Recording the World (and why it’s a good idea)

by mammalfish

I haven’t talked much about my boyfriend on this blog, mostly because I love him so much that I figure writing about him would make everyone hate me. That might be a risk I’m willing to take, so here I go:

He’s a scientist who studies dolphin calls, and I would like to become a scientist who studies dolphin calls. Much of our relationship consists of doffing headphones on our long subway rides home, pulling up graphed calls of killer whales and finless porpoises and Weddell seals on our laptops, wondering why they sound like aliens, and then wandering around Central Park and recording birdsong.

He is currently in Belize, where he occasionally takes to the sandy wilderness wearing a digital recorder, stereo headphones, a boom-style shotgun microphone, and a fanny pack. This makes him look extremely odd, perhaps the host of a Discovery Channel show for small children called “Mr. Bird Goes Exploring.”

Why am I talking about this? Because sound is a big part of our lives. It’s a big part of the lives of most animals: birds sing, whales moan, monkeys howl and so do wolves. The magic 17-year cicadas everyone was losing their minds about this year saw and whine like banshees. Frogs chirp and belch and patter. Living things go about their lives yelling.

That’s why some research that came out this week is especially exciting, and I want everyone to know about it.

Check out my story on ARBIMON here:


ARBIMON stands for Automated Remote Biodiversity Monitoring Network. Let me rattle off their accomplishments for you:

  1. They’ve designed software that can take a recording of a rainforest and can tell you, fast, what species of animals are calling.
  2. They’ve designed recorders that are cheap, repurposed iPods to take short recordings every ten minutes around the clock and send them to the computers in real time.
  3. They’ve been doing this in certain sites, like a rainforest in Puerto Rico, for years, and anyone can listen to the sounds they’ve collected (or use their software) for free at ARBIMON.com

After a few years, we get graphs that look like this:

Screen Shot 2013-07-19 at 4.56.17 PM

Look at this! Mysteries of the universe uncovered!

The density of potential information is phenomenal. These are the calling habits of three species in a Puerto Rican rainforest, over a single day (left) and over years (right). The frog on top, E. juanariveroi, is considered endangered; the second frog, Rana grylio, is not. The third is, well, insect #1. Look what we can know from these graphs: that the endangered frog sings its most as dawn and dusk, and all three seem to sing in yearly cycles; that the Rana frog has sort of a low-ish population, except for the infamous Summer of ’09; and that these are nocturnal insects.

Most important for now is that top-right graph, the many-years call volume of E. juanariveroi. From 2008 to 2012, they were steadily calling less and less. Uh oh! They’re endangered! Maybe the planet has gotten too hot for them! Maybe this is the swan song of the frog! But this year, they all came back. How could we have known that these frogs are doing OK if not for data like this?

These one-minute recordings over days or weeks or years are like brushstrokes on a painting of a rainforest, or pixels on a map. The longer ARBIMON collects them, the better a picture they will have of how the forest sings and breathes and functions.

And did I mention it’s free?

My boyfriend, Mr. Bird the Explorer, has been helping an ARBIMON colleague to supervise an underwater recorder that they plunge into lagoons and seagrass beds. Same deal: brief, frequent recordings. Sometimes all you hear is clucky snapping shrimp, sometimes it’s an array of fish. Over time, though, it’s everything.

Read my story for VOA News.

Read ARBIMON’s most recent paper.

Check out ARBIMON’s library of sound.

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