Wanted: UT’s NIMBioS Needs Scientists and Science Lovers to Analyze Howls

Scientists and citizen scientists are needed to help researchers at UT’s National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis analyze the howls of wolves, coyotes, dogs, and other canid species.

NIMBioS brings together researchers from around the world to collaborate across disciplinary boundaries to investigate solutions to basic and applied problems in the life sciences.

For the Canid Howl Project, volunteers are needed to log in to a website, listen to howls, and plot them on a graph according to specific directions. Volunteers are also needed to donate their own recordings of howls from domestic dogs.

Despite being closely related, canid species have very different ways of communicating with various sounds, including howls, barks, yips, and growls. By studying vocal behavior, scientists hope to understand more about the whole range of canid species and breeds, said NIMBioS postdoctoral fellow Arik Kershenbaum.

“Analyzing these recordings is difficult and time-consuming. It’s easy to make mistakes, and mistakes can change the conclusions that we draw. By having hundreds, even thousands, of volunteers giving their own analysis of the canid howls, any one mistake is unlikely to change the overall interpretation. The volunteers’ efforts will help us better to understand canid social behavior and conserve these species,” he said.

The project will help determine how the animals vary the pitch of their howls in time relative to other animals that are howling at the same time, which can shed light on the meaning of the howls, such as for marking territory or for hunting. The better researchers understand the howls, the better they understand the animals

Humans are actually better at analyzing the sounds than computers, according to Kershenbaum.

“Humans are especially skilled at finding patterns in pictures, better in fact than a computer algorithm,” he said.

As there are thousands of sounds to analyze, Kershenbaum and his colleagues have turned to volunteers for help.

To participate in the analysis, visit the Canid Howl Project website that Kershenbaum created. Listen to a canid howl while viewing a spectogram image of it, then mark the howl by clicking and drawing a line to indicate the howl’s contours in the spectogram.

The researchers will convert the lines drawn by users into time and frequency data to determine exactly what sounds the animals are making.

The website contains thousands of spectograms and howls, so participants can mark as many as they want.

To donate a recording of a howl of a domestic dog, visit this website.

NIMBioS is sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the US Department of Homeland Security, and the US Department of Agriculture, with additional support from UT. For more information, visit nimbios.org.

C O N T A C T :

Amy Blakely (865-974-5034, ablakely@utk.edu)

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