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Kelly Benoit-Bird: Sounding the Deep

Associate professor, College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, Oregon State University. Age: 34

By | April 1, 2011

PETER KRUPP

When her cell phone rang at 7:30 one morning last September, marine scientist Kelly Benoit-Bird eyeballed the caller ID and decided it was a prank or a wrong number. Seven months pregnant and in desperate need of some quality shut-eye, she turned over and went back to sleep. But when the phone rang again half an hour later, she relented, picked up, and croaked a groggy hello. The Oregon State University [OSU] faculty member had let the first call from the MacArthur Foundation go to voicemail. As Benoit-Bird listened, she learned she had won one of the foundation’s coveted “genius grants.”

METHOD: Benoit-Bird was told that she had been selected as a MacArthur Fellow because of her use of innovative acoustic gadgets to paint a dynamic picture of the inner workings of marine food webs, from the largest predators to microscopic plants. The first in her family to attend college, this daughter of an auto mechanic designs and makes the listening devices herself. “Tools that involve light don’t work very well because light doesn’t travel very far in the ocean,” Benoit-Bird says. “But sound travels extremely efficiently in water, and most marine animals use sound as their means of communication,” making acoustics the perfect method for understanding ocean life.

She hasn’t yet decided exactly how she’ll use the five-year, $500,000 fellowship, but Benoit-Bird hopes it will allow her to take her research in more creative and exciting directions than a traditional grant would permit.

RESULTS: A graduate of Brown University, Benoit-Bird got her PhD in zoology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where she studied the behavior of spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris) as they hunt their prey. Using homespun acoustic technology at frequencies well above dolphin hearing range, she showed that the marine mammals cooperated in groups of pairs to capture small fish and squid as the prey animals moved between deeper and shallower water in a circadian cycle.1 The young PhD student also uncovered a key feature of dolphin echolocation behavior that had escaped other marine researchers: the animals modulate the strength of the signals they use to sense prey as circumstances dictate and with as much precision as any man-made sonar device.2

Benoit-Bird’s research shows tremendous cleverness and dexterity, says Whitlow Au, her PhD advisor at the University of Hawaii. “Kelly is very good at using tools.”

DISCUSSION: These days, Benoit-Bird continues to use ingenious acoustic technology to expand our knowledge of how the oceans’ teeming masses move. For example, she’s recently charted the daily movements of sardines and anchovies off the West Coast, describing how they school at daybreak and disperse at night.3 “Kelly is a bundle of energy and new ideas,” said Mark Abbott, dean of OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences. “It’s hard to use too many superlatives to describe her.”

LITERATURE CITED

  1. K.J. Benoit-Bird, W.W.L. Au, “Prey dynamics affect foraging by a pelagic predator (Stenella longirostris) over a range of spatial and temporal scales,” Beh Ecol and Sociobiol, 53:364–73, 2003. Cited 44 times.
  2. W.W.L. Au, K.J. Benoit-Bird, “Automatic gain control in the echolocation system of dolphins,” Nature, 423:861-63, 2003. Cited 45 times.
  3. A.M. Kaltenberg, K.J. Benoit-Bird, “Diel behavior of sardine and anchovy schools in the California Current System,” Mar Ecol Prog Ser, 394:247-62, 2009. Cited 2 times.

 

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