This Is What Extinction Sounds Like

Before-and-after audio records show how ecosystems change

Photo: Jim Bahn

Biophonist Bernie Krause records and studies the sounds of natural environments. Krause, who coined the term “biophony” and is one of its few scholars, has worked out in the field for the past forty years with the aim of exploring and cataloging the soundscapes of the world’s inhabitants and its ecosystems, says the Guardian. He is interested in understanding “how the sounds of the natural world have underpinned everything from spirituality to architecture,” says Summer Brennan in the Point Reyes Light.

In some cases, Krause has revisited the same locations following a large upheaval that overturned the local ecosystem. For example, the Guardian points to two records taken both before and after a meadow in California was selectively logged. Describing the change, Krause said:

The overall richness of sound was gone, as was the thriving density and diversity of birds. The only prominent sounds were the stream and the hammering of a Williamson’s sapsucker. Over the 20 years I have returned a dozen times to the same spot at the same time of year but the bio-acoustic vitality I had captured before logging has not yet returned.

Krause’s recordings provide an auditory glimpse into the endangerment and extinction of species caused by habitat loss from deforestation, wetland draining or other processes. In Wired, Clive Thompson explains that even if an ecosystem—a forest, a coral reef, a meadow—looks untouched, Krause’s records show how the animal inhabitants may have changed.

California’s Lincoln Meadow, for example, has undergone only a tiny bit of logging, but the acoustic imprint of the region has completely changed in tandem with the landscape, and some species seem to have been displaced. The area looks the same as ever, “but if you listen to it, the density and diversity of sound is diminished,” Krause says. “It has a weird feeling.”


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