Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Wildlife Acoustics

Ninth in a series of articles about the history of the mill and its past and current tenants.

Employees of Wildlife Acoustics, Maynard, MA. Taken 2016.
Ian Arganat, founder and president, front row center, in sports jacket.
Images courtesy of Wildlife Acoustics, Inc.
“Seeing is believing.” Hearing is believing, too, if you know what you are hearing. Wildlife Acoustics, Inc., a company that was started in 2003, relocated from Concord to Maynard in 2013, and is an expert provider of devices that allow us to detect all sorts of animal noises and know exactly what we are listening to.

Wildlife has 16 employees working in Maynard. They are responsible for management, R&D, marketing, sales, etc. Basically, everything but manufacturing, which takes place in Westford. Aside from bits of the internal electronics, this is a 100% U.S. company. Occasionally there is even a bit of field testing in and around Maynard and Stow. Plus, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which includes the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge, is a customer.

When asked how all this got started, Ian Agranat, founder and president, replied that by 2002 he had completed his sale of and responsibilities for Arganat Systems, a software company located in Maynard, and was at loose ends. He was out on a hike with his brother-in-law, an avid outdoorsman and birder, who casually wondered “Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a device that could identify a bird by its song?” 

A million dollars or so later, Ian had a device that worked – sort of – but was far too expensive for bird-watching hobbyists. What he did have, however, was a device that was almost good enough to meet the professional research needs of environmental consulting firms, governments and academic researchers. A bit more R&D, and voila!      

Wildlife Acoustics Song Meter SM4BAT for recording sounds
made by bats. Click on photos to enlarge.
For professional bioacoustics research scientists, Wildlife Acoustics has a selection of devices to record and interpret animal noises in the air, on land and under water. Its products are used to study animals ranging from bats to whales. More than ten years of research has gone into the hardware (sound sensors and recorders) and software (pattern recognition and noise filtering) needed to detect and decipher animal noises. 

The product family includes Song Meter, which works for land animals and birds, a variation engineered for the much higher pitch needed for detecting bat sounds, and submersible versions for fresh and saltwater listening. The Song Meter could be used to determine if spring peeper frogs gather at Maynard and Stow vernal ponds. Recently, the company launched Echo Meter Touch – a device and accompanying software that can make smartphones and smartpads into bat sound detecting systems that in the recent past would have cost thousands of dollars.   

Echo Meter Touch mounted
on a smartphone makes the phone
a bat recording device.
One year ago, Wildlife Acoustics launched Song Sleuth, a $9.99 iPhone app that has become its most widely used software product. Think of it as the acoustic parallel to binoculars. The program was developed in a collaboration with David Sibley, a renowned bird expert. When birdsong is heard, the app records the song. Names and images of the three most likely bird species appear on the screen. Information and images from The David Sibley Bird Reference allows the user to identify the correct bird. The software then allows the user to geotag the location and share the recording with other birders via messaging or email. At present, the program can identify 200 of the most common vocalizing land birds in the U.S. Song Sleuth should be available on Android phones later this year.

Wildlife Acoustics logo
All this begs the question – what do animals hear that we don’t, and vice versa? Hearing is about pitch, in frequency measurement units called hertz (Hz). Humans can hear in the 20 to 20 Hz range, but hear best between 100 and 5,000 Hz. Dogs hear up to 40 kHz (kilohertz), which is why a dog whistle is inaudible to us. Cats up to around 75 kHz, which allows them to hear communications of small rodents such as mice. Bats cannot hear anything in our range, but can hear up to 100 kHz and higher. If bat calls are slowed down to 1/10th speed the sounds are in our range. Elephants can communicate with sounds at frequencies below what humans can consciously hear. However, these low-frequency sounds, felt more than heard, make us feel uneasy and “spooked.” Directors of horror movies have been known to incorporate these as sound effects.  

What humans hear listening to humans has some interesting quirks. Although people can consciously speak above or below their natural pitch, female voices naturally fall into a 165 to 255 Hz range and male voices 85 to 160 Hz. Research suggests that women are more sexually attracted by low pitch male voices (Barry White, anyone?), while men find women with higher pitched voices sexy (maybe not as far as the baby talk range). Male low pitch tends correlate with both larger body size and more testosterone. Women high pitch tends to correlate with younger age, and perhaps better fertility. Volume counts, too. Dialing down the decibels and getting a bit breathy causes the listener to lean in to hear, which works for both sides. Let’s talk about this.

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