Over the past few years, new and relatively inexpensive new hydrophone systems have allowed biologists to place autonomous recorders in far more locations, collecting vast amounts of acoustic data that can help them to understand the population dynamics of marine mammals, as well as to monitor interactions and effects of human noise on marine mammal communication. They’re also looking forward to learning more about individual and pod communication patterns.
But this flood of new data hits a bottleneck when it needs to be assessed by human listeners. There are several robust automated call detection programs available, but even these must be checked by humans, who can hear similarities in calls or see patterns in the sonograms that present the complex calls as pictures of the frequency patterns.
To the rescue comes a new crowdsourcing project from Scientific American and Zooniverse, WhaleFM. Individuals from around the world are invited to join the research teams from Woods Hole and the University of St. Andrews by matching new recordings of orcas and pilot whales with known calls or call types (often associated with particular behaviors). While orca society is moderately well-understood, with many call types already identified, this aspect of pilot whale research is at an earlier stage, and users will help to decide which Pilot Whale calls match, and help in discovering whether the same call is make by one individual, one group, or across broad areas. For more on the project, check the link above, or this blog post from Scientific American.