Book review: ‘The Sounds of Life’ by Karen Bakker

A thought-provoking tale of the science of non-human sound reveals the unexpected richness of a world we can’t hear.

Humans are rather poor listeners compared to our fellow Earthlings. The world is alive with sounds we can’t hear, from the ultrasonic echolocation of bats to the infrasonic “heartbeat” of the earth’s crust beneath the crashing ocean waves.

In “The sounds of life: how digital technology brings us closer to the world of animals and plants” (Princeton University Press, £25, ISBN 9780691206288), environmental researcher Professor Karen Bakker explains how the fields of bioacoustics and ecoacoustics – armed with relatively accessible digital technologies – are helping us to understand and conserve this world we cannot hear.

“The Sounds of Life” is filled with stories about the discovery of non-human sounds and their meanings, going far beyond the usual suspects: whales and elephants. There are many romantic allusions to music and poetry – “If humpback whales and bowhead whales recite sonnets, blue and fin whales are sea masters of Zen koans” – although the prose does not never smells purple. In a memorable chapter, “The Voice of the Turtle,” Bakker recounts the adventure of a young researcher discovering the tiny roars, squeals, clicks, squeals, grunts, howls, and chirps of turtles, until then assumed to be mute.

Elsewhere, Bakker explains how even species without ears – or any other apparent means of hearing – have the ability to respond to surprisingly complex information conveyed by sound.

It turns out that many non-human species produce and perceive sounds, and with greater richness and complexity than we might have imagined. When we find that even plants demonstrate a form of “hearing” and bees have enviable democratic processes, we are forced to reconsider our status among life on Earth. Can we really justify our dominance over other species? It certainly makes things more difficult. The broadcast of recordings of humpback whale “songs”, for example, sparked opposition to commercial whaling, leading to a moratorium in 1982 and helping many species avoid extinction.

The heroes are often indigenous communities, many of whom have shared their traditional knowledge with scientists, guiding them to important discoveries. The Iñupiat people of Alaska, for example, have long known that bowhead whales move beneath the ice caps and so encouraged scientists to use bioacoustic techniques rather than aerial surveys to conduct a census, revealing that populations were much larger than expected. According to Bakker, it is not just traditional knowledge that we should value, but also attitudes common to indigenous communities that emphasize “oneness” with nature – and our responsibility to it.

Throughout the book you will find examples of how bioacoustics and ecoacoustics are applied to help restore and protect ecosystems. An interesting study involved an artificial coral reef associated with the sound of a booming coral reef, attracting the larvae of fish that made this artificial reef their home. On the grander scale of the climate crisis, the conservation solutions are small, but they are small glimmers of hope, and that cannot be unwelcome.

“The Sounds of Life” is a charming and timely book, filled with stories of remarkable and eye-opening (and eye-opening?) discovery.

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