Page last updated at 11:30 GMT, Wednesday, 7 October 2009 12:30 UK

New Yorkers text hi-tech beavers

By Dave Lee
BBC World Service

Plastic tubes in the water underneath the Manhattan Bridge, New York (C Woebken)
The special tubes monitor activity below the river surface in New York's East River

Are you worried about river wildlife in your area? Want to know if the animals are happy? If the water's clean enough?

Then maybe you should text them and ask!

That's what people living and working in New York can do thanks to Amphibious Architecture, a new experiment set up by students from New York University's Environmental Health Clinic and the Living Architecture Lab at Columbia University.

Conscientious commuters can text the beavers, herring or whatever is around and be told, on a good day: "There are 19 of us, and it's pretty good down here!"

Illuminating tubes

The system is built using a series of plastic tubes positioned vertically in the water at key positions in the Bronx and East River. Each time a creature swims below the buoy, the top of the tube lights up. A sonar device on the tube identifies what type of creature it is.

Whenever a person sends a text to the creatures, the other end of the tube will be illuminated too.

The tubes also monitor the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water - a key indicator of water quality - which allows the animals to tell how happy they are.

Beautiful habitat

The creators of the project will be hoping that the experiment goes beyond the novelty value and helps increase awareness surrounding the city's natural ecosystems.

Natalie Jeremijenko, who runs the project, explained to the BBC World Service's Digital Planet why the project is important for New Yorkers.

"One of the primary goals is to change the view of this quite beautiful view into an understanding that this is not just a pretty reflective surface, but a habitat," she said.

"A teeming body that's alive with organisms whose health affects our health and our activities affect their health."


Digital Planet is the weekly technology programme broadcast from the BBC World Service
It is broadcast on Tuesday at 1232GMT and repeated at 1632GMT, 2032GMT and on Wednesday at 0032GMT
It is also available as a podcast
It can be found on the social networks Facebook and Orkut

The BBC's Laura Sheeter found a confused but amused reaction to the project from New Yorkers.

"I don't know if I would try it, but who knows - it depends on how long I'm waiting for the bus," said one.

"What would the response be? Beep beep - 'Polluted! Get me to some fresh water!'"

Another was perhaps a bit more down to earth.

"How can you send a fish a text message?" she asked.

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