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Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly

Biophony: Ecological Soundscapes

Yesterday's New York Times Magazine had a great profile on Bernie Krause, whose work with ecological soundscapes is truly remarkable. Bernie goes out into the wilderness and records the entire soundscape, mapping it onto a kind of musical score. In particular, he's been working for nearly forty years to

...record the earth’s rapidly disappearing “biophony” — a term he coined to describe that portion of the soundscape contributed by nonhuman creatures. Biophony, Krause has theorized, is unique to each place; nowhere in nature sounds exactly like anywhere else. This idea has led him toward a controversial way of thinking that would broaden the scope of today’s evolutionary biology. Many animals, he argues, have evolved to squeeze their vocalizations into available niches of the soundscape in order to be heard by others of their kind. Evolution isn’t just about the competition for space or food but also for bandwidth. If a species cannot find a sonic niche of its own, it will not survive.

I first met Bernie at Foo Camp a few years back (one of the many serendipitous introductions that Foo makes possible), and reconnected with him recently because of some cool work he's been doing in mapping soundscapes onto Google Earth. (I'm hoping that Google helps him expand on this idea! Imagine being able to zoom in to a spot on earth and not just see the map detail, but also hear typical sounds. This is as true of human city soundscapes as natural ones!) We're going to have him show some of his work at Where 2.0 in May.

His work really is important, and not just cool--he's finding that animal ecologies are actively harmed by noise as well as other human intrusions:

One of his Aha! moments occurred in Venezuela, where Krause was recording warblers. “The birds would fly through grids of sounds until they found a place where their voices wouldn’t be masked,” he says. Krause noticed that birds who settled in compromised habitats — logged-over second-growth forests, for instance — encountered unexpected vocal competitors from other species and found their mating songs masked. Warblers that failed to find unoccupied bandwidth failed to breed, Krause observed, eventually convincing him of the validity of his niche hypothesis, the contention that animals evolve to fill vocal niches to best be heard by potential mates.

What's more, those natural sound ecologies are rapidly disappearing. There are fewer and fewer places on earth where man-made sounds do not intrude.

E.O. Wilson commented in email to Bernie (also quoted in the article), “I assumed it was all a New Age thing, of little interest to scientists. I was wrong."

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Comments: 11

Tim O'Reilly   [02.19.07 01:44 PM]

Thanks, wka. I fixed the link in the main post so that it points to the link you supplied.

A real software man making all his software tools for nobody   [02.20.07 12:30 AM]

I wonder - if you leave a concert hall open, will some birds be attracted to that for the better acoustics their songs will benefit from? It sounds far-fetched but not impossible.

Maria Karam   [02.20.07 02:38 AM]

Maybe that's why americans always talk so loud:-)

Jim S   [02.20.07 05:03 AM]

As a submarine officer I used to pass the quiet midwatch with my watch section listening to the audible sounds of marine life over a small speaker in the control room. Depending on our location or time of year the sounds ranged from clicking shrimp to the long range calls of whales. I wish I could have made recordings but unfortunately the use of a submarine's sonar systems to make personal recordings was unauthorized. I hope Mr. Krause is considering the submarine soundscape in his work.

peter rudolfi   [02.20.07 06:32 AM]

It has been said that domesticated pets that vocalise more than other pets are demonstrating a higher level of behavioral intelligence. This is especially true of canines. Given the complexity of a dog's facial features (in most breeds) allows it to be generally more expressive to human perception than a cat for example. And what is being expressed: emotions and a more complex brain function i.e intellignece. Add to this visual expression the rich tonal variety of the dogs vocalizations and a discerning owner can tune in to information about a dogs needs and moods. Thus, intelligence raises for both animal species: human and canine.

Jesse Evans   [02.20.07 08:44 AM]

I response to Jim S.: There is a great selection of submarine recordings done by Bernie Krause. You can listen to some of them at

Jesse Evans
30proof Media/Wild Sanctuary

Kevin L.   [02.21.07 01:32 AM]

this is certainly true for animals which use sound to hunt. for example, the yangtze dolphin (not sure if i got the name right) uses echo location for navigation and hunting. but the traffic along the river has increased to a point where it might confuse the dolphin and that perhaps contributed to its demise.. sad...

Frederick Brault   [02.23.07 06:11 AM]

I come from a rural small village in Canada. I recall that, when I was a kid, it always striked me that when I went to Montreal, the second largest city of Canada, I noticed the birds where singing very loud. Well, louder then at my country side home for sure. So the hypothesis that species make efforts to be heard makes sense to me recalling those souvenirs.

Vicky D, student researcher!   [03.02.07 02:41 AM]

Not to say I was skeptical at first, but I really understood this concept once I recorded a random habitat (whether a local park or right outside your house)and then inputted the recorded sound into a sound analysis program. What sounded like nonsensical noise was actually beautifully orchestrated vocalizations by each animal in its respective eco-niche. Since I'm in Jersey, I could only see this using birds, but it was still really interesting.

J. David P.   [06.25.07 01:03 AM]

In response to Vicky D.`s statement of using a
sound analysis program, I am curious as to the
exact program used, and what was involved to reach her results. What a fascinating thought!
No doubt, I am sure I would like to try something
simular as well.

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