Interview with Whale Listening Researcher Leticiaà Legat

As many of you know I am interested in using art to build connections and help make science more accessible (specifically marine sciences). Often science and art can feel worlds apart, but at the heart of these two ways of thinking is very often the same motivator: nature.

Leticiaà LegatA few weeks ago I had the unexpected pleasure of meeting Whale-Listener-and-Marine-Bio-Art-ologist Leticiaà Legat through Instagram. It is nice to know that you can still meet people and stay connected while maintaining physical distance. But when the other person lives in Brazil, it’s really the easiest and best way to meet anyways. After numerous messages and lengthy e-mails back and forth I quickly realized that Leticiaà is someone that you should meet as well. I asked her if she would mind my interviewing her on my blog and she has graciously agreed to share some of her experiences, thoughts and photos with you and I.


Natasha: Leticiaà, thank you for being so willing to share with us! What is it about whales that has drawn you to study them? Can you tell us a little about your background and education history?

Leticiaà: First of all, thank you for having me, and for your kind words! I’ve loved animals (and the sea) since I can remember, and by the time I was 6 I knew I wanted to be a Biologist. Whales entered the game a few years later. My brother was driving me to school one day, and telling me some killer whale tales he’d recently learnt. I grew instantly obsessed. Back then, the internet was not a thing (ha!), but with each new little scrap of info I slowly added together, the fascination only grew. Particularly in regards to their behavior and social structure. That holds true until today! So by age 10 began my dream of being a killer whale behavior researcher, which I’m so incredibly grateful I eventually got to do! The love for animal behavior and acoustics eventually grew bigger, and spread towards a huge range of taxa. Nowadays I’d likely be happy studying any cool vocalizing creature.

Leticiaà Legat doing field work

Leticiaà Legat doing field work

Background and education wise, I have a double bachelor in Biology, an MSc in Oceanography (analyzing contaminant levels in dolphin tissues), and was half way through my PhD when a whole lot of life happened. I am now getting slowly back at it, but have transferred to an MPhil instead. During and after graduating (some 14 years ago) I have worked with bird behavior; coordinated behavioral research in a big marine mammal project in Northeast Brazil, which also included collaborating with, and helping local fishermen and kids understand whales better; taught undergraduate university courses; had the pleasure to be an intern at a Brazilian Oceanographic museum; a visiting researcher at the Vancouver Aquarium marine mammal research lab (where I discovered my love for Bioacoustics); and did a few more internships and volunteering, in Brazil and abroad. I’m currently writing up my postgrad research on whale acoustic behavior. More specifically, Icelandic killer whales and North Pacific humpback whales feeding calls.

Natasha: What is this research about?

Leticiaà:  I looked in detail into two incredibly similar calls that Icelandic killer whales and North Pacific humpback whales use. They are both loud, low frequency, long calls; and are used only in one behavioral context: while feeding on herring schools. So, we have two very different cetacean species (fairly distantly related in evolutionary terms), which live in different oceans, using a very similar call, for the exact same purpose. They haven’t heard the call from one another and copied it, nor do they have similar acoustic repertoires to begin with. In fact, the calls’ frequencies are out of the optimal hearing range of killer whales, meaning is too low for them to efficiently communicate in.

Killer whale off Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland. Photo credit Leticiaà Legat

Killer whale off Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland. Photo credit: Leticiaà Legat. This photo was taken under research license, with a tele-lens and cropped. Please respect all guidelines when in the presence of whales.

This is what we call convergent evolution; a process in which not closely related organisms independently evolve a similar trait, to adapt to similar ecological niches. Meaning the two calls evolved twice (once in each cetacean population), to serve the same end: help in herring capture. These calls have been known and independently studied for a few decades, but never looked into together/ comparatively. By statistical analyses, I could for the first time compare both calls, and show just how similar they are (strikingly so!). The calls seem to be used to manipulate the schooling behavior of herring groups, which (research shows) groups tighter when the calls are emitted. This in turn should make it easier for both bubble-netting humpbacks to trap, and tail slapping killer whales to hit the prey before consuming it.


Break between land-based observation sessions in Cetacealabe, Gil Island, BC. Photo credit Sam Rose Philips

Break between land-based observation sessions in Cetacealabe, Gil Island, BC. Photo credit: Sam Rose Philips

Which’s really interesting, since the herring schooling behavior is in itself, originally, an anti-predator strategy (now being exploited by predators!). Interestingly too, the calls frequency is also in the resonance frequency of the herring swim bladder, which could have several implications, and be precisely why this frequency was evolutionarily selected. The call also seems to be spreading, at least in the humpback population, meaning other whales are learning to use it too. Learning has been previously described for several cetacean species, including the ones I’m studying, and this component adds a whole other layer of interest regarding cognition (learning, innovating, problem solving…), and social structure (who hangs out with whom, in which contexts, for how long, etc.). In other words, there’s still lots of missing pieces in this puzzle, including the ones I was to look into before the aforementioned “lot of life” happened… But that’s how science happens, cooperatively. Adding new research (pieces) together with previous data, until we get to see the whole picture. Here’s hoping I get to dive back into it someday soon!

Natasha: Do you have a favourite whale species? And can you tell us why?

Leticiaà: I think I’ll stick with killer whales here (even though they’re big dolphins). Their cognitive abilities (the learning, problem solving, innovating thing again) are very  impressive. And I find it fascinating that whilst having only one recognized species worldwide (so far, despite genetic evidence suggesting otherwise), there are SO many different types, with such different diets, specializations, behaviors, complex social structures, morphology, acoustic repertoires… So many different cultures altogether, even when sharing the same habitat. And it doesn’t hurt that they are beautiful creatures to look at, and sound pretty good as well. That being said, I dream of one day seeing a blue whale, and have a special fondness towards minke whales (so overlooked!), long finned pilot whales, and southern right whale dolphins.

Natasha: What role does art have in your life? Do you find that your research informs the art you create? What type of art do you enjoy making?

Leticiaà: Art has been part of my life since I was a kid. I have experimented with several media over the years, but eventually abandoned all (but nature photography) for a really long time. This was before I connected the arts and science dots in my head, you see. I continued to adore, admire, and respect art.

Bubble netting papercut by Leticiaà Legat

Bubble netting papercut by Leticiaà Legat

But somehow started thinking of all the art I did as time wasting hobbies (even scientific drawing!), and forgot how much nourishment and balance I get out of creating. Of how truly powerful it can be, including for research communication. It took me getting incredibly ill long term, to very recently relearn that, and see how much I need art in my life. That also helped me realize that art and science are simply different ways of investigating nature, and sharing my love for it. And that’s how Biopliliarts was born. I’ve only just started tending to it properly, so here’s hoping it’ll grow beautiful and strong! I do mostly nature inspired art, love to experiment with different media, and aim to share some of my knowledge through it (or at least in the accompanying texts, as I also love some whimsy…).

Fun, bizarre, possibly too disturbing fact: in a way, my research not only informs my art (I have a gazillion whale photos, plus a few animal design ideas floating in my mind at any given time), but it actually has given me the skills required to do some of it… During my PhD I discovered paper cutting art, which in time became my favorite media. You basically use craft knives or surgical scalpels (I use scalpel blades in craft knives, for comfort) to cut paper into patterns, revealing your chosen design. I was instantly fairly good at it, for the weirdest reason: dolphin necropsy skills. During my internship at the oceanographic museum, and later during my MSc, I did countless necropsies and tissue collection on dolphins that had washed up dead (more commonly drowned while entangled in fishing nets…). It’s a really sad reality. But I’ve also always appreciated that with marine mammals, contrary to most other Zoology subjects, we never kill animals for collections or analyses (something I could never do). We only collect either very tiny dart biopsies samples, or sample already dead animals.

Natasha: Can you give a few examples of some of the places that you have traveled to because of your love of whales?

Leticiaà: I’ll start by saying that whales have great taste in places! haha Having grown up over 1500km from the ocean, as soon as I finished my undergraduate degree I started chasing whales around. First in the beautiful (and unbearably hot) Northeast of Brazil, then the Southeast of the country (Santa Catarina – thoroughly worth visiting, and Rio – not really a fan, but also worth visiting), and then I moved to British Columbia (enough said!). I lived in the English countryside (of all places!) for the past 6 years. I chose to move there to study under my brilliant supervisor. Meanwhile, I did field research in British Columbia and Iceland, and brought the data home for analyses. And I’ve visited Scotland often, for courses and such. I have also been to both Washington DC (what?) and Denmark (with a stop at the Faroe Islands on the way!) for Bioacoustics graduate summer schools. Finally, marine mammal researchers have a way of choosing beautiful places for conferences. I’ve been to meetings in Nova Scotia, San Francisco, South of England, Scotland, a different place in Denmark… Ah, and of course, I’ve been to Patagonia! That was my dream destination since I discovered the local killer whales as a 10 yo, and I got to visit (and see them!) ten years later, before even becoming a Biologist.

Natasha: What is it about whales that you find the most interesting? 

Leticiaà: I’m mainly interested in behavior and acoustics, particularly predator-prey dynamics (like the feeding call research for example), and how novel behaviors or calls spread through populations (or across populations at times!). Sound is the most important tool cetaceans use to perceive their environment, navigate, communicate, find prey, find mates, and in some cases, manipulate prey behavior. So there’s a whole lot we can learn simply by listening. And (particularly with increasing levels of anthropogenic noise) it’s very important that we do so. There’s a lot we don’t know yet. And since cetaceans spend most of the time entirely submersed, researchers are at a huge disadvantage when studying their behavior in comparison to, say, wild pig researchers, who can see their study animals most of the time. With increasingly fancy technology though, the underwater world is becoming more and more accessible to us.

Natasha: Can you tell us about your favourite whale encounter or experience?

Humpback whales bubble-net feeding in British Columbia, Canada. Photo credit Leticiaà Legat

Humpback whales bubble-net feeding in British Columbia, Canada. Photo credit: Leticiaà Legat. This photo was taken from shore with a tele-lens and cropped. Please respect all guidelines when in the presence of whales.

Leticiaà: I think most of them happened in Iceland. The killer whale juveniles and calves spent my first field season there chasing the hydrophone array we towed behind our boat (like a 60m huge hose, filled with sound recording equipment). It was a lot of fun to watch them investigating it, and I got fantastic recordings from it. Until one day, after they`d been particularly relentless in the chase, I pulled the array back on board at the end of the day, to discover they had chewed the end bit off! I still don’t believe it and I was there… After that day they completely lost interest though. The Icelandic pilot whale encounters were fascinating too, and are possibly my favorite thing. They arrive in several small organized groups of over a hundred individuals in total. Vocalizing non-stop, with perfectly coordinated movements, they mob the killer whales, charging at them at full speed, and chasing them out of the area. It’s fascinating and terrifying to watch. We started calling them pirate whales…

In Cetacealab, Gil Island, BC (whose researchers generously made their long term data collection available for my analyses), we’d sleep lulled by whale breathing sounds, and watch several species from shore, sometimes swimming right under the lab’s observation balcony… It’s the best way to see (and study) whales when possible, really. Without interfering at all in their behavior.

Natasha: For someone who is interested in whales and would like to learn more (like myself), are there any recourses that you recommend?

Leticiaà: I know and trust the work of @oceanwise, @merssociety, @BCWhales, @soundsciencecollective, @icelandic.orcas, @centerforwhaleresearch, @alaska_whale_foundation, and @themarinedetective (the latter on marine life in general, not only whales), all on Instagram. I also recommend checking out the work of the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust and of North Gulf Oceanic Society on Facebook. They all do research, outreach, and education, the sacred science tripod. There are plenty more great projects a google search away as well (yay internet!).

Books wise, I remember really enjoying reading Orca: The Whale Called Killer by Erich Hoyt and The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins by Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell. And if despite the use of specialist language you’re at all interested, nowadays it’s fairly easy to get hold of some scientific papers for free. You can either look for them on Google Scholar or Research Gate, a sort of “social media for scientists” type thing. Many researchers make their publications available there, and if not, most will also be happy to send you a copy if you get in touch via email (if they’re not crazy busy!).

Natasha: Finally, do you have any favourite whale related fun facts you can leave us with? 

Leticiaà: Yes!

  • Cetaceans are born tail first, a neat adaptation that means they won’t drown in case the birth takes a while.
  • Blue whales are the largest animals to have EVER lived on Earth. How cool is that? Calves can gain over 100kg a day in the first few months of life by nursing on their mother’s rich, fatty milk.
  • I’ve once listened to a recording of narwhal vocalizations, and no kidding, it sounded like the intro theme for The Addams Family.
  • The sound used for the dolphin in the infamous 90s movie “Flipper” was actually an altered kookaburra bird call!
  • Minke whales have a very particular, strong smell. They are often referred to as “stinky minkes” by researchers.

To learn more about Leticiaà’s art practice you can check out her Biophiliarts website by clicking here and follow her Instagram page by clicking here.

I would send a big thank you to Leticiaà for being so open and willing to share! It feels special to have a peek into the scientific world and learn about what is being studied. And it is always a pleasure to meet someone that also shares a love of sci-art (science-inspired art). Oh, how I love those papercuts! =)

6 thoughts on “Interview with Whale Listening Researcher Leticiaà Legat

  1. Hi Natasha:
    This encounter, and interview, was fascinating. What a wonderful person! I suspect you two hit it off 101%! Common interests and common approaches to the subject. I wonder if you’re going to be making a stop in Brazil when conditions allow. Your interviewee made her focused visits to various countries (as she followed specific whales) enticing even to me.
    I hope you two have many more reasons to meet, and ossicle work together…on the water or in the art studio.

    • Hello Shirley. I am so glad to hear that you enjoyed this post! I really enjoyed working with Leticiaà to put it together. You are correct, we clicked right away! I would love to go to Brazil, and it would be neat to meet in person. =) Thank you for your comments and feedback!

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