When Nature Speaks, What Does It Say?

Karen Bakker listens for signs of life in "The Sounds of Life"

By Krystal Vasquez

October 30, 2022

The Sounds of Life

Even in the most remote environments, silence is an illusion. Plants and animals "chitchat" in ultra- and infrasonic languages outside the realm of human perception. Plant roots "listen" for running water. Unhatched turtles babble to their siblings. Coral reefs sing nightly lullabies to guide their young back home.

In The Sounds of Life: How Digital Technology Is Bringing Us Closer to the Worlds of Animals and Plants (Princeton University Press, 2022), Karen Bakker explores the "hidden world of nonhuman sound." Bakker's well-researched stories showcase the mysterious communication styles of whales, elephants, turtles, corals, plants, bats, and bees as told by the scientists who care enough to listen. Of course, she points out, "many of the 'discoveries' recounted in this book are often, in fact, merely rediscoveries of older forms of environmental knowledge"—a refreshing admission that's often omitted from similar nature titles.

Using the biodiversity crisis as a backdrop, Bakker explains how both new and old technologies help with current conservation efforts. The Save the Whales movement was spurred by a 1970 album, Songs of the Humpback Whale, containing the melodies of these chatty creatures. Future acoustic-based monitoring systems could one day protect elephants from a range of potential threats. These scientific breakthroughs couldn't come at a better time.

Although Bakker doesn't shy away from the darker side of the science—it could, in theory, be used "to further exploit and domesticate" other species—she emphasizes that it can also inspire us to become stewards for the natural world. "Only when we understand the meaning of the sounds will we be motivated to protect the organisms that make them," she writes. "If we open our ears, a world of wonder awaits."