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Alex Metcalf and his tree listening device

Listening in on trees

29 September 2008

If you listen very closely, you can hear trees quench their thirst. Researcher Steven Jansen meets science writer and broadcaster Sue Nelson as she dons headphones at London's Kew Gardens to listen to the inner rumblings of a eucalyptus tree.

Sue meets researcher Steven Jansen at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew to talk about a project - funded by the Natural Environment Research Council - that combines science and art. As part of the Year of the Tree festival, you can hear the sounds of the insides of trees at the famous gardens.

Steven is studying the anatomy of wood and linking structure to function. One of the main functions of wood is to transport water and when a plant or tree is under stress, the water transport system stops working.

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Steven has set up a system of sensors and microphones to listen to the inner workings of trees. When the sounds are amplified, you can hear clicking sounds, which are the sounds of columns of water breaking up.

As well as the clicking sounds, there's a constant background rumble, which is the wind moving the tree's branches.

Steven's research is looking at the differences in sounds between various tree species. By comparing trees that grow in similar conditions, the research can reveal which trees are most efficient at transporting water through their trunks.

It also tells us about the drought resistance of trees. When a tree is stressed or in drought conditions, it's harder for it to suck up water, so the water column breaks more often. Using Steven's listening kit, you'd hear a lot more clicks than if the tree wasn't stressed.

Product designer Alex Metcalf has created an installation at Kew for people to listen to the sounds using headphones.


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