Tag Archives: Smithsonian Magazine

Visualizing Whale Sounds

From Woods Hole Currents Magazine

From Woods Hole Currents Magazine

As we get better acquainted with the sounds cetaceans make, researchers look for innovative ways to analyze and interpret what is being heard. Recent articles, including this one by Science News for Students, based on a recent publication in Science Communication, a recent interview by NPR featuring Katy and Roger Payne, as well as the article featured below, indicate that language has structure and can be learned.  This then drives research into whale culture and social structure. Hal Whitehead, from Dalhousie University, has been studying sperm whale social structure for decades (see Sperm Whales: Social Evolution in the Ocean, published in 2003). He will speak on this topic here on Tuesday, November 10, during our Whales in the Heart of the Sea lecture series.

One of the most interesting facets of this research is the use of spectrograms to visualize the sounds being made. Being the sight-focused species that we are, this visual representation of the sounds enhances our ability to recognize patterns, if indeed there are any.

What is a Spectrogram

This recent article in Smithsonian Magazine, featuring the work of David Rothenburg in Medium, combines spectrogram, sound and art to depict recognizable audio patterns as colorful shapes. We still don’t know what the male humpback was trying communicate with these vocalizations, but it’s clear that the sounds are not random meanderings.

The legacy of marine mammal sound recording started by William Schevill and William Watkins 60 years ago continues with new technology and new interpretive techniques. We will continue to follow these trends as the new stewards of the William A. Watkins Collection of Marine Mammal Sound Recordings and Data.

Cetaceans’ Salty Taste Buds

According to recent articles published by ScienceNOW and Smithsonian, researchers have discovered that the taste buds of cetaceans (whales, dolphins, porpoises) only sense salty flavors. The other receptors have been shut off or have mutated. Thus, they are likely not able to taste unnatural flavors in the water, such as toxins, which are often bitter.  As the ScienceNOW article points out, and we emphasize here when discussing how cetaceans eat, these animals swallow their food whole, thus eliminating much of the need to taste the food.

The two articles referenced above are based on research published in Genome Biology and Evolution. Zoologist Huabin Zhao of Wuhan University in China led the study.

Illustration of Fin Whale (Balaenoptera physalus), including detail of tongue and baleen. Ca. 1830, from NBWM Kendall collection.

Illustration of Fin Whale (Balaenoptera physalus), including detail of tongue and baleen. Ca. 1830, from NBWM Kendall collection.

Locking Tusks Over Narwhals

This great piece by Carl Zimmer of National Geographic delves into the question “What is the purpose of a narwhal’s tusk?” This has been debated for centuries. The newest hypothesis comes from Martin Nweeia, a Connecticut dentist and a clinical instructor at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine. He believes it is a sensory organ, since it has nerves running throughout its length. This tusk could conceivably assist the animal in making sense of its surroundings.  His findings are published in The Anatomical Record.

Kristin Laidre, from University of Washington, who has done her own fair share of narwhal research, believes that the tusk has more of a macho function. Male deer and elk have antlers, male rhinos have horns, male narwhals have tusks.

This is a good debate. Perhaps they’re both correct. We shall see.

"Ceratodon monoceros, Brifs / Der Narwal / CL.XI.MAMM / 335 / ORD. I. CETACEA" , artist unknown, 1825-1850. Note the original genus name, which has since been changed to Monodon. From NBWM Kendall Collection.

“Ceratodon monoceros, Brifs / Der Narwal / CL.XI.MAMM / 335 / ORD. I. CETACEA” , artist unknown, 1825-1850. Note the original genus name, which has since been changed to Monodon. From NBWM Kendall Collection.