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- by  Abby Weingarten

After conducting groundbreaking scientific research that provided the first-ever description of African manatee vocalizations, four New College undergraduates co-authored and published their first scholarly paper on October 21. It was a major step toward helping understand and conserve the vulnerable species on a global scale.

The authors include: current thesis students Cecilia Hampton and Hannah Nations, and May 2021 alumnae Karianne Kapfer and Emily Garcia. Their mentor, New College Assistant Professor of Biology and Marine Science Athena Rycyk, Ph.D., was the first author of the paper, which is entitled First Characterization of Vocalizations and Passive Acoustic Monitoring of the Vulnerable African Manatee (Trichechus senegalensis) and published in the prestigious Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. The group collaborated on the work with researchers from the African Marine Mammal Conservation Organization (AMMCO).

“It’s rewarding to work with our talented students and see them develop as scientists, and it’s very unusual at most undergraduate institutions for students to engage in science at this level,” Rycyk said, adding that the students started the research as paid interns with the Environmental Discovery Awards Program (EDAP), which is funded by the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. “The students were fully engaged in the project and developed methods to find and characterize manatee vocalizations. Being able to provide such extraordinary opportunities for students is one of the many reasons I’m grateful to be a professor at New College.”

So, what was the ultimate aim of this research? To better understand African manatees, which are—even among understudied sirenians—“a poorly understood, elusive and vulnerable species that is difficult to detect,” the authors wrote.

And how did the New College researchers help detect the creatures and characterize their vocalizations? By using passive acoustic monitoring (and it was the first effort to do so). Within two three-day periods at Lake Ossa, Cameroon, at least 3,367 individual African manatee vocalizations were detected (mostly in the middle of the night and at dusk). Call characteristics such as fundamental frequency, duration, harmonics, subharmonics and emphasized band were characterized for 289 high-quality tonal vocalizations.

“Our findings are significant beyond providing the first description of African manatee vocalizations,” Rycyk said. “We went further and developed a method to find the elusive African manatees, and our findings are already being used to expand acoustic monitoring efforts in other countries including Nigeria, Senegal, Benin (and soon, Chad).”

African manatees face numerous threats, including poaching, incidental catches in fishing nets, entrapment by dams and habitat degradation, Rycyk said. Traditional visual methods of finding the vulnerable African manatees are unreliable, as the manatees have developed cryptic behavior to avoid poaching, she said.

“Our methods do not rely on being able to see the manatees, so these methods are crucial to better understanding the species distribution,” Rycyk said.

For Hampton, working as a research intern on this project was instrumental in helping her prepare for her New College studies, as well as for her future career in marine biology.

“It was an incredibly rewarding and exciting experience to get to work with my peers and Dr. Rycyk and the accomplished researchers from AMMCO in Cameroon,” Hampton said. “I’m proud to be a published author so soon. This article was a very big part of my workload for almost a year, so publishing it is a very invigorating feeling.”

The same was true for Nations, a biopsychology major.

“I’ve been working with Professor Rycyk in one capacity or another since my first year, and I was super excited to have the chance to work on a paper with her,” Nations said. “I plan to continue working in and researching animal behavior. New College has given me the opportunity to work one-on-one with amazing professors, and to conduct research both collaboratively and on my own. These research skills are incredibly valuable to my future career plans.”

Kapfer, a marine biology major at New College, is now a graduate student at Cornell University (working in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, the K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology). Kapfer’s scientific experience at New College was a significant stepping stone, and she is continuing that research trajectory.

“I’m currently studying how wind turbines off the coast of Maryland are affecting marine mammals,” Kapfer said. “I’m taking baleen whale vocalizations and creating a dataset that will be used to teach software to automatically detect baleen whale vocalizations (so that it does not have to be done by hand).”

Kapfer learned so much from Rycyk and her peers about how to conduct this type of research, and studying at New College helped her fully realize her childhood dream.

“Ever since I was four years old, I’ve known I wanted to work with marine mammals in some capacity. But it wasn’t until my time at New College that I figured out that I wanted to pursue a career in marine bioacoustics (the production, transmission and reception of animal sound in the ocean), particularly with marine mammals,” Kapfer said. “This research is exactly in that field and it helped prepare me for my thesis on marine mammal acoustics. I believe that this experience was a key part of making my resume competitive amongst the many students applying to graduate school.”

Abby Weingarten is the senior editor in the Office of Communications & Marketing.