One of the best instruments scientists can use to map climate change is roughly the size of a thumb—and adorable. The humble tree frog (genus Hyla) has proliferated from Florida to Alaska, yet it’s a delicate critter. Its disappearance from a habitat is an early warning that the place is becoming deforested, drier, or simply hotter. But tree frogs tend to hide from people tramping through the woods, and many possess camouflage, making them tough to spot. They’re a lot easier to hear.
That’s where Wildlife Acoustics Inc. comes in. With creatures around the globe telling the story of climate change, Wildlife is one of the few companies listening. Some 36,000 of its audio recording and transcription devices dot the wilderness, tracking animals’ movements by the sounds they make, from North America’s frogs to the birds that brave the ice pack of the North Pole, from the bat-thick belfries of Britain to the depths of the Gulf of Mexico, where oil drillers have to be mindful of passing whales.
After a decade selling devices mostly to study nature’s early-warning systems, the company has begun trying to expand its market to binocular-packing bird watchers and other hobbyists. “We found a niche for something that no one else bothered to pursue,” says Ian Agranat, Wildlife’s founder and chief executive officer. “And there’s upside from here as we get into the citizen-science side of things.”
Nestled in an old textile mill west of Boston, Agranat’s 20-person company collected about $7.4 million in revenue last year and is profitable before taxes and depreciation—not bad for a business that started as a lark. In 2000, at age 37, Agranat had semiretired. He’d just sold his eponymous software company, which connected routers, printers, and other devices to web platforms, for $33 million. He developed an interest in twitter (small “t”) on a family hike, when his brother-in-law started identifying birds by their songs. Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a device that could do that?
Soon the question became an obsession. “I don’t really have hobbies,” Agranat says. “I’d lay awake thinking about algorithms and birds, and then dawn comes and all these birds start singing.”
About 18 months and $1.5 million yielded Wildlife’s first product, the Song Meter, which resembled a Polaroid camera from the 1960s. When it was pointed at a singing bird, a screen on the device would list four possible matching species. It was a cool novelty but, at $699, sold to few of America’s 46 million or so active birders. By 2006 the struggling startup was trying to license its technology to a maker of binoculars. The tree frogs turned things around.
The U.S. Geological Survey requested bids for a recording device that could listen for the ribbits disappearing from warming habitats. Finally, Wildlife had found a customer that didn’t mind a $700 price tag, as long as the gear was weatherproof and low-maintenance. The Song Meter 1, a modified version of its birding device stuffed in an off-the-shelf plastic case, won the contract in 2006. The very first one is still tracking tree frogs in the woods of Wisconsin.
Happy with Wildlife’s hardware, a research ecologist at the Geological Survey helped pitch the Song Meter to other government agencies that conduct scientific research, monitor federal lands, or help determine where to set up wind turbines, which have a tendency to chop up birds and bats. Using an academic email list, Agranat also tapped into the budding community of ecologists who’d been struggling to cobble together their own devices. “They came along at the perfect time,” says Purdue University ecologist Bryan Pijanowski, an early adopter who’s bought more than 100. “We were trying to be engineers and failing miserably.”
The Song Meters were a lot cheaper than most universities’ earlier approaches, and partly for that reason, far more scientists began studying nature through sound, Pijanowski says. “I have colleagues with literally thousands of these recorders in the field.” Today the price is $850 for a basic model about the size of a hardcover novel and as much as $9,100 for more niche recorders, including a deep-water hydrophone that resembles a small torpedo. Each comes with custom software that can sort and scan months of recordings, so users can quickly sift, say, tree frog calls from a mess of cardinal chirps or car honks. Agranat says the software is a powerful sales tool; scientists who used to be overwhelmed with processing data become eager to get more recorders in the field.
In the Amazon jungle, San Diego Zoo scientists are triangulating gunshots from a web of Song Meters to catch poachers. In Guam, researchers are using the recorders to rear baby Mariana crows, a breed whose number has dwindled to about 200. In Antarctica, the devices are sounding the alarm on calving glaciers. International customers now account for 56 percent of Wildlife’s revenue, according to Agranat.
That’ll be increasingly important, the CEO says, in the time of Trump. The White House’s skepticism of climate change—and its proposal to deeply cut budgets for government agencies that provide close to half of all U.S. research funding—has led Wildlife to try harder to diversify its revenue sources. The company has begun focusing in greater earnest on hobbyist animal watchers. “It’s future-proofing the company,” says Sherwood Snyder, Wildlife’s director of product management.
In February, Snyder’s team released Song Sleuth, a $10 app that identifies birds and some frogs by sound using the mic in your smartphone. Its animal listings come mainly from ornithologist David Sibley, whose field guide has been the birder’s bible for most of the past two decades. On a rainy summer morning in Manhattan’s Central Park, Sibley held an iPhone up to a tree thick with mulberries and birds, using Song Sleuth to ID one species after another.
The team unveiled a similar product for bats in June, though it requires a bit of Wildlife’s own hardware plugged into a mobile device. The Echo Meter Touch 2, a $179 plug-in mic, allows a smartphone or tablet to register bats’ ultrasonic clicks. It looks a little like the card-swiping attachments that turn an iPhone into a cash register and ships in a box the size of a deck of cards. Pointed at a bug-swarmed Brooklyn streetlight just after dusk one night, an Echo Meter-equipped iPhone in Live mode shifted the bat chatter down into audible cackles and flashed an image of the Eastern red bat (Lasiurus borealis), which can be spotted during the day hanging from trees like autumn leaves.
“As they get closer and closer to a prey item, they start echo-locating faster and faster,” says Danielle Gustafson, a conservationist who leads bat tours in New York. “At the very end, it sounds a little bit like someone giving you a raspberry.”
Song Sleuth is in a class by itself, because the most comparable products aim to teach people to recognize birdsongs, akin to Rosetta Stone Inc.’s foreign language software. Titley Scientific Pty. Ltd., a 10-person division of Australian electronics maker Elexon Electronics Pty. Ltd., sells bat detectors ranging from $870 to $2,000, mostly to professional researchers and environmental consultants, and has been around for three decades. Titley’s Anabat Walkabout, a standalone handheld model, has a touchscreen about the size of a smartphone, an internal GPS for tagging files with locations, and a built-in system for managing audio files in the field.
Wildlife’s hobbyist products aren’t going to anchor the company any time soon. Song Sleuth has been downloaded only about 7,000 times in six months, and Wildlife’s first two months of bat meter sales total just over 1,300 units. This year, Agranat says, he’ll start storing raw data from the 36,000 field units in the cloud, so scientists or amateurs can pay a nominal fee to access a trove of recordings. That way, even if researchers can no longer afford to buy Song Meters, he can keep charging new people for the data collected by old ones. In the process, Wildlife will be crowdsourcing climate change research. “We are making a difference,” Agranat says. “And it’s just really cool to say, ‘We record whales.’ ”