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Songs From A Tiny Bug Tell A Story About Climate Change At SLU Museum Of Art

Kasey Fowler-Finn, a St. Louis University biologist, puts the finishing touches on part of the "Too Hot to Sing" exhibit at the SLU Museum of Art. Jan 9 2020
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Kasey Fowler-Finn, a St. Louis University biologist, puts the finishing touches on part of the "Too Hot To Sing" exhibit at the SLU Museum of Art.

Kasey Fowler-Finn wants people to hear how climate change could alter the lives of a sap-feeding insect that’s smaller than a fingernail. 

The St. Louis University biologist studies how rising temperatures could affect the mating calls of treehoppers. Fowler-Finn and Virginia-based sound artist Stephen Vitiello used that research to produce an exhibit, called “Too Hot To Sing,” that opens today at the SLU Museum of Art

People can’t hear treehoppers, since the insects communicate by vibrating through plant leaves and stems. But with the help of lasers and equipment that amplify the insect’s sounds, people can listen to its otherworldly calls, Fowler-Finn said. 

“When you do end up listening into the plant stem, you hear songs that you would imagine coming from frogs and whales, not tiny, little half-centimeter insects,” she said. 

The exhibit at SLUMA includes a small room with four speakers, where visitors can hear a piece containing various treehopper calls. Fowler-Finn and Vitiello spent several weeks collecting field recordings of treehoppers’ vibrations. 

“Stephen would ask me what was going on, and I would be able to tell him, ‘Oh, that's a mom treehopper who is telling her babies to be quiet because there's a predator nearby,’” Fowler-Finn said. 

Fowler-Finn and Vitiello decided to build treehopper sound installations when they were doing residencies in 2014 at the University of Virginia's Mountain Lake Biological Field Station. They created a piece that begins with the songs that treehoppers make at 65 degrees Fahrenheit, then builds up to the songs that they make at around 95 degrees.

“I’m looking to Kasey for certain cues, but my part is not to illustrate the science. It’s more to take the science into something that may hold someone’s interest,” Vitiello said. “By bringing this to people, whether it’s scientists or anyone else, there’s encouragement to listen and realize that there’s information but also pleasure to be had if we just paid attention to what sound can bring us.” 

Fowler-Finn received a $480,000 grant in 2017 from the National Science Foundation that funded her treehopper research and public outreach projects that include the art exhibit. A study she published last year showed that even though male treehopper mating calls change as it gets warmer, females are still attracted to them. 

The SLUMA exhibit also displays photographs of insects and displays that describe how climate change could affect treehoppers and other insects. St. Louis-based Kika Tuff, who runs the science media organization Impact Media Lab, helped create the displays to provide context for the sound installation. 

“You can read the data on how much the frequency of a treehopper song has changed. It’s so different when you go into a room and listen to how a soundscape changes with temperature,” Tuff said. “What you’ll find in the exhibit, as it gets warmer, things just start to drop off. It’s a 'Silent Spring' kind of idea. It gets too hot, and [the treehoppers] just retreat to the shade and they just don’t call anymore.”

If you go

What: “Too Hot To Sing”

Where: St. Louis Museum of Art, 3663 Lindell Blvd., St. Louis

How much: Free

When: Exhibition open until April 19

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Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.