Category Archives: communication

Can a whale survive in a raucous, noisy city? My, what a noisy species we are on this planet!

Some thought-provoking images from National Geographic on how noisy our oceans have become lately, thanks to our technology:

The deep is dark, but not silent; it’s alive with sounds. Whales and other marine mammals, fish, and even some invertebrates depend on sound, which travels much farther in water than light does. The animals use sound to find food and mates, to avoid predators, and to communicate. They face a growing problem: Man-made noise is drowning them out. “For many of these animals it’s as if they live in cities,” says marine scientist Brandon Southall, former director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) ocean acoustics program.


Like living in a city! Remarkable, really, to think about how much the noise generated by a terrestrial species—us—now drowns out the acoustic seascape underwater, in the marine realm. Here’s another image from a study in the vicinity of Boston harbor (no longer a place for a quiet tea party, I’m afraid) that ought to shut us up, at least momentarily, and make us ponder what havoc we wreak upon this earth and its creatures:

Posted via email from a leaf warbler’s gleanings

Twist it, shake it, shake it, shake it, shake it, baby!

ResearchBlogging.orgYou are brightly colored – enough to be considered charismatic even by humans who like to keep you as a pet! You can make fairly loud calls. So how do you communicate with each other? Especially in the dark of night when you are most active? When bats are around listening for sounds to pick up juicy prey like you? Well, so much for the investment in all those bright colors (which may deter visual predators, but not in the dark!) and sounds (which the ladies may like, and we know they like to see you flirt with danger too) – the cost may be even steeper than you think! So what else is there for a little frog do to? Especially if another frog may sneak on to your favorite branch to put the moves on the princesses? There’s got to be a better way to talk to each other for routine communication, no?

Well, if you’ve still got it, you gotta shake it, shake it, shake it, shake it, baby:

Pretty amazing that a common behavior in a species so well known had never been properly described or understood! Until someone thought to turn those darn lights off and let the frogs do their little dance in the dark. Check out the paper that goes with this video from Science Friday. Cool work!


Caldwell, M., Johnston, G., McDaniel, J., & Warkentin, K. (2010). Vibrational Signaling in the Agonistic Interactions of Red-Eyed Treefrogs Current Biology DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2010.03.069

Robertson, J., & Zamudio, K. (2009). Genetic Diversification, Vicariance, and Selection in a Polytypic Frog Journal of Heredity, 100 (6), 715-731 DOI: 10.1093/jhered/esp041

Wishing I could be at this fun event this week… (#scio10)

Will try to catch it online instead, when I can, in between working on syllabi and getting labs organized for semester beginning next week. Do check out the website and associated wiki, for there are some cool things going on there, especially for those of us engaged in trying to do science and communicate science through various online avenues.

Posted via web from a leaf warbler’s gleanings

Eloquent communicators: human and avian

I’m often looking for videos on the web to enhance my lectures (or merely to jolt students out of the slumber my soothing voice may put them into from time to time), especially when teaching about animal behavior. Its always more impressive to see an animal carry out some astonishingly bizarre behavior than to read about it or have it be described in class by someone who may never have seen the behavior either! Places like Youtube are therefore quite the boon for the modern professor of ethology, and a casual perusal of this blog will show you how much I fall into that happy camp. The exciting thing is that lately, competition has been heating up among the online video portals, bringing us access to all kinds of video treasures. I stumbled upon one such treasure today when I discovered that youtube now has, in its growing Nature channel, Sir David Attenborough‘s entire series on The Life of Birds!

Since we have been exploring acoustic signals in my Animal Communication class in recent weeks, with birds (of course) starring as prime examples, this is a perfect time to share this episode where one of humanity’s most eloquent communicators takes us on a wonderful exploration of some of nature’s most Eloquent Communicators:


A new portal for science straight from the horses’ mouths on the internets (but ignore the odd name)

We scientists are always complaining about the quality of science reporting in the mainstream media, particularly in recent times when we’ve seen an alarming growth in anti-science movements in the US (be it creationism on the right or anti-vaccinationism on the left). You’ll find my own rants on the subject in the archives of this very blog. In fact, the lack of quality science communication in the public sphere (i.e., outside the ivory tower) is the main reason some of us have jumped into science communication outside of our journals, e.g., by starting science cafes to reach our local communities, and blogging (coming up on 3 years of that for me!) for a broader audience. All taking time off from the research field site or lab bench so we could try to wrest that media megaphone from the jackanapes running newspapers (let alone TV newschannels) and journalism schools who don’t give a hoot about employing people with any proper science education! The blogosphere has provided an excellent democratic medium for us to get the real science out directly, but its not exactly an alternative to a news channel, especially for smalltime bloggers like me. We have hundreds or thousands of science blogs now, many written by active scientists, but the effort is scattered across a similar large number of websites, which means most of our writing reaches mostly a fraction of those already motivated to read about science! Its not like someone is going to stumble upon my blog as they might if I had a column or even a letter in the Fresno Bee, is it? So we’ve had some blogging collectives emerge, the most prominent example being ScienceBlogs, which can attract more eyeballs, and keep them coming back for more (despite occasional outbreaks of distinctly odd non-science blogginess over there among the denizens of SB). This week a new portal has opened on the internets, with a more impressive pedigree: 35 top US universities have banded together to launch! Check out the impressive array of university logos on their about page which states: made its debut as a beta site in March 2009 and formally launched on September 15. As an online research magazine, Futurity highlights the latest discoveries from leading universities in the United States and Canada.

Who is Futurity?

Duke University, Stanford University, and the University of Rochester lead a consortium of participating universities (see list below) that manages and funds the project. All partners are members of the Association of American Universities (AAU), a nonprofit organization of leading public and private research universities.

Futurity aggregates the very best research news. The content is produced by the partner universities, and submitted to Futurity’s editor ( for consideration. The site, which is hosted at the University of Rochester, covers news in the environment, health, science, society, and other areas.

So now you have one more excellent source for quality science news straight from the frontiers of discovery at the best institutions in the US. In addition to the web portal, you can also partake of all this future-y science-y goodness on Facebook, Twitter, and even YouTube! How terrific is that?

I just wish they’d spent a little more time/effort coming up with a better name than Futurity!

Lost Sounds

ResearchBlogging.orgDeep in the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh, where the mighty Siang river carves its way through the Himalayan wall, nestled the Adi hamlet of Tuting, surrounded by a sea of green—overgrown fields, verdant mountains, the river itself deep green. The very moonlight seemed green as it shone on the ghostly mist rising from the gorge. Eighteen years ago, a search for India’s last Takin—that strange-looking, mysterious kin of the musk-oxen—had led me (and colleagues from the Wildlife Institute of India) to this remote village, amid dense rainforests that we’d only read about, us kids of the concrete jungle. We were wide-eyed with wonder.

Talom Yaying, an Adi hunter from Tuting took us to look for takin in the mountains, where he hunted regularly—living the “simple, good” life of harmony with nature? Maybe…! He offered us his cave for the night, in the heart of the rainforest, high up on a ridge overlooking the great gorge. Such wonderful, magical country—and so hopeless my attempts to capture its rapturous beauty on a few square centimeters of celluloid! Put that camera away!

On our way back, Talom told me he felt compelled to spend a few nights every week in his cave—away from his village home and family. For in the village, the only sounds to awaken him at dawn were chicken and dogs and pigs. But up in his cave, he was serenaded by the songs of wild birds and other animals! Even in Tuting, a village completely surrounded by the rainforest, he missed the sounds of the forest! Unlike us city-bred wildlifers, he knew exactly what he missed and where to find it. We don’t even understand what we’ve lost, when or where. Growing up amid the steady din of city life, most of us don’t even recognize those other natural sounds, the warbling of birds, the croaking of frogs, the chirrupping of crickets. How, then, can we hope to recover what we don’t even know we’ve lost?

All these years later, many spent studying songbirds in the wild and amidst human habitats, I share Talom’s sense of loss more keenly as I contemplate how all the noise we make adds another, barely recognized, dimension to the loss of biodiversity that all of us bemoan. We recognize, of course, the many overt ways in which our cities displace (if not outright kill) wildlife species by destroying and transforming their habitats. But we are only just beginning to understand the less visble impacts, such as the steady and growing hum of traffic and industry, which alter the behavior and diversity of animals in / near our cities.

Like us, many animals rely on sound to communicate with their mates, relatives, competitors, even enemies—and birdsongs offer the best studied examples. Birds use a variety of sounds to communicate, from simple tweets / whistles to elaborate songs rivaling the finest tunes coming from your FM radio. The more complex songs are used by males to attract mates and to warn rivals for territories. In general, males with bigger repertoires and more complex songs are more successful in courting females and fathering young compared to those that can hum but a few bars of one tune. What’s more, avian pop charts can also vary from station to local station, resulting in regional dialects of song. Some of us (the subspecies of humans known as birdwatchers) can identify different bird species by their voices, even among the duller look-alike warblers (the little brown/green jobs)—while keener ears can learn to tell apart the Greenish Warblers that spend their winter in Maharashtra / Andhra Pradesh from their cousins who prefer to settle in Tamil Nadu or Kerala for the winter!

How well sound waves carry your message depends, of course, on the medium they travel through—and background noise can seriously interfere with audio communication. As you know if you’ve tried to make a phonecall while stuck in traffic, or to sustain that philosophical discussion during a dinner party, the noisier the background, the harder it is to convey your message or understand what the other party is saying! Birds have the same problems: male birds are unable to show off the full extent of their vocal repertoire, especially the subtle vocal modulations, if their habitat is too noisy; and females suffer too because they cannot find the best males, thereby losing the chance to produce attractive sons who will in turn produce the most grandchildren (for that, indeed, is what the evolutionary game is all about when you get right down to it). A recent study found that Australian Zebra Finch females, given the choice between several different male songs (in the laboratory where they listened to recordings) were quite discriminating when the background was quiet, but became rather poor in distinguishing between songs when traffic noise was broadcast along with the same songs! Isn’t the audience always quieter—and more touchy about any noise—at a classical than at a pop music concert?

One way birds can cope with all the noise we make is by singing louder when it gets noisy—and this so called cocktail party effect has been observed in some species. Urban noise, especially traffic, also tends to be generally low-pitched, so an alternative is for birds to get shriller, sing at a higher pitch–exactly what Great Tits have been observed to be doing in Europe. A more subtle effect is for birds to simplify their songs, cutting out some of the fantastic frequency modulations, harmonics, and other vocal gymnastics they are capable of—not unlike how maestros of classical music may be forced to stoop to Bollywood tunes or advertising jingles to make a living! If those tricks don’t work, one has to find relatively quieter times during the busy urban day to sing one’s melodies—which may be why that annoying Magpie Robin keeps waking you up at 4 in the morning, well before dawn!

Of course, not many species are flexible enough to make these adjustments and continue living in the city. Those that cannot cope likely go extinct locally, leaving behind a poorer urban bird community. Chalk up another reason why cities worldwide are occupied mostly by the depressingly familiar contingent of pigeons and starlings and crows—the usual suspects in the homogenization of urban wildlife that seems part and parcel of the globalization package. In the long run, if our cities keep growing, and we keep finding more ways to make noise, we will chase away most of our more discriminating feathered singing friends, while those that remain will sing an impoverished urban dialect. And we all lose the symphony of biodiversity to the homogeneous urban cacaphony. We must all share Talom Yaying’s sense of loss—even though some of us just don’t know it yet!


Katti, M. (2001). Vocal communication and territoriality during the non-breeding season in a migrant warbler Current Science, 80 (3), 419-423 PDF 

Warren, P., Katti, M., Ermann, M., & Brazel, A. (2006). Urban bioacoustics: it’s not just noise Animal Behaviour, 71 (3), 491-502 DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2005.07.014  

Swaddle, J., & Page, L. (2007). High levels of environmental noise erode pair preferences in zebra finches: implications for noise pollution Animal Behaviour, 74 (3), 363-368 DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2007.01.004 

Slabbekoorn, H., & Peet, M. (2003). Birds sing at a higher pitch in urban noise Nature, 424 (6946), 267-267 DOI: 10.1038/424267a 

Fuller, R., Warren, P., & Gaston, K. (2007). Daytime noise predicts nocturnal singing in urban robins Biology Letters, 3 (4), 368-370 DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2007.0134

Laurie Garrett on Flu pandemics, past and future

Courtesy of TED, we have some useful media bringing typically well-informed perspectives on the flu now unfolding. Let’s start of with a Q&A with Laurie Garrett, author of “The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance”:

TED took 20 minutes with Laurie Garrett this afternoon to follow up on her TEDTalk from 2007, posted today, about pandemic flu. Garrett is the author of The Coming Plague, and a fellow on the Council for Foreign Relations who studied global health and emerging diseases. (As you can imagine, she is very busy this week.) We asked Garrett: What has changed since the last pandemic panic, 2007’s avian flu? What does she worry about now? And really, should we not wash our hands?

Read her responses on the TED website.

TED has also posted video of a lecture Garrett gave in 2007:

In 2007, as the world worried about a possible avian flu epidemic, Laurie Garrett, author of “The Coming Plague,” gave this powerful talk to a small TED University audience. Her insights from past pandemics are suddenly more relevant than ever.

Islands in the Sky – at tonights Valley Cafe Sci!

Its time for another Café Scientifique tonight here in Fresno. And this time we have Robin Vijayan, a Fulbright scholar visiting my lab for his graduate research (he actually roped me in as a coadviser for his Ph.D. for some odd reason!) telling us about “Islands in the Sky: Science and conservation in the montane forests of India” – well, southern India, to be exact.

We meet, as usual, at the wonderful Lucy’s Lair Ethiopian restaurant in north Fresno, from 6:30 – 8:30 PM. Perhaps I’ll see you there!

The comedian and the financial expert

Jon Stewart, at his best, took down yet another bastion of tele-punditry on the Daily Show last week – not just Jim Cramer, but the entire CNBC financial TV network! What does it say about our society when a comedian gets the workings of the financial markets, and tells it like it is, while a whole network of financial “experts” marches happily right off the cliff? Here’s the entire brilliant interview, in 3 parts, and its really worth watching (even for ecologists) for the insight it provides into the workings of some of the institutional pillars of the US economy. Would that the rest of the mainstream media did their job as well as this comedy show does in 22 min 4 days/week…