Call of the ocean brings Jasmin Buteau '17 to the Isles of Shoals

Monday, May 29, 2017
UNH's Jasmin Buteau '17

Jasmin Buteau '17 with her ISE first-place project at the 2017 COLSA Undergraduate Resesarch Conference.

Measuring by miles, Jasmin Buteau ’17 won’t be far from campus in her first year after UNH, but she’ll have to cross some ocean to get there.

“I’ve accepted a teaching assistantship at Shoals Marine Laboratory following graduation, where I will assist in teaching high school and undergraduate level marine science field-based courses,” the Moultonborough, New Hampshire, resident explains.

Looking at the work this marine, estuarine and freshwater biology major undertook during her UNH years, this career choice comes as no surprise. In fact, she won first place at the 2017 Interdisciplinary Sciences and Engineering Symposium during the Undergraduate Research Conference (URC) for her research project, “Characterizing an Unknown Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus) Subpopulation in the South Atlantic Ocean through Acoustic Analysis of Song,” which she also presented at the COLSA URC.

Buteau, who loves spending time outdoors, has also remained active outside her labs and classrooms throughout her UNH years. She is a member of Women in Science and has taken part in UNH’s Alternative Break Challenge.

“Over the last four years I have done Habitat for Humanity and trail maintenance in New Orleans, Florida and Georgia,” she notes.

For her URC project, Buteau, working with her advisor, research professor Jennifer Miksis-Olds, investigated a previously undocumented whale song detected in the vicinity of Ascension Island in the South Atlantic Ocean. Buteau, who has a minor in animal behavior, has always been intrigued by animal communication and is interested in “the role the changing environment plays in intra- and interspecies communication.”

Blue whales, she explains, “produce high-intensity, low-frequency calls that likely serve a social function associated with mating and foraging behavior. To date, there are several recognized blue whale subpopulations that are distributed globally. Each of these subpopulations produces unique, regionally distinct songs varying in structure, tone and frequency. This variation in song serves as a tool for identifying subpopulations and quantifying their spatial and temporal distributions. However, not all types of song have been documented and/or characterized to date, specifically songs in the South Atlantic Ocean.”

UNH's Jasmin Buteau '17
Buteau discusses her research with a URC attendee.

Acoustic analysis of song plays an important role.

“Blue whales are a migratory species. Their wide geographic distribution, coupled with the existence of both resident and migratory species within populations, makes identifying subspecies challenging,” Buteau says. “This is where acoustic analysis of song provides insight into the function and significance of blue whale song and how it contributes to blue whale populations globally.”

Buteau’s primary objective, she explains, “was to determine the acoustic presence of these stereotyped song units to determine the seasonality and ultimately characterize an unknown blue whale subpopulation in the South Atlantic Ocean.”

Using hydrophones — or underwater microphones — off the coast of Ascension Island, the low-frequency sound was continuously recorded. The previously undocumented song consisted of tonal components at 26 and 32 Hertz (Hz), Buteau notes.

“I manually analyzed spectrograms from a yearlong time series to detect the acoustic presence of the 26 Hz and 32 Hz tonal components,” she says. “Preliminary analyses indicate that the 26 Hz tone and the combination of both 26 and 32 Hz tones are observed consistently throughout a greater portion of the year, whereas the 32 Hz tone is rarely encountered alone outside the fall austral season.”

The most intriguing finding?

“A potential hypothesis for the detection of the 32 Hz tone alone during the beginning of the austral fall season is that it could indicate age-sex class segregation,” she says. “Age-sex class segregation is a behavior that has been recorded in other species that occurs during migration, where a group of individuals within a population — such as juveniles, males or adults — migrate separately from the rest of the population. The purpose of this behavior is not well understood, but the production of the 32 Hz tone may contain unique communicative or behavioral information directed to the rest of their group.”

Looking to the future, she hopes her research will assist others in the field.

“Knowing the relative contribution of this blue whale song to the general ambient acoustic environment could provide insight to future soundscape ecology research projects,” she says.

Interested in studying marine biology? Explore the options in the UNH College of Life Sciences and Agriculture.

Valerie Lester | Communications and Public Affairs | | (603) 862-2632