Marine biologists who study whales and dolphins aren’t big on computers. At sea for months at a time, the wind in their hair and the salt spray on their laptops, they record much of their data by hand, noting every time a whale surfaces, slaps its flukes or pairs up with a pal. The process is tedious…and essential.
Perhaps that’s why some biologists are raving about SOCPROG, a series of data-mining programs that analyse animals’ social structure, populations and movements. Written by Hal Whitehead, a Canadian biologist who studies sperm whales and northern bottlenose whales, SOCPROG comes into play after the researchers have entered their field notes into a computer.
Unlike off-the-shelf data mining programs, which do not allow scientists to readily correlate observations from different times and places, SOCPROG organizes and analyses the data on individual animals. Over time, the program can, for example, flag a whale that always surfaces first, thereby spotting a pod’s leader.
Whitehead, a self-proclaimed computer geek and a professor of biology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, released the latest update of SOCPROG early last year. Since then, Whitehead says, it has been downloaded (http://is.dal.ca/~whitelab/index.htm) for free by more than 40 scientists around the world.
Robin Baird, a Hawaii-based post-doctoral fellow at Dalhousie who studies killer whales and dolphins, says SOCPROG has enabled him to identify patterns of behaviour never noted before. He recently discovered a subspecies of killer whale, for example, that eats other small whales and dolphins, too. “[SOCPROG] allows people who don’t have a programming background to do very sophisticated analyses relatively easily,” Baird says.
If Captain Ahab had had SOCPROG, perhaps Moby Dick would not have taken him unawares.