Decoding the Language of Animals

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Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs, and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here!

At the Beckman Center, we were familiarized with the Zoo’s efforts to conserve animal species by studying their behaviors. Dr. Matt Anderson and Jennifer Tobey talked to us about current projects that involve studying the behavior of elephants and koalas. It was fascinating to learn about how staff members record and decode the language of the animals, and it was even more exciting to try it out for ourselves!

Dr. Matt Anderson, the Associate Director of the Behavior Biology Division at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, share with the interns the complex world of African elephant behavior. Using high-tech equipment, Zoo staff are able to record elephant vocalizations (some of which are inaudible to the human ear) and connect them with behavioral observations. For instance, heavily pregnant female elephants produce a unique rumble when their calf is ready to be born. The herd responds to the call by surrounding the newborn in an attempt to defend the new arrival from potential predators.

Using a computer software program that charts frequencies of sound clips, staff members are able to visually analyze the different vocabulary words of the elephants. Dr. Anderson explained to us that the calls of the elephants have evolved in order to help females attract mates. An elephant’s breeding season is very short, and males do not live within close range of the females. As a solution to this inconvenience, females have developed a low-frequency mating call that can travel extraordinary distances.

Jennifer Tobey, Research Coordinator in Behavior Biology at the Institute, spends a lot of her time in koala conservation. She is part of an ongoing project at the Zoo that is researching mate choice in Queensland koalas, and which factors in males best attract potential female mates.

Mrs. Tobey shows us a visual representation of some of the koala research she has been involved with at the Zoo. These graphs show the chemical analyses of scent compounds from the same male koala across different seasons (mating season vs. non-mating season).By doing a monthly measurement of the males’ scent glands, keepers can correlate the results to the breeding behavior of the koalas and hopefully gather data on what female koalas look for in a mate.

Mrs. Tobey introduces interns to a short shot gun directional microphone that is used in the field. The microphone records sounds, from a human’s normal hearing range, onto digital tapes for analysis. I found it fascinating that this particular equipment is also often used in broadcasting and recording studios!

Intern Sierra poses with the microphone and headset. The microphone can easily pick up a fellow intern’s whispers from many feet away! However, Mrs. Tobey told us that it is often difficult to focus on one sound, as many times there are other sounds in the air (such as the wind) that are picked up and amplified by the equipment.

Instructed by Mrs. Tobey, Intern Caroline does an exercise with the microphone. She is “stalking” her prey, in this case fellow intern Crystal, who is quietly talking across the room. Caroline quickly learned that the closer she got to the sound she was recording, the louder and clearer Crystal’s words became. After this activity, Mrs. Tobey processed the recordings on her computer, and we were able to visually see the frequencies of each other’s voices!

Rachel, Photo Journalist Team
Week Five, Winter Session 2012