Identifying Signature Whistles of Bottlenose Dolphins from a small coastal population in Panama

Becky has championed the exhaustive task of identifying dolphin’s signature whistles. Unfortunately classification algorithms for dolphin whistles detection are not yet fully available. Thus, Becky has to find them ‘by hand’ in a large database of sounds. Here she tells us more about her project

by Rebecca Daw

For the past year, I have been working on identifying signature whistles of bottlenose dolphins recorded using passive acoustic recorders deployed in the Archipelago of Bocas del Toro, Panama. My work is in collaboration with graduate student Betzi Perez at McGill University and Dr. May-Collado. Signature whistles can be thought of as names for dolphins. Each individual dolphin has a unique signature whistle that they use to maintain contact with one another. Dolphins can even copy each other’s signature whistles to call specifically to one another! 

This year in CURE I am going to go even further with this topic. As the dolphins in Bocas del Toro have been well photographed and recorded, I am going to attempt to match signature whistles to the dolphins emitting them. Currently, I am still going through passive recordings to expand my signature whistle catalogue, but once I have finished, I will look at older recordings done using a research boat in hopes of matching signature whistles emitted with dolphins spotted at the same time.  If this goes successfully, dolphins in this population will be able to be identified using just their signature whistles from passive recordings!

The trouble I am facing at this point in my progression is just going through the vast amount of recordings. With three more locations as well as older recordings to analyze, there are a lot of recordings to sort through.  Each recording needs to be looked at, and the whistles found identified as signature or not. However, as long as I stay on schedule in my work, I will be able to finish and have a lot of data to analyze.  After sorting through the recordings my next step will be to potentially match the whistles with the dolphins, which will hopefully lead to a better understanding of these animals and their behavior.

Welcome to CURE: Soundscapes and Behavior

During this CURE course students will be engage in all aspects of research: literature reading and discussion, asking questions that can be answer during the semester, collecting, processing, and analyzing data, learning how to interpret analytical results and how to communicate the results to the public and scientific community. Students will learn that science is not about eureka moments! Good science takes time, involves failure, troubleshooting, discussions, re-evaluations, and yes frustration. Good science is always challenging at different levels, from collecting the data to its analysis. Finally, students will learn that not all research projects are equal! Different questions, systems, or species will require different approaches. For example, some research questions rely on well-planned experimental designs involving multiple controls. My research is field based so is bound to be limited by replication, sample size, lack of controls (because there are impossible to have!), logistics! However, field based projects are essential for our understanding of our biological world, and are often the spark for more sophisticated and controlled studies. In this blog CURE students will be sharing with you their experiences as they develop their projects in topics related to animal communication, soundscape ecology, and marine mammal ecology and behavior. Stay tuned!