603-968-7194 or Iain.MacLeod@nhnature.org
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – April 1, 2012
Chipmunks Using Morse Code
Science Center Staff Make Startling Discovery
Holderness, NH – Over the last couple of weeks, staff members at Squam Lakes Natural Science Center have noticed something peculiar about the chipping sounds made by the large number of wild chipmunks that inhabit the Science Center’s campus in Holderness. They appear to be communicating in Morse code. The phenomenon was first noticed by children in the Science Center’s Blue Heron School. One child started tapping a stick on another in the same rhythm as a nearby noisy chipmunk. Blue Heron staff were intrigued that there seemed to be a pattern that was repeated. They reported it to one of the staff Naturalists who made a few recordings and analyzed the results. On a hunch, she looked at a website that described Morse code – the communications system first developed in 1836 that uses groups of clicks to represent letters and numerals to communicate over telegraph wires. It turns out that Chipmunks use the same system to warn each other of danger, share food sources, pick fights and attract a potential mate.
The Science Center contacted scientists at the Smithsonian Institute and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (which specializes in animal sounds and acoustics) and was recently visited by a team of researchers and students from Cornell. Recordings were made and researchers were able to communicate to the Chipmunks. Spelling out the word “acorn” resulted in a sudden mad rush towards the researchers. If no acorn was presented, the Chipmunks immediately scolded the researchers and chirped expletives at them “Their choice of words would make you blush,” said Dr. Patrick Tapper, the lead researcher. If an acorn was presented, there was much excitement and celebration but no thank yous. “They are not very polite,” added Dr. Tapper.
To hear a recording of the chipmunks and to see more details about the research, go to www. nhnature.org/chipmunk.php.