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Wednesday, February 28, 2024
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Swimming against the tide: one UB professor’s controversial whale song research

Despite accolades, professor Mercado’s research is still shunned by some in his field

<p>Unlike most mammals, whales can flexibly control where they concentrate acoustic energy and regularly reorganize their vocal repertoires as adults.&nbsp;</p>

Unlike most mammals, whales can flexibly control where they concentrate acoustic energy and regularly reorganize their vocal repertoires as adults. 

Despite earning recognition in his field, winning a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship and dedicating years of his life to his work, Eduardo Mercado III, isn’t particularly fond of researching whale songs. 

In fact, he got into it by complete accident. 

While attending grad school at the University of Hawaii to study dolphin cognition, Mercado, now a UB psychology professor, was asked to assist his advisor in humpback whale studies.

“No one else was doing the same kinds of analyses I was. I always kind of hoped somebody else would do it so I wouldn’t have to, but they never did,” Mercado, who also studies autism and dog cognition, said. “So I just keep doing it. Over the years I’ve said I was gonna stop like three or four times now. Like, ‘Never again will I analyze these things.’ And I keep on doing it.”

But Mercado approached the mystery of why humpback whales sing with curiosity and a scientific sense of duty to find answers to questions that he couldn’t ignore.

“If they weren’t going to do it, someone should do it, and I could do it. So I did feel obligated to do it in that sense,” said Mercado. “But I kept finding things that no one's ever seen before. It's kind of rewarding.”

Mercado’s research has put him at odds with the prevailing scientific consensus on whale songs. Most researchers believe that whales use the songs — some of the most complex sound sequences made by any animal — to communicate and mate with each other. 

But Mercado’s controversial studies assert that whales’ songs — which can be as loud as gunshots, travel for tens of miles and last for hours — are used for echolocation, allowing whales to locate other animals or objects around them.

Several attributes of whale vocalization have led Mercado to his theory: whales can flexibly control where they concentrate acoustic energy to minimize potential interference from overlapping echoes, and they are the only non-human animals that regularly reorganize their vocal repertoires as adults.

“Most animals don't have a lot of control over what sounds they make. Dogs bark a certain way, and they usually bark that same way their whole life,” said Mercado. “But in the case of humans, we can learn new languages, we can learn to sing new songs, and we’re not stuck with whatever sounds kind of come out of us. Humpback whales keep on making new sounds their whole lives. They never stopped changing them. So it’s us and them, basically, that are able to do it.”

Mercado also couldn’t understand how females could judge songs for mating appeal when they changed every year and became distorted over long distances. He began comparing whales to bats, who adapt their echolocation sounds to new environments and whether they are among a group, which led him to his current theory.

Despite his doubt that the calls are primarily for mating purposes, Mercado does believe whales may gain some information from each other's calls, such as where they are, what they are trying to do and whether the singer is male or female.

“I don't think they know, like, ‘That’s Bob.’ They don’t recognize individuals because they don’t stay together in social groups for very long,” Mercado said.

There is a contingency of researchers — mostly ocean acousticians, oceanographers and birdsong researchers — who are receptive to Mercado’s point of view regarding whales.

But his conclusions have their detractors. Mercado says the other people who study whale songs think he’s “insane” and treat him as such. 

“They’re antagonistic. When I submit papers, they’re not very kind to my studies,” Mercado said. “It takes me a long time to get anything published. I have to fight, fight, fight, fight, fight for every single paper.”

Mercado is no stranger to questioning mainline thinking. He’ll even go as far as to say that the mating-purpose crowd ignores data that contradicts their theories. 

Mercado’s willingness to call out his contemporaries is perhaps best illustrated by his study, “On the right way to crack nuts and farm fruit.” In that paper, he writes a fellow researcher’s perspective on culture among animals “may foster confirmation bias, tunnel vision and dogmatism rather than amplify scientific productivity.” 

“If I find something, I feel like at least I should be the voice saying, ‘Wait, did you look at this thing, which you’re not paying attention to, that makes a difference?’ Maybe it’s that I’m more willing to be the person that nobody wants to hear talk,” Mercado said. “I’m sort of attacking people, not intentionally, but I’m saying, ‘What you’re claiming is true is not true.’ So it’s not surprising they would not be happy about it.”

The criticism of his work hasn’t stopped him from earning accolades. The Guggenheim Fellowship, granted yearly to 175 exceptional scholars, awarded Mercado $60,000, which he plans on putting toward publishing a book of his work with the New Jersey Institute of Technology and supplementing his salary outside of work.

Mercado is also the principal investigator of UB’s Neural and Cognitive Plasticity Laboratory, which mainly focuses on cortical plasticity, the brain’s ability to change as a function of experience.

The lab’s focus connects to whales in their potential to understand ourselves better. Humpback whales learn things other animals don’t, just as humans do.

“Why are we the weird primates? And why are they the weird marine animals?” Mercado said. “Maybe you get some better sense about these kinds of changes in the brain and what leads to this kind of flexibility. Then, you might have a better sense about what factors determine what’s possible.”

In addition to seeking to understand the brain, Mercado’s lab researches and raises awareness of ocean warming and noise pollution.

“When ships come through, they drown out the ocean,” said Mercado. “At points in the day, there’s continuous noise for hours. Then the question is, ‘What’s that going to do to these whales that try to use sound at the same time as this?”

Mercado also speculates that rising ocean temperatures could affect the travel of the whale songs. He believes there may be a tipping point in our future that endangers whole ecosystems and leads to the extinction of humpback whales. 

Mercado begrudgingly expects his research to continue examining whale songs. One area he wants to pursue is what whales do when multiple whales sing at the same time. He predicts that if they’re echolocating, they’re going to adjust their sound in specific ways.

“For the next few years I'm focusing on the humpback whale question,” Mercado said. “In part because I got this fellowship… I guess now it's the momentum partly, but I do feel like I want to reach a point where I can say, ‘There, I did my part,’ and then move on to other things. We’ll see if that happens or not.”

Dominick Matarese is a features editor and can be reached at dominick.matarese@ubspectrum.com 


DOMINICK MATARESE
dominick-matarese.jpg

Dominick Matarese is the Senior Features Editor at the Spectrum. He enjoys writing about interesting people, places, and things. In addition to running an independent blog, he has worked worked with the Owego Pennysaver, BROOME Magazine, the Fulcrum Newspaper, and Festisia. He is passionate about music journalism and can be found enjoying live music most weekends. 

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