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The silence and sounds of biodiversity: are we listening?

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By Praveen Gupta

· 8 min read

A visit to the Pacific Northwest - with much of the noise muffled - the signals are back. Sights and sounds of an orca couple in rhythmic motion off San Juan Island, a lot more in the interim, and it is serendipity yet again! Explorations, revelations, and discoveries unravel the magical and incredible biodiversity we are born into. And now at the year's end, a year of mind-boggling climate and biodiversity catastrophes, I am left with no choice but to introspect and contemplate what we stand to lose and at what price.


A brilliant exposition from Maria Popova shines a light on the magical genius of our planet: Fungi, neither plants nor animals, are the evolutionary cardinals of the Earth - the first to conquer it and the last to inherit it, composing the living substratum beneath every forest and every field and every backyard ecosystem. Each cubic inch of mycelium compresses eight miles of fine filaments folded unto themselves - the original superstrings of this terrestrial universe. Wildly unlike us, they are inseparable from our creaturely inheritance. Since the dawn of our adolescent species, they have been touching our cuisine and our consciousness in ever-evolving ways, the underlying mystery of which we are only just beginning to unravel.

In the early 2000s, a series of groundbreaking studies began revealing yet another facet of that mystery - the way mushrooms respond to sound, despite having no auditory organs. One found that high-frequency sounds inhibit spore generation and mycelial growth. Another affirmed the correlation from the other side, finding that low-frequency sound waves stimulate mycelial growth. The aptitudes and abilities of every organism - ours included - are puppeteered by evolutionary adaptation. This means the curious relationship between sound vibration and mycelial growth must confer some substantive evolutionary advantage upon mushrooms, honed over the eons.

In an episode of musician Matt Whyte’s altogether wonderful Sing for Science podcast, Paul Stamets, master mycologist, is author of the millennial bible Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World offers a possible - and deliciously plausible - hypothesis, says Maria. In that peculiar and recurring way, indigenous wisdom has of anticipating the discoveries of science, the folkloric traditions of many first nations across Europe, North America, Japan, and Russia hold that lightning strikes mushrooms more readily than other organisms. Stamets observes that we now know this to be true in measurable ways that contour a measurable evolutionary advantage - the 50,000 volts of electricity a log incurs when struck by lightning greatly stimulates the yield of the shiitake mushrooms growing on it.

This is where Stamets’s deduction gets interesting: Before lightning strikes, thunder sounds - a rolling tide of low-frequency waves unspooling from the horizon. Having had hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary training and triumph by harnessing the elements and the environment, mushrooms would want something to awaken them to the impending rain event in order to get ready to absorb the water and electricity so beneficial to their propagation. Low-frequency sound waves, under this hypothesis, act as a warning bell - a mycelial clarion call for duty.

Into nature’s realm

Digital bioacoustics demonstrate we’ve been deaf! Did you know that non-humans are in continuous conversation, much of which the naked human ear cannot hear? Dr. Karen Bakker of UBC tells us how by placing digital microphones all over Earth, from the depths of the ocean to the Arctic and the Amazon, scientists are discovering the hidden sounds of nature, many of which occur at ultrasonic or infrasonic frequencies, above or below human hearing range. Digital Bioacoustics helps us hear these sounds, by functioning as a planetary-scale hearing aid and enabling humans to record nature’s sounds beyond the limits of our sensory capacities. With the help of artificial intelligence (AI), researchers are now decoding complex communication in other species.

Scientists are now attempting to use these digitally enabled discoveries to develop tools for interspecies communication with creatures as diverse as honeybees and whales, raising both ethical and philosophical questions. Do we have the right to eavesdrop on non-humans and gather data without their consent? Does the existence of complex communication in animals challenge the claim that humans, alone, possess language? What are the risks of engaging other species in AI-mediated conversations, when we know about the biases embedded in AI systems?

We should not forget about the pressing challenge of noise pollution, the reduction of which can have immediate, positive and significant impacts on non-humans and humans alike. Hushing the human cacophony is a major challenge of our time. Digital listening reveals that we have much more to learn about non-humans, and provides new ways to protect and conserve the environment. Perhaps one day we will invent a zoological version of Google Translate. But first, we need to learn how to listen. “Can we mobilize digital tech to fight back against biodiversity loss? The Sounds of Life gives us a rare gift: hope in a time of environmental emergency,” says author Naomi Klein, about the book by Karen Bakker. John Borrows, University of Victoria, has this fascinating observation: “If whales, fish, bats, turtles, plants, and bees could write endorsements, I think they would highly recommend this book.”


Our oceans are a symphony. Sound is essential to the survival and prosperity of marine life. But man-made noise is threatening this fragile world. Sonic Sea is about protecting life in our waters from the destructive effects of noise pollution. All the noise caused by man-made sources, primarily shipping, builds up stress levels in marine creatures. Putting oceans at risk is putting all of us at risk, say scientists.

“Understanding the role of whales in the carbon cycle is a dynamic and emerging field that may benefit both marine conservation and climate-change strategies,” according to a team of scientists, led by Heidi Pearson, a biologist from the University of Alaska Southeast. The ocean is by far the world’s largest carbon sink, having absorbed about 40 percent of all carbon dioxide emitted from the burning of fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution. Marine biologists recently discovered that whales, particularly great whales, also play an important role in capturing carbon from the atmosphere. They can weigh up to 28 tons and live over 100 years, according to the researchers, their size and long lives mean they accumulate more carbon in their bodies than other small animals. When they die, they sink to the bottom of the ocean, taking carbon out of the atmosphere for centuries, reminds George Zoto. “Whales consume up to 4 percent of their massive body weight in krill and photosynthetic plankton every day. For the blue whale, this equates to nearly 8,000 pounds,” the scientists say. “When they finish digesting their food, their excrement is rich in important nutrients that help the krill and plankton flourish, aiding in increased photosynthesis and carbon storage from the atmosphere.”

A 2019 report published by the International Monetary Fund, shares George Zoto, estimated that a great whale sequesters 33 tons of CO2 each year on average, while a tree absorbs only up to 48 pounds a year - a figure the report’s authors suggest that conservationists could be better off saving whales than planting trees.

The aliens

Maya Tolstoy is a renowned marine geophysicist. She specialises in seafloor earthquakes and volcanoes. Tolstoy was also in the James Cameron film about the deep ocean Aliens of the Deep. Her work covers hydrothermal vents. Scientists first discovered them in 1977 during an exploration near the Galapagos Islands. These are the result of seawater percolating down through fissures in the ocean crust in the vicinity of spreading centers or subduction zones (places on Earth where two tectonic plates move away or towards one another). The cold seawater is heated by hot magma and reemerges to form the vents. Seawater in hydrothermal vents may reach temperatures of over 700° Fahrenheit. To their amazement, they have their own unique ecosystem, which supports diverse organisms such as giant tube worms, swarms of blind white crabs, and vast amounts of shrimp which are capable of "seeing" water that is heated by the vents. These creatures do not require sunlight, and instead obtain their energy from the vents themselves. They are able to survive in the superheated and sulfurous water. The documentary, therefore, suggests that this is what alien life beyond Earth might look like. Jupiter’s moons Europa and Mars are known to have volcanic activity and liquid water beneath the surface which could mean hydrothermal vents! Could these, instead of light, be causing life to be formed on these planets?

In conclusion

This quote ‘From The Outermost House’ by Henry Beston - that I spotted neatly framed at the Whale Museum, San Juan - is spot on:

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals… We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by the voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren. They are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth”

Before we know what we stand to lose - we need to know what we have. The stock-taking just commenced. Not the world of animals alone, but plants and the in between. The Living Planet Report 2022 is a comprehensive study of trends in global biodiversity and the health of the planet. This flagship WWF publication reveals an average decline of 69% in species populations since 1970. Shouldn’t we hold steadfast to our humility and let go of arrogance instead?

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Praveen Gupta was the second most-read author in the environment and sustainability space for illuminem in 2022. A former insurance CEO and a Chartered Insurer, he devotes his time to researching, writing, and speaking on diverse subjects. His blog captures much of his work.

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