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Whale of a project: Library digitizes 50 years of Patagonia research

Each spring, southern right whales congregate off the coast of Patagonia, Argentina. In the protected bays created by PenínsulaValdés, females calve and raise their young during their first three months of life. Throughout their 60-plus years of life, the females return to this spot about once every three years. Distinct growths on their head called callosities allow researchers to visually identify individual whales and collect data on them over their lifetime. 

In 1971, Victoria Rowntree, now a University of Utah biology research professor, joined head researcher Roger Payne on a trip to his newly discovered research site in South America.

“I had previously worked for Roger at Rockefeller University and when he and his family went to Argentina for a year, he said ‘Hey Vick, you should come down here—it’s incredible,’” Rowntree said. “And so I did. I’ve been working on identifying and following the lives of individual right whales ever since.” 

At that time, most of what was known about large whales had been gained from the whalers that harvested them. As a behaviorist, Payne wanted to observe the whales over their lives and learn about things such as how often they calved and how they interacted with their environment and each other. He realized that the unique patterns of callosities on their heads provided a way to identify them as individuals throughout their lives. 

The distinct growths on the heads of right whales called callosities provide a tool for researchers to follow a whale throughout their life.

When the Patagonia right whale project began, Payne and his team used a small plane to aerially document the whales with film photography. Initially, this film was developed in a dark room set up at the research camp. A head catalog was created that organized known whales by the number, shape and placement of their markings, to make it easier to determine whether a whale had been previously identified. By the early ’80s, hundreds of individual whales were known and the sheer number of images was becoming unwieldy. 

Technological innovations continually changed the work. For example, when digital photography became available, the researchers shifted to that method of documentation in 2005. In the late 1990s, the project switched from researchers having to physically match the whales with those in the head catalog to using a computerized system that suggested likely matches. Creating the digital catalog required only a few of the best images of each known whale, which meant the vast majority of the data collected before 2005 only existed as physical slides. 

In the half-century since Payne’s first research trip to Patagonia, more than 50 people have worked on the team, including Rowntree. As time went on, many researchers including Payne, moved from the right whale project to other work. Rowntree became the longest-serving member of the team, which is how she ended up with five large filing cabinets full of slides with pictures of whales in her office at the U. 

Rowntree became the longest-serving member of the team, which is why she ended up with drawers and drawers of irreplaceable data.

“Vicky and I realized more and more that her office was the world headquarters for this kind of data,” said Jon Seger, Rowntree’s husband and an emeritus professor of biological sciences at the U. “If the big earthquake strikes and the South Biology building falls down and burns up, all the basis of this unique world treasure, this 50-year data stream, is gone.”

Not only was it concerning to have so much valuable physical data without a digital backup, having the data in one location also made the work of international researchers harder. Over the years, Argentinian researchers became primarily responsible for the project and needed to access the items Rowntree had. But to send boxes of irreplaceable old slides to another continent was a solution that seemed rife with disaster. 

Enter the J. Willard Marriott Library. 

“One of the key things our library is engaged in is making sure research data are stored and preserved in data repositories,” said Kaylee Alexander, a data librarian at the Marriott Library. 

“At the U, we have our own repository, the Hive, which anyone at the U can deposit data into. This is not meant to catch all of the data that researchers at the U are producing, but it is an option to create open scientific data in cases where field-specific repositories aren’t available or sufficient.”

University libraries play an essential role in knowledge collection and distribution. In the case of the Patagonia Right Whale project, Marriott library IT staff are helping digitize physical slides and creating a public repository of the Right Whale data that anyone will be able to access.

University libraries play an essential role in knowledge collection and distribution. In the case of the Patagonia right whale project, Marriott Library IT staff are helping digitize physical slides and creating a public repository of the right whale data that anyone will be able to access. Part of the process includes ensuring that any data that is already digital is stored in a format that will be accessible for years to come. The end result will be a free online database that can be accessed by anyone—from researchers to school children. 

“It will be an incredible relief to have this information digitized,” said Rowntree.

The open access or open science movement is an effort to get data and information out from behind paywalls so anyone can use it. University libraries play an important role in supporting this effort and there are many ways librarians can help researchers who want their work to be available to others at no cost. 

“One role of someone like a data librarian is to act as a concierge service and direct folks to places where they can preserve their information and make it more accessible,” Alexander said. “They can also help you make your research results replicable through data accessibility, which helps ensure scholarly due diligence.”

Lowering the barrier to data access benefits research in many ways. It allows for other researchers to add to the data set, which organically expands knowledge, and for more research to be reproduced. While reproducing research has been a long-time standard in fields like medicine, it’s a newer practice in the humanities, Alexander said.

According to Alexander, the process for digitizing data and placing them in a repository varies from project to project and field to field, however, it’s always best to start by creating a data management plan. This document answers questions such as: What kind of data is being collected? How much data is being collected? Who is responsible for which parts of the research process? And, where will the data be housed? Though developing a plan can be a lot of work, national funding agencies require grant recipients to create such a road map even in the humanities. Putting in the effort upfront is the best way to ensure data will be as accessible as possible. 

“Consulting with a librarian through this process helps researchers decide how to organize this information so it can be accessible for the long term,” Alexander said. 

Beyond helping researchers deposit their data in a repository, librarians can also help develop visualization tools that make data easier for people from a variety of backgrounds to understand. 

“If you really want to reach the people who the research is going to impact, you have to think about the best way to present the information,” she said. “Is it creating a series of data visualization dashboards? Is it curating a digital exhibition?”

Thinking about who will be able to use the right whale data when it is on the library’s website is exciting for Rowntree. 

“It’s my dream for a group of eighth graders learning how to ask questions of a data set to be able to use this information,” Rowntree said. “They can ask questions like, How in how many years was this whale seen with a calf? How many calves were born this year? A lot of calves died this year—what may have happened? The library’s interface is what will allow people to ask questions like this and learn from the data set.”