Bat Calls Make Eerie Comeback As Techno-Like Beats

Aug 5, 2012
Originally published on June 19, 2013 9:04 am

For the past five years, bats have been disappearing at an alarming rate, falling prey to a mysterious disease called white-nose syndrome. But they're making an eerie comeback in a new audio exhibit at a national park in Vermont. The exhibit features manipulated recordings of bat calls that are funneled through glass vessels hanging from a studio ceiling.

Bats emit high-frequency sounds that create echoes to help them navigate and detect predators. Most of these sounds are inaudible to the human ear, but they can be recorded using special machines and software that lower the frequencies into the range humans can hear.

Ecologist Kent McFarland recorded these sounds in 2001, when he took an inventory of long-eared and little brown bats near a pond in Woodstock, Vt.

"About 65 bats an hour would cross in front of the machine every night, night after night," McFardland says.

But those species, both prone to white-nose syndrome, had apparently disappeared from the park when McFarland returned last year. Only two bats were recorded.

Andrea Polli, a New Mexico-based digital media artist, was horrified when McFarland told her about the bat die-off. An artist in residence this summer at Woodstock's Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park, Polli wanted to create a project that would celebrate their mysterious sounds.

"I thought that it would be fun to play with the fact that they sounded to me really electronic," she says.

Since humans cannot hear what bats really sound like, Polli gave herself wide artistic license to create her own interpretation. She used looped recordings of bat calls to create a techno-sounding beat.

McFarland says he wonders what Polli's manipulated recordings would sound like to a bat.

"It does sound sort of space age to me, but to a bat, I've no idea," he says.

The bats may be dying, but their calls at least live on in Vermont as a ghostly funeral dirge in the middle of the national park where they used to thrive.

Copyright 2013 Vermont Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.vpr.net.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

For the past five years, six species of bats have been disappearing at an alarming rate from the caves of New England, killed by a mysterious disease called white-nose syndrome. The bat population's dramatic disappearance has inspired a new audio exhibit at a national park in Vermont.

Vermont Public Radio's Charlotte Albright recently paid a visit.

CHARLOTTE ALBRIGHT, BYLINE: Bats emit high frequency sounds that create echoes to help them navigate and detect predators. Most of these are inaudible to the human ear, but they can be recorded using special machines and software that lower the frequencies into the range we can hear.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAT SOUNDS)

ALBRIGHT: Ecologist Kent McFarland recorded these sounds in 2001, when he took a bat inventory near a pond in Woodstock, Vermont. For the species on tape - long-eared and little brown bats - it was party time.

KENT MCFARLAND: About 65 bats an hour would cross in front of the machine every night, night after night.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAT SOUNDS)

ALBRIGHT: But those species, both prone to white-nose syndrome, had apparently disappeared from the park when McFarland returned last year. Only two bats were recorded.

Enter Andrea Polli, a digital media artist from New Mexico in residence at Woodstock's Marsh Billings-Rockefeller National Park this summer. She was horrified when McFarland told her about the bat die-off and wanted to celebrate their mysterious sounds.

ANDREA POLLI: I thought that it would be fun to play with the fact that they sounded to me really electronic.

ALBRIGHT: And since humans can't hear what bats really sound like, Polli gave herself wide artistic license to turn them into something else.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELECTRONIC MUSIC)

POLLI: So I thought that to take them and loop them and create beats and create a kind of a little techno feel would be a fun way to play around with these sorts of sounds.

ALBRIGHT: Here's how they sound now, spilling out of a speaker in the gallery at the park.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELECTRONIC MUSIC)

ALBRIGHT: Scientist Kent McFarland wonders what all this would sound like to a bat.

MCFARLAND: It does sound, you know, sort of space-age to me. But to a bat, I've no idea. It would be impossible for us to know, I think.

ALBRIGHT: The bats may be dying but their calls at least live on, sort of like a ghostly funeral dirge in the middle of the national park where they used to thrive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELECTRONIC MUSIC)

ALBRIGHT: For NPR News, I'm Charlotte Albright in Norwich, Vermont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.