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Cool Cockroaches

Cockroaches. Just the mention of them is enough to elicit a negative response. Bringing them up in almost any situation often leads to stories of revulsion from the first time someone saw them running across their kitchen floor, or flying directly at them (more often than not touched with a bit of exaggeration). When I tell people that I did research with them and would like to continue doing so I get the same responses from nearly everyone: Why?! They’re so disgusting! Then a story of how disgusted they were when they saw one in their kitchen, or bathroom. It’s a shame really that everyone associates the relatively few pest species, only about 30, with a group that encompasses at least 4,600 species.

Their diversity may not be that impressive as far as insects go, but they certainly put any single group vertebrate species, except possibly fish, to shame in terms of numbers. They range in size from 3mm, Attaphila fungicola which lives with ants, to  8cm, Macropanesthia rhinoceros or the rhinoceros cockroach from Australia. They survive in a diverse array of habitats, there’s a species that’s supposedly at least semi aquatic, some that are specialized for a life in sand dunes, and some that specialize in living on bromeliads in the canopies of rain forests. They also come in a wide variety of shapes and colors. There are the common looking species that everyone associates cockroaches with, but some have horns and are quite chunky, while others are nearly completely flat, a couple species have males equipped with two small bumps on their “heads” that have been noted to glow in the wild. There are brilliant metallic species that resemble rolly pollies, or pill pugs, some bright green species, some even have streaks of brilliant blue!

green bug on a table
Robert Lord Zimlich
brown pill cockroach in a ball
Melvin Yeo
blue cockroach on a rock
David Rentz

The overwhelming majority of research on cockroaches has focused on quite a small percentage, we’ll say .7% and that’s an overestimate, that are regarded as pest species. Just as a side note here: cockroaches tend to be associated with filth, but when they’re found in a home it is usually due to an excess of food waste left around the house that they’re exploiting. They’re just using the resources that are available to them! I guess that is why I decided to focus on cockroaches. I’d like to change how they’re perceived, at least to a few people, and show that they’re more than the gross bug running across your kitchen floor in the middle of the night. As E.O. Wilson once wrote “Let the lowly cockroach crawl, or, better, fly up, to its rightful place in human esteem!”, or at least let’s try not to hate on them too much.

Oh I forgot to write about what my research was actually on… I was aiming to describe the defensive acoustic signals produced by the flat horn hissing cockroach, or Aeluropoda insignis. I’ll get into that more with my next post.

— Elliot

Adventures in Teaching

My name is Elizabeth, and I am a second-year graduate student in the Parks Lab. As part of my education, I have served as a Teaching Assistant for three different biology courses at Syracuse, which has been an awesome experience, and definitely reinforced my love of sharing my knowledge and passion for science with others.

This semester, I was assigned to teach the lab section of the Introductory Biology class at Syracuse. We covered your typical freshman biology topics, like cell division (who can still name the stages of mitosis??), DNA and genetics, dissections, and cell structures (mitrochondria is the powerhouse of the cell, etc.). As the semester was wrapping up, our final week covered the incredibly broad field of “Ecology.”

This is what I had been waiting for! I consider myself a marine ecologist, and the behavior and interactions between species fascinates me. For my thesis, I am planning to study food web dynamics for baleen whale species in the North Atlantic, so this week, I was in my element. We talked about inter- and intra- species competition, modeled predator-prey dynamics, and made a collaborative food web of a hypothetical forest ecosystem.

I think my excitement was contagious! The students were engaged, curious, and proud to show off their artistic skills:

animal drawings on whiteboard

At the end of class, I had students asking me where they could take more ecology classes in the future, and one student told me this was the most he had learned in class all year. Since I plan to make a career as a college professor, this really touched me, and it reinforces the importance of great teachers – getting students involved and engaged, and inspiring them to become the next great scientists, or at the very least, informed citizens. Cheers to another great semester come to an end!

– Elizabeth

Adventures with Crickets

Yesterday, I went into the cricket room like I normally do to check on my crickets and switch out their boxes for the anthropogenic noise behavior experiment. I didn’t expect to see anything special or out of the ordinary happen with the crickets-except maybe the terrifying amount we now have-but I was in for a surprise during my husbandry routine.

After working with crickets for months, I honestly felt like I had seen everything I would ever have seen happen to a cricket, from a cricket missing a leg leap halfway across the room to a half-molted cricket being devoured by its brothers and sisters. Keeping that in mind while performing the same routine I had repeated for months on end, husbandry had become monotone in a way. There would be days where I would feel like a machine on an assembly line as I passed through each box, replaced and adding in what was necessary for the week to come.

But as I was moving to the second box of crickets, something caught my eye. For part of the experiment, I document the date that the crickets go through their last molt and gain their wings as they reach adulthood. Every now and then I would come across a freshly molted cricket and see its bright white wings and pale brown shell compared to brown-black crickets residing around it. But this time, I saw both in one, wiggling, squirming very slowly. It took me awhile to realize what it was, but I was witnessing a cricket going through its last molt before becoming an adult.

cricket molting

Immediately I pulled my phone out to try to capture pictures of the scene. It was about halfway through its molt when I found it. Head down, it looked like it was struggling to get through that last half of its molt. If not done right, many crickets can lose wings or even legs during this process, impeding their life. Honestly, I thought it was stuck and she was going to be mess up the molting. But nonetheless, she was a trooper and soon pulled through fully emerged 3 minutes later. Once she was done, it she seemed to stare at me for some time, fluttering around like she was proud of what she did before she continued on with the other crickets. Overall, I just found the whole thing to be really interesting and cool.

cricket immediately after molting

The main reason I’m writing about all of this is that I just felt like it’s nice to take a step back from data collection and analysis and actually see what’s happening. I could’ve easily just as well continued on with the husbandry and finished up like a robot over being interested in a process I’ve only ever documented and never witnessed. I guess what I am trying to get at is that while it’s fine to focus on your work, it’s even better to find things to enjoy and be interested in. Hopefully I can keep this in mind during the rest of my experiment.

Thanks for reading my rambling!

– George El-Amir, undergraduate researcher

The Meredith Symposium — Spotlight on Undergraduate Research

On Saturday, October 22nd I was lucky enough to present the research I had been working on in Dr. Parks lab at the Meredith Symposium. The Meredith Symposium is put on by Syracuse University and it focuses on undergraduate research in Chemistry and Biological Sciences. In the first week of October I submitted an abstract to the symposium for my research on the effects of temperature on female preference of male calls in Metrioptera Roeselii katydids. When I submitted my abstract, I had to choose whether I wanted to present my research with a talk, a poster or either one and since I do not like to make decisions I selected the “either one” option. I did not hear back for weeks and I thought for certain that my research had not been selected. Then on October 14, about a week before the Symposium date, I received an email saying that I was selected to be one of the eight speakers at the Symposium. I was extremely excited, but I also felt a lot of pressure because I had never given a professional talk before. Not only did I have to prepare for something that was new to me, I had to do it in less than a week.

The week leading up to the Symposium was a roller coaster of emotions. In the beginning of the week I primarily felt honored and although nervous, prepared for the work that lay ahead of me. I finished my presentation, aside from minor cosmetic touches, by Wednesday and that is when I had my first run through. It was awful. Every comment that I received made me feel as though my presentation was unprofessional and that I was trying to play into a role that was not me. I went home that night and updated my presentation according to the comments I received. By now I was beginning to think that maybe signing up for the symposium was a mistake and that I would just finish it out for the experience, but not in the hopes of winning. Thursday morning I had a second run through with Dr. Parks and other members of the lab. They again gave me many comments on how to better the presentation and again I updated all of my slides. I was as ready as I ever would be for the Symposium. I had to be at the Life Sciences Complex on Saturday morning by 8:50am.

I woke up at 7:30am, put on my uncomfortable business casual shoes, and headed out the door with the hopes of just getting through the day. When I got to the Symposium most of my nerves were instantly calmed. It was a much smaller group than I anticipated and talking with the other presenters I realized I was not the only one who had a few “I can not do this” moments during the week. Dr. Doyle, a professor and researcher at Syracuse University and one of the founders of the symposium, gave the welcoming speech. He talked about how the Symposium was supposed to be a learning experience and how all the undergraduate presenters had already proven their research abilities by having our abstracts selected. I was the first presenter following the lunch break and after getting to know all of the other presenters and hearing Dr. Doyle’s comforting pep talk I was feeling much more confident in my prepared speech. As I watched the other presenters, I realized that all of us did have very interesting and complex research topics and that it would be impossible for the judges to choose us simply based on what we studied. I knew that in order to stand out I would have to be creative with my presentation. I started to think of jokes I could say and ways to make my speech as entertaining as possible. When it was finally my time to present, I was surprisingly not nervous and I went to the front of the lecture hall ready for what was next. Honestly, the whole talk was a blur, but everyone gave me compliments on my presentation so I was feeling good about myself. I still did not think I would win, but I was still proud that I got up in front of so many people and talked about my research.

When the time for awards finally came I was exhausted and read to go home and back to bed. The major prize at the Symposium was awarded to the two best undergraduate speakers and it was $2500 that would go towards expenses for presenting the winning research at a national convention. The first winner was announced, then the second – and it was me. I was very surprised and so extremely proud of myself for not only getting through this presentation but doing very well at it. This moment really made me realize how happy and thankful I am to be a member of Dr. Parks lab. Without their help and guidance I would not have been able to create the presentation that I did and I would not have been able to win such a fantastic prize that will help my career. After I had won, everyone came up to me with their congratulations then slowly people began to leave. Finally, I left the Life Sciences Complex and headed home, straight for a long nap.

— Alexandra Logan

student giving powerpoint presentation on katydids

student in lab experimenting with katydids
Pilot playback trials with the katydids!

Soundscapes and Ecoacoustics

I first visited a tropical rainforest eight years ago, and immediately fell in love with the sights, the aromas, the plants and animals, and most importantly the sounds. Since that first hike through the jungle in Guatemala, I have travelled to and spent considerable time in the rainforests of about a dozen countries, from Central and South America to Borneo to Madagascar. I think the main reason I return to the rainforest time after time is to immerse myself in the incredible soundscape. A myriad of animal sounds bombards one’s ears at all times, but particularly in the early morning and late evening. Frogs, birds, insects, primates and other mammals together produce a symphony of elaborate complexity exceeding that of any classical composer.

Evening rainforest soundscape in Madagascar, including frogs, birds, and insects. Recorded in Andasibe Park by C. Swider

After discovering the rainforest soundscape for the first time, I began bringing an audio recording device on my subsequent expeditions. Whenever I travel someplace new, I like to document any natural sounds that I can. I have often travelled around making recordings not for scientific purposes but simply for the pleasure of having those soundscapes at my disposal in the future, should I feel the urge to listen. Recently, however, I have been thinking about what these recordings can tell us about the natural world. The field of bioacoustics has long focused on a simple model of a sender of an acoustic signal, a receiver, and what happens in between. But what happens if we take a step back and look at this process on a larger scale? Suddenly we have multiple species with multiple types of songs and calls, contributing to a much more complex scenario. Investigating sound at this “zoomed-out” scale of animal communities and ecosystems is the focus of the emerging field of ecoacoustics. Whereas bioacoustics often focuses on single species or even single individuals, ecoacoustics looks at entire habitats and regions.

yellow green frog on a tree
A tropical frog species at Kubah National Park in Borneo. Frogs contribute greatly to many soundscapes, tropical and temperate, particularly during the evening. (photo: C. Swider)

So how can this new perspective contribute to conservation and allow us to make new discoveries about the natural world? These are the questions I am interested in investigating while working in the Parks lab over the coming years. Of particular interest to me is the use of so-called “ecoacoustic indices” in conservation. These indices are physical measurements of an audio recording that quantify some aspect of the soundscape, often the level of complexity. In theory, the complexity of a soundscape should increase with the number of species present in the community, because more species produce not only more vocalizations but different vocalizations. Therefore, an index that quantifies the complexity of the soundscape should theoretically provide a useful way to examine how biodiversity changes from place to place, which would have huge implications for conservation.

Unfortunately, it is not that simple. The study of ecoacoustic indices is a relatively new endeavor, and just like any developing field, it is not without complications. The indices seem applicable in some situations, but fail in others. Nobody yet knows exactly what sort of information about an ecosystem, if any, is represented by these indices. This is the body of knowledge that needs to be developed before these indices can be implemented in conservation efforts, and it is a major area of interest of mine. Stay tuned for results of up and coming projects!

-Colin Swider, PhD student

2016 NARW Consortium Meeting

Year after year members of the Parks Lab have been attending the North Atlantic right whale (NARW) Consortium Meeting in order to present and discuss science toward the conservation of one of the most endangered and magnificent mammal on Earth. However, the 2016 meeting was especially important to me as it was my conference as an official member of the Parks Lab!

I was so looking foraward to this conference and one of the reasons for that was the meeting venue: the Whaling Museum in New Bedford, MA. The museum was originally dedicated to tell history about the whaling industry in the new Bedford area.

pier located in new bedford
Pier view from the Whaling Museum. New Bedford still hosts an active fishing industry.

In my opinion though, in addition to the whaling history, the museum hosts one of the most exciting exhibitions about cetacean biology and conservation I have ever seen. My personal favorites: skeletons! From a complete sperm whale to a right whale’s fetus hanging from the selling they were the perfect scenario for this meeting.

whale skeletons in museum
Skeleton of a right whale fetus placed at an adult female’s belly. Note how big it is! Life as a right whale mom is certainly not easy.

Another obvious motive for my excitement was to finally connect  faces to all right-whale-references I’ve been citing extensively over the last 4 years. I was positively surprised with how welcoming people were with new arrivals as me and how most of those present have dedicated their entire lives to study and protect the North Atlantic right whale. I felt proud of them and honoured that I am now be able to join them.  

Interestingly, the meeting audience was not completely made of scientists. Conservation asks for inputs from the general public, regulators and industry and all this segments had representatives at the Consortium meeting. Among non-scientists a very distinctive group from the Calvin Project, the young, brave and adorable Calvineers deserved especial attention.

But sadly I must confess that after the first morning of presentations I felt sort of depressed and powerless. The North Atlantic right whale population as a whole is not healthy. Whales seemed just too thin (especially when compared to the southern folks- Eubalaena australis) perhaps because the prey aggregations are changing in distribution and abundance. A couple of actively reproductive females, vital to bring new calves into the population, are known to be entangled or died from entanglement in fishing gear. Unfortunately, despite restless efforts there’s no clear solution or obvious measures to help this guys. I can not help tracing a parallel between the north Atlantic Right whale current situation and vaquitas´ population status about 30 years ago. Nowadays we have only about 60 vaquitas left. Could that be fate of NARW as well?   

A side from the major concern about the future of right whales,  the meeting exceeded all my expectations in terms of science and networking. And most importantly, a life-long lesson was reinforced after my first meeting as Parks Lab member: collaboration is key! Dialog is vital! Listening (not only for whales but to humans as well) is fundamental!

Over here, we will continue to listen for right whales and to work hard to further understand how their behavioural and acoustic ecology is affected by a rapidly changing environment.

Thank you for let me share this great experience with you!

See you next time

Julia Dombroski – Research Assistant

(All opinions and interpretations posted here reflect only my own personal point of view)

Late Sunrises, Lots of Science

Have you even been so far north where you wake up in what you think is the middle of the night and realize that it’s actually 830am?

A few weeks ago I went to a conference in Fairbanks, AK.  Fairbanks is the northernmost metropolitan area in the U.S. – just 120 south of the arctic circle – and it’s the furthest north I’ve ever been.  As the seasons change, Fairbanks gets pretty dark pretty quickly.  The shortest day in Fairbanks only lasts 3 hours and 42 minutes!  It wasn’t that dark when I was there, but the 9am sunrise made rising and shining a bit more difficult.

Researchers from all over the state of Alaska gathered in Fairbanks to present at the National Park Service Centennial Science and Stewardship Symposium.  Talks ranged from managing caribou in Yukon-Charley, lake ice phenology in Southeast Alaska, incorporating Alaska Native perspectives into NPS management, and determining the true height of Denali.  I was there to present results of an acoustic study on harbor seals in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.

Back in 2000, a cabled hydrophone was installed in the Bartlett Cove area of Glacier Bay.  The hydrophone recorded 30-second clips every hour and all of these clips were analyzed for the presence or absence of harbor seal breeding vocalizations.  We used this presence/absence data to determine the peak months of the year and the peak times of day for harbor seal acoustic behavior.  This allows us to pinpoint the timing and duration of the breeding season for harbor seals in Glacier Bay.

Map of glacier bay
Location of the cabled hydrophone (star) and nearby harbor seal haulouts (red circles).

We also used these clips to investigate the impacts of vessel noise on harbor seal acoustic behavior and got some pretty interesting results!  Hopefully those will be published soon, adding insight into the growing body of literature on the effects of vessel noise on marine mammals.

After the conference wrapped up, I had some spare time before my flight, and opted to take a drive towards Denali National Park in hopes of catching a glimpse of the peak.  Unfortunately, it was too cloudy to see much of anything, but I still got a few beautiful views of wintery Alaska.

river running through woods in winter
An icy river running through Denali National Park (Photo: L. Matthews)

After spending a few October days that far north, it’s safe to say I couldn’t cut it during the winter in Fairbanks.  The darkness is just too much for me!  However, the conference was a great chance to catch up with some of my Alaska friends and meet new NPS scientists.  I’m blessed to be a part of that research community and can’t wait to continue collaborating with them for years to come!

-Leanna Matthews, PhD Candidate

Can you hear me now?

Figuring out the loudness at which an animal is vocalizing is a deceivingly difficult question to answer. To investigate this question of loudness, we use an equation that, on the surface, is deceivingly simple – the sonar equation.

SL = RL + TL

Source level (the actual loudness of the call) is equal to the received level (the loudness of the call when it gets to the hydrophone) plus the transmission loss (the amount of loudness that’s lost over the distance between the caller and the hydrophone). How bad could it be?

Calculating received levels – this involves a few pieces of information. First, you need to know when your animal is actually vocalizing. I’ve browsed through dozens of hours of acoustic data from the 2015 season and have marked hundreds of calls from harbor seal males. Lucky for me harbor seals call almost nonstop; at least finding the calls is easy enough. I also need to know some information about my hydrophone, mainly the sensitivity. Different hydrophones have different sensitivity levels, which influences the calls it can pick up. A more sensitive hydrophone can pick up quieter calls than a less sensitive hydrophone. Then, after I’ve input these hydrophone parameters, with the flick of my magic acoustic wand, a program called Raven will give me a received level. Step one is complete.

water shoreline with mountains in background
Pretty picture from Strawberry Island to break from the scienceness of this blog post (Photo: L. Matthews)

Transmission loss is a bit more of a beast. Back in the 1980’s, Malme and Miles came to Glacier Bay and investigated how sound travels underwater in this environment. Turns out that sound attenuates at a rate of 15log(r), where r is the distance from the vocalizing animal to the hydrophone. So if I want to quantify how much loudness is lost between my animal and my array, I need to know from where my animal is calling. Enter acoustic localization.

Sound is a pressure wave traveling through a medium. In water, sound travels approximately 1500 m/s. Depending on where an animal is located when it calls, the vocalization will travel through the water and arrive on the different hydrophones in our hydrophone array at different times. The call will get to the closest hydrophone first, and the farthest hydrophone last. You can see what I mean in the spectrogram below. Each line is a different hydrophone, and this particular calling animal is closest to the second hydrophone.

spectrogram of animal calling

I am lucky enough to be collaborating with a group at Cornell University called the Bioacoustics Research Program. They’re the ones who make the software that I use to do the acoustic localization. It’s been an up and down process to get this localization up and running, but after a few rounds of troubleshooting, it’s working with a fair amount of consistency. It’s a slow and time-consuming part of calculating source levels, but so far I’ve managed to locate over 250 harbor seal vocalizations.

map of water near spring island
Harbor seals called here

Then there’s some coding involved to get the actual distances between the caller and the hydrophone, and a little excel spreadsheet organizing, but then it’s just plugging and chugging to get a number for a source level. Sweet science victory.

seal with head out of water
Hello sweet angel (Photo: L. Matthews)

I’ve always been intimidated by calculating source levels, and rightfully so. There are a lot of different pieces that have to fall into place for everything to turn out correctly. In my downtime on Strawberry Island, I’ve been slowly but surely chipping away at my source level analysis. The island seems to be a good place to hunker down and focus. Somehow it’s so much easier to be on my computer and not get distracted when the internet is just a distant memory….

rocky beach shoreline with laptop in the foregrounf
Working hard on the beach

Now that I’m getting baseline estimates of how loud harbor seals are vocalizing, I can start to answer another question. Do harbor seals change their source levels when there are vessels nearby? We see this phenomenon in many species, including humans. When our environment is loud, we get louder so that other people can hear us. I’m curious to see if harbor seals do the same thing.

cruise ship in distance
Cruise ships are a regular occurrence during the summer (Photo: L. Matthews)

-Leanna Matthews, PhD Candidate


Mysterious little harbor seals…

So far, the harbor seal data collection has gone about as good as could be expected for any new protocol.  I had a few set backs early on with equipment, which have since been resolved, and there’s also been a lot of forward progress, which is great.  The part I’m struggling the most with, actually, is the part I thought wouldn’t be a problem at all – where are the seals that are vocalizing underwater.

head of seal poking out of water
Harbor seal in the foreground, glacier in the background (Photo L: Matthews)


I looked at the acoustic data from last year, and harbor seals are vocalizing all the time.  During the breeding season, male harbor seals set up underwater territories and defend them acoustically – makes sense that they would vocalize all the time.  I kayaked around our survey area the first few days we were here, and harbor seals are popping up everywhere – seems like there would be a lot of territories.

In an ideal world, I drop a hydrophone from my kayak near where an individual is vocalizing, that individual vocalizes for a bit and then pops his head up out of the water to take a few breaths.  When that individual is at the surface, I take his photo and his position.  If I do this enough times, I can get a general idea of the size of size of this animal’s territory and compare that to the locations of the vocalizations underwater.   I can also associate the vocalizations I’ve recorded to specific animals and look at variation in vocalizations between individuals.

kayak on rocky beach shoreline
The view from my kayak office is kind of amazing (Photo: L. Matthews)

After some days of dropping the hydrophone and listening, I found a few places where the harbor seals roared loudly.  I sat in these spots and watched and waited for a harbor seal to pop up within sight range of the kayak, but nothing!  Multiple times now, we’ve made recordings of harbor seals, and we’re definitely close to where they’re vocalizing, but they never actually make an appearance at the surface.

I don’t know why it appears that my vocalizing animals never come to the surface.  I’ve got a little tinkering to do with the data that might clue us in as to where they are, but as of right now, your guess is as good as mine.

-Leanna Matthews, PhD Candidate

Always Listening, Sometimes Watching

Everyday the Strawberry Island field team wakes up and starts off the morning watching either whales or seals. We take a break, watch some more whales and seals, take another break, and end our evening watching whales and seals again. And throughout all of our data collection of marking what the animals are doing at the surface, our hydrophones are recording what the animals are saying underwater. We do our best to try and understand what the whales and the seals do at the surface during all times of the day, but even at our best we can only watch some of the time.

humpback whale fin sticking out of water
Humpback whales are a common sight near Strawberry Island (Photo: L. Matthews)

Acoustics is a great way to monitor animal behavior for a variety of reasons. One of these reasons is that we can leave our hydrophones underwater to record animal vocalizations for months at a time. No matter the time of day or type of weather, the hydrophones are archiving the acoustic behavior of all the whales and seals in and around the array. And then, when we pick up our hydrophones at the end of the season, we can correlate the behavioral data we collected all summer to the acoustic data. Out hydrophones are arranged in such a way that by using recordings from all four of them, we can determine the location of the vocalizing animal. Acoustic localization plus behavioral data equals a lovely picture of what’s happening in the survey area.

spectrogram of seal call
Spectrogram of harbor seal roar recorded in Glacier Bay


harbor seal head sticking out of water
Harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) in Glacier Bay (Photo L: Matthews)

Understanding the correlation between what the animals are doing and what they are saying is an important link in the field of animal bioacoustics. If we can relate these two datasets – the visual observations and the acoustic data – it will hopefully give us insights into what the animals are doing even when we’re not watching.

-Leanna Matthews, PhD Candidate