Posted in biology, engineering

Thirsty trees make slurping noises

Actually trees make popping sounds. Weird, huh?

I love reading about people who study sound and music, especially when they get to apply it to natural phenomenons and non-traditional avenues of sound research. As read on Boing Boing, contributed by sound expert Meara O’Reilly:

Bioacoustician Bernie Krause has recorded the amazingly rhythmic vascular systems of thirsty trees:

He discovered that the cells in the xylem and phloem of the tree fill with air to try to maintain the osmotic pressure that’s usually produced by the sucking of water up through the roots.  At a certain point the cells burst. Krause adds “When they pop, they make a noise: we can’t hear it, but insects can. And when insects hear multiple cells popping, they’re drawn to the tree because certain ones are programmed to expect sap. And when the insects are drawn to the tree, the birds are drawn to the tree to eat. it’s all a microhabitat formed by sound: The sound of popping cells.”  (Incidentally, when the xylem cells pop, they die and form the rings of the tree).  Recordings are made at their natural high frequency (about 47 kHz!) with a hydrophone and then slowed down by about a factor of seven. 

Bernie’s done some fascinating work in the field of “biophony”, which is based around the idea that every animal in an eco-system has its own acoustic territory, or bandwidth of sound that it vocalizes in. If something comes in and takes over a certain bandwidth (like the regular route of a noisy airplane) entire populations can suffer, or be forced to adapt.

You can find more of his recordings here



Beth Kelley is an applied & digital anthropologist with an overall interest in how people engage with and are impacted by their environments and vice versa. This has manifested itself in many ways, by looking at creativity, playful spaces, built environments, and environmental enrichment, sustainability, design research, and integrative and collaborative models of learning such as through play and hands-on learning.

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