Dr. Erica Staaterman listens to the ocean for a living. Often seen as a silent landscape broken only by whale or dolphin songs, Staaterman is helping uncover a wealth of noise from the ocean’s hidden creatures, first in California and now in the Chesapeake as a postdoc for the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. Learn more in the edited Q&A below, and click the sound files to hear some of the secret sounds of the sea.
How did you get into acoustic ecology?
My first research job out of my undergrad was working for Sheila Patek at UC Berkeley….She had a bunch of recordings of these [California spiny] lobsters making sound, and nobody really understood why they make sound. So we did an experiment where we tried to understand the function of the sounds made by these lobsters. So anyway, that was sort of my first foray into acoustics, and from there I just thought it was really fascinating.
In California, you described researching a chorus of mantis shrimp. What did that sound like?
We called them rumble groups. Sometimes they would have two rumbles per group, sometimes three rumbles per group, sometimes four or five….At dawn and dusk you would hear so many different rumble groups occurring at the same time that they would all be sort of overlapping, and it seems to indicate that there are many individuals making sound at the same time, just the way birds all sing out at once in air.
Listen below: Mantis Shrimp “Rumble Groups”
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Why do you suspect only the male shrimp make sound?
Mantis shrimp dig burrows into the mud and they defend them really fiercely, especially during the mating season.…So if you’re a male and you have your burrow, you might want to stake your claim and call out and say, okay, I’m advertising for females, but I’m also advertising to the other males, that this is my territory, and stay away. We don’t know for sure, but those are our hypotheses.
With grey snappers, did you record the youngest larvae ever recorded making sound?
As far as we know. There was one paper that’s documented a larval squirrelfish that was a little bit older in age, so it was more in the settlement phase, and ours were pre-settlement, so this was the first time that fish larvae of that life stage had ever been documented making sound.
Listen: “Knocks” of Gray Snapper (Lutjanus griseus) Larvae
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Listen: Gray Snapper Larvae “Growls” (Tank)
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Why do you think grey snapper larvae make noise only at night?
One possibility is that these larvae are trying to stick together during their planktonic journey….During the day, they can see each other, but at night when they can’t see each other, they’re using sound. That’s a hypothesis.
What’s the strangest sound you ever heard?
There’s some pretty weird growly fishy sounds that I recorded off of reefs in Florida….that’s probably the strangest thing I’ve recorded, but the strangest sound I think that exists is the Weddell seal. It’s really wacky. It sounds like a spaceship.
Listen: Coral Reef in Sand Island, Florida (crackling sounds are snapping shrimp; turn volume higher to hear the thumping of fish)
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(mp3 – Internet Explorer)You and your husband launched a series of a film festivals called Beneath the Waves. What’s the purpose behind that?
To encourage scientists to use film as a tool to communicate their research to the world. And a lot of scientists are doing that now, especially with the smaller, cheaper cameras and everything. We basically provide a platform for scientists to share their stories.
Are they all nonfiction, or is there any fiction?
We’ve gotten some animated shorts…There’s one really great one called Gloop, which is about plastics, and it’s told in a sort of dark fairy-tale style, with a child narrating it, and it’s sort of creepy and eerie. It’s about the development and rise of plastics in the world. And it’s really effective.
How are festivals organized?
We allow people to become local hosts. So if you live in, I don’t know, Nebraska, and you want to do an ocean film fest at your university, you can apply to become a host, and we have an application process, sort of an interview with this potential person. And then when the time is right we hand over access to our database of films, and then they have about 200 films to pick from. So they can curate their own festival and really put together anything they want to talk about.
How would you like to use sound to study the Chesapeake?
One that I think is probably going to be the most interesting is related to oyster reef restoration….It could be really useful if you could put a hydrophone in the water and say, oh, great, there’s tons of oyster toadfish here and lots of gobies and lots of other sound producers. This is a good, healthy oyster reef—without having to jump in and try to survey it visually, because it’s just really hard to see in these waters.
The other thing that I’m interested in looking at is the impact of ship noise….They’re showing with birds and squirrels and even marmots and deer, various animals on land, that they are affected by noise. So we would think in the ocean the same thing would apply. It’s just that ocean acoustics is always at least five or 10 years behind the terrestrial world, because it’s just so difficult to do anything [with acoustics] in the ocean compared to on land.