Calls of the wild: Grants allow research of ‘alala vocalizations, other UH-Hilo projects

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To Ann Tanimoto, it sounded like an accelerating car. To biology professor Patrick Hart, a harrowing screech fitting for a haunted house.


To Ann Tanimoto, it sounded like an accelerating car. To biology professor Patrick Hart, a harrowing screech fitting for a haunted house.

But the harsh caws which rang out last week in the bioacoustics lab at the University of Hawaii at Hilo were neither. They were spectrogram recordings of an “aggressive vocalization” of a captive ‘alala (Hawaiian crow).

Tanimoto, a 2014 graduate of UH-Hilo’s Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science Program (TCBES), spent months studying aviary ‘alala calls just like it. She then compared them to those of wild ‘alala, recorded years ago before the endangered native bird went extinct in the wild.

Ultimately, Tanimoto wanted to find out if the ‘alala’s vocal repertoire changed once in captivity.

Turns out, it did.

“We found they have a higher call rate in the wild than in the aviary,” Tanimoto said, adding the wild birds also produced more alarm and territorial calls than their aviary counterparts. “We think this is because they need to communicate back and forth with each other (in the wild).”

Tanimoto’s ‘alala studies were part of “Understanding Biotic Response to Environmental Change in Tropical Ecosystems Through a Place-Based Context,” a multiyear, three-part UH-Hilo TCBES project on climate change.

The project has been allotted $1 million in yearly grant funding since at least 2009 from the Centers for Research Excellence in Science and Technology program at the National Science Foundation.

Money has funded a smattering of “sub projects” such as Tanimoto’s.

Some are tackling the “anthropogenic change and population decline on social behavior in animals,” according to a UH-Hilo news release. Others are examining functions of symbiotic organisms in Hawaiian plants and animals and a third team is looking at responses of key organisms to environmental conditions.

This month, the CREST project received its latest funding increment which will cover research activities for the 2017-18 school year.

“The idea is to provide support for graduate research related to tropical conservation biology,” said Hart, now project lead. “Without it, we’d be doing these things much more slowly.”

About eight TCBES students have participated in the research each year, Hart said.

Among those this year is Angela Beck, 30, who said she is studying the ‘i‘iwi (Hawaiian honeycreeper) and cataloging its “different songs and sounds.”

“No one has really looked at their repertoire in that much detail before,” Beck said.

Beck said grant money has funded costly recording devices, transportation and computer software — “expensive equipment” which “wouldn’t make sense for all the students to get themselves.”

“So (the grant) is a major boon to the lab and all the students,” Beck said.

The grant — awarded in five-year cycles and renewed each year — is “among the bigger ones” the 12-year-old, graduate-level TCBES program has received, Hart said.

When it ends in 2019, Hart said he hopes to see the program secure a long-term funding source and continue the project research.

“The idea here is, we’re building up the ability to continue this research after the grant,” Hart said.


“It’s positioning us to get other grants and other research to support this. We want to leverage this money to get other money to ultimately support more graduate and undergraduate research.”

Email Kirsten Johnson at

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