Catching Up with Susan Parks

Kelsey Bradbury, Research Unplugged intern
November 16, 2010

How did you first become interested in bioacoustics?

I have always been fascinated by animals and some of my earliest memories are of the variety of animal sounds in my family's backyard when I was growing up. There was a particularly talented mockingbird that would perch outside my bedroom window when I was very young. My first experience with whale sounds came when I was 12 years old. My father was a professor of electrical engineering at Cornell University and he was involved with a study analyzing whale vocalizations with a biologist on campus. He brought home the sound clips and let me listen to them and look at visual representations of the sounds. I found the sounds to be extremely interesting, but didn't think much about it until I was an undergraduate at Cornell University, planning to study genetics. The same biology professor gave a guest lecture in my Animal Behavior course and I was hooked on the mystery of studying how animals use sound to communicate. My first research projects were on frog communication and I moved on to my own whale research in graduate school.

Have you ever had an "up close" encounter with a whale or dolphin?

Most of my research has focused on the right whale, a species of baleen whale which is about 50 feet in length and weighing in at over 50 tons. Whales, in general, are big animals, but it is often difficult to appreciate this if you see them on a whale watch trip or from shore. I've had several encounters with right whales that really gave me a feeling for how big they really are. My first research study involved playing back sounds recorded from an adult female right whale in a social mating group to test whether these sounds attracted male right whales. The answer was a resounding yes. During the first trial, I found myself in the middle of the Bay of Fundy in Canada, with a very interested 45#39;, 55 ton, male right whale swimming under my 15' zodiac looking for the source of the sounds that we were playing. When he first swam under the boat, you could see whale in every direction that you looked because he was wider than the boat was long! Most of my research doesn't involve getting as close to the whales, as studying the sounds they produce allows you to monitor them from a distance.

What is the most out-of-the-ordinary place you've traveled to as a result of your research?

Studying whale acoustics has resulted in many opportunities for travel around the world. Whales are found in all oceans on the planet and I have had the opportunity to visit several wonderful places in the course of my work. One of the most remote places I have been was the University of Copenhagen's Arctic Station on Disko Island on the west coast of Greenland in the early spring to visit a graduate student who is researching bowhead whale acoustic behavior for her Ph.D.

When you're not working, what are your favorite pastimes?

My hobbies all seem to follow from my research interests in large mammals. I spend most of my free time outside, either hiking with my two dogs or riding my horse.

Last Updated November 16, 2010