Acoustic Ecology
Home News/IssuesCommunityResourcesSoundscapesAbout UsJoin Us

David Dunn

Back to David Dunn main page

The Sound of Light in Trees: The Acoustic Ecology of Pinyon Pines

David Dunn's new CD is now out! Thanks to a grant that David has received to cover costs of publishing the disc, he is donating 100% of all revenues on sales to the Acoustic Ecology Institute. Thus your purchase of the disc will go directly to supporting all facets of our work. Production of the disc was facilitated by donation of production assistance by the soundscape label EarthEar.

See sonograms and listen to sound files of the individual tree, beetle, and other recordings used in composing The Sound of Light in Trees [GO THERE]

Academic paper by David Dunn and James Crutchfield:
Insects, Trees, and Climate: The Bioacoustic Ecology of Deforestation and Entomogenic Climate Change
(Santa Fe Institute working paper 06-12-055)
Abstract: Accumulating observational evidence suggests an intimate connection between rapidly expanding insect populations, deforestation, and global climate change. We review the evidence, emphasizing the vulnerability of key planetary carbon pools, especially the Earth’s forests that link the micro-ecology of insect infestation to climate. We survey current research regimes and insect control strategies, concluding that at present they are insufficient to cope with the problem’s present regional scale and its likely future global scale. We propose novel bioacoustic interactions between insects and trees as key drivers of infestation population dynamics and the resulting wide-scale deforestation. The bioacoustic mechanisms suggest new, nontoxic control interventions and detection strategies. [DOWNLOAD PAPER (pdf)]

David Dunn's Beetle Work in the News

Sept 2011 Book Excerpt, by Andrew Nikiforuk
This is the most detailed article yet to appear in the popular press on David's beetle work, both the initial explorations in the hills of New Mexico and the ongoing research efforts with scientists at institutions around the continent. The article (which dubs David a "Tree Whisperer"!) is an excerpt from a new book, Empire of the Beetle, and has appeared in several Canadian newspapers. [GO THERE]

Hear a two-minute radio feature, including comments from David, and beetle sounds:
KUER Utah Soundscapes, by Jeff Rice [LISTEN(mp3)]

Review in The Wire, by Phil England
David Dunn has a long history as a sound artist and composer integrating
site-specific works, technology and environmental concerns. This latest
work follows on from his remarkable "Chaos And The Emergent Mind Of The
Pond" which documented the sounds of underwater insects. This time Dunn has
layered two years of recordings of beetle activity below the bark of a
particular pine tree in New Mexico into a seamless hour-long piece. The
busy micro-sound world he captured with self-built microphones reveals a
previously unheard array of vibrations some of which we can identify,
others which remain a mystery.

Sounds of the movement of fluids, the tree's occasional slow creak as it
bends in the wind and a constant fizzing and crackling provide a backdrop
to what sounds like the creatures gnawing away at rubbery fibres and a
range of chirps and clicks. Some of the foreground grating sounds are
actually produced by an organ on the back of the pinyon Engraver Beetle's

To make sense of this new view on the world, Dunn has conducted an
extensive review of the scientific literature. He gives a summation of our
current knowledge and, since there have been very few bioacoustic studies,
he speculates on some answers where our understanding is incomplete. There
are fascinating insights into the the beetle's possible sensitivity to the
ultrasound emitted by the drought-stressed trees, and the relationship
between fungi and the beetle's sound production.

Dunn was drawn to the two-needle pinyon conifers as their rapid demise -
due to changes in climatic conditions and the concomitant beetle invasion -
became apparent. It is a pattern that is being repeated in other areas of
the United States and Canada. As the epidemic moves to trees that favour
higher altitudes there will be knock on effects for the continent's major
river systems and logging communities. As a result The Sound Of Light In
Trees also serves as another reminder of our interdependence with the
natural world and of the high risk game we are playing with our environment.

Bark Beetles in the News

Infestations by various species of bark beetles are ongoing in much of western North America. In some cases, the effects of warmer winters are clearly central to the intensity of the infestations; in other areas, drought seems to be the key driver.

Spruce Bark Beetles Hitting Alaskan Forests - Warmer weather is both allowing beetles to survive through winter, and causing wetter snow that stresses trees by breaking limbs. Since 1980, aerial surveys indicate spruce bark beetles have killed mature white spruce trees on 4.4 million acres, including more than a million acres of the Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage in an outbreak that took off after 1988. Trees resist beetles with pitch, made up of hydrocarbons including up to 17 forms of terpene, the substance from which turpentine is distilled. When a tree is injured — its top perhaps broken by heavy snow — terpene ratios go off in one direction. When an entire forest is stressed or injured, and terpene ratios go wild, and reproductive success is high, beetles overwhelm trees and the ability of predators such as woodpeckers to keep them under control. Using sophisticated chemical receptors, spruce bark beetles detect variations in terpenes. Injured trees offer less resistance, thanks to reduced pitch production. Source: AP, 9/12/06 [READ ARTICLE]

Central British Columbia Braces for 80% Lodgepole Mortality - The mountain pine beetle has killed an area in British Columbia 40% the size of Idaho; foresters fear that 80% of the region's lodgepole pines may be dead in as little as 7 years. "It's pretty gut-wrenching," said Allan Carroll, a research scientist at the Pacific Forestry Centre in Victoria, whose studies tracked a lock step between warmer winters and the spread of the beetle. "People say climate change is something for our kids to worry about. No. It's now." Scientists fear the beetle will cross the Rocky Mountains and sweep across the northern continent into areas where it used to be killed by severe cold but where winters now are comparatively mild. Officials in neighboring Alberta are setting fires and traps and felling thousands of trees in an attempt to keep the beetle at bay. Much more in the full article, from the Washington Post, 2/28/06 (free registration required) [READ ARTICLE]

Alberta Responds to Beetle Infestation - Provincial and federal management agencies and forestry officials are marshalling forces to respond to the surge of beetle-killed trees in the Canadian boreal forest. Trees threatened with beetle infestation, including green trees in early stages of infestation, may be harvested in areas close to prime real estate and tourist zones. Foresters expect the beetles to move into jack pine stands this summer; jacks have no natural resistance and could be at risk all the way to the east coast. Source: Financial Post 1/16/07 [READ ARTICLE]

Yellowstone-area Grizzlies at Risk as Pines Succomb to Beetles - A former US Forest Service scientist has made waves in the debate over de-listing the grizzly bear with his claim that widespread deforestation caused by bark beetle infestations will likely leave the bears living in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem with a shortage of their primary autumn food source. Whitebark Pine, a non-commercial tree that was previously above the elevation frequented by bark beetles, has begun to be hit as beetles' ranges are expanded by warming temperatures. Foresters fear that the whitebark pines will be eliminated in all but the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming, leaving area grizzlies without the protein-rich staple of their pre-hibernation diet, pine nuts stolen from sqiurrel caches. Grizzlies farther north have access to a wider variety of autumn nutrution, but in Wyoming, the whitebark pines are crucial. In addition to adding a warning sign that may argue against considering the Yellowstone grizzly populations securely recovered, the findings suggest an urgency to giving the bears greater protection in the Wind Rivers, where local sentiment is currently running toward treating them as unwanted intruders. Source: New York Times, 1/30/07 [READ ARTICLE]

Beetle Science

Parks Canada Bark Beetle Research Programs - Parks Canada has a relatively extensive set of web pages addressing the threat and life cycles of bark beetles, as part of their Mountain Pine Beetle Initiative. [MAIN WEBSITE]

Jayne Yack Insect Neuroethology Lab - A wonderful introduction to hearing and use of sound by insects. Yack's team at Carleton University in Ottowa has discovered at least 14 different hearing mechanisms in insects, including butterflies that hear ultrasonic sound in order to avoid bat predation, as well as 20 caterpillars that produce territorial sounds. [WEBSITE] [ARTICLE ABOUT YACK'S WORK]

Read About The Sound of Light in Trees CD

Liner notes of The Sound of Light in Trees. David's detailed liner notes offer a This essay includes a primer on the spreading threat of bark beetle infestation in western forests, a sense of the range of acoustic behaviors Dunn has discovered in the Ips confuses beetle, his speculations on possible relationships between trees, beetles, and fungus and the role acoustics may play in this, and a fascinating perspective on the ways that science and art can be mutually nourishing.

Press Release
EarthEar/Acoustic Ecology Institute
February 2006:

The Sound of Light in Trees:
Bark Beetles and the Acoustic Ecology of Pinyon Pines

David Dunn
Released by EarthEar in collaboration with The Acoustic Ecology Institute

In the mid-1980’s, a small notice in the local paper caught my eye.  A man by the name of David Dunn had become fascinated by a previously little-known sound world inside small ponds, and was going to give a presentation at a nearby Audubon center.  I was one of a couple dozen people present that night to hear his recordings; I can’t speak for any of the others, but these two ears were decisively blown away.  First, Dunn took us into an utterly unexpected soundscape; but even more groundbreaking for me was the introduction he offered to the creative use of field recordings to weave soundscape compositions that take us deep into new ways of listening. This was the Big Bang that led to the emergence of EarthEar over a decade later.

The resulting underwater insect piece, published as Chaos and the Emergent Mind of the Pond, became a classic in the field, excerpted widely on compilations and remaining in demand to this day as part of the CD Angels and Insects (OO Discs).  Now, almost twenty years later, Dunn’s research into the acoustic behaviors of bark beetles in our native Northern New Mexico has produced a stunning new CD-length work that opens ears to the wonderfully complex acoustic ecology of pinyon (piñon) pines.

The Sound of Light in Trees had a dual genesis. The first was creative. For the past several years, David Dunn has been developing innovative, low-cost microphones for use in recording sounds that are normally out of reach of human hearing: probe mics for use in small spaces (like the holes made in trees by beetles), mics to record infrasonic (low frequency) sounds in prairie dog villages, and a revolutionary omni-directional ultrasonic mic that has led to many long nights listening to bats, as well as an increasing catalog of unidentified high-frequency sounds both in the wild and in urban settings.  His writing and recording has taken a turn toward encouraging an appreciation of the vast spectrum of sounds in our world that are outside of our normal human experience; intimately related to this is Dunn’s call to listen closely to the voices of our planet in these times of dire environmental stress. 

This led to the second genesis of the new CD, the use of acoustics in ecology research. In the forests of the west, diverse members of the bark beetle family are devastating pine species on local and regional scales.  The fierce southern California fires of 2004 and Arizona fires of 2005 roared through beetle-killed stands of white and ponderosa pine, respectively; in northern New Mexico, a tiny bark beetle species, Ips confuses, has, in many areas, killed 50-100% of the core pine tree of the Rocky Mountain foothills, the piñon pine (referred to in the scientific literature in its Americanized spelling, pinyon).  In an effort to better predict where outbreaks would be the most intense, regional foresters turned to Dunn.  As one of several monitoring methods being tested, Dunn went into the field and used his new recording techniques to try to find areas of increased beetle activity.  As it turned out, his recordings were often able to identify population booms before pheromone traps, the previously accepted best method.  But in addition to simply finding what trees had active bark beetle populations, Dunn found himself captivated by the variety of sounds being made by the little invaders.  As he explains in the extensive liner notes (and as explicated in more detail on the associated online material), bark beetles have a complex acoustic repertoire, one that deserves further scrutiny by bark beetle biologists and forest ecologists.

Thus The Sound of Light in Trees serves a dual purpose: it offers a first glimpse of an innovative approach to studying the biology of trees and insects, while also being a compelling listening experience, yet another landmark in Dunn’s long career as a contemporary composer and innovative soundscape designer.  It is a clear expression of Dunn’s vision of art and science engaging in a mutually fruitful dialogue.

In keeping with this project’s contributions to the study of the role of acoustics in understanding larger patterns of interaction and co-evolution, the CD is being released in collaboration with The Acoustic Ecology Institute, which will receive 100% of the proceeds of all sales of the disc.  AEI is a resource and information center focusing on sound-related environmental issues and academic research.  Its website,, offers science coverage, special reports, a news digest, and comprehensive resource directories of research institutions, non-profit organizations, and conferences addressing topics related to acoustic ecology.


888-356-4918    505-913-7150

©, 2006 | Privacy Policy | Site Map