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Sounds of Western North Atlantic Fishes - Data Rescue

Rodney A. Rountree1, Paul J. Perkins2, Robert D. Kenney3 and Kenneth R. Hinga4

(1) Department of Natural Resources Conservation, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA 01003, USA.

(2) Retired.

(3) Graduate School of Oceanography, University of Rhode Island, Box 41, Narragansett, RI 02882, USA.

(4) Graduate School of Oceanography, University of Rhode Island, Bay Campus, Narragansett, RI 02882, USA.



There is increasing interest in the potential of passive acoustics as a tool to study temporal and spatial distribution patterns, habitat use, and spawning, feeding, and predator avoidance behaviors of fishes. However, one of the primary limitations to more widespread use of passive acoustics in studies of fish ecology is the lack of well documented, and readily available, sound references. Currently, only a few sounds from a handful of species are easily available to the public in the form of digital sound files. We feel that this is a significant hindrance to the widespread study of the soniferous activities of fishes, and is a major obstacle to the development of programs that seek to use fish sounds as a tool to map essential fish habitats of soniferous species. This has led to our efforts to recover historic recordings of underwater sounds made by Marie Fish, William Mowbray, Howard Winn, Paul Perkins and others between the 1940's and 1980's at the Narragansett Marine Laboratory and that are now held in storage by the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island.

Fish Sounds

Of particular importance is the recovery of the original recordings of fish sounds that accompanied the landmark book "Sounds of Western North Atlantic Fishes" by Marie Fish and William Mowbray (1970). They examined 218 species from 59 families, and found biological sounds from 153 species from 36 families. We have created a CD-ROM containing digital copies of sound clips from 171 species that produced sounds (both biological and incidental) as published in Fish and Mowbray 1970. We characterized each species as having weak (83), moderately (37) and strong (47) sound production (4 undetermined). Only 47 species from 24 families were observed to produce truly spontaneous sounds (no mechanical or electrical stimulation). Although Fish and Mowbray include 160 sonograms and 329 oscillograms, they fail to provide summaries of acoustic parameters such as frequency range, peak, amplitude, pulse rate, number of pulses per call, call duration, etc. We anticipate that this type of information would be included in a new National Archive of Fish Sounds.

Other underwater sounds

The recordings stored at URI also include additional fish sounds recorded after 1970 and extensive materials on marine mammal sounds, ship sounds, other noise sources and some invertebrate sounds. Investigators around the world donated many of the recordings as part of a Reference File of Biological Underwater Sounds started by Marie Fish and William Mowbray and continued by Howard Winn. A preliminary inventory found that the archive contains 1,399 tapes from 209 tape series collected between 1949 and 1993 (many other recordings made prior to 1959 were lost in a fire). Whales were recorded in at least 141 tape series, dolphins in 69, fish in 65, sea noise in 71, and ships/boats in 40, of the 209 tape series. Other marine sounds (seals, manatees, invertebrates, and various noises) were recorded in at least 70 tape series. A few of the notable examples of historically important recordings include: whale hunts, sperm whale dives, effects of explosions and other noise on whales, some of the first recordings of bubble-net feeding by whales, and the first recordings of several species of whales.


We have conducted a preliminary inventory of the historic sound recordings stored at URI and are seeking support for funding to "rescue" the data by converting tapes into digital form. The resulting data sets will serve as the backbone of a new National Archive of Fish Sounds, and will make a significant contribution to a broader National Archive of Underwater Sounds. More immediately, we have produced a CD-ROM containing a digital copy of the sound files that originally accompanied Fish and Mowbray's book (1970), that will provide critical information for rapid distribution to scientists around the world to aid in the identification of fish sounds. We hope that the publication of this note will stimulate ongoing discussion on the importance and need for a National Archive of Fish Sounds and catalyze efforts to rescue, not only the historic Narragansett Marine Laboratory recordings, but also other historic archives located around the country.


This research was supported by a Rhode Island Sea Grant development grant.


Fish, M.P. & Mowbray, W.H. (1970) Sounds of Western North Atlantic Fishes: A Reference File of Biological Underwater Sounds. Baltimore, MD; The Johns Hopkins Press.



This page was last modified on July 20, 2001

Copyright © 1999 by Rodney Rountree. All rights reserved

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