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Animal Musicians  
  Nature is never silent. As well as the general background of water, wind and weather, unique sounds are added by living creatures. There are a huge variety of calls and the more melodic ones have even inspired composers. But instead of just copying their musical qualities—what about actually using the animals themselves as musicians?

  Obviously they won’t play on request, but by feeding a whole range of animal calls into an electronic sampler, British composer Nick Glennie-Smith is sure he can build up a wildlife orchestra, which will respond to the touch of a button. Take the strings for instance.

  Grasshoppers not only produce string-like sounds, they even make music in a similar way to violinists and cellists. But their bow is a row of pegs on their legs, and veins in their wings take the place of strings.

  This gremlin-like creature is an Aye-Aye—a type of lemur normally found only in Madagascar. Aye-ayes use their long middle finger to tap branches to find cavities, where grubs and insects hide out. It may not have the best table manners, but this strange looking creature is certainly a very adept and unusual percussionist, which should help provide Nick with a good beat.

  The aye-aye uses a branch as its instrument—but other players have a built-in rhythm section. It’s useful for ground squirrels. They’re the main prey of rattlesnakes and so it’s in their interest to appreciate the variety of playing styles. The snake gets near a burrow, as that’s where the vulnerable squirrel pups are. In fact though, it could be a very different animal down the burrow. These are burrowing owls, which will also surprisingly add to Nick’s rhythm section. They hunt and eat above ground but they actually nest down disused squirrel burrow. They could also be ate by rattlesnakes and other predators such as coyotes, but if they hear danger, they have a very effective defence. They mimic a rattlesnake!

  Nick’s now got a good selection of percussionists to really get the beat going. Now he’s got the rhythm he needs his wind instrumentalists.

  In summer, the waters around the North Coast of California literally hum to the playing of this toadfish. The Plainfin Midshipman is one of several fish species, which make sounds, but its recital can go on for up to an hour. They’ve found that during the breeding season the male finds a nest pool and at night when the tide is in hums to attract a female. Once a male is settled, he’s introduced to a female, and soon digs himself in to start humming his love song by vibrating his swim bladder—about a hundred times a second.

  Fish aren’t the only animals, which are impressed by long and loud serenades. These male grey tree frogs put plenty of wind and effort into attracting a partner, and with several hundred chorusing together around the pond, the noise can be earsplitting. A female frog laden with eggs and therefore desperate to mate is placed between two loud speakers in a sound proof chamber. One speaker plays a short call from her own species—the other plays a long call, but of a different species—so which will she choose? Previous experiments have shown that as with fish, female frogs prefer long and loud serenades—so this is somewhat of a dilemma for her. The long strong call of the wrong species, or the weak short one of her own? Guided only by her hearing, it doesn’t take long for her to head for the call made by her own species—even if it is somewhat wimpish! And that’s vital. Being able to differentiate between melodies prevents interbreeding between species.

  Many frogs’ are in the treble range, but some animal calls are so bass that at least part of the sound is inaudible to humans. The water droplets are being sent into the air by the vibration of a male alligator’s sub-sonic call. The water dance precedes the very clearly heard bellow, which alligators make during the breeding season. During the summer both male and female alligators bellow to catch the attention of the opposite sex. Since an alligator in good voice produces a bellow that’s as loud as a pneumatic drill, their lusty declamations travel large distances through the water, bringing amorous partner from far and wide. Bellowing doesn’t always have the desired effect though. Males who get too vociferous when close to other males often end up in fights over territory, and so quieter, but conspicuous social displays are also made to claim their patch.

  The alligators’ more recently evolved relatives, the birds, have more complex songs. Birds often sound flute-like. They really are more songsters than wind instrumentalists. Even so, because of their trilling sound, Nick is including them in his wind section, which is already sounding quite melodious.

  The finishing touch is the vocalists, and the only singers who really sound anything like humans are the primates. These are lemurs from Madagascar—and all the different species are very vocal, with a wide range of calls. Scientists have been studying the lemurs alarm calls and have discovered that they have particular cries for specific threats—so for instance if the call for an aerial predator, such as a hawk is played to them, they respond immediately. They leap for the centres of trees, and look up for the bird. If on the other hand the call for a ground predator is played, the response is very different. They climb these and look anxiously downward. Nick is keen to get as many lemur calls as he can for his animal symphony. Luckily it’s not long before some ring-tailed lemurs treat him to a virtuoso performance.

  Now Nick has his vocalists. He’s ready to put all the sections together to make a symphony using only animal musicians.