Surrounded by sounds—of music, science, animals, and more

Novel noisemakers in nature include spiderwebs that can vibrate musically, whale songs that serve as ocean soundings, and more.

Lacking sharp eyesight, spiders use their legs to feel vibrations in their webs. A web’s silken strands have different lengths and tensions and, as a result, different frequencies. The resident spider is attuned to those frequencies to detect prey, potential mates, or threats. Now, a group of scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology aims to convey a bit of that Spidey sense to humans. With 3D laser imaging based on cobweb cross sections, the MIT team mapped the web of a tropical tent-web spider. To the strands, the scientists assigned musical tones audible to humans. They also built a virtual reality interface that lets users “play” the spiderweb like an eerie-sounding stringed instrument. “We’re trying to give the spider a voice,” said MIT’s Markus Buehler—and, maybe someday, communicate with the arachnid via vibrations.  —Hicks Wogan

If you can hear the raspy ch-ch-ch produced by a rattlesnake’s tail, then you’ve already wandered too close. Or is that just what the snake wants you to think? By analyzing sound waves, scientists learned that western diamondback rattlesnakes vibrate their tails slowly when a threat is far away but shift into a quicker, high-frequency rattle as a threat nears. This acceleration tricks the human ear into thinking the serpent is closer than it actually is. —Jason Bittel

The regent honeyeater (Anthochaera phrygia) is a critically endangered songbird in southeastern Australia. Only a few hundred are left, and some young males aren’t around older ones enough to learn their songs. A research team based in Canberra recently reported that 27 percent of male honeyeaters were singing flawed renditions, while 12 percent didn’t know their mating calls at all and had adopted those of other species—not what female honeyeaters want to hear. The team has exposed captive young birds to older birds’ recorded songs—and even to wild-caught older males—in hopes that this music therapy will teach youngsters the right tunes to preserve the species. It’s a reminder that populations and cultures rise and fall together, like the notes of a song. —HW

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