Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Tuning into the Sea with WhaleFM

They say if you put a shell next to your ear you can hear waves crashing on the beach.  Now we get the next step...put your ear next to your computer and hear the sounds of whales cruising through the seas.

WhaleFM is the latest offering in the Zooniverse line of Citizen Science projects.  Like all the others it relies on the ability of human senses to identify patterns quicker and precisely than a computer.  In other projects it is visual pattern recognition.  For WhaleFM, the project utilizes the human ability to distinguish sounds and differentiate various recorded whale songs.

To date relatively little is known about the sounds made by whales, including the Orca (Killer Whale) and Pilot Whale species being examined.  These animals can communicate in their own language but we are still searching for clues to their meaning.  In this project, researchers want to establish the basic types and numbers of calls used by these animals, figure out how similar the calls are between individual whales, and understand how whale sounds are influenced by SONAR and other man made noise pollution.  So they've tracked a number of whales and followed their behaviors while recording sounds from tiny, harmless transmitters suction-cupped to their skin.  Now we just need to analyze those sounds.

Getting Started is Easy:
  1. Visit the WhaleFM web site and learn more about the project, it's scientific background, and the individual whales being studied.
  2. Log in to your Zooniverse account or create a new one from the Register screen.
  3. Return to the WhaleFM site and read the short lesson on identifying whale sounds and using the interface (just like the example shown below).  You can also follow the short tutorial that walks you through the first call you study.
  4. For each call, click on the center graph to hear the recording and see a pictograph of the sound. 
  5. Below you will then see nine different possible families of calls it might match...click on each to hear what each sounds like.  You will also see three more similar calls in that "family" of sounds.  Listen to each and click on the check mark if you think there is a match.
  6. At top the two calls will line up next to each other.  Look and listen once again to confirm your choice, and click "Match".  Your choice will be recorded and the system will move on to the next call.  If you don't find a match just skip over to the next one. 
Photo Courtesy: WhaleFM

That's all there is to it!  So what are you waiting for?  Turn up those speakers, start listening, and have fun.