Rainy Days in Sensory Ecology Lab

Posted at 1:04 pm December 29, 2008 by Matt Anderson

The arrival of heavy rain in San Diego County brought about many changes in animal behavior at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park. Some species enjoyed the change in the weather and became more active, while others took advantage of the shelter provided by well-designed enclosures and large tree canopies within the exhibits.

Our ongoing research also gets rearranged during these inclement days, with more time being spent in the Sensory Ecology Lab catching up on much needed listening and analysis of recent recordings. This isn’t just to avoid getting wet (I’m originally from England and am no stranger to rain!); it’s due to the fact that our study animals simply aren’t as vocal while sheltering. Another reason for pause is that the rain and wind make it really difficult to get good quality recordings of any calls that our animals are still making. Aside from issues of waterproofing our gear, extra noise tends to mask the important characteristics of the vocalizations, such as specific acoustic frequencies that are used in certain behavioral situations. So instead, we’re staying dry and trying to figure out more about our cheetahs, African elephants, and okapis from our recent eavesdropping. These kinds of days also present wonderful opportunities to catch up on notes made during our behavioral observations, especially in relation to information our keepers have shared with us.

As key collaborators in our studies, the animal care staff provide invaluable information about the animals they spend their lives caring for. Not only are they a great source for day-to-day updates of important changes in the social lives of the animals; they are also terrific at offering new points of view that really help us develop the research. So not only do these rainy days help us catch up with our valuable recordings; they also help us to appreciate the essential role our keepers play in helping to develop our studies.

Matt Anderson is a scientist with the San Diego Zoo’s Behavioral Biology Division.

Here are more blogs about the acoustic studies:

Cheetahs: Home Sweet Home

Sounds from Cameroon’s Ebo Forest

Secret Language of the Okapi

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2 Responses to “Rainy Days in Sensory Ecology Lab”

  1. njr_sd says:

    Are the cheetah and okapi vocalizations all within the human hearing range? Have you captured any low frequency vocalizations from our elephants?

    Good luck with the analysis – stay dry!

  2. Matt Anderson says:

    Hi njr_sd,

    Thanks for your comment! Our research with the cheetahs has revealed that they have a wide vocal repertoire and that some of their calls are specific to males within the group. However, all of their calls fall within the range of human hearing and as such are easily recorded and analysed using traditional recording equipment. Elephants and okapis differ from the cheetahs because they do use lower frequencies which we can’t hear. Although recording and studying this ‘infrasound’ is more challenging (I use very sensitive microphones) it is also very exciting for us as we are discovering new calls (or words) that were not previously studied because no one knew they existed! Our African elephants use infrasound as part of their rumble call, a vocalization which we can hear (it’s a bit like a growl) but which we now know contains much more information than we originally thought. By contrast, okapis use certain calls which are produced entirely as infrasound (we can’t hear these at all!) which we are currently focusing on. I shall keep you updated via the San Diego Zoo’s blogs. Thank you very much for your interest in my work!

    P.S. Several elephant vocalizations can be heard on the Zoo’s Web site (see http://www.sandiegozoo.org/wordpress/default/elephant-herd-welcomes-new-baby/) and an overview of the new okapi project is featured in an earlier blog entitled “Secret Language of the Okapi”: http://www.sandiegozoo.org/wordpress/default/secret-language-of-the-okapi/