News Round Up: aquatic vocal fry, fossilizing plankton and a high seas treaty : Short Wave Reading the science headlines this week, we have A LOT of questions. Why are more animals than just humans saddled — er, blessed — with vocal fry? Why should we care if 8 million year old plankton fossils are in different locations than plankton living today? And is humanity finally united on protecting the Earth's seas with the creation of the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction treaty? Luckily, it's the job of the Short Wave team to decipher the science behind the headlines. This week, that deciphering comes from co-hosts Emily Kwong and Aaron Scott, with the help of NPR climate correspondent Lauren Sommer. Hang out with us as we dish on some of the coolest science stories in this ocean-themed installment of our regular newsy get-togethers!

Have suggestions for what we should cover in our next news round up? Email us at

News Round Up: aquatic vocal fry, fossilizing plankton and a high seas treaty

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You're listening to SHORT WAVE...


KWONG: ...From NPR.

Hey, SHORT WAVErs, Emily Kwong here with my co-host, Aaron Scott.


Hello, hello. It's so nice...


SCOTT: ...To be in the flesh in a studio with you.

KWONG: It's true. We're recording in person for the first time, which is pretty awesome. And we're joined also by our beloved West Coast climate correspondent, Lauren Sommer. Hi, Lauren.


KWONG: Hi. So today, we are back for another roundtable discussion of science in the news.

SCOTT: Where we look at social media - we looked at the journals; we looked at the headlines, seeking out some science nuggets that catch our eyes.

KWONG: Got to catch them all. And we've got an ocean-themed roundup for you this week. I'll be kicking us off with aquatic vocal fry. It's not just for public radio reporters.

SCOTT: "This American Life" aquatic.


SOMMER: And then, I've got a story about a legion of tiny, little sea creatures fossilizing on the sea floor.

SCOTT: And then, to round it out, I have big news on a long, long, long brewing negotiation over how to protect the high seas.


KWONG: Today on the show, science from the depths of the ocean. You're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.


SOMMER: Oh, what is that?


SCOTT: Emily, where are you taking us?

KWONG: We are diving down, my friends...

SCOTT: Down, deep down.

KWONG: ...In submarine SHORT WAVE to visit some ocean science making waves on shore. And our first stop is a visit with this friendly guy.


KWONG: Any guesses as to what this is?

SCOTT: Is that a dolphin?

KWONG: It is a dolphin.

SCOTT: That's a dolphin.

KWONG: I know. I love dolphins, OK? It's a bottlenose dolphin recorded by European scientists who were trying to understand how dolphins and other-toothed whales, like orcas, are able to produce these sounds. It's been a mystery. They published their findings in the journal Science last week with some answers.

SOMMER: So do we know what they're saying?

KWONG: It's saying - I don't really know, but let me guess that it's, I'm hungry.


KWONG: And that's 'cause...

SCOTT: Feed me, Seymore.

KWONG: Yeah. Toothed whales, they're excellent hunters. They're able to track fast-moving prey underwater in complete darkness. And they actually do this through echolocation. Like, the clicks you're hearing, those short, powerful, ultrasonic sounds, helps them determine the size and shape of their environment.

SCOTT: So very much like bats do up here on land...

KWONG: Yeah.

SCOTT: ...They're doing under the sea.

KWONG: Yeah, it's just like bats except no one knew how toothed whales were doing it because deep in the sea, you have so little lung capacity and airflow to produce these sounds. Also, their repertoire of sound is pretty wide. They're not just making these echolocation clicks...


KWONG: ...But dolphins are also out here doing high-pitched whistles.


KWONG: And then, there's Flipper with these bursts.


SCOTT: (Laughter) Hey, Flipper.

SOMMER: There it is.

KWONG: Yeah, it brings back childhood, right?

SCOTT: Uh-huh.

KWONG: So one leading theory - and the researchers proved this - is that the sound was coming from a special structure deep in their nose called the phonic lips.

SCOTT: And how did they prove that?

KWONG: (In nasal tone) Well, they did something kind of invasive.

They took an endoscope, like a tube with a little camera on it, and they put it on the blowhole of these trained, captive dolphins...


KWONG: ...And porpoises.

SCOTT: Rude.

KWONG: They're fine. They're fine. And they actually, like, filmed the nasal tissues moving.

SCOTT: They put a tube down their nose...

KWONG: Yeah.

SCOTT: ...To find their voice box.

KWONG: Yeah. To really prove that the sound production was coming from this place, they set up an experiment with harbor porpoises that had died in the wild, and they passed air through the phonic lips. And when even a little air passed, the lips would separate and then collide, causing that tissue vibration and producing those sound waves.


KWONG: So they isolated the structure responsible for dolphin noises. Our colleague Ari Daniel spoke to one of the researchers, Coen Elemans of the University of Southern Denmark, about this.

COEN ELEMANS: Instead, they move just like a human voice - by airflow. And that's a really striking parallel.

SOMMER: OK. So they use air just like us even though there's not much air to use.

KWONG: Yeah, they're able to conserve that air and use just little bits of it when they're hunting, which really shows the mechanics of how toothed whales hunt at depth. Also, toothed whales have three distinct vocal registers they were able to measure through this experiment. They have a chest voice like I'm using right now. They have a head voice, which makes the whistle sounds you hear.

SCOTT: Is that like a dolphin falsetto?

KWONG: Yeah.

SCOTT: So, like, (in falsetto) hey, porpoise.

KWONG: Wow. I don't know what just happened to me.


KWONG: But, yep, that's right. And their third voice is what makes echolocation possible. It's their vocal fry register. So the same way that (in vocal fry tone) we sound like this, a dolphin would sound like this.


SCOTT: Emily, obviously, we need to invite dolphins to our next vocal exercise workshop...

KWONG: (Laughter).

SCOTT: ...'Cause they got something to teach us.

KWONG: They do. They're masters of it.

SOMMER: (In vocal fry tone) Totally.

KWONG: Lauren, you have a creature feature story in the ocean for us, but these are, like, itty-bitty ones. Tell us about it.

SOMMER: Yes. Yeah, it's something that really doesn't get enough respect. And to learn about it, I spoke to a micropaleontologist.

SCOTT: Wait, wait, wait. So a regular paleontologist studies fossils. What makes for a micro one?

KWONG: Oh, my God. Are we getting tiny sea dinos?

SCOTT: Or just tiny paleontologists?

SOMMER: (Laughter) No. I'm very sorry. But when I did speak to that micropaleontologist - Adam Woodhouse is his name.

KWONG: Yeah.

SOMMER: He's a postdoc at the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics. He said that's what most people assume it means - tiny dinos. He actually studies plankton. It's a kind called foraminifera.

KWONG: OK, that makes more sense. The tiny dinos in this context are plankton.

SCOTT: And yet do plankton make fossils?

SOMMER: These do, actually. So these plankton are the size of a grain of sand. They kind of float around in the ocean. And when they die, their tiny shells fall to the ocean floor. And over time, layers of them build up. They're microfossils. And in a new study, Adam and his colleagues found that 8 million years ago, when the oceans were warmer, those plankton were in very different places. They were actually closer to the poles, about 2,000 miles from where they are now.

KWONG: Oh, wow.

SOMMER: And with climate change, we're kind of heating up the oceans in the same way now.

SCOTT: Interesting. So by looking at the past, could it actually help us understand what our future might hold with climate change?

SOMMER: Yeah, exactly. You know, will plankton make this move and shift towards the poles in a big way?

KWONG: That's amazing. But just to ask - why do we care about where plankton are hanging out?

SOMMER: I'm so glad you asked that. They're the base of the food chain.

KWONG: That's true.

SOMMER: Right? So where they are, you will find tuna and billfish and squid and these things that billions of people depend on, you know, for food and for livelihoods. So it's kind of an important clue about where these food webs might go.

SCOTT: Which is going to be a big issue because, I mean, if they move miles away, the local fisheries and communities who depend on these fish or other seafood, they're going to be kind of out of luck or really have to make some big changes.

SOMMER: Yeah, yeah. And we're already starting to see that become a problem because, you know, marine life and fish, they don't really care about borders and boundaries and these things that humans have created. But the way we manage fisheries, the way we protect ecosystems, are still kind of built around these fixed lines on a map.

KWONG: Yeah.

SOMMER: So predicting some of these changes is really important.

KWONG: Yeah, it is a fundamental disconnect between the reality of oceans and how we manage them as humans. And speaking of borderless oceans, for the final big-picture look at what's happening down there, Aaron Scott, you've got a whole international ocean treaty?

SCOTT: Yes. Yes, so trying to figure out who owns the seas. Countries have been negotiating over this for two decades...

KWONG: Yeah.

SCOTT: ...Trying to figure out how do we protect these areas that are beyond the control of individual countries. And they finally did it. On March 4, they released the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction Treaty.

KWONG: I feel like I should clap. Is this a big deal?

SCOTT: You can have a small applause - or a big applause.


SOMMER: It is a big deal.

KWONG: All right.

SOMMER: It's a big deal because these international waters, they cover about half the planet, and they're not really regulated. They're not protected right now.

KWONG: So what is in this treaty, this Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction document?

SCOTT: So it's basically creating this legal framework that will allow countries to create big marine protected areas out there in the ocean - think, like, big national parks, like Grand Canyons of the sea - where things like fishing or mining or drilling can be restricted. That's seen as, like, a critical step in getting to the 30-by-30 goal, where we're protecting 30% of the planet by 2030. Treaty also sets up ground rules for how countries can assess, like, the impact of various things they might do out in the ocean. And then it sets up a way to share the benefits and the profits from any sort of genetic resources that are discovered out there. So, like, you know, if someone finds the cure to cancer in a cuttlefish, they don't get to just keep all the profits for themselves.

KWONG: Yeah. You're reminding me of an episode that Berly McCoy and I did about the novel chemicals at the bottom of the sea, but how to assign, like, who's discovered them...


KWONG: ...And who do they belong to? It sounds like it maybe clarified this.

SCOTT: That was a big sticking point that they really had to figure out.

KWONG: All right. So does this mean the oceans are protected?

SCOTT: I'd like to say so, but we still got a long ways to go. Countries have to first adopt the treaty text, then they have to ratify it. And, you know, hate to be any sort of spoiler here, but the U.S. still hasn't ratified the last U.N. ocean treaty from 40 years ago.

KWONG: What?

SCOTT: Yeah, so there's still work to do. And then once it is ratified, negotiators have to figure out how they're actually going to manage and enforce all these protected areas. And then there's the big thing where they have to actually do it.

SOMMER: Yeah. Having covered these types of things before, it is all about the details going forward. But, you know, still a big deal, still a big first step.

SCOTT: Big deal. Applause.

KWONG: I'm applauding, but I think I would rather be born again in the next life as a whale, to be quite honest. They sound like they have more fun.

SCOTT: So whales singing - like whale Beyonce?

KWONG: (Singing) Yes, that's right.

Well, thank you both so much. It's been great talking to you about what's going on in our oceans.

SCOTT: Fossils keep falling on my head suddenly.

SOMMER: (Laughter) Thanks for letting me hang out, guys. This was great.


KWONG: This episode was produced by Berly McCoy. It was edited by Rebecca Ramirez and fact-checked by Anil Oza. The audio engineer was Alex Drewenskus. Brendan Crump is our podcast coordinator. Beth Donovan is our senior director. And Anya Grundmann is our senior vice president of programming. I'm Emily Kwong.

SCOTT: I'm Aaron Scott.

SOMMER: And I'm Lauren Sommer.

KWONG: And thank you for listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.


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