October 20, 2017

Global Podcast: Dolphins and Data Unite Unlikely Disciplines

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In the second installment of the Global Podcast, the Global Communications Group explored Georgetown faculty’s international and interdisciplinary research of dolphins from Washington, D.C.’s Potomac River to the the coasts of Western Australia.

There are 12 species of dolphins that have bigger brains for body size than humans—that’s about three times the size of a chimpanzee, our closest relative. But what exactly are these big brains used for?

Janet Mann, vice provost of research and a professor in the Departments of Biology and Psychology, has studied dolphin behavior since the 1980s. Her work has focused on their social intelligence and social interactions, particularly group formation and dissolution. In 2005, Mann partnered with Lisa Singh, a professor in the Department of Computer Science, to find a better way to organize and interpret her decades of data.

Listen to the podcast for more on the complexity of dolphin behavior, the experiences of the Georgetown faculty and students who study them, and how a biologist and computer scientist learned to speak the same language to form a long-term partnership.

Georgetown’s Global Podcast follows faculty and students as they pursue exciting global research in medicine, law, business, and the social and physical sciences. It is produced by members of the Global Communications Group’s multimedia team. Read the full transcript below.

Sometimes we’re popular and sometimes we are excluded. Sometimes we stay with our families, but we also have different groups of friends—small groups, big groups, groups that we join and then leave and then join again. Relationships have rivalries, alliances, and shifting loyalties.

Sound like middle school? We’re actually describing the behavior of bottlenose dolphins in Shark Bay, off the coast of western Australia.

It takes about three days to get to Shark Bay from the eastern U.S. Georgetown Professor Janet Mann has been making this trip for 30 years.

I’m Andrew Walker, a member of the Office of the Vice President for Global Engagement, and in this episode of the Georgetown global podcast we’ll talk with Professor Mann as well as computer science professor Lisa Singh about their work with dolphins on the other side of the world. Janet started working with dolphins in graduate school in the late 1980s.

Janet: Well, I got started serendipitously. I wasn’t interested in dolphins per se, but I was always interested in wildlife, and my advisers at the University of Michigan asked me to help with a project in Australia on dolphins that they were starting, so I went to help out. It was a free trip to Australia. I got hooked and kept going.

Remote Shark Bay provides a unique research opportunity for the long-term study of the dolphins. The dolphins swim close to shore of Monkey Mia Beach and remain in the area throughout their lives. The clear water allows scientists to easily observe them. Since the launch of the project in 1984, hundreds of scientists and students from around the world have been involved in the research.

One of the most interesting things about these dolphins? The size of their brains.

Janet: There’s actually about 12 species of dolphins maybe that have bigger brains for body size than any other animal, except humans. So you could think about them having brains about three times the size of a chimpanzee, our closest relative.

That’s a big brain. But what exactly is it used for? Scientists are divided on the answer.

Janet: There’s two major theories about it. One is a social complexity theory, and the other is an ecological complexity theory. So the ecological one is that you use your brain to find food and resources. And the social complexity theory has more heft to it in a number of ways because all, well most, of the animals that have very large brains also have high social complexity, so it’s a strong relationship.

In other words, although you do need a brain to find food, you have to be really smart to navigate the social landscape.

Janet: Right. So the social complexity generally hypothesis says that with social partners you have to know the history of interactions, you have to know your relationship with that individual, and that history of interactions. And not only that, but also all of the relationships that they have with others and all your relationships with all of those other individuals. So it gets exponentially more complex.

Janet has appointments in both the biology and psychology departments at the Georgetown College, and her study of dolphins is truly interdisciplinary. Scientists think that social intelligence is a critical aspect of dolphin’s survival and evolution.

Janet: Nobody really knows what kicked this off. One hypothesis is that the marine environments are such that because they’re literally fluid, so are the social relationships in terms of who you’re with and who you’re not with. That puts pressure on communication, if you need others to survive. You actually are kind of joining and leaving and constantly coming in and out of view, and that may place specific challenges on figuring out what to do and how to avoid your enemies and ally with your friends and find the best mates and raise your kids in the best environment.

So the dolphin social lives that Janet studies are a little like Facebook: complicated networks that adjust all the time. The scientific term for social groups that form and break up and reform is “fission-fusion.” But Janet and her colleagues also study other aspects of the dolphins' behavior, such as their foraging techniques and how they mate and raise their calves.

Janet’s dolphin research took a turn in 2005, when she met computer science professor Lisa Singh. That short meeting has turned into a long-term collaboration. The basic challenge Janet faced was how to turn thousands of observations about dolphin behavior into high quality data. Lisa didn’t know about dolphins, but she did know about data.

Lisa: I think Janet started collecting a lot of data, and came to the recognition that maybe she needed to organize it in some better way. She talked to some people in the computer science department, and they said "Oh, Lisa does database type of stuff. You should talk to her,” and that was it. I’m all about data. The more complicated the data, the more interesting it is for me. So I didn’t know that this would become a long-term collaboration; I kind of thought her data was a lot simpler than she led on. I thought "Oh, this’ll be six months, we’ll be done. This doesn’t sound very complicated to me." But year after year we’ve continued to find different problems that we’re both interested in.

Georgetown has a number of initiatives in place to encourage interdisciplinary research. One of the biggest challenges is that researchers in different fields need to learn to speak new languages.

Lisa: I do remember the first grant we wrote together. It was to NIH and it didn’t get funded. But I remember literally taking out a dictionary and looking up words because I didn’t know what part this grant was talking about, and I remember telling my husband, “Why do I not know what this means?” I’d look up these words that are very common in biology, but maybe not utilized much in my field. It was fun, so slowly, when Janet talks about fission-fusion society, I know what she’s talking about now! When I talk about certain things with algorithms I’m sure Janet knows what I’m talking about.

Lisa’s work has changed the way Janet and her team collect data, and the way they draw conclusions. For example, Lisa has been able to analyze biases in the data and improve sampling methods. One of the most interesting kinds of biases is the observer bias. Just like the rest of us, scientists tend to see things that they are interested in. Unless they understand these biases, scientists may draw faulty conclusions.

Janet: Certain kinds of things we always collect data on, and those are pretty good. When we come to a group of dolphins it’s always “Who’s there?” We have the water depth and habitat, and identification of the individuals and we have their photographs to match it up, and we have their predominant behaviors of the group members.

But then it gets tricky, and that’s where bias comes in.

Lisa: The easiest example is people wanting to study different things. Janet has focused much of her research on mothers and calves. She has another colleague who has focused a lot of his research on male alliances. By doing that, if you pass by a mother-calf group and you’re looking for male alliances, you might not stop for that group; you’ll just keep going until you see a male alliance and stop there. We actually measured that and saw which groups were stopping there and which groups were not stopping, and that’s a type of bias we could capture. Another one is location bias. There are certain locations that are closer so they’re getting oversampled by everybody, but there are certain locations that some researchers prefer to go to than other researchers. That’s another area to see the bias as well.

Janet and Lisa have published papers together examining these kind of biases, which have applications not just to dolphins but to all kinds of environmental research, particularly with regard to conservation.

Janet: In terms of conservation, there’s several different ways that we try to have that impact. One is we are in a pristine area, and what that has enabled us to do is to look at very small impacts of tourism on the animals, because we were there before there was really any tourism to speak of. And tourism’s been steadily increasing, so we’ve actually been able to measure the impacts of tourism—which nobody else can do—there’s lots of noise pollution, chemical pollution, human habitation, everything. There’s no industry to speak of, so we can measure very small impacts really well. The other area is that our data really provide a good baseline of what a healthy dolphin population looks like. And nobody who studies dolphins anywhere else in the world really has this kind of information. We’re the second longest-running dolphin study in the world. The longest one is in Sarasota, Florida, and those animals are so hammered by chemical pollution, noise pollution, recreational fishing, commercial fishing, boating, you name it. So ours provides a good baseline of [things like] what’s the natural reproductive rate? What’s the natural survival rate of calves? How long do they live? That’s really important data to have in a healthy environment.

Georgetown students are actively involved the research as well. Janet has had more than 200 undergraduate and graduate students in the lab and in the field, and Lisa works with computer science students on related projects as well. Allie Galezzo is a Georgetown senior and has been working on the dolphin project since sophomore year, both in the field and in the lab at Georgetown. Her senior thesis is examining why we see so much sexual segregation in dolphin social groups. Allie believes she has an answer.

Allie: Essentially, we found that because in this population, males will form alliances with each other and sort of aggressively herd females and harass them. So we predicted that maybe females are avoiding males and that’s why you don’t find females with males particularly often. And so far our data is supporting that prediction. So we often see females alone or with their calves or with other females, so presumably they are trying to avoid this harassment.

A highlight of Allie’s Georgetown experience was the summer she spent observing dolphins at Shark Bay, after her junior year.

Allie: It was a lot of days getting up early and going out on the boat and following dolphins and recording information for the whole day and then coming home and eating dinner and going to bed. The whole team lives in a small trailer, which is really fun because you really get to know everyone you’re working with very well. It’s a very social environment, especially because you’re somewhat isolated from the rest of the world, especially because Australia is on the opposite side of the globe. It’s on a very different timeline than all of your friends and family at home, so you really get a chance to socialize a lot with the people you’re there with you. I can’t emphasis enough how cool it was to be told that I would be paid to do research in another country that involved sitting in a boat and recording information about dolphins, and essentially watching them socialize with each other and do all these cool behaviors that I had read a lot about and learned a lot about, but to actually see it in person was a really cool experience.

Allie still remembers the first time she got close to a dolphin. 

Allie: I was so excited I took my phone out and took a video. That was my first reaction: “Oh my God, I need to preserve this moment forever, because this is so cool.”

Allie plans to spend next year continuing to work on the dolphin project, and then enter a Ph.D. program to continue in the field. Allie considers Janet a mentor, and may follow closely in her footsteps. Allie and other Georgetown students have also studied dolphins closer to home. Janet was recently surprised to find bottlenose dolphins in the lower Chesapeake Bay, about three hours from D.C.

Janet: Well, it was an odd occurrence, really. My husband wanted to buy a place down there in the lower Potomac so he could get me away from my work, because I’m a workaholic, and I didn’t really want to get a house down there. I thought we didn’t need it, it’s—we’re fine here in Washington, D.C.—and finally I went along with it and we bought this little cottage in the lower Potomac. And the day that we closed, we went to the house to stay there, and I looked out the backyard and I said, “Oh look! Dolphins!” But now I bring students down to our house, and it’s turned into a field station.

The dolphins in the Chesapeake live in a different world from their relatives in Shark Bay. They are stressed by pollution, shipping traffic, and noise, and are harder to track through the murky water. But Janet has learned that long ago, bottlenose dolphins could be found right near D.C. She’d love to see them come back someday, and her research may play a role in helping that to happen.

To learn more about Georgetown’s work on bottlenose dolphins in the Potomac, visit pcdolphinproject.org. To learn more about the dolphin project in Australia, visit monkeymiadolphins.org.

Thanks for listening to the Georgetown Global Podcast. Once again, I’m Andrew Walker, a member of the Vice President’s Office for Global Engagement.

This episode was produced by members of Georgetown’s Global Communications Group multimedia team. Special thanks to Pietra Rivoli of the McDonough School of Business for her development of the script.

Join us again soon, as we follow Georgetown faculty and students and the exciting global research they are doing in medicine, law, business, and the social and physical sciences.

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