PeerJ Awards Winners (Presentation) at the African Bioacoustic Community Conference 2020

The African Bioacoustics Community strives to shine a light on bioacoustic research from Africa and by African scientists. As with many scientific meetings this year, the 2nd edition of the African Bioacoustic Community Conference was forced online as a virtual conference. Despite this difficulty, the conference was a great success, with the number of attendees increasing from their first meeting in 2018.

Of the 97 presentations across the four-day meeting, eight student talks were selected for PeerJ Awards – four full-length and four Speed Talks. The PeerJ Awards program aims to support students and early career researchers by recognising their work, as well as bringing continued awareness to the benefits that open access has in keeping science open and available to all. The winners receive a complimentary PeerJ paper (upon submission and acceptance through our peer review system) and an interview about their research.

PeerJ recently caught up with the winners of the best full-length presentation awards to discuss their research and next steps. Keep an eye out for tomorrow’s blog, where we will be featuring winners of PeerJ Awards for best Speed Talk presentation.

Chloe Malinka PhD fellow at Aarhus University, Denmark

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your research interests?

I study the acoustic ecology of toothed whales, using a combination of passive acoustic arrays and biologging sound-and-movement tags, in both wild and captive settings. I’m interested in how they perceive their environment using echolocation, and how this information can be used to better understand the acoustic behaviour from data collected when their biosonar beam scans across a passive listening station. 

What aspect of this research did you present at the ABC conference? 

I presented how deep-diving dwarf sperm whales manage to hunt effectively while using an inherently short-range biosonar system. This is as unexpected as coming across a pilot who wears thick glasses – how do they manage to do their job and sense their surroundings effectively? 

What drew you to bioacoustic research?

I was working in environmental monitoring within the marine renewables industry in Canada, and I kept referring to Scottish research using passive acoustics to track marine animals around tidal turbines. This eventually nudged me to learn from and work with the Scottish researchers involved, which also put me in a position where I was surrounded and inspired by the many experts in marine bioacoustics at the Sea Mammal Research Unit.

Tell us something interesting about the animals you investigate

Kogia are super weird: they are most closely related to sperm whales, they “ink” like an octopus, and they sound like a porpoise with high frequency echolocation clicks. Most of what we know about their echolocation, audition, and diving behaviour comes from a single individual that live-stranded in the 1990s. It’s wild that we know so little about a person-sized mammal.

How did you find the virtual conference experience? 

While it’s always easier to get to network over a coffee or a beer, I was impressed by how outgoing people were in the virtual space. It was also very helpful and accommodating to have access to the talks for a month after the conference. Kudos to the conference organizers for running a smooth event!

 What are your next steps? 

I would love to build upon the autonomous deep-sea vertical array I developed for the Kogia project by going deeper and targeting other toothed whale species. In this way, I could further uncover their acoustic ecology, and quantify their source parameters, which is relevant for species identification in passive acoustic monitoring. Confidence in the acoustic identity of a given species greatly helps in describing presence, distribution and abundance, and is especially useful for rarely observed, cryptic species.


Colin R. Swider PhD candidate at Syracuse University, United States

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your research interests?

I am from the Finger Lakes region of New York State, but currently live on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. I study acoustic communication in African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis), and I use passive acoustic monitoring to study their habitat usage and the impacts of poaching.

What aspect of this research did you present at the ABC conference? 

At the ABC, I presented our work on how forest elephants respond to particular instances of automatic gunfire from poaching events, at a landscape use scale. 

What drew you to bioacoustic research?

I first studied music and audio engineering in college, after which I took some time off for travelling. During my travels I fell in love with tropical rainforests, and I decided to return to university to study biology. Toward the end of my undergraduate experience, I realized I could combine my two research interests of acoustics and biology, and I began working on birdsong. Since then, I’ve worked for several years in bioacoustics on a variety of taxa, and most recently I have landed on the bioacoustics of forest elephants and poaching pressure for my PhD.

Tell us something interesting about the animals you investigate

I think one of the most interesting things about forest elephants is their elusiveness, and the fact that most of their behavior and ecology remains a mystery to us. Forest elephants – compared to their well-known savanna counterparts – are so notoriously difficult to study. They inhabit remote rainforest habitats that pose tremendous challenges to humans in terms of accessibility and performing visual observations (this is why we use passive acoustic monitoring!).

How did you find the virtual conference experience?

In a perfect world, I would prefer the interactions made possible by an in-person conference. But I think the ABC organization team did a fantastic job at facilitating the virtual event, so that interactions between participants were still possible and encouraged. It went about as smoothly and was as enjoyable as it could have been!

What are your next steps? 

My next steps are to complete my PhD and publish my chapters as journal articles. In the near future I will also begin exploring postdoctoral opportunities, preferably continuing with the same forest elephant/Congo basin rainforest system. At this time, it is critical that we apply what we continue to learn about forest elephants to their conservation in order to prevent their extinction by poaching.


Kyle-Mark Middleton PhD candidate at the University of Cape Town, South Africa

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your research interests?

I have always had a passion for the outdoors and understanding the world around me. In 2016, I was introduced to the FitzPatrick Institutes long-term research and conservation project on the Southern Ground-Hornbill species and knew that I wanted to be a part of it. I am now managing the project while completing my PhD. My research interests revolve around the cooperation within the species and how individuals within groups contribute and communicate during group behaviours.

What aspect of this research did you present at the ABC conference?

I presented the first step in understanding the role of vocal communication in territorial defence of the species. This involved identifying signatures in the territorial chorus calls which can allow for recognition of both individuals and groups.

What drew you to bioacoustic research?

Communication plays such an important role in all aspects of life and in almost every species. Animals are communicating all the time around us, yet we know little about the messages that are actually being communicated. The Southern Ground-Hornbill is a species with such an iconic morning call of the African bushveld, yet little is known about it. 

Tell us something interesting about the animals you investigate

They are the largest cooperatively breeding bird in the world, and can live up to 60 years old in the wild.

How did you find the virtual conference experience? 

I did not know what to expect from the virtual conference but it exceeded all of my expectations. While there is still less interaction between researchers when compared to an in-person one, there was still a lot more than I expected and everything runs very smoothly and on time.

What are your next steps? 

The next steps for me are to continue gathering more data over the coming year to strengthen my study and to complete my thesis. From there, I would like to continue researching the Southern Ground-Hornbill for a while and answer some of the newer questions which have built up in my mind. I hope to contribute towards both the bioacoustics field and the conservation of the species.


Sasha Dines PhD candidate at Stellenbosch University, South Africa

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your research interests?

I’m a Marine Biologist, originally from England but I’ve been working in South Africa for the past 4 years, and last year I started my PhD in cetacean bioacoustics researching the Indian Ocean humpback dolphin. I realised that I wanted to work with endangered species and recognised that there was scope to develop new monitoring tools. I think that developing bioacoustic monitoring methods could be really important and cost effective in endangered species protection in developing countries.

What aspect of this research did you present at the ABC conference?

I presented the first bit of preliminary data that I have analysed for my PhD. Our project is part of the SWORD group (Signature Whistle Occurrence Recapture and Density) and I aim to use signature whistles in a mark recapture framework for individual based monitoring of Indian Ocean humpback dolphins. My pilot studies have consisted of providing evidence for signature whistle types in this species and showing that they can be used in a mark recapture framework.

What drew you to bioacoustic research?

I think the range and potential that this type of work can provide has been really appealing. I come from an acoustic telemetry background in sharks and rays and so using naturally occurring acoustic signals is really interesting. This non invasive approach to monitoring individuals could potentially be applied to multiple other coastal delphinid species.

Tell us something interesting about the animals you investigate

The Indian Ocean humpback dolphin is the most endangered marine mammal in South Africa. They’re an exclusively coastal dolphin species that hug coastlines from False Bay in South Africa through to the Bay of Bengal in India. Normally, they hang out in the shallow surf, so approaching them to record via a boat is often a hair raising experience. However, following reports of them in the Breede River, we found individuals 30km+ upriver in a very freshwater environment – this oceanic dolphin was pretending to be a river dolphin!

How did you find the virtual conference experience? 

I thought it was a huge success! I love travelling to conferences, meeting new people and experiencing new cities, however, there were definitely pros from this virtual experience. I was able to watch presentations in my own time, attend more ‘virtual meetings’ and ask more questions after the talks. 

What are your next steps? 

My next plans are for my 2021 field season, deploying a network of hydrophones along the Cape south coast. I will also be working on my first two chapters of my PhD for completion and publication. 

**

We at PeerJ again offer our congratulations to all of our award winners!

See interviews and the listing of 2019 PeerJ Award winners on the PeerJ blog here!

If you are organizing a conference or workshop (either physical or virtual!) and would like to offer a PeerJ Award at your event, do get in touch – communities@peerj.com