Can humpback whale song help monitor climate change in Antarctica?

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1. Project summary (maximum 150 words)

Antarctic ecosystems are particularly susceptible to climate change and therefore must be monitored closely. One method of indirect monitoring is with the body condition of east Australian humpback whales. These whales migrate annually to Antarctica to feed on krill, a species reliant on sea-ice. Good whale body condition indicates high krill abundance, which indicates healthy sea-ice. My work investigates the possible use of humpback whale song in monitoring Antarctic ecosystem health. All humpback whales in a population sing the same song pattern during a season, but that pattern changes yearly. Song also consistently transmits from west to east Australia, suggesting population mixing on Antarctic feeding grounds. Therefore, song patterns should reflect population mixing. In good feeding conditions, population mixing is typically lower because whales find food more easily. Song can be recorded passively during their migration past Queensland, making it an easy and cost-effective way of monitoring Antarctic ecosystem health.

2. How does your project benefit Queensland? (maximum 500 words)

The annual migration of east Australian humpback whales to Antarctica shows how the marine ecosystems of Queensland and Antarctica rely on one another. Humpback whales rely on the sea-ice conditions to provide an abundance of krill to feed on and humpback whales in turn play a vital role in nutrient mixing in Antarctica. This link also allows scientists to indirectly monitor Antarctic and Southern Ocean ecosystems. We aim to make such monitoring easier, more cost-effective, and more accessible by developing the new technique of using humpback whale song as a sentinel metric. New metrics will allow scientists to monitor how climate change impacts the sea-ice conditions and the ecosystems with which they are linked.


Climate change impacts are a growing threat to Queensland. Warming ocean temperatures, increasing ocean acidification, and rising sea levels all pose concerns to the coastal ecosystems. The Great Barrier Reef is arguably one of the most valuable natural resources to Queensland and Australia. Climate change impacts have results in bleaching and die-offs over large portions of the reef, and could be at risk of elimination if current trends continue. Tourism and fisheries, two valuable industries to Queensland, also rely on the marine ecosystem and will suffer as its health declines. Furthermore, communities along Queensland’s coast are at risk from rising sea levels and more extreme storms, both of which greatly exacerbate coastal erosion and flooding. The vulnerability of Queensland to climate change make it imperative that the global effects of climate change be monitored closely.


In addition to their importance to the ecosystem, humpback whales play a key role in the Queensland economy through the booming whale watching industry. Both the migration routes and the breeding grounds are found along the Queensland coast, making them accessible to dozens of whale watch companies. A $2.1 billion dollar industry worldwide, it brought almost half a million international tourists to Queensland between July and October. Mooloolaba has even begun a Swim with Whales program on the Sunshine Coast. Interest in humpback whales generates jobs and boosts the economy for coastal Queensland communities through tourism and related industries such as hotels and restaurants. This interest gives substantial value to continued monitoring and research on the east Australian population.


My research combines two valuable long-term datasets from Queensland on east Australian humpback whales: 1) physiological data from biopsies and 2) song analyses from recordings. Work of this nature will fill important gaps in knowledge regarding east Australian humpback whale population mixing and foraging. Additionally, research into song transmission of east Australian humpback whales serves as a model of cultural learning in animals and therefore holds significant scientific value. While some insist that culture is unique to humans, there is a growing consensus that a better understanding of culture in other species could give us further insight into its role in humans. My work shows just one of the many ways in which Queensland continues to be at the forefront of science.

3. What STEM promotion/engagement activities do you do/have you done? (maximum 500 words)

I have participated in several programs designed for STEM promotion and engagement. I was part of a program in Dominica called Floating Classrooms run by the International Fund for Animal Welfare in 2012. We took local year five students out on boats to see the marine life of their island. We then did educational activities in classrooms with the students and their teachers following the boat trips.


Throughout my PhD, I was active in STEM outreach programs for Queensland. The National Science Week Initiative in 2016 piloted a program called “Catch a Rising Star: Women in Queensland Science”. We spoke to students in rural Queensland about careers in STEM and our experiences working as female scientists. My visits to several schools in Charleville gave me a new perspective on just on how little exposure many of these students get to opportunities for pursing STEM and how few female STEM role models they see. This pioneering program resulted in a publication in Royal Society Open Science called “Engaging rural Australian communities in National Science Week helps increase visibility for women researchers.” I was a co-author on this publication as part of the Catch a Rising Star Consortium.


I participated in several “Speed Talks with a Scientist” through the University of Queensland to speak with high school students about what my job as a scientist was like. I was also involved in a similar program called “Five Minutes with your Future”, run through the National Youth Science Forum at the World Science Festival Brisbane.


Since 2018, I have served as the Griffith University representative and lead Young Science Ambassador for the Wonder of Science program. This program works with primary and secondary schools to develop STEM lessons for their curriculum and to help students conduct scientific investigations. I travelled to schools in Mt Isa several times as part of this program. These trips further highlighted to me how vital STEM engagement is for these rural Queensland communities. Wonder of Science also puts on regional conferences for the students to present their science projects, where I served as a judge to give students feedback on their presentations.


As a marine science lecturer at Griffith University, I continue to be part of STEM engagement through the university. The university hosts several events such as a Sustainability Week, which give undergraduate students and local members of the community access to various STEM activities and staff members. I have additionally presented at several events such as the Quandamooka Festival’s Marine Mammal Forum and the Marine@UQ’s Talkfest. These provide both students and the general public with a variety of presentations on research being carried out in Queensland.


In particular, my STEM engagement in rural or developing areas such as Charleville, Mt Isa, and Dominica has impressed upon me how important it is to expose students to science. By making it accessible and showing the diversity of those who work in STEM, students will feel more confident in pursuing their own interests in STEM.

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