Studying social sounds

The humpback whale is famous for its complex, beautiful songs, and while many scientists — including several at Oregon State University — study this behavior, Ph.D. student Michelle Fournet focuses on all of the other sounds humpbacks make.

A noisy environment

“I study what are called social sounds,” Fournet says of the purrs, shrieks, wops and moans from humpbacks of both genders and all ages that she’s recorded and cataloged. “It’s everything they say when they’re not singing. I’m looking at whether or not they change the calls they use and how they will continue communicating as the ocean changes.”

Michelle Fournet

And the ocean is changing. It’s getting louder.

“In the past 50 years, ship traffic has doubled, and for every new ship in the ocean, there’s an increase in man-made noise,” she says. While light doesn’t travel very far in the ocean, sound does, and ship noise can be heard for thousands of miles.

“Most marine animals rely on sound to communicate,” Fournet says. “They can’t see each other because there’s not enough light, but they can hear, and shipping and oil and gas exploration are noisy endeavors.”

Fournet says the effect of noise on the humpback whales she studies is similar to that of blindfolding a sighted person in the middle of a big city on a daily basis.

For the love of the humpbacks

Fournet had never seen a whale before moving to Alaska in 2006. She worked as a naturalist aboard a whale-watching vessel for a time and discovered there was much less known about the whales than she had thought.

“I didn’t have that doe-eyed, little-girl thing where I just wanted to watch whales,” Fournet says. “I just lived in a place with whales and grew to love them. I think there’s value in letting whatever is in front of you inspire you.”

Fournet had earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Boston University and dove in to post-baccalaureate studies in marine biology at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau. She volunteered as a whale watcher, collecting data for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and joined graduate students to assist in their research.

While studying in Alaska, Fournet met Andy Szabo, director of the Alaska Whale Foundation and a courtesy faculty member of the Marine Resource Management master’s program in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. Szabo encouraged her to apply.

“Finding a university with the resources to study marine mammals is difficult,” Fournet says. “Oregon State is unique in that regard. So many people here are studying something so rare.”

Oregon State’s strengths in marine sciences — which will continue to grow through the Marine Studies Initiative — allowed Fournet to dive into her own unique area of whale research.

A summer up north

As part of her master’s thesis, Fournet spent the summers of 2011 and 2012 in Alaska collecting bioacoustics data on the humpback whales, building a vocabulary of their calls.

Now, thanks to funding from the National Park Service, she’s studying what these sounds mean, how they help the humpbacks navigate the ocean, and if — despite the constantly increasing noise of ship traffic — whales have been able to adapt to a changing ocean.

Fournet says the success of the species depends on their ability to adapt, so they can continue to communicate and thrive. She has a feeling that these amazing mammals are adapting. She’s just not sure of that yet. It is taking a return to Alaska for a summer of research to learn more.

Fournet is in Glacier Bay National Park with a team of undergraduate research assistants from Oregon State. During Alaska’s long summer days — from about 3 a.m. until 11 p.m. — they will rotate positions, watching and listening to the whales either from a 15-foot-tall metal structure on shore or a kayak in the water to find out what kind of sounds the whales are making and how they might be adapting to an ever-changing ocean.

“The ultimate goal is to assess resilience,” Fournet says. “I want to find out how adaptable the humpbacks are, and if and how they’re adapting to a changing soundscape. The ocean is rapidly changing, but I think the animals are too. I’ll be disappointed if they are not.”

You can follow Fournet’s research throughout the summer on her blog:

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