience of fieldwork, it’s always interesting to see how their clothing choices change over the field season.  Particularly in the summer, some of the new vollies start out pretty keen in short-shorts and strappy tops.  But after a few days of realising that it can be pretty cold early morning and that by afternoon the Australian sun is taking it’s toll, fashion choices began to edge towards knee-length pants and t-shirts.  As soon as it started edging into winter, I was busting out my scarf, ski jacket and fingerless-gloves – much to the amusement of many volunteers!  Now it’s woolly hats all round on the hill and arguments over who gets to use the one pair of gloves.

Some students are academics in the making

Some students are academics in the making

So where does this go in the long run?  I guess every university has a band of socks-and-sandals professors, but I think my career has a long way to go before that becomes a legitimate option (at this stage, even I know that’s not cool).   Last week we bought a full-length mirror, the first we’ve owned since 2011 – so perhaps a brief phase of appearance-conscious behaviour will follow!  But in the end, I’ll probably always come back to dressing like a biologist.

Well, if the (sun-smart, collar-clipped field) hat fits…

Listening to the Sound of Success!

Two different projects came to fruition last week, neatly coming in time for my birthday!  Not so sure about the ageing part, but it was definitely good timing on the research outcomes!

From listening for dolphins…

Earlier this month I spent a morning out on the river with the ‘Destination WA‘ TV crew, filming a short segment about the Swan River dolphins.  We spent a lovely few hours out on the Swan River Trust boat Kwilana (Noongar for ‘dolphin’) whilst the team did interviews with myself, Delphine Chabanne (Murdoch University), Marnie Giroud (SRT), and Jennie Hunt (Dolphin Watch).

It was really interesting to see ‘behind the scenes’ for the filming process, especially given the great camaraderie of the TV crew!

… to interpreting blue whales!

Non-song vocalisations of pygmy blue whalesAnother project success last week was finding out that our paper “Non-song vocalizations of pygmy blue whales in Geographe Bay, Western Australia ” had been published online by the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America!  This study used simultaneous land-based visual observations and underwater acoustic recordings to examine the communication of pygmy blue whales.

These animals are famed for their songs, made up of repeated patterns of notes.  But in this study, we focused on the non-song sounds produced by pygmy blue whales and found six different vocalisations – five of which had never been described for this population before!  Hopefully this will help inform passive-acoustic monitoring for the species.

And as for ‘Older and Wiser’?

Well, that remains to be seen!  But entering 28 as a PhD Student, TV Star, and three-times Published Scientific Author isn’t a bad way to start 😉

Over-whale-ming: Life as a PhD Double-Agent

For the last ten weeks, I have been living two lives.

Life 1: Sarah Marley, field biologist. Commences dolphin surveillance at 0500 hours, ceases observations at 1830 hours. Spends spare time managing an ever-increasing network of volunteer dolphin spies (aka “dolphineers”) to conduct regular river monitoring at select top-secret sites. She moves as a shadow, elusive of social situations, needless of sleep, as she begins the task of data hoarding…

Life 2: Sarah Marley, regular PhD student. Comes into the office a few days a week, and spends time reading papers, learning Matlab, teaching undergrads, and tackling a never-ending flow of emails. Existing mostly on caffeine and to-do lists, she has a desk-drawer full of snacks and several types of tea. Collects dolphin-themed desk decor.

Neither sound too strenuous. But recently, co-existence of these roles has become slightly tricky…

Sometimes study can be a bit over-whale-ming...

Sometimes study can be a bit over-whale-ming…

Life 1 is highly volunteer-dependent. My fieldwork needs at least a team of three (including myself), so my schedule varies each week depending on volunteer availability. I have an amazing team of dedicated, lovely, wonderful volunteers.  But – as I am trying to get out to each site 3 times per week – I inevitably have to spend a few hours trying to sign folk up to fill gaps. I live in constant fear of cancellations, and check my phone compulsively “just in case”.

Life 2 flows around the first; if I’m not in the field, I head to uni. But snatching office hours here and there can make it difficult to focus on larger tasks. As a result, when I make my weekly to-do list each Monday, I find myself re-writing the same few big jobs, along with a wave of new mini-tasks.

To try and combat this, I attended a time-management workshop last Friday. Which I was late for. But as a friend pointed out, I hadn’t attended the workshop yet so that was to be expected!  The presenter quizzed us on our degree courses, study habits, and sleep patterns. She assured me that “you only need four hours sleep to survive, so you’ll finish your PhD in no time“.  Funnily enough, this was not actually very reassuring.

Despite this we did pick up a few useful hints.  This week I have drafted up a timetable of activities based on how long each task takes.  Hopefully this will help me to use my time a bit more efficiently.  My New Years Resolution of getting a minimum of 7hrs sleep was becoming sadly neglected, so I’m also trying to “shut off” when I come home to make sure I’m rested enough to blast through those to-do lists the following morning! The ability to say “no” is something I’m working on improving.

I think the biggest challenge is accepting that there is only a given amount of things I can accomplish during the fieldwork phase.  This should only last a few more months, then there will be a seasonal down period, giving me plenty of time to tackle the desk-based stuff.

But I guess no one ever said being a Science Ninja was easy 😉