Heather Spence, Marine Biologist
Orchestrating Coastal Marine Ecology Investigation and Outreach

Heather Spence, Marine Biologist

Singing Mice – evidence for vocal learning

Evidence for vocal learning in mice was just published, the Duke team studied neural mechanisms of male courtship vocalizations (which are ultrasonic) and found cases of reliance on auditory feedback, and pitch matching. The evidence is not as strong as for vocal learning in humans and songbirds, and may represent a more subtle part of a vocal learning continuum.


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“The Listener” — merging art and science to take the pulse of Cancun’s Coral Reefs

Heather Spence is excited to be working with Jason deCaires Taylor to develop an underwater sculpture into a science lab. Spence, a Marine Biologist, is the founder of GRACIASS (Global Research and Art Center for the Investigation and Advancement of Sustainability Solutions). Her research program in Cancun began in 2007, and in 2010 expanded to include the first Passive Acoustic Monitoring in the Mexican Caribbean. “The Listener” is the result of a long collaboration between Spence and Taylor to find a way to incorporate her underwater sound research into his reef-forming sculpture.

The Listener in Jason's Studio

Jason deCaires Taylor working on The Listener sculpture in his studio

Spence explains, “By combining the art of sculpture and the science of sound, our project helps people to connect to the environment.” “The Listener” is covered with models of real human ears and actually listens… to fish. Fitted with NOAA-designed equipment, “The Listener” will provide much-needed data about sea life and coral reef development. Located within a marine protected area off the coast of Cancun, “The Listener” is designed to gradually become a new reef, and provides a fascinating alternative destination for divers.

In the waters surrounding Cancun, pressures from development, tourism, and shipping threaten the second largest coral reef system in the world. GRACIASS is finding creative ways to ease adverse impacts and promote healthy ecosystems. Amid the doom and gloom outlooks on our seas, beaches, and coral reefs, Heather Spence is an optimistic voice, stating, “Where humans are the problem, we can also be the solution!” And according to Spence, solutions will likely be cheaper, easier and more efficient. A noisy machine wastes energy in the form of sound; a more quiet machine operates more efficiently and reduces noise pollution. While many scientists seek research sites far from human development, Spence embraces the challenge and necessity of studying densely populated coastal areas. She favors acoustic monitoring because it is minimally disruptive and does not require a human presence. It is very cost-effective and can gather data night and day, in all weather.

Collaborators include sponsoring partner the BioMusic Research Group at the University of North Carolina – Greensboro, Oceanwide Science Institute of Hawaii, Michelle’s Earth Foundation, and local Cancun partners Universidad del Caribe, Comision Nacional de Areas Naturales Protegidas and Proyecto Domino.



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International Whale Shark Festival and Conference, July 2011 Isla Mujeres, Mexico

The Fourth Annual Whale Shark Festival will be held in Isla Mujeres this month (main events July 15-17), bringing together scientists and others from around the world to compare notes and celebrate the world’s largest fish, and the richness of the waters off the Yucatan Peninsula that attract the world’s largest aggregations of these polka-dotted gentle giants.

Scientific presentations will be given on Saturday July 16, including “Learning by Listening: Passive Acoustic Monitoring in the Mexican Caribbean” by Heather Spence, presented by Rafael de la Parra (Proyecto Domino).

For a full schedule of events (mostly free!), go to the whale shark festival webpage

And for more info about events on and around World Listening Day (July 18) go to the World Listening Project webpage

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Sunday Show in Playa featuring magic, music and mayhem

The show is called “Chundereke” – a parallel universe where everything is fun and very easy to do

Sunday, June 12 in Playa del Carmen at 5pm
Teatro del Arbol

A show for the whole family, with magic, live music, dance, clowns, storytelling, circus arts, more…

and yours truly on cello

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Animal Behavior Presentation – distress calls and honest signals

Slides from my Animal Behavior class presentation yesterday:

Click here for PDF – Animal Behavior Presentation on Honest Signals


bunnies illustrate honest signal concept

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Success! First Recordings from the Yucatan EAR!

The first sounds from the Ecological Acoustic Recorder have successfully been recorded and retrieved. This is the first acoustic monitoring data from the region, and we are excited to listen to them.

Last September, when we deployed the EAR off the coast of Isla Contoy, it looked like this:

EAR, the day of deployment, September 19, 2010

When we retrieved the EAR, after four months of deployment, it looked like this:

EAR, the day of retrieval, Jan 18, 2011

We brought it back to the lab, disassembled it, retrieved the data, reset the recorder and put it back together.

EAR innards being inspected in the Engineering Lab at Universidad del Caribe

Three days later, we put it back in the water:

Jan 21, 2011, EAR in boat immediately before redeployment.

Thank you to all the groups who have contributed to this project, including:

Michelle’s Earth Foundation, Comision Nacional de Areas Naturales Protegidas, Project Domino, Universidad del Caribe, Oceanwide Science Institute, University of North Carolina, Asterisk tours, Obi Kue tours

Photo credits: Rafael de la Parra

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Event – A Singing Dancing Tarantula?

I saw this at the premier, and there is a dancing, singing tarantula.

Max and Moritz in NYC
New York Opera Society
“Max and Moritz: A Cartoon Opera in Seven Pranks” by Gisle Kverndokk

At 350 Grand Street Between Ludlow and Essex

Thursday, October 28, 2010
2:00 PM – 3:00 PM

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Ecological Acoustic Recorder Deployed in Mexico

Mexico Bioacoustics Project deployed the Ecological Acoustic Recorder (EAR) off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula! Check out some pictures below!

Thank you to the deployment team, from Project Domino, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and the Mexican Government (CONANP), and the many scientists who collaborated with me to get my project this far. More than two years of planning and fundraising have been necessary to reach this major milestone.

This Project, to study the sounds of animals, including crustaceans, fish and marine mammals, is a step toward developing new ways to monitor the health of coastal ecosystems. It is part of my vision to establish an international center for sustainability studies in Cancun, Mexico.

The Bioacoustics Project is made possible by Michelle’s Earth Foundation, in partnership with Oceanwide Science Institute.

You can help!
-Offer your special skills to the project (translation, diving, computer, acoustics, website, etc.)
-Suggest or comment, by email or on my website.
-Encourage others to get involved.
-Make a donation to the Bioacoustics Project through Michelle’s Earth Foundation.
-Listen to your world, tell me what you hear.


The EAR was deployed off of Isla Contoy, an island near Cancun, Mexico that is protected by the federal government as a bird sanctuary. This area is a bridge between the Gulf of Mexico and the Mexican Caribbean/MesoAmerican Reef System – highly diverse, and an important migration route.

Isla Contoy, view from observation tower

Ecological Acoustic Recorder, being prepared for deployment

Deployment team inspects potential deployment area

Moving the mooring for the EAR

Ecological Acoustic Recorder, secured to mooring on sea floor

Returning after successful EAR deployment

Photo credits: Don Hodges, Patricia Gray, Heather Spence

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World Listening Day Workshop, Isla Mujeres Mexico

World Listening Day is July 18!

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World Listening Day will be celebrated on the island of Isla Mujeres with a workshop for kids about the science of sound, bioacoustics, and the role of sound in the environment.  Students will learn about sound and how it travels through air and water, and listen to and compare recorded sounds of marine mammals, invertebrates, fish and boats. This workshop is being run through the Comision Nacional de Areas Naturales Protegidas (National Commission of Protected Areas).

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Birds and noise pollution in the news

Birds alter their songs in response to noise – and the media is picking up on it:

Washington Post article “Song sparrows adjust their songs to fit in with urban noise”

ABC Science show “Birds raise their voice over noisy traffic”


From Washington Post April 20 2010:

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