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Source: Massey University

Dr Wesley Webb in the ceremonial graduation robes his family surprised him with during the Level 4 lockdown.

Dr Webb’s thesis presented in 90 seconds.

Dr Webb at Tawhiti Rahi peak.

PhD graduate Dr Wesley Webb’s thesis on female birdsong, which he received in April, is the result of combining two of his passions: birds and music.

“It was quite amazing how my PhD came about,” says Dr Webb. After completing a Bachelor of Music/Bachelor of Science conjoint degree, Dr Webb had little idea how to combine these disparate interests.

“The day after handing in my Honours thesis on plankton reproduction I was facing the void- what am I going to do next? How am I going to unite my two interests that I’ve studied?” But a fateful conversation with a lecturer at the printer alerted him to a PhD on bellbird song dialects on offer at Massey University. “It hit me that this was the perfect Venn diagram intersect of music and biology. I emailed Professor Dianne Brunton straight away and the project fell into place!”

His research at Massey’s School of Natural and Computational Sciences looked at female song evolution across songbirds, and involved a detailed field study on song cultures in New Zealand bellbirds.

Female birdsong has been neglected by research, according to Dr Webb. “The traditional view is that males must compete for access females, so the males develop these showy ornaments and the females tend to be drab and non-elaborate. The concept that females would have elaborate traits like song doesn’t really fit that picture.

“But recent research shows female birds do sing, and the questions about why they sing and how their song compares to males reveal a major research gap. My study was one of the first to compare male and female song at a large scale to see if female dialects exist, and if so, how those dialects arise compared to male birds.” 

Dr Webb’s research showed that female bellbird song can be as elaborate as that of males. While there are some song syllables shared between sexes, males and females are largely singing “two different languages”.

Collaborating to create new software

Analysing the data was a challenge. With his team of recordists, Dr Webb amassed thousands of bellbird song recordings from across the Hauraki Gulf. “I manually chopped all these songs into a total of 22,000 song units (syllables), which I then had to classify into types. This was the only way I was going to be able to compare which syllable types were sung by males and females at each site.

“But I had a problem. There was no software designed to classify in bulk quickly, it’s a painstaking manual process,” says Dr Webb. Fortuitously, Webb met Massey computer scientist Yukio Fukuzawa, and they collaborated to create new web-based bioacoustics software—Koe—for rapidly classifying and analysing animal vocalisations.

Koe is now being used by dozens of researchers around the world to analyse a range of animal sounds—from songbirds, parrots, penguins and dolphins to the acoustic differences between Trump and Obama.

Koe makes it much faster to label large numbers of units at a time, allowing you to harness your auditory and visual perception simultaneously to classify units. This was crucial to allow me to classify my 22,000 bellbird song syllables.”

“This software was only possible by combining ecology and computer science. To me, this demonstrates the need for cross-disciplinary collaboration to answer today’s complex problems.”

Graduating during the Level 4 lockdown

Dr Webb was resigned to being unable to celebrate completing five years of doctoral study with his peers during the Level 4 lockdown—but his family stepped in with a surprise graduation ceremony.

They had arranged to borrow ceremonial robes from his PhD supervisor, Professor Dianne Brunton, and surprised him with them at a special family dinner. “I wasn’t expecting anything to do with graduating on that day. So to realise that my family and my supervisor made an effort to commemorate the occasion was touching. I felt very loved,” says Dr Webb.

He says it was not all plain-sailing. “In the middle of a PhD, it sometimes felt like an unattainable goal or that completing would never happen. So when you get to the finish line it’s a special feeling to realise “it happened!”.

Dr Webb would have been the Valedictorian at his graduation ceremony, and wanted to share some words from his speech to his fellow graduands:

“Why are we in science? Why did you choose science? Probably not for the money—not in ecology anyway! So, why? Because we love science. We care about saving endangered species, preventing pandemics, reversing climate change, tackling food shortages, understanding the truth about our marvellous and mysterious world and its place in the cosmos. You can’t put a dollar value on science.

“We as scientists, and science communicators, have a key role to play in saving the planet. So be ready, be resilient, embrace collaboration, and congratulations on your fantastic achievement.”