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Let Wildlife Recordings From the 1930s Take You Back to Nature

Hear African wildlife from the 1930s with the British Library’s nature sound archives

A hippopotamus named Linda takes her calf Reginald for a swim in a pool at Whipsnade Zoo. England, 1954. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS)
smithsonian.com

What did the African wilderness sound like in the 1930s? Thanks to the pioneering efforts of Ludwig Koch, the so-called “master of nature's music,” we know that it included the deep rumbles of a hippopotamus, the squawks and cheeps of birds and the sound of splashing water.

In the archives of the British Library's collection of wildlife recordings you can listen to dozens of sounds captured by Koch and other early nature recordists. The archive is home to 268 clips of wildlife sounds captured in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. These recordings harken back to the very infancy of the field of nature recording, says the Library. Since then the field has grown into a burgeoning scientific endeavor, with research teams working to catalog the soundscapes of the planet.

In the early days, capturing the sounds of nature was no easy feat. It involved lugging heavy equipment into the field to record on to motion-picture sound film, says O'Reilly. It wasn't until the introduction of magnetic tapes that “field recorders became truly portable, which enabled researchers and amateurs to record in places that were previously difficult to reach with the required recording equipment.”

The British Library's recordings include clips of a huge number of animals: mostly birds, but also the bark of an Arctic fox, the howl of a dingo, and the odd warble of a Giant Panda, among others.

At the time, says the Library, some of these sounds would have been “released on gramophone records, presented in box sets and accompanied by illustrated literature that provided the listener with information about the animals they were hearing, possibly for the very first time.”

In the modern era, nature recordings are used for much more than just archival purposes. The nascent field of bioacoustics relies on audio records to do everything from identifying species to estimating population sizes and sussing out the effects of human development on wild places.

H/t Alice Bell

About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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