Combining music and movement is not unusual—but translating the movements of migrating marine animals into musical notes certainly is. An international research team including KAUST scientists have created a sound symphony using data charting the movements of northern elephant seals in the Pacific Ocean. This sonification technique provides surprising insights into group dynamics and synchronicity.
“Many studies have analyzed single-animal tracks, but collective movement is rarely addressed,” says Carlos Duarte from KAUST, who led the project in collaboration with colleagues including Madhu Srinivasan from KAUST’s Visualization Core Lab, and scientists in the United States.
“When faced with more than a million data points capturing the underwater movements of 321 individual seals over 10 years, we needed a novel way of getting the data to 'talk’ to us,” Duarte explains.
A key challenge when faced with big data is finding meaningful ways of representing the data to extract valuable information. Sonification—adding sound to data to trace individual movements—has a long history within scientific disciplines, but has never been used on animal migration data before. The team spent a lot of time deciding which elements of the data could be represented using sound.
“We only had raw, time-stamped GPS traces for the seals’ migration to begin with,” says Srinivasan. “We explored many parameters derived from these traces, such as speed, straightness-index, and group dispersion. In the end, we focused on the position and spread of individual groups (comprising between four and 30 animals) relative to the location of the main colony.”
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