Life on Air: Listening in on Nature

Published at www.bluesci.org 

Some sort of bubbled ‘moo’. That’s what I assumed manatees were going to sound like. A muffled Chewbacca would have been acceptable but what I definitely hadn’t expected to hear was anything even resembling a squeak. But that’s what was mincing into my left ear whilst my right was being filled by an anonymous biologist calmly telling me the time and how long the hydrophone had been in the water.

Browsing the Macaulay Library online archive – curated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and, with over 170,000 tracks of birds alone, the world’s largest archive of wildlife recordings – had resulted in a series of similar surprises: that white storks sounded like chainsaws ticking over, that half-tonne seacows sounded like guinea pigs, and that short-eared possums sounded like, well, nothing I’d ever heard before.

Until relatively recently, the ability to record in the field was hampered by the bulk and expense of the equipment used. Technicians were continually frustrated by the lack of repair facilities and difficulties arising when operating in less than clement conditions resulted in a very small number of pioneering collectors. So it came as no surprise to learn that the origin of the Macaulay Library’s archive lay not only with a graduate student with an interest in electrical sound equipment, but also with an ex-New York broker. On the other side of the Atlantic, Professor Günter Tembrock admitted a flair for collecting when interviewed for Human Ontogenetics in 2008. It was perhaps this side of his personality that led to his founding and curation of the “Tierstimmenarchiv” in Berlin, which now houses over 110,000 recordings and, as such, holds the record for the largest European archive for animal sounds.

As these archives were mainly founded by a handful of individuals, collections were originally focused around a few animals on which specific research was taking place. The Tierstimmenarchiv, for example, still has a huge collection of red fox recordings due to the interest Tembrock took in documenting their behaviour during the ‘50s. Similarly Robert Stein was working on flycatchers during the same time and amassed a huge collection of calls for the Macaulay Library. His work demonstrated for the first time that the Traill’s Flycatcher was actually two genetically distinct species, which we now know display subtle morphological novelties, but was never described before a difference in its call was isolated. The evidence was always there, we just weren’t listening hard enough.

But these were the contemporary research catalysts for the origin of the archives. 50 years on have they remained scientifically relevant or just an audibly pleasant way to procrastinate at a computer? Today staff welcome recordings taken by professional sound technicians alongside .wav files uploaded from iPhones and as the ease with which recordings can be generated increases, are these archives just becoming stamp collections?

Jose Manuel Ochoa-Quintero, of the Cambridge University Department of Zoology’s Conservation Science Group, doesn’t think so. As his research focuses on the patterns of deforestation in the Amazon, it’s vital for him to know what species are present and where. Something that’s not easy to do when relying just on sightings in a rain forest.

“During the transects of 1 km I stop… and play the vocalizations of three or four different bird species… particularly wrens and antbirds that are highly territorial. Then I wait for 4-5 seconds to get the reply”.

This ‘playback’ technique is widely used in conservation, animal behaviour studies and biodiversity surveying and has even been used to lure displaced individuals of endangered species such as the Bermuda Petral back to nesting burrows. Fortunately sound archives, such as that housed in the British Library, which Jose uses in the field, act as sources of otherwise elusive animal calls, which are also utilized for the fairly practical use of honing much needed field biologist skills:

 “In the tropics the density of many species is too low and you don’t want to loose any possibility to register them”.

Tim Cockerill, also of the Department of Zoology, noticed how his awareness of the sonic landscape of Malaysian Borneo was sharpened when recording a series of podcasts for the funding body NERC.

“You suddenly become aware of the sounds around you in a more focused way… In the rainforest, a huge part of what you notice is the diversity of sounds made by animals – frogs, insects, birds, mammals, even lizards. It makes you realize just how much we filter out when we’re surrounded by noise”.

“Sound today is a wonderful and burgeoning art form which can be used to great effect”. Julian Hector, head of Natural History programming for radio at BBC Bristol explains.

“‘Sound pictures’ – both natural sound and the words that accompany the description of a place, event, story – can be powerful. There are TV producers now who want to approach their films with equal measure of sound and vision”.

Hector worked for the British Antarctic Survey, spending time in South Georgia, between 1981 and 1986. It was there, researching albatross breeding cycles that he began recording occasional field reports.

“My reporting was derived from the sheer joy of being there and the over powering sense of wonder I felt for the albatrosses, seals, penguins and the environment”.

It’s perhaps telling that Julian’s beginnings in radio were directly inspired by awe of the location and an urge to share natural phenomenon, something a little derived from the science he was conducting. This innate enjoyment of natural sound twinned with the technology now available to recorders might go someway to explain how important sound is beginning to become within natural history broadcasting, as Hector is enthusiastic to highlight:

“Natural history sound on HD films in Surround Sound… that’s an exciting future thought”.

Sound carries information that can inform us on the presence of animals in the densest environments, can reveal cryptic species unidentified for hundreds of years and can make us more efficient researchers in the field. But it also has a more immediate, inherent utility – in its ability to captivate. This result of isolating sound, experienced by Cockerill in his monitor headphones, echoes the experience David Attenborough recalled whilst in conversation with recorder (and ex-Cabaret Voltaire founder) Chris Watson, in 2009:

“The first time I went to South America back in the 50s no one had ever told me that monkeys could howl like that. The first time that I heard it we were sleeping in hammocks… and suddenly – this amazing noise!”

Günter Tembrock, who died last year, wasn’t a ‘sound recorder’ by profession. Indeed, his academic interests were legion, spreading from theory of consciousness to development and the legacy of his first tawny owl recording in 1951 was as much a part of his interest in biocommunication as it was the pursuit of a hobby. In the same way sound archives, today, are not one thing. They still have roles to play in science but, perhaps as importantly, they are gold mines for entertainers, artists and educators.

But now, please, point your browser towards the Gulf of Mexico, put your headphones on, and tell me manatees shouldn’t sound like that.

Manatee image from USFWS/Southeast on Flickr 

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