OSU Lab Collects, Sells Animal Sounds

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - The recordings stored in the Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics hail from some of Earth's most remote places - the Arctic, African plains and Amazon rainforest.

But where the Ohio State University lab sends its recordings is anything but remote.

Nearly every month, headphone-wearing researchers cut and electronically ship animal calls to be used in everything from movies and museum displays to television shows and even cell phones.

They've sent mourning dove songs to a New York City composer, a rattlesnake's warning to the American Museum of Natural History and the calls of a waved albatross, blue-footed booby and Galapagos hawk to the producers of the 2003 movie "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World."

Each year, the lab sells 700 to 800 recordings, said Jill Soha, curator of the laboratory.

About half of the sounds go to researchers who use them to study animal behavior and vocalization.

The other sounds often are displayed more publicly.

"I always wonder what Donald Borror would think if he knew that (recordings) were being used as telephone ring tones," Soha said.

Borror, an OSU professor of entomology and zoology, founded the lab in 1945. He started sharing his recordings in the 1950s, Soha said.

Today, the lab is home to 33,000 animal recordings, 86 percent of which are birds. The lab adds 500 to 700 sounds a year, all digitized.

There, one can hear the songs of an ash-throated flycatcher - there are 27 recordings - and the croaks of a red-eyed tree frog.

Only Cornell University has a larger sound archive in the United States.

Despite its size, the Borror Laboratory is "one of the best-kept secrets," said Sherry Stern of Los Angeles.

Stern owns Conservation Calling, a Web site for cell-phone users to download animal ring tones. She has bought 15 recordings from the lab, including a loon, raven, screech owl and western meadowlark.

The bird calls are edited to make the ring tones more melodious or distinct, she said.

"It's still recognizable as the bird," Stern said. "But that just makes a better ring tone."

Like Stern, film director Evan Meszaros wanted authentic sounds.

The Borror Lab sent the New York City director about 80 minutes of coyote howls and growls for his 2007 independent film, "Windcroft."

Meszaros chose 15 sounds for his movie.

"If I just threw in some sort of random wolf howl, yeah, it would sound like something howling and people would get the point," Meszaros said.

"But having a real coyote howl adds a certain amount of legitimacy."

Adding legitimacy is one of the reasons Nickelodeon relies on the lab, said Katie McWane, coordinating producer and voice director for the shows "Dora the Explorer" and "Go Diego Go."

In 2003 and 2004, the cable network purchased eight sounds from the Borror Laboratory, including a puma, scarlet macaw, red howler monkey and brown-throated, three-toed sloth.

McWane said the shows help teach preschoolers the animals' calls.

"A lot of research goes into our shows," McWane said. "I basically need to get the cleanest sounds that I can. They usually provide really, really good recordings."

Soha said the laboratory, at the university's Museum of Biological Diversity, typically takes about a week to edit and distribute the sounds.

Fees that are collected are used to help fund the lab's undergraduate student researchers.

The most requested sounds are those of song sparrows and northern cardinals, Soha said. Owls and flycatchers are popular, too.

She said a man once asked for an hour of frog croaks.

Why? He simply liked the sounds, Soha said.

Unlike producers, directors and ring-tone makers, scientists want unedited recordings. They also want narration that helps paint a story by describing the setting where a recording was made as well as the animal's behavior.

The Ohio Division of Wildlife uses the sound database to produce CDs, some of which the agency hands out at conferences.

This year, the focus is on warblers. Previous CDs included owls and water birds. The lab itself put out several CDs of frog and toad sounds.

Chris Sturdy, an assistant professor who studies chickadee communication and behavior at the University of Alberta, said the Borror Lab is known for quality.

"There is getting a recording and getting a good recording, which are two totally different things," Sturdy said.

Songbirds, including chickadees, Sturdy said, are one of six animal groups that have to be taught to sing or call.

The others are dolphins, bats, parrots, hummingbirds and cetaceous whales.

Change the frequency of a call or a note in a tune and it's unlikely a chickadee would respond, said Sturdy, who has used Borror Lab recordings in his research for several years.