Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

Listen! October 13, 2014 by Carol Schmidt • Published 10/13/14

You hike out of Yellowstone with a gallery of photos on your phone or camera. Brilliant cerulean hot pots, edged in rust and ivory. Nimble sheep that preside on struts of rock. And, yes, one obligatory vaporous explosion of Old Faithful.

But when you show these photos to admiring coworkers, friends and family members, something is missing. The bugle of an elk, the soaring trumpet of a swan, the hollow pop of a simmering hot pot.

For indeed, a visit to Yellowstone provides a symphony to the senses, and the stuff of many a scrapbook. However, it is the sounds of our region that are most difficult to retrieve and remember.

Or, perhaps, it is more accurate to say that the sounds of the Yellowstone region were most difficult to retrieve until last October, when the Montana State University Library launched the Acoustic Atlas, a new auditory archive of some 1,100 recordings—and growing—posted online for all to hear.

The Acoustic Atlas is the brainchild of Kenning Arlitsch, dean of the MSU Library, and his colleague, Jeff Rice, director of the atlas and a sound engineer who roams the Northern Rockies in search of sounds. The two worked with a similar soundscape project when Arlitsch was with the library at the University of Utah. When Arlitsch came to MSU in 2012, he thought the idea was a good fit for MSU, which is known as the University of the Yellowstone.

“We believe in the potential that a regional sound archive can have on public ecological awareness, research, conservation, health and well-being, so we decided to try to build a Montana and Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem-focused program based at MSU,” Arlitsch said.

The sounds range from the mammals and reptiles of the area to ambient sounds, such as the gurgle of a mountain stream, a passing thunderstorm, the explosive crack of two bighorn rams crashing into each other in battle. Some are exceedingly rare. This year Rice and colleague Kevin Colver captured the sounds of North America’s most endangered amphibian, the Wyoming Toad. Their recordings at a refuge near the Wyoming-Colorado border provided new data about toad numbers and breeding behavior.

The archive also includes brief interviews with scientists about their research subjects. A listener won’t soon forget, for instance, Hayward Spangler’s interview about how he records the vibrations of ants.

Arlitsch said it’s a little early to know who is accessing the Acoustic Atlas, although the library is building reliable data about users.

“What’s always surprising to me is to see demonstrations that Molly (Arrandale, the library’s program coordinator for the project) or Jeff give to audiences and to watch people’s reactions when they hear sounds of animals, or even the sounds that water or wind make,” Arlitsch said.  “I think many of us don’t realize how much the soundscape completes our perception and recognition of the world around us.” ■

To explore the Acoustic Atlas, go to http://acousticatlas.org