NPR logo
Ever Wonder What A Woolly Mammoth Sounds Like?
  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Ever Wonder What A Woolly Mammoth Sounds Like?


GUY RAZ, host: Now, when animals do become extinct, one thing that's lost forever is their sound. Very little science is actually dedicated to the sounds that animals make, and almost nobody tries to preserve those sounds. But producer Brent Bachman spoke to one artist who is trying to change that.

BRENT BACHMAN: Hello, London.


BACHMAN: Marguerite Humeau just graduated from the Royal College of Art in London.

HUMEAU: Two weeks ago.

BACHMAN: Congratulations.

HUMEAU: Yeah, thank you.


BACHMAN: This past year in school, she's been working on a project to reconstruct the voice boxes of extinct animals. Here's the problem with reconstructing your standard voice box: It's made of soft tissue. So unlike bones, it doesn't fossilize. But Marguerite thought maybe there could be another way.

HUMEAU: For today, I started with Lucy.

BACHMAN: You know, Lucy.

HUMEAU: Is the first chimpanzee, which started to walk, so it's considered as the first human.

BACHMAN: And to recreate her voice, Marguerite got a hold of Lucy's skeletal records to accurately reconstruct the resonance cavities in her skull. She even spoke to the surgeon who performed only the second successful human larynx transplant on a woman in California earlier this year.

HUMEAU: Actually, he told me this very funny story that I actually I was thinking she would get the voice of the donor.

BACHMAN: Of someone else, right.

HUMEAU: Yeah. And actually, she recovered her own voice, meaning that the specificity of the voice doesn't come from the larynx itself, but from the way you shape air in your lungs and the way it resonates in your resonance cavities. So it meant I was on the right track.

BACHMAN: She met with paleontologists, even an ear, nose and throat doctor. And using resin, silicone and rubber, she set to work rebuilding Lucy's voice box.

HUMEAU: Because what, you know, what makes the difference between a human voice and an animal sound? The difference is the brain. So they don't, you know, we think before we talk. I mean, for most people.




BACHMAN: This is Lucy. The hissing you hear is a pressurized air tank blowing air through her reconstructed vocal chords. Remember those model body parts you used to take apart in school? It kind of looks like that, hooked up to a big air tank.

HUMEAU: So I'm quite happy because it has a pitch of a human, but then you can - it's still a roar. You can hear the vibration of a - it's like an animal's voice.


BACHMAN: But Marguerite wanted to go bigger. She settled on a woolly mammoth. It's got a relative in the modern elephant, so she figured anatomically, there'd be some reference data. Again, she met with more experts...

HUMEAU: Yeah, then I met zoologists, veterinarians.

BACHMAN: She redesigned the mammoth's vocal chords. They're eight inches wide. She built artificial lungs, resonance cavities modeled after its skull, its windpipe. The whole thing is about 20 feet long.


BACHMAN: This is Marguerite's mammoth.


BACHMAN: It might not have sounded exactly like this. Aside from scientists, she also met with the guy who advised Steven Spielberg on the dinosaur sounds in "Jurassic Park." But you do feel a presence listening to it.


BACHMAN: For that, Marguerite says she owes French explorer Bernard Buigues, who she calls her biggest help.

HUMEAU: He has actually been able to tell touch these animals. They are completely preserved. And so he told me about, you know, the smell of them and being able to touch the fur of a mammoth, which had been living 10,000 years ago.


BACHMAN: Is it true that there were children in the exhibit who would run and get scared?


HUMEAU: I read that on Internet. I haven't seen them, but I would have loved - that was the whole purpose. So...



RAZ: That's Marguerite Humeau. She spoke to our producer Brent Bachman. Starting tomorrow, you can see and hear her recreation of the voice of Lucy at The Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.