Alligator Bellows: Side-Trip Down A Rabbit Hole

Spending lots of time on the water kayak fishing lends itself to endless opportunities to observe and witness phenomena using all of the senses. As the seasons go by there is an unfolding of the life cycles of the fish I’m pursuing, along with the plants, insects and other creatures that inhabit the area.  There is great joy in learning through constant observation and oftentimes these discoveries are the icing on the cake of the fishing excursion. They prompt further research into things I might not ever have thought about. I recently found a delightful and whimsical rabbit hole to go down and explore.

On a clear bluebird day I was paddling my Coosa HD upriver in search of bass that might come forth out of their cover of eel grass and wild rice to chase a lure. The peace and quiet was suddenly broken by the powerful rumble of a distant sonic boom. Not a common sound in this isolated location. Within seconds another rumbling started up and down the river. It was the deep and low bellowing of alligators giving away their locations.

Was this just a coincidence or had something else set the reptiles off on their territorial displays? The bellowing subsided after a minute or two and I continued to fish and paddle.

My Coosa HD, rigged and ready for fishing and alligator bellowing.

Fifteen minutes later another sonic boom shook the quiet of the river. And again the gator bellowing commenced. Wow! This was so amazing! My mind started racing. What was it about the sonic booms that caused the reaction? Was it the frequency or decibels or vibration? Did the modern dinosaurs feel threatened or inclined to “one up” this unseen intruder?

Suwannee bass in between gator calling.

An hour later some folks in kayaks doing a float down the river paddled past and we greeted each other with some pleasantries. They had heard both the booms, thinking at first that it was thunder, and, yes, they also heard the deep growls of the gators afterwards but were feeling a bit too intimidated and vulnerable to do anything more than paddle quickly out of the areas. When I mentioned that maybe the bellowing was instigated by the sonic sounds they also seemed intrigued by the possibility.

The didgeridoo on board. Can I get the alligators to bellow on cue?

The rest of my fishing trip was spent wondering if there was someway that I could get those gators to bellow. I couldn’t replicate the sonic boom or count on one to occur when I was there to observe. But maybe there were other sounds I could produce that might cause the same reaction. But what was in my realm to use?

That night I searched for any information and was delighted to find that others had indeed observed alligators reacting to different sounds. There was a treasure trove of related material.  I watched videos of the bellowing and closeups of the “rain dance” where water droplets bounce and dance on top of the gator’s back from the vibrations of the guttural growl. There were stories of ancient Chinese farmers knowing that rains were coming to water their crops because the alligators announced their detection of the distant thunder before a human could hear it. This made me think back to a few times I had heard and seen the bellowing gators arching up out of the hydrilla on the river and a bit later hearing an approaching thunderstorm.

Jean blowing the didgeridoo in stands of wild rice. Will the alligators answer?

Research biologists believe that the rumbling roars are used to relay size to other alligators, especially important during mating season. The larger animals have longer vocal tracts and in turn produce lower resonance frequencies.

But the story that really struck my fancy was of a discovery in the 1940’s at the American Museum of Natural History. During a New York Philharmonic orchestra performance a resident alligator in the museum started bellowing whenever the tubas played B-flat.  This led to experiments in evoking responses to other auditory stimuli.
Decades later this experiment was replicated at a gator farm in Florida. A tuba player was able to get the ancient reptiles to bellow by playing B-flat, one octave below middle C.
This particular musical note was intriguing! The article made mention that the sound waves emanating from black holes are also in B-flat, 57 octaves below middle C!

Won’t you answer me, little fella?

Okay. My dilemma was that I did not have access to a tuba. Plus, it would be awkward to carry such a large instrument out onto the river in my kayak. I had played French horn back in high school so I was familiar with how to produce sounds with the mouthpiece but I still didn’t have a horn. I wanted to keep this experiment simple and affordable. It was really just to satisfy my curiosity and then I would leave the poor creatures alone!

Giving the experiment another try.

I ventured into a music store and sheepishly explained the reason for my visit. I was greeted by a very exuberant staff who gathered around to brainstorm. They were enthralled with the idea and didn’t think I was nuts! Haha 
I tried just blowing into a tuba mouthpiece itself but there was not enough amplification. I remembered a homemade vibrating tube that my daughter and I made when she was in middle school. It consisted of a long newspaper cardboard roll with a coil spring in the middle held together on each end with red solo cups. We sang made up Gregorian chants into it and the results were fabulous! This creation was long gone but when I described it to the musicians one jumped up and said, “Aha! You should try a didgeridoo!”!
So that’s what I bought for thirty bucks with the thought that even if this didn’t work I would have a very pretty piece of artwork and a great conversation piece.

Fishing must go on! Largemouth bass on a popper. Bluetooth speaker for audio amplification of other gator bellows and the didgeridoo.

Off to the river I went.
The didgeridoo took a prominent place on the kayak along with the rods and tackle. Fortunately, I had the place to myself because, being an inexperienced player, I needed lots of practice before I could turn the initial sputtering into a low and vibrating tone. It was probably not B-flat but I was limited in the sounds that I could produce. I tried and tried but could not elicit a peep from those alligators. They were a tough crowd.

Fellow Jackson Kayak Fishing Team mate, Robert Brown, on a visit in his Kraken 15.5, trying to stir up those alligators!wAQ!!!!

Over the next few trips I tried again with a much-improved sound. I was getting better but far from the amazing circular breathing sustained notes of talented didgeridoo musicians. Still no response. I tried playing audio of real gators bellowing and even amplified the sound through a borrowed bluetooth speaker.

Nothing.

I started thinking that maybe I should go ahead and rent a tuba and take my Big Rig for additional room. But I tried once again, this time keeping the end of the didgeridoo near the water surface. After about ten seconds I heard music to my ears!

Intriguing creatures! Your bellows are magnificent!

A nearby gator started bellowing. Then another across the river. Then one more further downstream. It was a short lived chorus of magnificence and I was grinning from ear to ear!
This was the one and only time that they bellowed on cue for me. I might try this again in the spring but for now I am quite satisfied!

Now, on to some studying up of the amazing lives of Dobsonflies….

~Jean Wilson
Jackson Kayak Fishing Team

 

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