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Jun. 03, 2013

A Sculpture Eavesdrops Underwater

by Corey Binns

Click to enlarge images
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When a snapping shrimp shuts its claw, there’s an audible pop. A collection of these pinky-size critters can together generate the loudest sounds in shallow waters—so loud that they interfere with SONAR on Navy submarines. A human-shaped sculpture submerged off the coast of Cancun is listening in on, and recording, these shrimp, as well as other ocean noises. The recordings could tell scientists about animal behavior, biodiversity, weather pattern influences, and ecosystem trends.
 
Artist Jason de Caires Taylor—known for his underwater sculptures that grow into artificial reefs—teamed up with marine biologist Heather Spence to create the eavesdropping artwork, which they named The Listener. Taylor first designed and constructed the sculpture out of cement casts modeled from Cancun schoolchildren's ears. Spence later wired it with an acoustic recorder that captures 30-second clips every 15 minutes, day and night, on weekends, and even during major storms.
 
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The creation was sunk four meters into the Punta Nizuc marine protected area in the Mexican Caribbean Sea, off the coast of Cancun in May 2012. When Spence checked on the sculpture a few weeks later, tiny fish were peering out from holes in the structure, which will serve as an artificial reef. "[Jason] has an intuitive talent for creating spaces that attract sea life," says Spence, noting that "The Listener offers an amazing opportunity to uncover secrets of reef formation."
 
Sound is an important part of underwater life—marine organisms rely on it for communication and defense. A healthy ecosystem likely produces a tapestry of sounds. Spiny lobsters, for example, produce “scritching” noises with a mechanism like a bow on a string, according to Spence. Dolphins make clicks, buzzes, and swooping whistles. Fish grunt and coo. But a disruption—such as noise pollution from construction or shipping—could potentially cause shifts in pitch or gaps in natural marine sounds. “Once we record a baseline of the ocean soundscape, we hope to develop ways to examine it for signs of ecosystem health,” says Spence.
 
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This past January, Spence collected the first Listener recordings, which are stored on a hard drive inside the sculpture. “So far, I've heard plenty of snapping shrimp!” she says, which could be a good sign: Research has shown that this crustacean cacophany attracts larvae, such as fish and coral, to settle on reefs. “I look forward to being able to collect more data so I can compare the recordings over time as organisms increasingly grow on the sculpture,” says Spence. 
 
As the artwork transforms into a new reef, Spence and Taylor hope it will attract not only singing marine creatures, but human divers, too. Indeed, The Listener might encourage ocean conservation efforts and help distract tourists away from the neighboring Mesoamerican Reef, the world’s second largest coral reef, which could help minimize disturbance to that area.
 
“I think both Jason and I recognize the potential for combining science and art to generate needed information,” says Spence, “and to inspire at the same time.”

 

About Corey Binns

Corey Binns is a science, health, tech, and social innovation writer based in California.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.
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