Report from Omaha

A Mob of Meerkats
(c) Charles Sharp

A bit over two weeks ago I was in Omaha, Nebraska, at “The 4th International Symposium on Acoustic Communication by Animals.” This event is put up every few years by the Acoustic Society of America (ASA) and allows scientists outside of the marine mammal field to present their research to other bioacousticians and animal behaviorists. With an entire week of presentations about sound use by spiders, frogs, meerkats, birds, and caterpillars, there was only a baker’s-dozen of papers on marine mammals.

Putting this into context: at the semi-annual ASA meetings, typically the entire week of “Animal Bioacoustics” (AB) sessions is focused on marine mammals; the “scraps” (non-marine mammal research) are relegated to Friday, when most attendees are leaving.

So the generalist in me thrills at a conference where I can hear about how frog-biting midges eavesdrop on their prey, learn about the diversity in sound communication channels in spiders, and how to use a trained (and instrumented) hawk to film and record swarms of bats leaving their cave for the evening.

The presentations were diverse and intriguing, but the conversations that nested the presentations were “top shelf.” The presenters included a wide range of perspectives; from focused Darwinian animal behaviorists, to phenomenologists, to engineers, to folks into signal processing – studying frogs, fishing cats, marmots, sharks, budgerigars, spiders, and elephant seals. A tossed salad full of active ingredients.

As this conference is more of a playpen for me than a policy platform, I’ve used it as an opportunity to air ideas that may be a bit controversial to the orthodoxies of the AB community. My first year (2008, OSU), I presented a “poster” about the paradoxical high-frequency vocalizations of some birds that in some cases fall way outside of their purported hearing range. The next symposium at Cornell I got to witness firsthand how much “rock-star” bioacoustician Chris Clark loves the ocean. That time I presented a broad overview of animal chorusing (one of my ‘pet topics.”)

This overview (which I delve in a bit deeper in Hear Where We Are: Sound Communication and Sense of Place) looked at various aspects of chorusing, such as synchronous chorusing (like crickets and cicadas), and asynchronous chorusing (like frogs), along with an “out of the box” idea that ‘spatial chorusing’ presented in schooling fishes and flocking birds is an acoustical adaptation, not a visual one purported by most animal behaviorists.

Taking the chorusing theme a bit deeper, this most recent conference I presented “Evidence of synchronous chorusing be North Atlantic minke whales” (which I will detail in a following newsletter). This presentation more closely intersects our “ocean noise pollution” remit because it if the evidence supports the hypothesis, we may have a deeper understanding that could help us sort out if, and what impacts various anthropogenic noises may have on this minke behavior.

I didn’t go to this conference carrying the OCR conservation banner; I really went just to learn. What I particularly love about this conference is that it provides us all an opportunity to explore the fabulous mysteries of how our animal kin have evolved and adapted to their sound environments and acoustical communities.

Over the next couple of weeks, I hope to dig a bit deeper into some of the excellent work being done by the Animal Bioacoustic community.

Stay tuned!