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Measuring tree decay with sound

How can we see inside of a living tree to better gauge its health? What information might we get from the forms that we find and how might we use it? 


Working with ecologist Dr. Greg Gilbert in collaboration with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama we developed new techniques to visually image the insides of trees using sound waves. 

Diseased or rotten trees can look healthy from the outside while inside they are teeming with infection and may spread it to others in the forest community. Using specialized equipment (sonic tomography) we direct sound waves through individual trees and measure the amount of time it takes for the sound to pass through the tree. The data is then converted into a visual density color map that gives us a picture of what the tissue looks like inside of the tree, allowing us to discern if it is diseased and how severe the damaged tissue is.


The sound images are shaped into beautiful maps of the inner tree tissue with the health of the tree translated into different colors. The shape of the image describes the circumference of each tree and the colors are a cross section of the tree at 3 feet. This art-science research contributes to a larger study to determine how disease might actually help to maintain the high number of tree species in tropical forests.


Technology and workflows from this research are used across the world by foresters, urban arborists, ecologists, and artists.



Gilbert, G., [et al., including Harrower, J.,], 2016. Use of acoustic tomography to detect and quantify wood decay in living trees. Applications in Plant Sciences
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