Updated: Apr 16
Sound is all around us. Just like our other senses, the ability to hear sound helps us to perceive our environment. The advantage of sound over other stimuli like sight is that it allows us to perceive something that is not immediately in our vision and gauge what direction it is in. But it is more complex than that, it can convey messages between individuals, it can energize or relax us, and it can also be used to navigate our surroundings. So what is the significance of sound in nature? Let’s get into it!
Songbirds are one of the most vocal animals. They use their calls to attract and keep track of mates and warn each other of predators. In fact, the complexity and specificity of their songs and calls have been compared to human language. Members of the same species even have dialects and accents in different regions. When it comes to attracting a female, many ladybirds prefer the local dialects and accents. Sometimes a female from a certain region of the world won't even recognize the calls of a member of the same species in a different region. And just like human language, their calls change over time with each generation. It's basically like the cardinal out your window today is saying “IDK”, while that cardinal’s grandparent said, “I don’t know”, in bird talk of course. This use of sound for communication is learned and modified from the previous generation in birds and in humans.
Sometimes sound is used almost like sight. Bats use echolocation to visualize their surroundings and hunt for prey at night when their sight is not useful to them. Echolocation works by sending out sonic waves that reflect off other objects back to the bat. The speed at which the sound returns to the bat reveals how far away the object is, the intensity of the returned sound reveals the size, higher intensity in one ear can reveal the direction of the object and an increase in the pitch over time can reveal the object is getting closer and vise versa, aka, the doppler effect. Other animals like whales and dolphins do this as well. Humans have mimicked this adaptation in our sonar technology, but it is still not as efficient as what nature has created.
Sound is very important in the predator prey relationship. Many predators try to use lack of sound to their advantage. Owls have a couple of unique adaptations that allow them to be able to fly slightly, making them dangerous predators that are not so easily detectable. First off, their body is designed in a way that is more aerodynamic, and the ratio of body size to wing size is small so they don’t have to put too much effort into flapping their wings, which would cause more noise. They're not trying to be fast like a falcon, they’re trying to be silent. In addition to that, their feathers have barbs that prevent air turbulence that would cause sound. All of this leads to an impressively quiet flight. Technology developers, inspired by the anatomy of the wing feathers, have created fan blades with similar barbs to reduce noise.
Sound also has more impacts on our body and minds than we may realize. The sound of nature has been shown to have a relaxing effect on the body. A 2019 study found that just listening to sounds of a forest ecosystem decreases the heart rate more compared to listening to sounds of the city. Participants also acknowledged improved moods, decreased symptoms of depression, anger, fatigue, and confusion. More specifically, a 2021 study on the health benefits of natural sounds found that water sounds had a greater impact on positive emotions, while bird sounds had a greater impact on reducing perceived stress.
The ability to hear is one of the ways that we and other organisms stay connected to our environment. Humans and animals are related just as our relationship to sound is. We also have been inspired by unique animal relationships to sound with our own technology. Beyond that, sounds of nature have many positive impacts on our bodies and our minds. So take a moment to relax and listen to the sounds of nature.
Ackerman, J. (2017). The genius of birds. Corsair.