Sheyna Wisdom Listens to Whales!

You can hear the sounds Sheyna heard:

On April 14, 2000, Journey North interviewed Sheyna Wisdom on her exciting research with gray whales. Here's what Sheyna shared!

Q. What is your background story?

A. I grew up in Socorro, NM (a small town); I received my B.S. in Biology from Eastern New Mexico University in 1995 while playing NCAA Division II basketball; I just recieved my M.S. in Marine Science from University of San Diego in Jan 2000. I now work with the Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute (HSWRI) as a research associate. HSWRI is a non-profit organization associated with Sea World. The goal of HSWRI is to apply what we learn from animals in captivity to the wild. My project is a perfect example of this.

Q. How did you get started on your whale sounds research project?

A. This project started out with "JJ," a gray whale calf that stranded on the coast of Marina del Rey (north of LA) in Jan 1997. She was estimated to be less than 3 days old due to the presence of incompletely healed umblicus. Sea World San Diego rehabilitated her over a period of 14 months and she was released into the wild on March 31, 1998. While JJ was at Sea World, I recorded her sounds and also exposed her to sounds of gray whales to help prepare her for her release. My project is entitled "The Development of Sound Production in Gray Whales" and I am basically looking at how gray whale calves develop their sounds. I worked with Dr. Ann Bowles of HSWRI, a senior research scientist who studies the effects of noise on animals. Dr. Bowles was my major professor for my Master's thesis, as well as my employer.

After JJ was released, we decided to continue my project with calves in the wild. Fortunately for me, one of my committee members, Dr. James Sumich, has studied gray whales in the calving lagoons for 20 years. So I worked it out to go to San Ignacio Lagoon (the 2nd major calving lagoon) to monitor the development of sounds in wild gray whale calves January through March 1999.

After completing my degree, I was able to find enough funding to continue the project for another year and spent six weeks in San Ignacio Lagoon in March 2000. I still am collaborating with Dr. Sumich (of Grossmont College in San Diego) for this project. I also work with Dr. Brent Stewart of HSWRI and with Dr. Jorge Urban-Ramirez of the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur-La Paz. We are now looking for more funding to continue the project for the next few years.

When this project started, I had no idea what sounds gray whales made! I came into USD as a graduate student not sure about what project I was going to do. I had just completed two internships working with marine mammal behavior (one in Hawaii looking at dolphin cognition and one in San Diego looking at wild dolphin movements near San Diego), so I had experience with marine mammals. I had always been very interested in marine mammal communication, but had focused more on dolphins. So when JJ came in, I started volunteering at HSWRI to get some baseline behavior and sounds. After a few weeks, I decided I was very interested in the project and talked Dr. Bowles into taking me on as a graduate student with JJ as my thesis project. And I've been listening to gray whales ever since!

Q. What did you "wonder" and what burning questions did you have in mind as you planned and began your work?

A. The study of vocal ontogeny, or how an infant acquires a full adult vocal repertoire (all the sounds an animal uses), is very interesting to me. For instance, we (humans) know how to make some sounds at birth (crying), but we also require maturation of our vocal apparatus and muscles to make other sounds and we also require learning to make the rest of the sounds. But in most mammals, babies are born knowing how to make most of the calls at birth. However, no one knows much about marine mammals. We know that bottlenose dolphins and killer whales do need to learn from others to make calls, but that's about it. There is absolutely no information on how baleen whales develop their sounds. So when this project started, I really wondered how gray whales developed their vocal repertoire. I wanted to know if they need to learn or if they already know how to make the calls.

As the project developed, more questions arose. I wonder how gray whales are able to make the sounds they make. Scientists have no idea how these sounds are made! Other questions I have: What sounds are made as the mother weans the calf? What sounds are made in the Alaskan feeding grounds? (Only one study has recorded in this area, for a period of 3 hours!) What can gray whales hear? What part of the sound is important to gray whales? (Certain frequencies or certain time characteristics are important to animals, not necessarily the whole call.)

Q. Why did you choose the nurseries for your studies?

A. I am looking at vocal development, so I needed to record calves; the calving lagoons are an obvious choice. However, it was also easier for me because one of the scientists I work with knows the lagoon and some people down there for me to work with.

Q. What is your goal?

A. I have been recording gray whales for 3 years. I am currently working on a budget and plan to continue this work for the next few years. We are interested in describing as many aspects of vocal development as possible. We are also interested in building upon Marilyn Dahlheim's work (she characterized gray whale calls in 1984) by describing more calls and associating behaviors with those calls.

Q. Can you describe any big surprises or unexpected findings?

A. Of course!!! One finding that is really exciting to me is this new sound we recorded last year. I heard this really long, low rumble (almost sounds like thunder) and then a calf breached right in front of us. By the end of the season, we heard 27 of those rumbles and over half of them were recorded right before a calf breach -- and all of them were recorded in the presence of a very active calf. This is a sound that has never been described in gray whales before and it is the first sound to be associated with a behavior.

Q. How are vocalizations different in sounds and purposes among cows, calves, and males?

A. This is a tough question. In the wild, I am not able to distinguish the calls of the calves from the calls of the adults . . . yet. We are looking at equipment that will allow us to do so, but it is very difficult. So, I record sounds from mother-calf pairs and can make some inferences about the development based on this.

However, we have not been able to detect any difference in the sounds based on age or sex (when we can identify the sex of a whale); the sounds seem to change based on the level of activity. We notice that as the whales are more active, that is, lots of touching and rubbing and splashing, there are more sounds. As the whales are less active, more resting at the surface or just travelling, there are fewer sounds.

Q. What equipment do you use?

A. I use a hydrophone (an underwater microphone) to hear the sounds and I record the sounds on a DAT (digital audio tape) recorder. I have headphones attached to the recorder (which looks like a walkman) and listen as I record. When I get back to the lab, I use a computer to look at characteristics of the call, such as frequency (pitch), duration, and what the call sounds like.

Q. What kind of support and encouragement do you get from other scientists?

A. As I mentioned earlier, I work with scientists from HSWRI, Grossmont College, and University in La Paz. I have also presented my research at conferences to a large group of scientists and will soon publish my findings in scientific journals. Everyone that I've talked with is very interested in the project and they are looking forward to my papers coming out.

Q. What has been most difficult or challenging?

A. The most challenging is trying to figure out a way to distinguish the calls of calves from the adults. It also takes a lot of patience to record gray whales because they don't make very loud sounds and they aren't always making sounds. So there are a lot of days when I sit on the water hearing nothing but shrimp! It is also difficult to find funding to support the project and myself.

Q. What has been most rewarding?

A. The most rewarding is hearing some really great sounds from a mother-calf pair. It is also rewarding to bring it all together into a paper (or a thesis) and to know that all that time spent out there actually gave us some good information about the development of sounds. It is also rewarding to share my knowledge with people and know that I've given them information they wouldn't otherwise know.

Q. What do kids want to know?

A. Kids want to know

  • how whales make the sounds (which we don't know yet).
  • what the sounds are used for (which we're just now starting to understand.
  • how I got started in this field.
  • how they can do the same thing. The answer I always give is to take lots of math, science, and computers! This is never the answer they want to hear, but it's true! Working with marine mammals can be very rewarding, because it is working with amazing animals! But it is a difficult field because everyone wants to do it, so it takes some special skills to truly make it in this field. Any kids who are interested in sounds need physics, math, computers, and electronics skills. They can learn the biology later!

Q. What's on your mind now?

A. Well, my question is: what do these sounds mean? In general, sounds in baleen whales are used in these contexts:

  • navigation
  • contact (to know where other whales are)
  • species or individual recognition (to know what species it is or to know the individual)
  • activity coordination (to go with other whales to do something, like feed, or mate)
  • behavioral context (feeding, alarm calls, reproduction).

But. . . .we don't know what GRAY WHALES use sounds for.

You can hear the sounds Sheyna heard:

Thank you, Sheyna! Journey North wishes you good luck in discovering the answers!

Try This! Journaling Questions

  • After you listen to the sounds Sheyna recorded, what do you think the sounds mean? Imagine and write some comments that these sounds might represent.
  • What would you ask Sheyna? How do you think she might answer your questions?
  • What did you learn about scientists from reading this interview? (Write down at least 6 statements about scientists.)

National Science Education Standards

  • Science investigations involve asking and answering a question and comparing that to what scientists already know about the world.
  • Scientists use different kinds of investigations depending on the questions they are trying to answer.
  • Scientists develop explanations using observations (evidence) and what they already know about the world.
  • Scientists make the results of their investigations public.
  • Current scientific knowledge and understanding guide scientific investigations.
  • People have always had questions about their world. Science is one way of answering questions and explaining the natural world.
  • Women and men of all ages, backgrounds, and groups engage in a variety of scientific and technological work.
  • Many people choose science as a career and devote their entire lives to studying it. Many people derive great pleasure from doing science.
  • Science is very much a human endeavor, and the work of science relies on basic human qualities, such as reasoning, insight, energy, skill, and creativity.
  • Although men and women using scientific inquiry have learned much about the objects, events, and phenomena in nature, much more remains to be understood. Science will never be finished.