New Science Takes Visitors On Sonic Tour Through State's History

Aug 10, 2017

And, no, we’re not talking about Sonic the Hedgehog.

An exhibit at the Indiana State Fair allows visitors to hear how the Hoosier State has changed over the last two centuries, thanks, in part, to a new branch of science —soundscape ecology.

“We use sounds to tell us about landscapes and the animals that reside there and how places change over time,” says Ben Gottesman, an ecologist at Purdue University.

Sounds can teach scientists new things about old places, like where species migrate in response to climate change or if habitat restoration projects successfully provide a new home for animals.

“I don’t think people are aware of what all of these sounds are and how they have changed over time,” says Kristen Bellisario, a Purdue ecologist and designer of the state fair exhibit. “In fact, this change is tightly correlated with the changes in land use in Indiana.”

Nearly 90 percent of Indiana was forested when Indiana became a state in 1816. By the turn of the Twentieth century, 90 percent of the state’s forests were converted to agriculture.

People might be surprised by how rich Indiana’s soundscape was before settlement, Bellisario and Gottesman say as we walk into the exhibit’s sound booth at the state fair. It’s the size of a large photo booth with a TV screen mounted on one side. When we’re seated, a video starts to play.

“[We’re] just listening to some scarlet tanagers and other sound birds,” Gottesman narrates. “Now, the grey tree frogs and spring peepers are emerging as it turns to night … a great horned owl … BAM, a mountain lion.”

Today, says Gottesman, those sounds have largely been replaced by farm animals, wind and insects, along with planes, trains and automobiles.

“Communication, to me, is really important,” Bellisario adds, “because if we are not reaching a younger audience and we’re not building awareness that this is a critical concern, then we might lose these sounds forever.”

Visitors can check out the Purdue soundscapes exhibit any time during the State Fair.