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Adding to the "audio family tree"

Mark Bee has been working in India’s Western Ghats Mountains, a global biodiversity hotspot, recording the calls of newly discovered species of bush frogs.

Photo of Raorchestes glandulosus

While Mark Bee is interested in just about every aspect of frogs, he’s clearly most enthusiastic about their distinctive, resonant croaks. Each “ribbitt” is like sweet, sweet music for the globe-trotting biologist, who specializes in bioacoustics and evolutionary biology. Bee, an associate professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, knows that every species of frog has its own unique call, so he’s excited to find even more to listen to these days thanks to groundbreaking work by an Indian colleague; a researcher who has identified more than 100 new frog species in the past 13 years.

“His name is Professor S. D. Biju, but he just goes by ‘Biju,’ like Madonna or Sting,” Bee says. “I first got in touch with him in 2009 and made a trip to record bush frogs in the Western Ghats Mountains, which have been designated as a global biodiversity hotspot.” Capturing the sounds of those dulcet voices is no easy matter, however. “It can be pretty difficult work at times,” Bee admits. “One has to stand still, outside, at night, in cold mountain air. Since the frogs are most active during monsoon season, there can be torrential rain about 55 minutes of every hour. Just getting an umbrella opened in the middle of a forest can be something of a challenge, but we need one to keep the recording equipment dry.”

The conditions haven’t stopped him from returning. He spent two 60-day, monsoon-season stints in India during his recently completed Fulbright-Nehru Fellowship and University sabbatical. “I’ve also trained one of Biju’s grad students, who has made two trips to Minnesota to learn more about analyzing calls,” he says. “We’ve collected 50,000 calls from 43 species to date, and we hope to collect many more.”

Bee hopes that his work can assist in efforts for conservation and taxonomy. “For conservation, we have to know what’s there so we can make sure we save it,” he says. “On a taxonomic and systematic level, we’re working on completing a bush frog family tree, which will be useful in a number of ways. For example, sometimes different bush frog species look very much alike, but there can be extraordinary variability within a species. Calls are a useful tool for telling species apart.” Bee is also looking forward to learning more about the evolutionary process that led the species to have such different-sounding calls.

While Bee finds each croak to be sweet music to his ears, he understands that not everyone is equally as enthusiastic about frogs, a lesson he’s learned when attending parties with his wife, Meggan Craft, a disease ecologist in the University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “I always tell people what I do for a living first, and that gives me a chance to explain about the frogs,” he says. “People stop paying attention to me as soon as Meggan gets a chance to talk because she’s worked with lions in the Serengeti.”

— Julie Kendrick

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October, 2014