Making Noise on Porpoise

This article was first published in University of Exeter’s Life Magazine in July 2015.

Studying cetaceans using static acoustic monitoring and applying the results to conservation science.

It isn’t easy to study cetaceans in their natural environment. As we can’t survive underwater, our options were limited to making brief dives, which provide useful data, but are restricted in how long you can collect data for, or using surface surveys.

Over the last decade, a technique known as Static Acoustic Monitoring (SAM) has become an increasingly popular tool to study cetaceans. It enables the study of their long-term ecology and distribution, using hydrophones to detect echolocation clicks. The hydrophones are secured using moorings, and collect data over periods of months at a time. One widely used SAM instruments is the C-POD, developed by the University of Exeter’s Nick Tregenza.

In my third year at Penryn Campus, my research focused on dolphins and porpoises off the Cornish coast and their distribution in time and space. Data were collected using C-PODs by my supervisor, Dr. Matthew Witt, and spanned numerous sites, and several years. The data were easy to work with and I concluded that SAM is a good technique for studying cetaceans; however, as with most things, there are both advantages and disadvantages to its use.

So what’s good about static acoustic monitoring? One of the main advantages is that instead of using human observation, we can deploy hydrophones at multiple locations for long periods, and by using an instrument to do the job for us removes the variation that inevitably creeps in if more than one person collects data.

The hydrophones can do things we just can’t. They can sit in the mid-water column for months on end, ‘listening’ and collecting data 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Humans cannot possibly do this, and as surface surveys usually rely on visual sightings, night-time monitoring is impossible. Visual surveys can only monitor the surface layer of the ocean, whereas the hydrophone can collect data from underwater, in areas of the ocean we can’t see down to. Hydrophones can collect data in all weathers, too – you’d be hard-pressed to find many people willing to stand on a boat in howling wind and lashing rain trying to record the presence of cetaceans!

There are limitations, however. The instruments and hydrophones used are being continuously developed and improved; there have been several versions. There are documented differences in sensitivity between versions, and sensitivity may drift over time. This will affect how much data are collected and whether or not the data are directly comparable.

The instruments do not come cheap, either – the C-POD alone costs £2970, before you consider labour and maintenance costs.

The hydrophone may be lost during rough weather, if it is damaged or becomes detached, or it may be damaged by ocean traffic. In such cases, the data is lost and time and money wasted. Theft may also occur. Hydrophones are attached to a buoy which floats on the surface, allowing it to be retrieved – this may attract attention. In these cases, again all data, time and money are lost.

So what can we do with data from static acoustic monitoring? SAM opens up a whole new realm in which to gather data which wasn’t accessible before, and is proving ever more relevant. What we do in the oceans has a serious impact on species living there. Cetaceans are particularly vulnerable as they depend on noise for almost everything, and most of our oceanic activity e.g. shipping and renewable energy production produces lots of noise, the installation of wind turbines being a prime example. Knowing where they are and when enables more effective management of human activity. In the example of wind turbines, this may allow us to limit the noisier, more damaging activities to times when cetaceans are not so active in an area.

One of the main applications of such data is in damage limitation, however if used in the right way, SAM can also be good for studying the ecology of echolocating species and learning more about how these often enigmatic creatures of the deep live.

Whilst there may be issues and problems associated with using this technology, it is a useful technique to study and monitor cetacean activity, and as the technology develops and becomes more reliable, and more studies are done, we will get a clearer picture of what goes on underwater.


Badger badger badger

For my Masters research project I am studying the effects of woodland management on the foraging activity of bats. This means a lot of wandering round forests at night, doing bat surveys with batboxes – sadly we aren’t allowed to catch bats as none of us have licences and bats are highly protected in the UK.

Thursday night, Adam and I were surveying at Devichoys wood in Cornwall. Devichoys is a Cornwall Wildlife Trust Nature Reserve and we have permission to survey there.

We quickly forgot about the bats.

Our survey methods consist of, amongst other things, walking a thirty minute transect, three times. On the second lap of the transect – we try to make them circular to avoid repeating any sections of wood – we were about two-thirds of the way through when we came upon a lot snuffling noises.

We had seen a badger ambling across the path in front of us a couple a of weeks prior – my first encounter with a live badger, having previously only come across badger setts or seen them on camera traps.

Thursday night, though, we were quickly surrounded by badgers. They must have not known we were there, or if they did they didn’t care. They came closer and closer, snuffling around in the undergrowth. One got particularly close, within 5-10 metres, and showed absolutely no signs of distress. We shone the dim parts of our headtorches on them, and they didn’t care.

We moved forward quietly and with caution, and it seemed like every few steps we came upon another few badgers pottering about in the leaves. They ignored us completely and got on with their task of nosing through old leaves. We could hear them all around us – three over there, two down there, another couple up ahead. We were surrounded, and it was magical.

Nothing can quite compare – you can see pictures and video of badgers but you can’t understand what enchanting little creatures they are until you come across one for yourself. Their striking markings, little black noses as the snuffle through the woodland…especially to be so ignored the way we were. They appeared not to notice and didn’t bother about us at all, showing no qualms about moving towards us, and it was amazing.


This is the best picture my camera managed in the low light levels without using flash. But the memories shine on!!

Why I think broad-sense conservation is the future

This got retweeted onto my twitter timeline, and as I am supposed to be writing the presentation I have to deliver on Thursday, it of course sparked off a series of thoughts and ideas in my head which I just had to write down.

I have to say I agree with Stephen. I have a degree in Conservation Biology and Ecology. That makes me sound like I am pure conservationist, one of those ‘save the animals and screw humanity’ types. I am not. As I see it, broad-sense conservation is the way forward. That is, conservation which factors in biodiversity, the environment, and quality of life, and which understands that all these are affected by governance and policy, change, and conflict.

It is pretty clear, or it should be by now, that to undertake the amount of conservation work that needs to be done cannot be done alone. Conservationists and scientists cannot do it alone – they lack the power of the governments and policy-makers and the manpower of people. Governments and policy-makers cannot do it alone – they lack the evidence of the conservationists and scientists and the resources of people. People cannot do it alone – they too lack the evidence of the conservationists and scientists, and except in rare cases where sufficient numbers can be grouped together to achieve all that needs to be done, they lack the power of the governments. It is only by collaborating, by having these three groups come together, that the incentives, the motivation, the desire to conserve can be cultivated.

If you go to a poor family living in rural Africa, with little access to water, in a village with next to no infrastructure, and tell them to stop persecuting the wild animals that threaten them, or to give up some of their scant water resource for conservation, they will probably tell you, by some means, to go away. It is very easy for relatively rich Westerners to stand around with their degrees and their scientific papers telling people they need to conserve their wildlife. It is not easy for the people on the ground who struggle to survive as it is. If it is a battle to get enough food on the table to feed your family every day, your interest in conservation is likely to be a big, fat zero.

Conservationists often seem to forget that conservation is a human issue. They seem to ignore the impacts on the people living alongside whatever it is they are trying to conserve. And that is a fundamental flaw in the way we go about conservation. Social science must be considered alongside the animals. We have to get people on board, willing, motivated, incentivised, if we are to make any difference.

And yes, it could easily be argued that if you pay people not to kill lions, for example, then where does it end? Paying people not to build towns, paying people not to burn fossil fuels – it could go out of control. But place yourself in the shoes of the people living in these places. Place yourself in the shoes of someone who has to walk several kilometres to get water, or who has to worry every night about how many of his cattle might be killed by lions.

Similarly, policy has a big important part to play. It is one thing to tell people to conserve wildlife or habitats. You can stand there advising them on how they should behave and shouting at them until you’re blue in the face. You can motivate individuals with small-scale incentives – a flashing light to keep lions out of their boma, for example. Big companies, corporations, are not so easily won over, and this is where governments come in.

It may not be easy to achieve but eradicating corruption as far as possible should be a target of the global community. We need governments who take advice from the people with the evidence, the people who know what they’re talking about, and who use that advice to form policies and laws which will actually do something to benefit their wildlife and habitats. We need the interplay of policy and science to regulate business and industry and protect habitats and species from exploitation.

It is only by stepping back to broad-sense conservation that we stand a chance of winning any of the battles we are currently fighting, never mind the war. I passionately believe that, and look forward to a day when such practices are adopted by the global community.

Paywalls in Science – A Problem we Need to Fix

Yesterday scientists came together on twitter to be irritated by paywalls in science, and expressed our frustration in the form of small, humorous poems, with the hashtag #ElsevierValentines. A collection of them can be found here.

Later on, a friend told me that, along with mental health discrimination, paywalls are one of the biggest problems in modern science. I am inclined to agree, although I think one of the biggest problems facing science today is publication bias. But that’s a different topic.

So what are paywalls, why are they so prevalent and why is it so irritating when you come up against them?

Wikipedia defines a paywall as “a system that prevents Internet users from accessing webpage content without a paid subscription.” In science, we most commonly hit them when looking for scientific papers to research a potential study topic or find evidence to back up something interesting that we have found. It happens less often if you are a member of an institution which subscribes to journals, but it stills happens irritatingly often, and can induce extreme emotion such as these below.

flips table headdesk it makes me want to kill everyone in this room

So why are paywalls so prevalent in science?

Scientists want to publish their research papers in journals that have a high impact factor. They want their papers to be read, to be discussed, to be cited and used in further research. That’s fine. That’s not where the problem lies.

Many journals which have high impact factors are produced by companies such as Elsevier, Nature Publishing Group and Wiley, and in order to make a profit out of science, these companies provide their journals on a subscription-only basis. These companies are hugely powerful within science – Elsevier alone publishes 250,000 articles in 2,000 journals every year. This is not a problem if you’re associated with an institution which has a subscription to these companies. I am lucky enough to be part of the University of Exeter, and I am fortunate that this university buys subscriptions to all of the above companies and more. However, those are not the only ones out there, and universities cannot buy subscriptions to everything – it would be prohibitively expensive. Furthermore, if you are not associated with an institution, you are mostly left to fend for yourself, and research may be limited to open-access papers. Hours can be spent searching for papers which are available as pdfs online, or finding someone who can make it available to you. This is not just hugely irritating – and it is, enormously so – it’s also demoralising and wastes time.

As if these challenges weren’t enough, the price of subscriptions to journals has been progressively increasing over the last few decades – and steeply. Some say that the price of journal subscriptions has risen at nearly 4x the rate of inflation since 1986, whilst other say that the cost of journal subscriptions in 2002 was on average 600% higher than in 1984. Whatever the true figure is for the present day cost of subscriptions, it is clear that such price hikes are unsustainable. Universities and institutions are being forced to cancel subscriptions because they simply cannot afford the cost, and those unaffiliated to an institution are often forced to make do without subscriptions at all.

It is somewhat of a dilemma for scientists looking to publish their work. It is no crime to want your paper published in a high impact journal, where it will receive lots of attention. After all, if science is not discussed, not read, not received by other scientists around the world, it cannot evolve, the information we gather will not be shared, and it essentially becomes useless.

However, by publishing work and then hiding it behind a paywall many cannot afford to climb over, we are left with a situation that is not dissimilar to a world in which science is not published at all.

It is a practice which has been described by science journalists as immoral, and it is easy to see the reasoning behind this; by publishing work and locking it behind a paywall, it is being denied to the very people who can do things with it – other scientists. It wastes time, money and work, of both the publishing scientists and the scientific community hoping to read their peer’s work. And it needs fixing.


In the meantime, allow me to direct you to a number of illuminating articles on the subject.

Hiding your research behind a paywall is immoral

Time to tear down the paywalls?

Let’s shine a light on paywalls that deny open access to scientific research

Why is science behind a paywall?

bp;dr – behind paywall, didn’t read – the internet’s next new acronym